The Acton Institute does the kind of work that would have been almost unimaginable in a single organization two or three decades ago. Here we have a think tank that teaches economics and political theory to seminarians and other students of religion, maintains an office near the Vatican, and publishes translations of the works of Abraham Kuyper, one of the most illustrious Reformed thinkers in Christian history. If one ever needed evidence of positive rapprochement for the church in the wake of the Reformation, Acton provides a giant serving.
While Acton has published—through the Christian’s Library Press—some contemporary authors (including yours truly), the big headliner is Kuyper and his translated works. Many American Christians have read his Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton, but most of his output has remained inaccessible. Acton is changing that.
Scholarship: Two Convocations on University Life offers an easy way to experience Kuyper’s thought. Here, in about 50 pages, readers can take in the voice of a man who was a pastor, theologian, newspaper editor, university president, and prime minister of the Netherlands. The two addresses were given at the beginning of two school years, 11 years apart. Though today the Free University of Amsterdam is a massive institution receiving heavy state funding and boasting more than 20,000 students, the university of Kuyper’s day was small, and its degrees lacked what he called effectus civilis. In other words, a degree offered a basis for licensure in neither law nor teaching. (The “Free” in the school’s title referred to independence, not zero cost.)
Many recall Kuyper’s notion of sphere sovereignty. In the first lecture, he teaches about Economica (the life of the household), Politica (the life of the state), and Scolastica (the life of the mind). Kuyper reminds the students of their calling to this third field of endeavor. They have joined an army of the intellect. Their professors are superiors but also “distinguished comrades, fellow conscripts.” And with this calling come special duties and privileges.
Scholarship: Two Convocations on University Life
Scholarship: Two Convocations on University Life
Kuyper also displays an admirable attitude regarding the relationship of town and gown. Noting the hard life of labor in which the great majority of people are engaged, he instructs his young listeners that “the real man of science does not look upon this with contempt.” Indeed, he hopes that these budding scholars will avoid the “academic leprosy” of pride and will instead be like the “genius of real gold” that “does not know its own beauty.” The scholar, just like the laborer, has work to which he is called, and he must approach it carefully and learn the virtues of doing it well. Kuyper’s advice along these lines goes into some detail and would be useful for the student just going off to college today.
Joy in the Finding
The second lecture, delivered more than a decade after the first, reads like a natural continuation of a conversation already in progress. Kuyper begins with a beautifully descriptive meditation on the joy involved in seeking. He talks about hunters and fishers—men of means who could easily afford to purchase richly prepared fish and game for their dining pleasure. But they want something more. They want the thrilling experience of seeking.
Kuyper, though, enjoins his young charges not to settle for mere seeking. An overdedication to the search can spoil the appetite for something better, which is the finding. He critiques scholars who, in refusing to accept any answers as sufficiently revealing of the truth, are committed to a never-ending project of deconstruction. Clearly, Kuyper’s concern has been vindicated by the subsequent movements of the academy. He calls these permanent seekers the “real children of Pilate” who are “left with not one fixed starting point for their thinking, not a single pillar in their temple of justice, not one firm rule for their moral code.”
Investment and Excellence
Kuyper’s vision of the university expressed in these two convocational addresses should be revisited in our time of tremendous upheaval in higher education. All universities, and certainly Christian ones, face a landscape in which students have been largely replaced by consumers. The change is not the fault of the students so much as it is a consequence of the extraordinary rise in tuition prices during the past quarter century. Instead of seeing education as a good that enriches lives and provides learners with tools and habits useful to making a career, we’ve embarked on a course in which students all but demand to know which career and exactly how much money. I don’t blame them. The investment is large. Concerns about the return naturally follow.
At the same time, a flood of new entrants have joined the project of providing higher education. In the beginning, they were for-profit online providers. The University of Phoenix and others demonstrated that they could radically improve the convenience of seeking a degree and reaped massive financial rewards in the process (much of it in government aid, I should add). At first slowly, but now in increasing numbers, public and private non-profit traditional colleges have joined the rush to collect dollars online. Without singling anyone out, I don’t think I’d go too far in suggesting that many of the online efforts are of a lower quality than most comparable traditional offerings. Motivated students will continue to make much of the chance, but for many others the “just getting by” may be getting only easier. There is a sense in which higher education may be jumping tracks from offering students an opportunity to demonstrate excellence to engaging in something more like a transaction that would occur at a large store.
Kuyper has much to say to both students and institutions in these century-old addresses. He would resist the transformation of the university into something more like a business. In light of his idea of sphere sovereignty, I think he’d say a school is a different kind of endeavor than a profit-making business—and I think he’d be right. Universities (including Christian ones, especially Christian ones) must find a way to reduce the market-driven nature of their activities. They must find a way to diminish the dominating influence of tuition dollars. At the same time, students must place more emphasis on developing scholarly (in the best sense of the word) habits and less on simply progressing toward a credential.
After first completing the book, I thought about the many different little volumes Christian universities distribute to students at the beginning of their first year in order to help form their thinking. We do this because we want them to understand the real joy in learning and to connect their studies to their walk with Christ. I originally thought it would be good to have students read this work, but as I think further, it would be good for all of us in university leadership (and our boards) to contemplate Kuyper’s challenges.
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