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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Spring 2002, Vol. 29 No. 1

Response to: "A 'Perfect Standard?' Exploring Perceptions of Student Life and Culture at Wheaton College" by Kevin D. Cumings, Jennifer G. Haworth, and Keith O'Neill

Stanton L. Jones, Provost, Wheaton College, Illinois

Based on the summary of this article in the 12/14/01 daily electronic report of the Chronicle of Higher Education, I expected to encounter a pervasively negative depiction of student life and culture at Wheaton College. Instead, I found it to be an intriguing, basically fair description of the strengths of our institutional culture. It also presented judicious criticisms of the culture, including some ways in which we fail to meet the needs of some of our students optimally. The authors are to be congratulated for a penetrating and constructive critique.

The kinds of tensions that emerge in our institutional culture differ, no doubt, from the tensions in other types of cultures. David Brooks recently wrote about the motivations and ethics of college students at several premier universities, noting a lack of moral conviction and direction among the students, a lack of concern for virtue. Brooks placed the blame for this, in part, on the failure of their adult mentors to have any vision for the moral formation of these young people. He commented wryly that "the simple truth is . . . adult institutions no longer try to talk about character and virtue because they simply do not know what to say."1  In circumstances where this is basically true, an institution will simply not take any position on the nature of the self and hence students will be unlikely to feel the types of tensions discussed in the present article.

The authors seek to expose the "basic assumptions and beliefs" of our institutional culture. To advance discussion of the issues raised in the article, I would like to draw attention to what may lie yet further behind and beneath some of the findings, namely, some basic assumptions about the formation and nurture of the "self." A variety of authors2  have discussed the deep religious roots of the metaphysical assumptions that we bring to the study of human psychology. Following some basic contours of earlier discussion,3  I would argue that Wheaton College has forged its culture—imperfectly and incompletely—out of a distinctively Christian visioning of the self, one that is in significant tension with conceptions of the self that emerge from secular psychology.

Among the various major personality and psychotherapy theoretical paradigms, several different basic positions on the self and its development emerge. Behaviorism and its variants ultimately take a reductive and deterministic view towards the self. The self is construed as an epiphenomenon and, to whatever extent it exists, they believe it can be reduced to patterns of learned behavior produced by the interaction of the basically passive human person with a shaping environment. This view stands in considerable contrast with the classic view of Humanistic psychology, which presumes that the self exists in some pre-formed way within the individual ready to be revealed, and that the person’s environment can either help or hinder the gradual unveiling of this nascent self, a self that is presumed to be basically good. A third great tradition in psychology, the Existential tradition, believes in a substantive self that is constructed by the autonomous choices of the individual person. Selves that are constructed passively through the influence of a dominating environment are in fact not genuine selves at all, and because there are no ultimate values other than arbitrary ones constructed by autonomous individuals, the selves that we construct are neither good nor bad in any meaningful sense that transcends the individual person. Humanistic psychology hence stands in contradiction to Behaviorism and Existentialism in its valuing of the human self as good. Behaviorism agrees with Existentialism, and disagrees with Humanistic psychology, that selves are formed or constructed. Humanistic and Existential psychologies together regard the influence of the environment as largely negative on the development of the self; Behaviorism does not.

Christian theology has implications for how we view selves, and cannot make complete peace with any of these traditions. A theology of Creation causes us to view all of God’s creation, including human beings, as good in its original state. Human beings, in particular, are regarded as created in the Image of God, and hence of particular (perhaps infinite) value. Humans are in some meaningful way volitional agents, and our misuse of this freedom has introduced evil and brokenness into the world; this human rebellion against God is commonly called "the Fall." This brokenness is presumed to be universal in its impact, so that there is no unalloyed good in any aspect of the world, and particularly in human experience (including the human self), and hence all are on a journey either of recovery of this original Image of God or away from this ideal toward greater brokenness.

So a Christian view of the self is a complex one. Each individual human being is created in the Image of God, yet each individual is tainted and broken. "Salvation" is not just something that happens to immaterial souls, but also initiates a process of redemption and sanctification by which God lays claims to and intrudes into our lives; we also, as agents, bring our lives,

including our selves, more and more into conformity with God’s wishes (hence constructing a self). This process of the shaping of the self occurs as the individual interacts with God, but also occurs through interaction with social structures (churches, but also personal relationships, educational institutions, and others) that contribute to the shaping of character. The human self is thus both given and constructed, good yet broken and sinful, a product of personal choice and of response to environments. Such a view can use aspects of the secular psychological theories to augment or elaborate this complex view, thus better understanding processes and mechanisms contributing to the formation of the self.

Wheaton College is hence a place that attempts to deliberately participate in and contribute to God’s work in the formation of the individual selves of the students who are a part of our community (and of faculty and staff as well) in this grand process of character formation. There can be no doubt that aspects of individual character and individual calling risk running afoul of a strong institutional culture when that strong culture fails to properly honor the true uniqueness of that individual. When this occurs here, we fail our students. But Christians also agree that there are universal dimensions of the shaping of character such that the proper formation of the individual self fails when a person follows a different path. The various clear moral strictures of the Biblical teaching constitute examples. Regardless of the sincerity, for example, with which an individual feels he or she may be called to establish a cohabiting relationship with his or her romantic partner, we would be forced to regard this as a mistaken understanding of God’s calling given the clarity of the scriptures on the moral valuation of such a relationship.

The institutional culture of Wheaton College is without question a mélange of elements, some rooted in what many would regard as Biblical absolutes, but also of some in fallible human judgments about cultural practices that are based on mistaken human judgments or in the quirks and peculiarities of our unique Evangelical sub-culture that do not truly reflect God’s will. The net result, in any case, is a culture which will, by its very clear and strong character, benefit many of our students, but create points of tension for all (and for some more than others). This study has rightly pointed out numerous foibles (as well as strengths) of this culture. The most important negative (and titular) theme of the article, that of the "perfect standard," is challenging. How do we create an environment that expects much from its members, that provides lavish supports to help young people to grow and to be able to develop exemplary character, and yet which still embodies a spirit of forgiveness and tolerance, and which celebrates individuality? How do we hold up high standards that we judge to be universals, and yet never

force individuals to fabricate or engage in impression management when they fail to meet up to those standards? And how do we assure that we hold up only those standards that are truly universal, allowing a wide range for individual calling on matters of "indifference" or personal taste without ever misunderstanding such choices as absolutes?

This study has helped to increase the poignancy of these questions, and has provided the kind of constructive criticism that can truly be of use to us.


1. "The organization kid," Atlantic Monthly (April 2001); quote, 53.
2. e.g., Browning, D. Religious Thought and the Modern Psychologies (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987); Jones, S. "A Constructive Relationship for Religion with the Science and Profession of Psychology: Perhaps the Boldest Model Yet," American Psychologist, 49, 3 (1994):184-199; R. P. Olson, ed., Religious Theories of Personality and Psychotherapy: East Meets West (New York: Haworth, 2002, forthcoming); among many others.
3. Jones, S. & Butman, R., Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991).