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A conversation with David Brooks and Anne Snyder on the value of religious education

What religious schools bring to a world looking for meaning

SHARE A conversation with David Brooks and Anne Snyder on the value of religious education
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Mary Haasdyk for the Deseret News

Editor’s note: The following essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s issue on the fate of the religious university, with contributions by presidents and scholars from Baylor University, BYU, Catholic University, George Fox University, Wheaton College and Yeshiva University, among others. Read all the essays here.

Leaders at religious universities and colleges recognize the value mission-driven higher education has — not just for students and faculty — but for society as a whole. But for those outside the world of religious college and university campuses, the question persists: Why does mission-driven higher education matter.

Few can answer this question with more authority than Shirley V. Hoogstra, the president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a higher education association of more than 185 Christian institutions around the world.

In the conversation below, Hoogstra explores the value of Christian higher education with David Brooks and his wife, Anne Snyder. Brooks is an op-ed columnist with The New York Times and appears regularly on “PBS NewsHour” and “Meet the Press.” He is the bestselling author of several books, including “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life” and “The Road to Character.”

Snyder is the editor-in-chief of Comment Magazine, the author of “The Fabric of Character: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Renewing Our Social and Moral Renewal” and the host of “The Whole Person Revolution” podcast. She is a graduate of Wheaton, a private Evangelical Christian liberal arts college in Wheaton, Illinois.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Shirley Hoosgtra: Anne, as a Wheaton grad, you’re familiar with how Christian education shapes students. What have you found to be some of the most valuable things from your Christian college experience in your life and career?

Anne Snyder: I became a Christian in high school after spending my childhood overseas and navigating my teenage years in an aggressively secular setting. I found Wheaton to be both culture shock and a time when I had never been so excited by learning in my life. First, the disciplines were integrated. Somehow math could relate to history, could relate to theology and so on. I wound up as a philosophy major, which I’m sure hammered the integrative feature home even further. That horizontal way of thinking has shaped my brain in ways that probably made it difficult to get a job right out of college, but have proven to be really handy in my role as an editor.

Wheaton gave me lifelong curiosity around connections, around questions of why. Then, there was the fact that Wheaton didn’t operate purely in the intellectual domain but rather offered a whole sense of head, heart and helping hands, and a building of community. You were meant to deepen your intellectual life in relationship with each other and with the faculty.

That whole-person integration has just transformed the way I write, the way I have followed my footsteps and convictions, the way I have had to sometimes make hard, less popular choices. I had a bit of a lightbulb moment, just in the last few months, of realizing that it’s actually hard for me to think in an individualistic or siloed way. That has its strengths and weaknesses, but I think Wheaton’s formation meant that I am always thinking in terms of webs and connections.

“There’s some freedom in the questions that are being asked on christian college campuses that are not immediately shrouded in ideological suspicion or definition.” —Anne Snyder

SH: Yes, there’s an emphasis now on a singular or vocational training, but you can see how the type of educational experience you had lasts a lifetime. David, you went to the University of Chicago, but you have spent a lot of time on CCCU campuses, engaging students and faculty. From your perspective, what comes to mind when you think about Christian higher education?

David Brooks: I call the University of Chicago “the Wheaton of the South Side” because it’s kind of like a Christian college — we had sacred texts. We would dive into a long tradition of scholarship and a traditional moral philosophy. Our professors taught us that if we read these books carefully, we would know the secret of life.

And there’s a problem with the modern university, which has become a research university that emphasizes specialized knowledge. The problem with that, as a colleague of mine once wrote, is that it makes asking the big questions, like the purpose of life, seem not only inappropriate but unprofessional. You can go to a research university and never ask the big questions.

Years ago, Anne and I did a bunch of seminars for research on what became “The Road to Character.” And all the academic places we went — including Yale, where I was teaching — had good discussions, but Wheaton’s was the best, because the professors not only read the books we were discussing, but they were used to applying them in their lives.

They were used to saying, “No, here’s how you should think about that relationship.” Or, “Here’s how you think about that vocation.” It was not simply a set of academic exercises.

SH: Using a text to build a certain kind of life — that goes to the idea of eulogy values and résumé values that you have written about. If you’re using the text to build a certain kind of life, you’re going to get a eulogy-values life.

DB: Yes. If you read Homer, you have a certain conception of the good life built around courage and service to the city. If you read Exodus, you have a version of the good life that’s dedicated both to obedience to law and commitment to the community. If you read Matthew, you have a version of the good life devoted to grace and self-sacrificing love. These are different moral ecologies. At Chicago, we couldn’t say one was better than the other; they said, “Pick one.” At a CCCU school, that’s not the approach. The approach is that one is better than the other — one is the true way.

And that doesn’t solve all your problems, but you have a sense of what is your ultimate devotion. The absence of an ultimate devotion for a lot of people these days is a very disorienting thing, which I think leads to a lot of fanaticism.

You don’t know what ultimate truth you’re surrendering to or have an ultimate vision of the good. What are you shooting for? What are your goals? If you don’t have a sense of goals, then your life just becomes one of wandering and anxiety, because you don’t know who you are or where you are going.

SH: Do you think that Christians are actually offering this approach to the world enough? It would seem to be an antidote to the polarization that we’re having in our culture. So why aren’t Christians being a more pervasive influence to transform things for the better?

DB: When I talk to CCCU schools, many times my message is the same: First, be not afraid. Second, you have what the rest of the world wants. The whole country is filled with spiritual hunger, with no vocabulary to articulate it, and Christian colleges have the vocabulary. But often Christian colleges have a feeling of siege mentality and of being under assault, whether for following traditional sexual ethics or other issues. That sense of being under assault produces what I’ve described many times as a combination of a spiritual superiority complex combined with an intellectual inferiority complex. It creates a sense of, “We can’t really go out into the world and say what we’ve got because they’ll hate us.”

“That sense of being under assault produces a spiritual superiority complex combined with an intellectual inferiority complex.” — David Brooks

SH: When you say “siege mentality,” of course, I see that occurring. But I think that for us as leaders in Christian higher education, there has to be a conviction that we will not take on that mindset of siege. We will be responsive or even proactive, but we will not be under siege.

DB: You can speak to this more than me, but ever since I’ve been going to CCCU campuses, the students have always shocked me by how self-confident they were and how uninterested they were in some of the culture war issues. I remember my first visit to a Christian college, Seattle Pacific, and I was interviewed by a student journalist who had metal piercings going up and down her face. And I was like, “Oh, this is not what I expected.” Visiting Wheaton for the first time, I expected to find a bunch of megachurch kids. But they were very dissatisfied with that model. And I find, especially in the last four years, there’s just a gigantic generation gap between the young\ and the old. Anne, I think it’s more interesting to you to figure out how to be a Christian than it is to determine how Christians should operate in American politics.

AS: In my own Christian education — and I think this is true for many students and alumni I meet from Christian colleges — Christianity is very much the light and the lens by which you view the world and how you see and treat others.

I’m really drawn to local faith actors who may be running a rehab center, or people who are doing interesting racial reconciliation work in Detroit or working with the disabled. I’m interested in the local manifestations of Christians being Christians, where their faith informs their entire strategy of how they serve those who exist on the margins. That seems to be where the kingdom is unfurling these days, and dwelling there keeps my hope

alive. I think at the broader national level, we get sucked into a very politicized scene, where the levers of change seem confined to hashtag messaging. It’s a lot of words, it’s a lot of coalition building. And somehow I find that those levers fit very uncomfortably with Jesus’ model of influence and social change.

There’s something to be said for those 12 disciples and that small replication model that I watch flowering in a million places, often quite small and local. But this broader national Christian thing has become a matter of using political weaponry, political words, political strategy. I don’t know exactly how to get out of that, but it’s almost like two different Christianitys.

DB: In my view, Christianity is not against objective knowledge, but it offers a different kind of knowledge. In the Bible, the word “to know” is not solely a rational thing; it’s also very emotional. When Augustine thought of knowledge, he didn’t think of it as studying. He thought that it illuminates us into being a certain person. And even as neighbors, we illuminate each other into being certain sorts of people by the presence we bring into the room, or the quality of the attention. So it’s a relational form of epistemology that gets lost in modern science and, frankly, in modern liberalism.

AS: I remember friends and I from my college days discovering the truth of this for ourselves: “To love is to know, to know is to love.” There is something about becoming knowledgeable because you love something. David and I often discuss the interpretation of the two Adams in the book of Genesis — Adam I and Adam II. Each one of us has these two Adams within us. Adam I is the one that masters, that desires to win, is very ambitious, wants control over your domain and seeks excellence. Adam II is the one that is softer, has a desire to seek virtue, to humble oneself before God and to humble oneself before others. And when we were getting to know each other, David would joke that my Wheaton education had really made me great on Adam II, but we had some work to do on Adam I. He wasn’t wrong, and I’ve since had some more rigorous moments on my own career path where Adam I has had to be sharpened. But I’ve often found that there’s still a dominant impulse moving out of love of God and love of other. A love that motivates excellence in, for example, hosting a gathering, in clarifying a thought in writing, in performing a piece of music. It’s a different way of framing David’s notion of embodied knowledge, but this love factor feels vital to the distinctiveness of Christian education.

SH: One of the things I hope for this discussion is not only to identify what is going well in Christian higher education, but also to identify those areas where we can activate in new ways because of our unique educational approach and our values. So, speaking of value, what are one or two things that you would suggest to Christian university leaders about better articulating the value of the enterprise?

AS: I don’t know if they can necessarily say this about themselves, but I say it about them as a graduate and as someone who feels like a real beneficiary of Christian higher education. In an age where everything is so ideological, there’s something about an educational institution that is founded on an utterly different category of value. That is, this embodied knowledge that is oriented in the person of Christ. It’s not ideological in the same way. I realize this gets tricky as we talk about Christians and public life these days, but these kinds of faith-based institutions are vital for our democracy.

When I speak to public intellectuals that feel suffocated by what you can and can’t say on elite college campuses, if they have gone to speak to a Christian college they talk about this surprising grace and intellectual oxygen in the room. There’s some freedom in the questions that are being asked on Christian college campuses that are not immediately shrouded in ideological suspicion or definition. I think that’s an important strength to learn how to defend and hold.

When I graduated college, I felt like I was part of a generation — and I think this is still fairly true — where the commencement speech was, “Change the world!” I think in the realm of justice, that’s great and important, but understanding “change it” versus “serve it,” I think, is what a place like Wheaton certainlydid for me. In my own Christian college experience, we learn that we are ambassadors, yes, but we are here to be of service; there is pain out there, and we bear the wounds of a God who bleeds for this same brokenness. So find the wounds and staunch them. It sounds subtle, but I think it profoundly affects the posture with which we pursue the public square, our local place and our vocations.

This interview is adapted from a conversation that first appeared in the fall 2021 issue of Advance, CCCU’s magazine.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.