Education: A radically Christian Practice

The COVID pandemic has jeopardized the future of numerous post-secondary schools. Josh Nisley, coordinator of the writing program at the Institute, probes for opportunities for Christian education to succeed where secular models fail.

Academics tend to be a gloomy lot, perhaps confirming what the author of Ecclesiastes observed: “He who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (1:18). But a sampling of recent headlines might help explain why despair permeates the halls of the Ivory Tower.

“Here’s How Higher Education Dies” (Adam Harris, The Atlantic, June 5, 2018) 

“The End of the University” (Astra Taylor, The New Republic, September 8, 2020) 

“The Economic Model of Higher Education Was Already Broken. Here’s Why the Pandemic May Destroy It for Good.” (Zachary Karabell, TIME, 27 August 2020)

As with so many other institutions, the COVID pandemic exposed and exacerbated the cracks already threatening the structure of higher education. Undergraduate enrollment had been falling steadily for nearly a decade, but the rate of decline more than doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 1.7% to 3.6%. Many would-be students are opting to take “gap years” or low-skilled employment rather than risk a less-thanideal college experience. 

Ultimately, the pandemic hastened what everybody knew for the better part of a decade: higher education as we know it is undergoing a seismic shift. Some would even say collapsing. 

How higher education got to this point is enormously complex, widely debated, and beyond the scope of this article. In what follows, I attempt to sketch out some of these contours before suggesting some ways that conservative Anabaptists might respond.

Factor 1

Demographics. The large Millennial generation is now mostly out of college, and the national birth rate has been declining steadily for more than a decade. 

To put it bluntly, as Derek Thompson does, “The college pipeline is drying up” because “[t]he United States is running out of teenagers.” 

Factor 2

Risky financial practices. Rather than face the reality of the “demographic cliff” (Factor 1), universities vied to outspend each other in what some have dubbed a “university recreation center arms race:” taking on large amounts of debt to build lavish recreation complexes to attract students from a dwindling pool of applicants. 

Factor 3

Skyrocketing tuition and student debt. With public funding of higher education in steady decline, bloated administrative and operational costs are being passed along to students in the form of soaring tuition, manifold fees, and, by extension, student debt—currently at a record $1.7 trillion. In the meantime, wages have been relatively stagnant, and degrees have lost market value.

That most of these factors are economic in nature suggests a failure underlying them all: the inability of the modern university to call students to a purpose higher than becoming producers and consumers in pursuit of their own happiness. 

Conservative Anabaptists might be tempted to cheer the disintegration of higher education as indicative of our better sensibilities—a kind of snickering “told you so.” In reality, there is much to lament. At the same time, the failures of academia should temper and inform what seems to be a growing enthusiasm for higher education among conservative people. Rather than scorning higher ed, or uncritically embracing it even it as it falters, I would suggest two related responses, one oriented toward the past and one toward the future.


The shifting ground in higher ed—particularly the move away from a liberal arts model in favor of something more technical and skills-oriented—opens up a space for Christians to reinvigorate liberal arts education by reconnecting it to the practices and structures of Christian faith. Although it’s difficult to recognize now, the liberal arts model that structures much of higher ed was profoundly shaped by Christian scholars who believed that all truth belongs to God and is therefore worth exploring and understanding. If “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it”—if “all things came into being” through the Word-made-flesh, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” —then loving God with all of our mind means attending closely and lovingly to Creation.


Even as we rehabilitate the roots of higher ed, we need to be working to develop 21st-century educational models and practices that are genuinely different from the mainstream—in both philosophy and method. Whatever form this ultimately takes, it needs to be more substantive than doing academics “from a Christian perspective:” that is, keeping the same basic structures and metrics of value (prestige, credentials, employment rates, cultural influence, etc.) while sprinkling a few apologetics courses and mandatory chapels on top. The disintegration of mainstream higher education is clearing ground for a radically Christian practice of education to emerge—one in which scholarship is just one facet of a whole life in love with Creation, devoted to the Church, and ordered after Christ.