The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education
William Ringenberg. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. 316 pages.
This book is an updating of William Ringenberg’s important 1984 study of Protestant colleges and universities in the United States. As with the previous edition, American religious historian Mark Noll provides an excellent (now fully-revised) introduction that notes important developments since 1984. There is also a new chapter (“On to the Twenty-first Century”), a new epilogue, and appendices that are updated to at least 2004.
The major problem with this work—as with any book that is more of an update than a revision—is that the general narrative implies that the reader is living in the year in which it was first written (in this case, 1984). For example, in chapter 5, “The Response to Secularization,” one finds reference after reference to the early work of Jerry Falwell and Liberty College (now University) as well as statistics and analysis that would be much more relevant if early 2000s comparisons were included somewhere in the text.
Making a comparison to the role of evangelicals in American politics during the past twenty-five years, it would be like discussing the influence of the Moral Majority (an early 1980s phenomenon) without comparative analysis of later conservative Christian special interests such as the Christian Coalition (prominent in the 1990s) and Focus on the Family (influential during the George W. Bush administration). The problem of disjuncture in the text is not alleviated by placing all post-1984 assessments in the new chapter, “On to the Twenty-first Century.”
Another distraction is the sudden addition of numerous references to Roman Catholic institutions in the added chapter (“On to the Twenty-first Century”) when Roman Catholic higher education has been overlooked in most of the rest of the book. This is to be sure a book on Protestant schools. But if, as Ringenberg notes, “In so many of the recent conferences and projects, Protestant and Catholic educators have been working together” (228), why not give more analytical attention to this very important ecumenical development?
Notwithstanding this critique, Ringenberg’s last chapter is in general a fine addition which reviews significant developments in the past twenty years including the work of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities and the expansion of scholarly writing by faculty at Protestant institutions. In this regard Ringenberg devotes two complete paragraphs to appropriately congratulate the work of Mark Noll (“one voice . . . stands out,” 217). Ringenberg also assesses enrollment growth in Christian higher education. In the “Afterword,” Ringenberg concludes the book by reviewing four different types of colleges (orthodox, critical-mass, intentionally pluralist, and accidentally pluralist). He describes the Christian college as “a community of those who share the central conviction that the key to understanding the human condition is the incarnational idea that God has come to us in Christ.”
In general this is an important updating of Ringenberg’s earlier work. This reader would have preferred a complete revision.