Publisher: Books on Creating Understanding
Price: 1000 KES
In a rapidly changing society, we educators must always examine and reflect on whom we're teaching, and why we teach what we teach in the classroom. Donald K Smith's book is a welcome opportunity for educators, especially Christian educators, to ask what God is calling us to do today.
The book is a collection of essays in which Prof Smith reflects on different challenges facing higher education, and how Christian universities can ideally respond to those challenges. Based on his experience at Daystar University, which he co-founded with his wife Faye Smith and with Dr. S. E. M. Pheko, Prof Smith examines how Christian universities could resist the pressures of the larger world to distort Christian higher education.
Prof Smith has spoken about this unfortunate situation. He challenges us by asking if profit and business should be the "plumbline" of education, and even challenges us to serve the poor. For me, the most powerful part of his book is when he addresses the erroneous perception that Daystar University is not for the poor, and when he remembers the hundreds of students who have struggled with limited or no financial resources to study at Daystar. As he says, if we do not always come up with ways to take care of poor students, then we are not truly a Christian university.
Another interesting aspect of the book for me was his interrogation of power, accountability and servant leadership. He criticizes "high power distance," where people use power to impose decisions without consultation and respect of institutional history and precedent. He criticizes the idea of power coming from title and position, rather than from service, especially service to students.
I am also pleased that Prof Smith questions the idea of integration of faith and learning, which remains a central idea that lecturers must write on for them to be promoted in Daystar University. I have always held the view, which Prof Smith holds, that integration “assumes separation, thus the need to integrate.” I do not think there is a separation between faith and learning. As Rev. T. Njoya once said in a lecture on the same subject, faith IS learning. One cannot have a robust faith without willingness and ability to learn.
Theology, faith and culture
That said, I am a little uneasy about the theological basis of these arguments in The Plumbline. One is the idea that Christian scholarship is scholarship that glorifies God and studies reality as a manifestation of God’s glory. Linked to this argument is the idea of a “biblical worldview” which, Smith argues, is the foundation of Christian education. I have heard these ideas repeated as given, and I’ve asked that we interrogate them. I have asked for us to consider this question: can Christianity, or the bible, be considered a worldview?
Let me explain why answering this question is important. The problem with saying something like scholarship must glorify God, or that the scholar’s obligation is to “maintain a central focus on Christ,” is that glorifying God is an abstract concept. What does glorifying God concretely mean in 21st century Kenya? Are we all agreed on that interpretation?
Indeed, one of the difficulties of institutions that call themselves Christian is that while they may be agreed in principle what “Christian” entails, we do not agree on its concrete manifestation. The problem with abstract terms like “focus on God,” or “glorifying God,” is that the interpretations of what they mean within an institution are as myriad as the people in the institution. One frustration that people often encounter is when someone defines a decision as “Christian,” even when the Christian-ness of that decision is not evident. Even those who interpret education in business terms use the Bible to justify their approach. When there are many possible interpretations of what “focus on God” means, the interpretation that eventually prevails is dictated by those in power, thereby abetting the oppressive power logic that Prof Smith criticizes in his book.
And yet, The Plumbline places an extraordinary amount of trust in Christianity to unite people on the right thing to do. An example of such an argument is the statement that if everyone in a Christian university was born again, “everyone would thoughtfully and completely accept the statement of faith and follow the regulations. No one would be here just for career preparation or to make money and gain a high status.” Besides the problem of whether Christians would genuinely agree with the regulations, there is the question of whether they would necessarily follow them. At the end of the day, Christians are also sinners, and so they will not give a perfect, let alone united, implementation of Christian education.
The problem with the idealist view of Christian higher education is most visible in the nostalgia for the days when robust secular universities like Harvard and Oxford where theologically based. According to this nostalgia, which is driven by scholars like Mark Noll, whom Prof Smith quotes, the decline of the visible Christian ethos in higher education in the West is driven by the power of secularism.
In the paper I wrote to fulfil my institutional requirements, I respectfully disagreed with this argument. The reason that secularism gained status in America is because the church was complicit in slavery and racist discrimination. When institutions like Harvard were at their most Christian, they were also not admitting female and black students.
The reason why scholars have “a deathly fear of being labelled fundamentalist” is because calling oneself Christian, especially in the United States, is often tied to conservative politics that justify the impoverization and criminalization of black and brown peoples. In other words, Christianity in the United States has not necessarily united the country, because of a fundamental (pun intended) disagreement on social justice related to black and brown peoples. It is unlikely, therefore, that scholars would be united on what Christian higher education means. “Focus on God,”or on “glorifying God,” are not neutral ideas. Their meaning is determined by culture, social status and political context.
That is why I also disagree that Christianity is a worldview or culture. Christianity is a faith that is interpreted within a certain worldview, and the role of theology is to articulate that interpretation in a neoliberal Kenya in the 21st century. Unfortunately, theology has taken a back seat in Kenya and given way to Biblical studies, and so a rigorous Christian interpretation of what education should look like in today’s era is not forthcoming.
This weakness in the logic of Christian education comes from the elevation of faith over history, experience, society and politics, yet theology ideally calls for an egalitarian relationship between faith and education. This elevation of one aspect of life, or discipline, over all others, is described by Lewis Gordon as “disciplinary decadence.” By contrast, theology, as I understand the great theologian James H. Cone to have described it, sees faith as an aspect of life that must interact with, not lord it over, other aspects of life, with human humility rather than the claim to be speaking God’s will to society. The decadence we witness among Christian scholars comes from the elevation of faith above academic rigor or social justice, so that as long as a Christian lecturer says “I am saved,” that lecturer is not accountable for how they teach or govern in a teaching institution.
But it is not only faith that occupies a problematic status in The Plumbline. The same applies to culture. Presumably, because of Prof Smith’s training, culture is elevated over politics and material conditions. For instance, we see the implication that apartheid, which Donald Smith and Faye Smith resisted when living in South Africa before coming to Kenya, was a primarily cultural phenomenon. However, apartheid was not just division between black and white peoples; it was also the use of political institutions and violence to maintain that separation, and for the purpose of creating concrete material conditions of power and wealth in the hands of the white minority.
While thinkers like Fanon did emphasize the importance of culture in fighting oppression, he did not advocate for intercultural understanding or a more rooted faith as the anti-thesis to oppression. Rather, he did advocate for nationalism that is expressed through the culture of the oppressed. That is why nationalism is a project that is necessarily intertwined with Christianity – as was the case of Martin Luther, whose protest against the Catholic church was necessarily about German independence from the Vatican in Italy and for the scriptures in the German language, or Steve Biko who saw black theology as an ideal expression of Christianity in the African nationalist struggle against apartheid. Therefore, Christian education must, necessarily, have a nationalist dimension.
A labor of love
Nevertheless, The Plumbline is an honest, philosophical reflection on what it means to be a Christian and to teach in the 21st century. It is a visibly deep interrogation by a man with a heart for education and deep love for the students and for God, which is rare in this era where governments and corporations are dehumanizing the project of education. Such raw reflections are rare in today’s universities where security of tenure and economic stability are no longer guaranteed, and so few academics dare to ask questions about the direction in which higher education is heading, for fear of losing their jobs. The book is also useful as a beacon for current and future generations of academics and students to continuously interrogate the endeavor that is education.
Most of all, regardless of what one thinks of specific ideas in the book, the book is evidence of what a scholar should fundamentally be – a person who continuously reflects on the definition of education in a rapidly changing world, on the role of the scholar and teacher in that education, and above all, a love for God’s children, especially students and the poor. Together with his wife Faye Smith, Prof Smith is also unique because of his insider-outsider status in an institution which they started, but which they do not own. His status remains difficult for Kenyans to grasp. Many people, including students, think that the Smiths own Daystar, which is not surprising, given that we Kenyans are governed by the colonial logic of ownership and property as the primary social status in society.
The Plumbline is an expression of faith and a labor of love, in which Prof Smith affirms education as a dialogue that must always continue between human beings and their world through faith in God.