Book Review: ‘Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education’ by Adam Laats

Let’s say you attended Wheaton College, Gordon College, or Biola University. Or perhaps you’re an outsider who just thinks highly of those schools. If so, you might be turned off by a book that groups them together under the label “Fundamentalist U.” Don’t be.

Adam Laats, professor of education and history at Binghamton University and author of Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, knows the difference between an evangelical and a fundamentalist. He knows, too, that it can be very hard to tell that difference, especially before the 1970s. Using the example of Wheaton, Gordon, and Biola (along with Moody Bible Institute, Bob Jones University, and Liberty University), Laats attempts to identify the distinct nature of non-denominational, fundamentalist-evangelical higher education in the 20th century. And he succeeds admirably.

Peculiarities of Definition

Fundamentalist and evangelical colleges have long grappled with many of the same issues faced by other institutions of higher education: the early 20th-century academic revolution, changing standards of accreditation, a post–World War II boom in enrollment fueled by the GI Bill, the moral upheaval of the turbulent 1960s, and the rise of campus protests.

But fundamentalist-evangelical higher education has also dealt with a distinct set of challenges: how to train missionaries, how to maintain codes of student conduct in keeping with fundamentalist mores, whether (or how) to remain true to dispensational premillennialism, how to maintain doctrinal purity, and how to quash leftist radicalism in favor of traditional and conservative Americanism. As Laats observes, “[Fundamentalist colleges] expected to do all the things that modern universities did without signing on to the fundamental intellectual presuppositions that had dictated those changes in modern university life.” In explaining how this struggle played out, Laats helps us better understand both Christian higher education and the historic relationship between fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

All the schools Laats studies identified themselves as fundamentalist in the 1920s and ’30s, and all are denominationally independent to this day. This means they lacked a larger institutional guide to define their parameters and check any move away from their fundamentalist identity. Writing as a sympathetic outsider, Laats makes a compelling case that the spectrum of Christian colleges we see today, ranging from the militantly fundamentalist Bob Jones University to the neo-evangelical Wheaton, did not exist until the 1960s.

To cite but one example, Wheaton forbade drama productions until late in that decade, while Shakespearean plays have been central at Bob Jones University since the school’s inception. One might write this off as something peculiar to Bob Jones—but the peculiarities are part of Laats’s point. As he puts it, “In every case these idiosyncrasies of the 1920s continued to inform fundamentalism at its leading colleges and universities.” With fundamentalism subject to such a fluid range of definitions, controversies often centered on the question of authority. In other words, who gets to define fundamentalism for the college? Is it the board, the president, the faculty, or the students (certainly not, unless you ask them)? This was not shared governance but something akin to WrestleMania.

Click here to read more.
Source: Christianity Today