Seeing the Light—Religious Colleges in Twenty-First Century America (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert Benne, Director
Seeing the Light—Religious Colleges in Twenty-First Century America by Samuel Schuman. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 336 pp. $50.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-0801893728.

This ambitious book is an important addition to the burgeoning literature on Christian higher education. It is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it offers insights by a friendly "outsider" often missed by insiders. Samuel Schuman, the author, is a double "outsider." He spent most of his career in public higher education, retiring as chancellor emeritus of the University of Minnesota, Morris. He is also a Jew examining a plethora of Christian institutions. But he is indeed "friendly." He makes every effort to be understanding, fair, appreciative, and accurate in his analysis of the many Christian institutions he takes up.

The author seems to have a three-fold intent. First, he wants to bring to attention to those in public higher education the variety and quality of church-related higher education. He assumes that they are generally uninformed—if not contemptuous—of such education. Second, he believes that public sector higher education can learn much from the success and contributions of Christian institutions. Finally, with an eye to those in Christian higher education, he wants to rebut the gloomy thesis of James Burtchaell in his magisterial The Dying of the Light—The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Churches. Thus, the title of his book—Seeing the Light. This latter task has been taken up by many writers, including this reviewer in his Quality with Soul—How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with their Traditions. However, I took up only six schools; Schuman takes up at least sixteen.

An early chapter sets the historical context for the founding and development of many Christian schools. In it he also sketches brief portraits of several non-Christian colleges and universities—Buddhist, Mormon, Jewish, and Hindu. Then he takes up three Catholic schools followed by two Baptist and then four of what he calls "denominational colleges."

The latter category includes Calvin College, which nearly every writer in this area of inquiry depicts as a robust Christian college that emphasizes the integration of faith and learning. He concludes his survey with five "non-denominational" colleges, though each of them is solidly within the evangelical tradition, as are the Baptist examples. Oddly enough, he does not take up Lutheran institutions even though he was surrounded by them in his work in Minnesota. [End Page 351]

He tries to cover common issues in his description and analysis of each college—their sense of mission and identity, their curricula, their behavioral standards, their outstanding gifts or qualities, the way that their religious commitments play out in all facets of college life, their dealing with "hot-button" issues like homosexuality, evolution, abortion, and their worship life. It seems that he visited most, if not all, of the colleges he examines and did interviews with many of the constituencies that make up a college. This obviously took considerable time and effort.

His final chapter, "What Can We Learn?," is the most important of the book, building as it does on the survey work of the earlier chapters. The learnings he proposes are relevant to public and church-related institutions alike. One of the most important is that the schools he has surveyed present a wide variety of institutions, many of them of high quality, and most of them with increasing enrollments. He believes that the public sector ignores these developments at its peril. Further, he points to a high level of communication among religious colleges and to the clarity of their sense of mission. Indeed, he believes that "their central religious core sharpens their identity" (227). In contrast to religious colleges, public institutions are much more diffuse in their sense of identity and mission.

His survey dispels the notion that religious schools are simply propaganda mills for the faith and merely provide a safe haven from the world, though it also confirms that the social life on their campuses is more restrained and wholesome. Indeed, with regard to strengthening the faith of their students, one of the more disturbing...


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