Harvard and Heaven: Prospering in the Secular University

Who could imagine that a movement that began so quietly in the 1970s and 1980s would someday generate so vital and anointed a generation as is emerging at the beginning of this century? It is a time to celebrate and to reflect.

In 2012 it is uncontested that home schoolers are dominating college admission test scores, and it is growing more evident each day that they are highly qualified and successful college students when they are admitted. When I was growing up, elite prep schools dominated the college admission numbers. Today, the new “elite” are home schooled graduates. They are the most highly recruited, most highly valued freshmen, at secular and Christian schools alike. Recently on a Harvard University online chat room, I read, “If Harvard wants to be the best, the most relevant institution in the years ahead, it must recruit and admit home schoolers.” Indeed.

Harvard has reason to worry. A Yale recruiter told me that while Yale wants home schoolers, home schoolers do not seem to want Yale; they are not applying there. I have two distance-learning students who were heavily recruited by Ivy League schools. They both chose local alternatives (a state school and a Christian school).

It is not my purpose to lobby for any particular college or university. However, mostly for fiscal reasons, the majority of Christian home school graduates go to secular colleges. Therefore, this article is about the secular colleges home schoolers will attend—how they got to be the way they are and how home schoolers can prosper in such a place.

To most evangelical Christians, the modern, secular university is a hostile place. It was not always so. In fact, the American university was built solidly on evangelical principles. There were no so-called “official,” “secular” colleges until the rise of the land-grant colleges in the middle of the nineteenth century. An early brochure, published in 1643, stated that the purpose of Harvard University (the oldest American university) was “to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches.” Harvard’s motto for 300 years was Christo et Ecclesiae (“For Christ and the Church”). In fact, most of the American universities founded before the twentieth century had a strongly religious, usually Protestant, evangelical Christian character. Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Stanford, Duke, William and Mary, Boston University, Michigan, and the University of California all had a decidedly evangelical Christian character in their early years but abandoned it by the twentieth century. By the 1920s, the American university had stepped completely back from its evangelical roots. This was true of almost every American university founded in the first 200 years of our nation’s existence.

The core curriculum at these universities included Bible courses and Christian theology as mandatory courses. All American universities insisted on doctrinally sound content for sensitive courses and often required that faculty be born-again Christians! Chapel attendance was required at Harvard and Yale. It is more than coincidental that the architects who designed early universities designed them to look like churches.

Universities were founded because early Americans earnestly believed that American society should be governed by evangelical Christian people. They believed that American industry should be run by evangelical Christian entrepreneurs. They believed that American culture should be created by evangelical artists. The early American university was committed to making sure that that happened.

The marriage of spiritual maturity and elite education is a potent combination and, to a large degree, assured the success of the American experiment. Its divorce may presage its demise.

Today the university is not even loosely a Christian institution. Religion in the university and in public life is relegated to the private experience. So-called “academic freedom” has become a sacrosanct concept and precludes anything that smacks of religiosity–especially orthodoxy that evangelicals so enthusiastically embrace. Religion is represented on campus in sanitary denominational ministries and token chapel ministries (that are hardly more than counseling centers).

To a large degree, the American university abandoned the evangelical, and the evangelical abandoned the American university, which created a crisis in both. The secular university became an academic hothouse for pompous rationalism. Evangelicals abandoned the secular university and, until recently, more or less compromised their own academic base. Evangelicals even founded their own universities, but they were poor academic substitutes for secular offerings.

The university, if it is to have any value, must be involved in the communication of immutable, metaphysical truth. The American secular university is not about to accept such limits. It recognizes no citadel of orthodoxy, no limits to its knowledge. But, like Jesus reminds Thomas in John 14, our hope lies not in what we know but most assuredly in Whom we know.

Most secular universities have concluded that abstract concepts like grace, hope, and especially faith are indefinable, immeasurable, and above all, unreasonable. Not that God can be proved or disproved. There are certain issues which the order of the intellect simply cannot address, so we must rise above those to the order of the heart. Faith is our consent to receive the good that God would have for us. An evangelical believes that God can and does act in our world and in our lives. Human needs are greater than this world can satisfy, and therefore it is reasonable to look elsewhere. The university has forgotten or ignores this fact.

That is all changing—and partly due to the popularity of the American home schooling movement. In massive numbers the American home school movement—initially and currently primarily an evangelical Christian movement—is depositing some of the brightest, most capable students in our country into the old, august institutions like Harvard. What is more exciting, the flashpoint of cultural change is changing from Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Stanford to Wheaton, Grove City, Calvin, and Liberty (all evangelical universities). Before long the new wave of elite culture creators will be graduating from American secular universities and Christian universities, and they shall be a great deal different from the elite of which I was a part in the middle 1970s. I am not saying the secular university will change quickly—intellectual naturalistic reductionism makes that extremely difficult. However, I do see the whole complexion of university graduates changing significantly in the next twenty years. Never in the history of the world has such a thing happened.

Young people, make sure that you know who you are and who your God is. “By faith, Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.” (Heb.  11:24) Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls American believers to “nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

Refuse to be absorbed into the world, but choose to be a part of God’s kingdom. There is no moderate position anymore in American society—either we are taking a stand for Christ in this inhospitable culture, or we are not.

You are a special and peculiar generation—much loved. But you live among a people who do not know who they are, a people without hope. You need to know who you are—children of the Living God—and then you must live a hopeful life. Quoting C.S. Lewis, we “are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

Take responsibility for your life. Moses accepted responsibility for his life. “He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time” (Heb. 11: 25). If you do not make decisions for your life, someone else will.

Get a cause worth dying for. Moses accepted necessary suffering even unto death. You need a cause worth dying for (as well as living for). “He [Moses] regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Heb. 11: 26).  “We are crucified with Christ, yet it is not we who live but Christ who lives in us.” (Gal. 2:20)

Finally, never take your eyes off the goal.  “By faith, he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw Him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27). What is your threshold of obedience?

Young people, if you are part of this new evangelical elite, you have immense opportunities ahead of you. A new godly generation is arising. You will be called to guide this nation into another unprecedented revival. We shall see.

Jim and Karen Stobaugh have four home educated adult children. They have a strong burden for the new leadership group that God is calling forth from the home schooling community. Jim has written one of the best resources for the SAT exam, SAT and College Preparation Course for the Christian Student as well as a language arts critical thinking literary series, American and World History Unit Studies, and three new books, Fire that Burns but does not Consume: Devotions for Thoughtful ChristiansA Companion to 50 Classics, and A Gathered Inheritance. Jim and Karen reside in Hollsopple, Pennsylvania.