Cultivating the Life of the Mind: Threat No 1—Pragmatism

Gordon Smith Ambrose University President
The Christian Mind: In this blog series, President Gordon T. Smith explores the topic of the Christian Mind - Thinking Christianly. Dr. Smith offers insights and personal reflections on what vital place of the mind to the Christian faith calls us to a thoughtful and intentionally Christian approach to life and work. This series is published bi-monthly, on the 1st and 15th.

Cultivating the Life of the Mind: Threat No 1—Pragmatism

There are at least three ways by which and in which the work of scholarship and the tending to the life of the mind is being discounted and undervalued – ironically or tragically when it is most critically needed. In these postings, I will be speaking of three threats: pragmatism, sentimentalism and partisan propaganda. All three of these in some form or another discount, if not actually undercut, the vital place of the work and contribution of the scholar, and as such the life of the mind in the life and witness of the church.

We must speak of the priority of scholarship and the intellectual life to the life of the church and to the vocation of each person, regardless of whether they are called into business, education, the arts or religious leadership. And we need to demonstrate that cultivating the life of the mind is fundamental to what it means to be a university. We need to do so, in part, because this kind of work and this kind of commitment is under threat. I am not going to be so melodramatic as to say that it is under threat like never before; that might be an overstatement. But it is under threat. 

By the threat of pragmatism, I mean the reduction of “education” to a narrow outcome – a job or career.  Students, often reinforced by their parents, are very concerned with their careers.  They come out of high school obsessed with getting a job – a well-paying career with the potential for promotions and ultimately financial security.  For them a university is not so much a place for growing in wisdom with the capacity to think critically and write well and cultivate character and moral intelligence, but rather a way to get a powerful resume that will land a “great” job.      

Further, both government and church denominational agencies typically assume that they invest in post-secondary institutions so that universities and colleges can provide “workers” – women and men who can contribute to the economy or make churches happen because they have the requisite skills to deliver certain outcomes. They have been trained; or, as sociologists put it, education is about credentialing. Graduates are not valued for the depth and breadth of their minds but for their ability to do things. The Government of Alberta has only one criteria for investing in a university: high paying jobs with the requisite tax returns that fuel economic growth. That is, a university is a job factory.

Denominational leaders also want to see trained clergy. I use the language of “training” intentionally. By this they mean the value to higher education is whether graduates have the skills to provide entrepreneurial leadership for congregations. There is little patience with the long trajectory that is needed for the true and complex formation of leadership – for society or for the church. They want leaders and they want them now and at low cost. The pressure on this score is intense; as denominations face a crisis of leadership for congregations, they are moving towards minimalist criteria for being credentialed for ministry. My contention is that the result might be a generation of church leaders who have minimal skills but lack a full orbed education that equips them for a lifetime of effective ministry. As Dr. Pam Nordstrom, the Ambrose Provost has put it, “you train dogs; you educate people.” Ouch! But that gets at the heart of the matter. Of course we train; but education is much more than training and all good training is located within a broader vision of life and work and relationships.

Few have spoken so aptly to this trend as Martha C. Nussbaum. See in particular her Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Her focus is government expectations of colleges and universities, but what she has to say is equally applicable to denominations that have a similar propensity.  She tackles the ways in which governments focus entirely on education as a means for economic gain, discounting the need to foster the capacity to think critically and creatively. And these capacities are as often as not cultivated through the humanities, yet these disciplines – history, English, philosophy – are viewed as less than economically helpful. Marc Spooner, Faculty of Education at the University of Regina, has also written a brilliant piece that demonstrates that treating universities as job factories is short-sighted, for both the student and the economy.

When it comes to professional training for the church, we must resist the current press for what is typically termed competency based education (CBE). The irony is that the most fundamental competency for the Christian, regardless of calling, but especially for leadership in the church, is theological depth and breadth, and the capacity to see how all practice in ministry has some kind of theological rationale or basis. I am not for a moment questioning the need for skills or competency or for being credentialed for a profession or for leadership in the church. Yes, of course, the society and the church need competent and capable university graduates, and all universities should be vibrant communities where good work is celebrated and students are equipped to discern their vocations and enter into a life-time of fruitful service, in the church and in society. Rather, the concern is two fold:  that we have too narrow a definition of what we mean by skills for the economy or for the church and, second, that we fail our young people if we do not equally foster the capacity to think critically and imaginatively, and along the way cultivate emotional and moral intelligence. 

There are two other threats to the Christian mind – which I will speak to in two upcoming blog postings: sentimentalism and partisan propaganda.