What Is Higher about this Education? (by Joel Ward)

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joel-s-ward1-e1437681840700What is higher about this education?

Joel Ward, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communication, Geneva College, (jsward@geneva.edu)

The question of what higher education demands has recently received notable attention in public conversation. Many have been quick to both defend and deconstruct higher education as we currently practice it in American colleges and universities. As in past decades, arguments have become necessary for defending the difference between simple professional preparation and the role of the liberal arts in training the student for work and life. At the same time, the relationship between the American government and religious institutions of higher education are strained. The passing of the Affordable Care Act has compelled some schools to pursue legal action against the government resisting policies that contrast with their missional directive. Public arguments have largely involved the traditional value of these colleges and the historical significance of a distinctly Christian form of collegiate education. Does a distinctly Christian higher education still exist? Or is Christianity simply part of the Western heritage, the legacy of our educational system fashioned after the medieval quadrivium, which assumed Christian theology as a basis for advancing knowledge?

If it does still exist, if a Christian higher education separates itself from other institutions of learning, then this must be articulated and communicated. Not only must it be announced, it must be tied to a reasonable position in American political discourse that still in some part protects the freedom given to organizations that work and strive under the banner of Christ. The following words are an attempt to make this distinction clearer and perhaps bolder than it has been stated most recently. Of course, George Marsden in his book The Soul of the American University has given us an excellent historical account of what we may have lost. I want to make a contemporary proposition that I hope will reinvigorate the conversation at Christian colleges and universities about what we actually do in the classroom. The following is a talk that I recently gave at Geneva College in Pennsylvania where I teach. I hope these words are helpful to you as you continue sharing with your students the truths on which we so dearly depend.

We start by examining a simple combination of words, in this case the adjective “higher” as it relates to education. What is higher about the education you students are here to receive? We call this enterprise higher education, which means we distinguish it from other forms of learning. This education is not the simple arithmetic or vocabulary learned in grade school. This education offers something more, something higher.

If for example we ask, “What is pro-wrestling?” we find that the ordinary wrestling some people do in their dormitories is not the same kind of wrestling as “pro” wrestling. Pro-wrestlers get paid, but they are also quite a bit better and wear much better make-up and costumes than the wrestlers in college dormitories. Even by this small example we can infer that higher education, while like other forms of education, is an education that differs dramatically from other forms of learning.

I hope to defend this proposition by distinguishing higher education as a special kind of education, especially in institutions that acknowledge God as the source of all good things and his Son as the only means of salvation. In fact, I may even say that higher education no longer exists, OR cannot occur, at schools that no longer recognize Christ as Lord of all creation. This may mean that if a student has yet to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, though they might attend a Christian school like Geneva, they are not receiving an education that is higher, only an education that is advanced or farther along the road of learning.

I’m afraid my position is not completely original. Nor does it absolutely eliminate other arguments about what makes a higher education higher. However, I believe it is good time to remind ourselves exactly what elevates a collegiate education.  The two most reasonable explanations currently given are history and humanity.   Although higher education does rely on history and remains at least somewhat focused on humanity, these are in my mind insufficient to make education higher.  Even so, I want to review them briefly before moving to my principal claim.


For example, the college where I teach has been around for many years. It was founded in 1848, thirteen years before our country’s great Civil War. Since then we could say the people of this college have done some marvelous things. We assisted the Underground Railroad, we began a school in Selma, Alabama, for freed slaves, we started one of the first women’s colleges in the nation, we beat Harvard in a game of basketball. Do these marks of heritage or the age of Geneva College make the current curricular initiative superior? Surely this isn’t the case since there are many schools that are older that have done more to shape the history of the world.  Do these more notable deeds make the education you receive here at Geneva lower than the education offered at other institutions?

Some say that higher education is about studying the best and most formidable ideas that the history of mankind has to offer. Higher education is the result of many years of editorial work on the ideas invented by mankind and our work is to canonize them, perpetuate the knowledge so that future generations can be brighter and wiser than the previous ones. Standing on the shoulders of giants as it were. Has that happened? Have we truly settled on a canon of knowledge that everyone in the world would benefit from knowing? In fact we could say that the opposite is true. As the number of books and topics of study has increased, the amount of agreement about what we should study has actually decreased. Colleges and universities haven’t been able to agree on a history that is higher, so surely this can’t be what distinguishes a higher education.


A more persuasive claim is that higher education prepares not just a professional skill but the whole person. Higher education generates character in students so that they aren’t vacuous technocrats seeking only their own wealth and happiness. People of character look out for the common public good; they try to do what is best for themselves and other people. They volunteer in soup kitchens and on community clean-up days. People of good character make good neighbors and of course good citizens.

The claim is that higher education makes us better humans. After receiving higher education we exhibit more concern about the arts, beauty, and liberality. If we read novels by Jane Austen our love will be more nuanced, sincere, and genuine. If we read philosophy we will have more precise thoughts, more clear thinking, and we will make fewer illogical claims. If we read and study the sciences we will have a greater appreciation for the world that we live in, even the really small, more pesky insects that we have a harder time sharing it with.

Overall if we receive a higher education we may in fact be more balanced, reserved, careful, and civil individuals, able to pass on to our children the values of higher order thinking and calm rational conversation. Naturally, good character ought to be desired and rational thought pursued even if they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. In the discipline of communication some of our best work has to do with correcting people when they are not reasonably considering the circumstances and are being directed by mere habit. Higher education creates people of character who seek higher things than simply high incomes and nice vacation homes. Graduates of colleges like Geneva think higher and are less likely to be caught up in the base opinions of those lesser educated.

Is this true? Has higher education done this to the generations of people before us? Have the cultural benefits of collegiate education been sufficient to make people think higher, so much higher that that they can’t wait to make large sacrifices to send their children to similar colleges and universities and willingly pay the price of such lofty goals? After all, ivory towers are expensive to build!

In fact, the opposite is true. The current offering of higher education has not convinced us that the reward of character development is worth all of the work. Schools like Geneva find themselves making blue-faced arguments to defend higher education as a bastion of personal and civic virtue. They are being forced to answer questions about job placement, not about student’s moral sensitivities. The number one question colleges and universities are now facing when students start to apply is, “Will I get a job?” not “When I graduate will I have a more forthright and honest manner, and will I face danger and adversity with calm and repose? Will I be a better lover? Husband? Wife? Neighbor?” Higher education, with all of its promises to make students better people has in fact failed to distract from what many of us are often more interested in, money.

Martha Nussbaum, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, has attempted to argue that college is not for profit. To pursue a degree in higher education should indicate that you have concern for much higher things than the hoi polloi of the marketplace. The only difficulty with this view is that an education that attempts to lift you out of the mire of ordinary commerce is more likely to make you haughty, not high-minded. In fact this is the problem with both the historical and human view of higher education. The historical view places emphasis on certain histories and their traditions. Contemporary college curriculums have tried to correct this skew especially as higher education has become an international phenomenon, not just a Western enterprise. The human view pits well-educated men and women against those who may not have transcended their ordinary work-a-day world to adopt the high ideals of the academy. In this case, higher education exists to hoist us above the mundane, higher than the manual labor industry trading in our blue collars for white ones. Higher education is higher because the people we become when we graduate are haughty, apt to place ourselves above others rather than beside them. If this is the true outcome of higher education, then it is no wonder that many have started to question the time, cost, and effort required for a four-year college degree.

Holy Spirit

I want to propose, as I did briefly in my introduction, that what makes higher education higher is the Holy Spirit. What embellishes and lifts ordinary academic activity is the living presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit inspiring and leading us to heights of intellect we could never achieve on our own. In Psalm 139 the author describes the height of this knowledge that can only be received from the Holy Sprit: “ O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my laying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand on me. Such knowledge is to wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” In 1 Peter 5:6, we find a similar admonition followed by the promise of being carried higher. Peter writes, “Humble yourselves therefore so at the proper time He may exalt you.” The high of higher education is the height of heaven. The knowledge of God and the learning of his truth is what exalts the ordinary human intellect and imparts something higher than even the high honor of the bachelor’s degree.

To accept that the Holy Spirit is what makes higher education higher introduces us to both problems and promises.  The problems are not small. They are big problems and they bear heavily on our current climate in American higher education. If it is true that the Holy Spirit is what makes a higher education higher, some of the ways we talk about it must change.

First, the Holy Spirit cannot be cheated. One of the attributes of any spirit is that it can see and move in places where we believe things are hidden. The spirit moves in and through things like hearts and minds. The Holy Spirit is not constrained by walls, social regulations, or even the dark. If you plan, or have already decided, to conduct your education at Geneva through means of deception and dishonesty, your teachers and friends might be taken in, but never the Spirit. Let me be clear, attempting to deceive the Holy Spirit could be the most foolish thing you ever do. In the Book of Acts chapter 5 we read that those who attempted to fool the Holy Spirit were immediately struck dead.  The Lord in his mercy may not strike you down, but your duplicity will still mean the death of your soul.

The second problem is that the Holy Spirit cannot be bought. In Acts 8:9-18 a man Simon tries to buy the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Peter responds, “May your silver perish with you because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.If the Holy Spirit is what gives higher education its height, it cannot be bought. Even if a student pays every tuition dollar in advance, or gives beyond what the college has asked, but does not know the Spirit, he or she will not receive it.

These are the problems of a higher education inspired and given by the presence of the God’s Holy Spirit. These problems are thankfully accompanied by several promises. The first is found in 1 Corinthians 12. Here the Lord promises to empower us according to our gifts. Not only has he given us the talents we possess, but he also gives us the muscle to use them. If we are uncertain that any student has the strength or capability to complete their coursework and graduate, then depend upon this promise. The second is found in John 14. Here Jesus promises that in his absence he will send “The Helper, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

There is much to fear when guiding students towards a degree in higher education, so our Lord Jesus has provided a companion. One who knows us through and through. This means that students must be honest and that money will not help them. On the other hand, it means their closest study companion will be more than any tutor or teacher can be. In many ways, the Lord demands less of us than the human objectives of higher education. He does not require self-achieved success, nor do we have to pay. The God that we serve doesn’t demand, he invites.

All we have to do to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit offers is ask. It’s striking how similar this gift is to learning in general. We can’t demand that students think, work, and strive higher. We can only invite them. And we should be. We should invite them to know and to feel the depth, the breadth, and the height of God’s arms as they bear your heart, your soul, and your mind higher.

May the Lord bless you with the vision and the patience to receive this gift.

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