A Theology of Higher Education

Written by Mike Higton Reviewed By J. Gregory Behle

Christianity and universities have existed in tension. From Tertullian's, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?” to Luther's observation that universities are “the bilge water pool of all heresies, errors, and idolatries,” the history of higher education is often the story of this acrimonious relationship. In A Theology of Higher Education, Mike Higton invites a conversation regarding three important questions. First, as a Christian theologian, what is good about universities? Second, what can those who share similar theological commitments do to help universities achieve their noble ends? Finally, what openness, if any, exists in the universities to a theological voice? The author makes three assumptions: higher education is training in intellectual virtue; there is an inherent sociality in university education; and higher education exists for a common public good (p. 1). Higton states that his focus is secular universities-not the creation of alternative Christian universities.

Higton is the Academic Director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme and Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter. Higton has previously addressed issues of theology and higher education: Vulnerable Learning: Towards a Theology of Higher Education (Cambridge: Grove, 2006); “Can the University and Church Save Each Other,” Crosscurrents 55 (2005): 172-183; and “The Research Assessment Exercise as Sin” Critical Quarterly, 44:4 (2002): 40-45. Higton's expertise focuses on the work of Hans Frei.

Avoiding the temptation to romanticize a previous golden age of Christian higher education, Higton offers a thoughtful dialogue for readers in a conversational style-at times, humorously prompting them (including prospective reviewers, p. 191). Following introductory comments, A Theology of Higher Education is organized into two distinct parts. Part I develops and nuances the intellectual contributions of three historic European universities: Paris, Berlin, and Oxford. The section concludes with an exploration of selected contemporary theologians who contribute a voice to the intended conversation. The first part is a reflection of what others claim about the university. In Part II, the author shifts to a personal tone and reflects assertions from his own ecclesiastical tradition and university experience.

Part I begins by exploring the development of rational inquiry at Paris as a spiritual devotion. Higton skillfully recounts rationality as something not foreign to Christian thought, but rather birthed in it. His discussion of the three universities is lavishly noted and well-presented. This reviewer found his account of Paris, Berlin, and Oxford to be the highlight of this work, and the supplemental information in his footnotes well worth the read. For the uninitiated, his notes represent the best of the literature and are certainly worth exploring. The University of Berlin, of course, becomes the second landmark in the historical development of higher education. Higton explains the rise of the research university model through German concepts ofBildung (self-cultivation) and Wissenschaft (rigorous scholarly knowledge). Interestingly to this reviewer, Higton does not discuss Weltanschauung (worldview), which would be important for providing conceptual frameworks that inform and explain disciplines. It is at this level that university dialogue occurs as explanations compete for explanatory power. He later tips his hand when he states, “I am not sure I can describe university life in terms of a clash of world views, mostly because I am not convinced that people have world views” (p. 244). Also, discussion of the contribution of the German Kritik (critical assessment/method) would have been helpful given its importance to modern university thought.

He concludes his historical treatment with an excellent discussion of the impact of John Henry Newman's thought (The Idea of a University) on Oxford and Dublin. Articulating a unified view of knowledge, Newman's ideas mitigate against the fragmentary effects of Wissenschaft. To readers in the United States, awareness of Berlin and Oxford is critical to understanding the development of American higher education through both the research and liberal arts traditions.

Part I concludes by presenting the contributions of Christian thinkers both inside the secular university and those from outside in distinctively Christian institutions, thus framing Part II of the book with the primary voices that have already engaged the conversation. Most appreciated were the reflections of those who are working for meaningful dialogue within secular structures.

In Part II, Higton offers a model entitled, “An Anglican Theology of Learning.” Readers will be quick to note the recognizable shift to the usage of “I” in this section as Higton's tone changes from a descriptive voice in Part I to a dialogue attempting to more directly engage his reader. He then explores four aspects of the university by which theologians might fittingly enter into prospective dialogue-Virtuous, Sociable, Good, and Negotiable-concepts that transcend the sacred-secular debate. This second half of the work is largely personal, well-noted, and at times, intensely humorous. This reviewer could not agree more when he notes, “decent coffee is an epistemological issue” (p. 188n36).

The author's treatment reflects the situation in the UK (e.g., an Anglican theological perspective, ch. 5) and discussion of the Research Excellence Framework (pp. 212-14). American readers will need to translate British realities to the American experience. The second half of the work might provide a context for professors and administrators wishing to engage the questions raised. For example, discussion of apprenticeship is critical when mass education is pushed for financial efficiencies. If the university is sociable, what place is there for distance learning when professors and students are isolated to their technology? What place is there for academic civility in a culture of declining civil? Is the goal of academic dialogue consensual agreement or non-consensual reciprocity?

This excellent work is unfortunately hampered by the high sticker price that will discourage some in its prospective audience. For a transatlantic perspective, those who appreciate Higton's work might also consider the collaborative and more US-focused study by Jon H. Roberts and James Turner: The Sacred and the Secular University (Princeton, 2000).

A Theology of Higher Education is an important contribution in the conversation of the place and relevance of a Christian voice to the university.

J. Gregory Behle

J. Gregory Behle
The Master’s College
Santa Clarita, California, USA

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