It's a traditional path, rich and straightforward. Our university education is about us: our positioning, our prospects, our increased earning power. But if we set our gaze a little further, to measure broader social outcomes—is the traditional university still the best path?
Perhaps not, and you'll be surprised which schools may now have the inside track on market share and influence.
Dr. Emöke J. E. Szathmáry, President Emeritus of the University of Manitoba, yesterday suggested that faith-based universities are well-positioned in the institutional landscape. Addressing an audience that included many of the presidents of Canada's faith-based post-secondary institutions, Dr. Szathmáry argued that the "return on investment" of post-secondary education is too narrowly measured at many schools. Individual outcomes can never comprise the full reward. Instead, the social values of having skilled professionals able to serve others; an educated electorate; and citizens and volunteers who are committed to their communities are among the benefits some institutions overlook.
Dr. Szathmáry made a three-part argument as to why faith-based universities are well-positioned to increase in influence. Since the sixties, a secularization thesis suggested that as society modernized, religion would proportionately decline. Widely accepted for decades, this thesis has fallen on hard times—even over the past decade, the original proponents of that thesis have changed their opinions. There is a longing on the part of young people today to talk about the big questions of life and, ironically, the modern secular university is a place where such conversations are difficult to have. A generation of academics has emerged which has a narrow expertise and is uncomfortable engaging existential questions in a meaningful way. Szathmáry recommended CBC Radio's "The Myth of the Secular" series about a growing hunger for discussions on life and death and meaning. The secular university is handcuffed in dealing with these questions—lacking access to a religious vocabulary, they are like a mathematics professor who has never studied arithmetic.
Secondly, faith-based universities serve more than just those students who are looking for an education that recognizes their deep-felt questions. They also, by virtue of smaller size, often offer stronger mentorship and relationships between faculty and students than those in large universities.
Her final argument was a challenge to the faith-based university sector to be more robust in asserting their place in the Canadian mosaic. If society claims to be open and pluralistic, then there needs to be a correlative acceptance of various perspectives, including religious ones. Acknowledging that "secular education is not value-free; it often can be anti-religious," she urged the leaders of the faith-based university sector to assert their rightful place in the Canadian post-secondary landscape. "Your traditions are part of the Canadian whole," she said, challenging her audience not to acquiesce to marginalization.
Szathmáry's question was "Why Bother with Christian Higher Education?" and her answer was direct. It matters, not only for those who are able to benefit directly by enrolling in such institutions, but also because it is uniquely positioned to answer a market need which mainstream academia is hard-pressed to fill. The history of higher education in Canada has faith roots, and despite the current claims of secularism that would separate faith and education, education in the absence of faith does not reflect the reality and diversity of contemporary Canadian society.