Another Example of a Gap in Higher Education

David Bentley Hart, in The Experience of God, makes this important observation: “To bracket form and finality out of one’s investigations as far as reason allows is a matter of method, but to deny their reality altogether is a matter of metaphysics.”  (p. 70)  “Form and finality” refer to ultimate causes and purposes; in philosophical terms, the stuff of metaphysics.  Research methods don’t try to address metaphysical questions.  But as you know, sometimes people claim modern research as the reason not only to avoid metaphysical topics, but, as Hart says, “to deny their reality altogether.” This problem still exists big time in higher education and it has preoccupied me for twenty years.

The other day I tweeted that what we call student development in the academy, we call discipleship in the church.  I’ve also said to those willing to endure my fulminations that pedagogy (the technical term for the practice of teaching and learning) just is discipleship.  The academy shapes people.  In a thousand diverse ways it teaches us what to care about, what is worthy of our attention, what matters.  It teaches us also what not to care about.

I’ve been looking recently at literature on student development in higher education.  We know that college students undergo much change, but change is not synonymous with development.  To develop means that we have a clear sense of the goal toward which purposeful change takes us.  Unfortunately, we largely assume that “the college experience” takes student toward the goal, because the right goal is whatever the student wants it to be.  Exceedingly rarely do you find discussion about the value of such goals, which is to say, discussions about what really matters.  We talk a lot about the means, little about the ends.  The end(s) we leave to students.  Sort of.

(Except in one zone: confessional Christian schools.  I don’t work in one of those schools, so I’ll not say more, but we in the mainline could learn a lesson here.)

Student development theory has emerged from the works of researchers like Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, William Perry, and Robert Kegan, to name a few. (In the field of faith development and spirituality, we would add James Fowler, Sharon Daloz Parks and James Loder.)  These names are mostly associated with psychology.   How have these folks come by their understanding of human development?  By devising good research methods.  By clinical controls.  By observation.  By testing and testing again.  By thousands and thousands of conversations with people and drawing testable conclusions.  As good scientists, for the most part, they avoid the “form and finality” question.

(James Fowler’s Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian takes his theoretical work and reflects theologically on what development looks like for Christians.  In all my readings of Fowler, I see him taking special care to recognize when he is doing what.)

But over time a tradition of thought takes shape with implicit metaphysical assumptions.  This point is difficult to prove.  Researchers can bracket basic philosophical questions because their research interest is narrow (in a good, pragmatically needful sense).  They’re not asking “big questions” about the meaning of life.  They’re trying to figure out why a targeted sample of people engage in behavior X or assume attitude Y.  But over time, a tradition develops and in the process – given our still very powerful modernist, empiricist assumptions, some questions just don’t seem relevant, interesting or important.

To get to this point in student development theory does not mean that we don’t do metaphysics.  It just means that metaphysics went underground.  And we have the unexamined life, which, in the academy, has rendered a shriveled up view of human nature.

To illustrate this problem, let’s switch to a different time and place.  For personal reasons I have returned to the reflections of Evagrius Ponticus in The Praktikos and On Prayer.  Evagrius was a fourth century monk, a student of the Cappadocian Fathers.  These works are filled with keen insight and profound wisdom.

Where did Evagrius get his ideas?  Well, he listened to people.  He thought.  He prayed.  He pondered.  He listened some more.  In other words, he gained insight into human psychology on pretty much the same basis that modern researchers do, except that he obviously did not use modern research methods.  Evagrius learned about human nature from experiencing himself and other humans, just like modern researchers do.

Consider this reflection from Evagrius:

The spirit would not make progress nor go forth on that happy sojourn with the band of the incorporeal beings unless it should correct its interior.  This is so because anxiety arising from interior conflicts is calculated to turn back upon the things that it has left behind.” (Praktikos, #63)

One with the relevant background knowledge can see from Evagrius’ reference to the band of incorporeal beings an ancient, Platonic (or neo-Platonic) metaphysic.  No interest there for modern researchers.  Notice, more importantly, his observation about anxiety and human wellbeing.  This is of large significance to modern researchers and practitioners.  He names a major roadblock to human wellbeing, one that we could put in more modern existentialist and Freudian terms.  He made this comment roughly sixteen hundred years ago.

Evagrius was well aware of his metaphysical assumptions.  We in the academy often are not.  Who is the more aware?  Whom would we consider better educated?

We teach by what we talk about all the time; by what has our sustained focus (which is a way of saying, what has our hearts).  We also teach by what we never talk about, what we leave out of the research, the literature, the conversations, the classroom lectures.  And modern student development theory, it seems to me at this point, leaves out a huge portion of what makes humans human.  This is a terrible mistake.

Church related schools have a golden opportunity here.  We have the freedom in whatever way we deem appropriate, to engage students in precisely the questions that often don’t get asked.  Imagine, in a student development theory class, adding in some readings from people like Evagrius and grappling with his world view.  It would prompt us to think about ours.  We might turn to someone like Charles Taylor for help in understanding “social imaginaries.”  Now student development theory takes on a whole new dimension.  And we start to see students (and our work) differently.  We expand our awareness beyond formal psychological processes to substantive ways of understanding humans.

And that would be a very good thing.




About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.


  1. The term “incorporeal beings” may be Platonic, or neo-platonic. But the reality represented thereby is definitely Christian. The Father created all THINGS, visible and invisible.

    Your observation that “. . . over time a tradition of thought takes shape with implicit metaphysical assumptions” is of vital importance. Worldview is everything. An institution of learning (sic) whose metaphysical presuppositions include reductive naturalism is constitutionally incapable of offering learning, let alone wisdom, to its consumers.

    I once tried to suggest to an English PhD candidate in an online conversation that there is a realm of ought (Richard Weaver’s term). C. S. Lewis had no problem with this idea, but this guy (also an aspiring Baptist theologian) was clueless.

    You have the toughest job of any person I know. God bless you in your task.

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