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Colleges, universities, and seminaries do more than just transfer knowledge to students. They sell themselves as "experiences" that transform young people in unique ways. The conservative evangelical Protestant network of higher education has been no different. In the twentieth century, when higher education sometimes seemed to focus on sports, science, and social excess, Colleges, universities, and seminaries do more than just transfer knowledge to students. They sell themselves as "experiences" that transform young people in unique ways. The conservative evangelical Protestant network of higher education has been no different. In the twentieth century, when higher education sometimes seemed to focus on sports, science, and social excess, conservative evangelical schools offered a compelling alternative. On their campuses, evangelicals debated what it meant to be a creationist, a Christian, a proper American, all within the bounds of Biblical revelation. Instead of encouraging greater personal freedom and deeper pluralist values, conservative evangelical schools thrived by imposing stricter rules on their students and faculty. In Fundamentalist U, Adam Laats shows that these colleges have always been more than just schools; they have been vital intellectual citadels in America's culture wars. These unique institutions have defined what it has meant to be an evangelical and have reshaped the landscape of American higher education. Students at these schools have been expected to learn what it means to be an educated evangelical in a secularizing society. This book asks new questions about that formative process. How have conservative evangelicals hoped to use higher education to instill a uniquely evangelical identity? How has this identity supported the continuing influence of a dissenting body of knowledge? In what ways has it been tied to cultural notions of proper race relations and proper relations between the sexes? And perhaps most important, how have students responded to schools' attempts to cultivate these vital notions about their selves? In order to understand either American higher education or American evangelicalism, we need to appreciate the role of this influential network of dissenting institutions. Only by making sense of these schools can we make sense of America's continuing culture wars.


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Colleges, universities, and seminaries do more than just transfer knowledge to students. They sell themselves as "experiences" that transform young people in unique ways. The conservative evangelical Protestant network of higher education has been no different. In the twentieth century, when higher education sometimes seemed to focus on sports, science, and social excess, Colleges, universities, and seminaries do more than just transfer knowledge to students. They sell themselves as "experiences" that transform young people in unique ways. The conservative evangelical Protestant network of higher education has been no different. In the twentieth century, when higher education sometimes seemed to focus on sports, science, and social excess, conservative evangelical schools offered a compelling alternative. On their campuses, evangelicals debated what it meant to be a creationist, a Christian, a proper American, all within the bounds of Biblical revelation. Instead of encouraging greater personal freedom and deeper pluralist values, conservative evangelical schools thrived by imposing stricter rules on their students and faculty. In Fundamentalist U, Adam Laats shows that these colleges have always been more than just schools; they have been vital intellectual citadels in America's culture wars. These unique institutions have defined what it has meant to be an evangelical and have reshaped the landscape of American higher education. Students at these schools have been expected to learn what it means to be an educated evangelical in a secularizing society. This book asks new questions about that formative process. How have conservative evangelicals hoped to use higher education to instill a uniquely evangelical identity? How has this identity supported the continuing influence of a dissenting body of knowledge? In what ways has it been tied to cultural notions of proper race relations and proper relations between the sexes? And perhaps most important, how have students responded to schools' attempts to cultivate these vital notions about their selves? In order to understand either American higher education or American evangelicalism, we need to appreciate the role of this influential network of dissenting institutions. Only by making sense of these schools can we make sense of America's continuing culture wars.

30 review for Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education

  1. 5 out of 5

    Greg Watson

    Laats book provides a well-researched account of the inner-workings of fundamentalists an evangelical colleges. The level of detail in his historical analysis is unlikely to be found elsewhere, at least in a secular history book. Laats is especially strong in discussing the identity of colleges rooted in the fundamentalist and evangelical tradition. What constituted fidelity to that tradition was often difficult to define and even more difficult to appease all interested parties -- alumni, studen Laats book provides a well-researched account of the inner-workings of fundamentalists an evangelical colleges. The level of detail in his historical analysis is unlikely to be found elsewhere, at least in a secular history book. Laats is especially strong in discussing the identity of colleges rooted in the fundamentalist and evangelical tradition. What constituted fidelity to that tradition was often difficult to define and even more difficult to appease all interested parties -- alumni, students, parents, and pastors. As strong as the book is, though, Laats over-emphasizes the need for school leadership to remain true to their theological traditions in order to maintain a flow of tuition dollars. Leadership at these schools believes in the theological tradition, or so one would trust. Defining what that tradition is might be difficult in some ways. In other ways, it isn't. From Laats account, it's clear that some students and professors struggle to believe in such things as "a real, literal, historical Adam and Eve as the progenitors of the human race." This should not be a struggle for a student or professor at a fundamentalist or evangelical college. All in all, the book is written well and is well researched and generally fair.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Justin Lonas

    A remarkably fair yet hard-hitting history of non-denominational bible institutes, colleges, and universities that ends up hitting many themes of the broader American Christian movement in the 20th century.

  3. 5 out of 5

    William Gallo

    I was homeschooled, attended a tiny church/school (five students in my graduating class!), and then went to Pensacola Christian College and Moody Bible Institute. And let me tell you, as someone who has only ever known fundamentalist Christian education, this book pretty much nails it. Though it must have been tempting, Adam Laats has not written a polemic. Fundamentalist U is a serious, unemotional history of evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and universities in the United States. Though I was homeschooled, attended a tiny church/school (five students in my graduating class!), and then went to Pensacola Christian College and Moody Bible Institute. And let me tell you, as someone who has only ever known fundamentalist Christian education, this book pretty much nails it. Though it must have been tempting, Adam Laats has not written a polemic. Fundamentalist U is a serious, unemotional history of evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and universities in the United States. Though it is academic, it's still a very easy read, even if depressing. There's just too much to comment on - I'll be thinking about it for weeks. But a few thoughts: - I appreciate how Laats places the history of these schools within the wider context of higher learning in the US. For instance, I hadn't really thought about the fact that before the 1960s and 1970s, even some non-religious colleges and universities had harsh student rules against drinking, co-ed dorms, etc. - Though it admittedly falls outside the scope of this book, I would have appreciated if it attempted to convey what it felt like to attend one of these schools. In my experience, the cult-like atmosphere (e.g., the absurdly strict rules and strange punishments that serve no clear purpose apart from tests of absolute loyalty) is the defining feature of many of these schools, especially when viewed from the students' perspective. Laats does note some of these rules in several chapters. But still, it seems possibly misleading to examine some of these communities from a primarily academic perspective. - On that note, I would have liked more updated info on what these schools are like now. This book basically takes you from the formation of evangelical/fundamentalist schools in the 1800s until the 1970s, when many of these institutions began to change. But it pretty much just leaves it at that. In some areas, a reader may assume that even some of the more conservative schools like BJU have changed their approach to the world in some substantive way. While that may be true of places like MBI and Wheaton, it most definitely is not true of schools like PCC and BJU. Mostly, though, you can disregard my criticisms as the ramblings of a disgruntled former evangelical who is hopelessly over-invested in this conversation. In the end, it is very good to see a serious academic write about something that has been covered so infrequently by outsiders. This is a topic that very few people know about at all, let alone understand well. As Laats notes, that's in large part because words like "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" have no set definition, so it's hard to even know where to begin. That said, even though he does not come from the world of Christian fundamentalism, his grasp of its history could fool you. This book is essential if you want to understand how Christian colleges came to be, and how they’ve changed over the decades.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Allison Anderson Armstrong

    Many others have written reviews which are so eloquent and well-worded, so I'll leave the formality to them and go with my usual off-the-cuff impressions of this read. Overall, I was very impressed with the level of detail in historical accuracy and research. It is clear that the author took his time gleaning information from the archives for this book. (Or rather, wading through damning evidence) I wish he had not stopped with the mid-80s but gone up until the present - but maybe it wasn't his Many others have written reviews which are so eloquent and well-worded, so I'll leave the formality to them and go with my usual off-the-cuff impressions of this read. Overall, I was very impressed with the level of detail in historical accuracy and research. It is clear that the author took his time gleaning information from the archives for this book. (Or rather, wading through damning evidence) I wish he had not stopped with the mid-80s but gone up until the present - but maybe it wasn't his intention to give a more modern summation of their stances but to just stick with the original histories. A smart move. His approach to each college was mostly fair, but I detected a slight animosity towards BJU - which in SO many ways is understandable, and even deserved, in lieu of some of the mean and downright unBiblical things they said and did. But of course, I went there and had some of the best times of my life, so its hard for me to tell if this is just my emotional attachment speaking or something real. However, they did seem to get a more negative representation than positive and I can't imagine BJU has done more bad than good. Most of the other colleges received similar treatment with the "less-than-admirable" things being recorded but not all the positive great things that happened - I guess that's just historic reporting. We all who went there made fun of the "BJU way" of doing things, and took some things and left others, but I think that the intentions of many of the leaders of BJU and many of the other colleges were often sincere and striving to be pleasing to the Lord. They just went off track when they waffled and tried to "be all things to all men" - or else they took a stand for what they believed in like BJ, but they made themselves odious. So I guess in summary, I highly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in educational fundamentalist history - a strange group of people that is :)

  5. 5 out of 5

    Melody Schwarting

    I love fundamentalist history. Some people like true crime or inspirational stories. I like fundamentalist history. And this book had no shortage of scandals, movements, and revelations to tantalize me. Adam Laats has a (mostly) fair and balanced view of things. As an alumna of Colorado Christian University, I appreciated the inclusion of Clifton L. Fowler’s torrid leadership of Denver Bible Institute, a forerunner to CCU. Most of the book centers on non-denominational, self-identified fundament I love fundamentalist history. Some people like true crime or inspirational stories. I like fundamentalist history. And this book had no shortage of scandals, movements, and revelations to tantalize me. Adam Laats has a (mostly) fair and balanced view of things. As an alumna of Colorado Christian University, I appreciated the inclusion of Clifton L. Fowler’s torrid leadership of Denver Bible Institute, a forerunner to CCU. Most of the book centers on non-denominational, self-identified fundamentalist institutes, colleges, and universities. Laats clarifies his perspective helpfully at the outset, which is useful for those who would isolate his opinion as an “outsider.” I, for one, welcome his opinion, and hope that the responsible history of denominational higher education is explored further in the future.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    An important & revealing book. I went to a "fundamentalist u" and much of this resonated with me deeply. Full review to come. An important & revealing book. I went to a "fundamentalist u" and much of this resonated with me deeply. Full review to come.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    Summary: Traces the ways eight institutions that developed with the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920's responded to the changing fundamentalist/evangelical movement and wider trends in higher education and American society up to the present time. Adam Laats attended public universities and teaches in one, and does not share fundamentalist/evangelical beliefs. Neither does he share any animus toward these this movement nor the schools that arose during the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920's. W Summary: Traces the ways eight institutions that developed with the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920's responded to the changing fundamentalist/evangelical movement and wider trends in higher education and American society up to the present time. Adam Laats attended public universities and teaches in one, and does not share fundamentalist/evangelical beliefs. Neither does he share any animus toward these this movement nor the schools that arose during the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920's. What he does is give us a fascinating and even-handed account of eight flagship fundamentalist/evangelical institutions and how they negotiated the pressures exerted by this complicated and diverse movement and the wider landscape of American higher education and culture. The schools he studies are Biola, Bob Jones University, Gordon College, Liberty University, Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Westminster Seminary. Each of these were chosen as non-denominational institutions that were aligned with the fundamentalist movement during it rise. He begins with a brief history of American higher education and the disenchantment of those associated with the fundamentalist movement who increasingly recognized the need for their "own" schools who would adhere to strict interpretations of scripture and prepare young men and women for Christian service. Much of this was a reaction to a perceived Darwinism and theological and cultural liberalism that many felt increasingly characterized not only public institutions but even the church affiliated schools founded in earlier generations. Succeeding chapters chronicle how administrations, often in authoritarian fashion in early days, attempted to forge institutions that reflected these concerns, and persuaded parents and donors that they were not going soft on biblical fundamentals. This was a challenge as the fundamentalist movement struggled with its own identity and the development of neo-evangelicalism post World War II. Because of the lack of a coherent theological or ethical core, these schools ended up having to negotiate their way between conflicting factions, some more conservative, some more progressive, and some more concerned by the quality of education, or even toward what end these institutions were preparing young people. Were they missionary and ministry training institutions, a place to meet one's mate, or simply a Christian alternative preparing students for careers in competition with their peers at secular institutions? In truth, they have functioned in all these roles, often with both academic and moral excellence. Laats describes the different courses schools took. Bob Jones University remained rigorously fundamentalist, separatist, and segregationist. Liberty University also trumpeted the fundamentals, but was on the vanguard of conservative political engagement. Schools like Moody wrestled with their original purpose of simply training Christian workers, offering certificates of completion rather than degrees. Wheaton, Gordon, and Biola had more interesting journeys, trying to satisfy both more fundamentalist and more evangelical constituencies, often being attacked as "soft" by their peers, and more importantly, by an onlooking religious community obsessed with signs of "softness." There was less said about Dallas and Westminster, although the portrait of J. G. Machen as both sympathetic with fundamentalist concerns, and yet distinctive in his Calvinist confessional stance makes him an intriguing outlier in his time. Meanwhile cultural forces like the G.I. Bill and accrediting agencies were imposing pressures. Schools had to raise curricular standards so that their degrees were competitive with those of other institutions. Yet they had to do so while maintaining theological purity, particularly on the litmus test issue of their stance on evolution. Some doubled-down on young earth, six day creation stances. Others endorsed creationist stances while conceding the growing evidence for evolution in some form, what was called "progressive creation." On race, schools like Wheaton had begun as radically abolitionist, only to adopt a de facto segregationism. Others like Bob Jones, were belligerently segregationist and anti-miscegenationist. With the rise of the civil rights movements and student activism schools had to face their complicity with racist practices while facing pressures not to change. These pressures extended to the social revolution of the Sixties. Students had always to some extent pressed against behavior codes and the legalism around practices like smoking, dress, and movies that reigned on these campuses. Laats does a good job showing how administrators successfully or unsuccessfully negotiated these pressures and the tug of war between students, funders, and parents. Not all was controversy. Laats recounts the narratives of students like Betty Howard who met Jim Eliot at Wheaton, and found the ideals of evangelical romantic love "nothing short of a 'revelation!' " Eliot and many did not rebel against but embraced the behavioral strictures of their schools and found them freeing in the formation of their character and faith and missionary calling. Two things struck me about this account. One is the incredible "fishbowl" within which these institutions have operated. Laats chronicles how various groups thought of these schools as "our" schools and looked for signs of "softness" -- deviations from their particular groups definition of orthodox belief and practice. This not only reveals the faultlines of varying and conflicting interpretations of what was "biblical" but what has always felt to me gossip run rampant. I cancelled my subscription to Christianity Today for many years because of what I sensed was an over-preoccupation with this "sanctified" form of gossip (you can see that I'm probably far less dispassionate about this than the author!). Administrators at these schools had an unenviable task in this regard. The other is the incredible staying power that the creation-evolution struggle has had in its sway over these institutions. Even as science faculty have sought ways to affirm the findings of science and not present them at war with faith, external pressures often have required them to confess adherence to particular creationist interpretations on threat of termination. Laats seems to intimate that there often is a kind of double-speak going on, where what is discussed in the classroom may be at variance with what is promoted among certain constituencies. It raises the question of what academic freedom means on these campuses, a question Laats observed when doing research at Wheaton during the controversy that resulted in the termination of Larycia Hawkins, a tenured faculty member. These schools and others like them that have emerged in more recent years have had an out-sized influence on the American landscape--in politics, in the media, and other areas. It is fascinating to see how despite the various pressures these schools have faced, the excellent and passionate graduates they have produced. It might be tempting to marginalize these schools on the higher ed landscape. Adam Laats helps us understand both their distinctive history, the subculture within which they have operated, and their significance within our wider culture. ________________________________ Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Andrew McNeely

    Fundamentalism is a soap opera. Those of us who have grown up in it know this. Laats, an outsider, captures exactly this soap opera history in what is a meticulously well-researched book, relying on sources from deep in the archives of Evangelical and Fundamentalist institutions of higher education. A captivating read!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Eugene Douglass

    Good book. Excellent book on history and climates at many Christian colleges. I graduated from The King's College in New York, and a lot did nit make sense until I learned some of the history of the Christian college phenomena.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey

    What is higher education? How do you define fundamentalism? What happens when you mess both of those up? Welcome to the culture of "Fundamentalist U". It's like Christian rock - you make two good things bad when you mix them together. Historic universities apostatized from their foundational purposes due to much of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy that boiled over in the 1920's, but was presaged back in the 19th century by German scholasticism in higher criticism. Christians in these inst What is higher education? How do you define fundamentalism? What happens when you mess both of those up? Welcome to the culture of "Fundamentalist U". It's like Christian rock - you make two good things bad when you mix them together. Historic universities apostatized from their foundational purposes due to much of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy that boiled over in the 1920's, but was presaged back in the 19th century by German scholasticism in higher criticism. Christians in these institutions broke off, and made their own institutes/colleges/universities, but with the maddening veil of FUNDAMENTALISM, stripping off much of their historic, confessional, and many times, reformed moorings. These institutions would take on the worst qualities of what fundamentalism offered while trying to conjure reputability in higher education, failing at both. What remains is pedestrian education, poorly paid staff, idiosyncratic evangelicalism that doesn't respect anything historically confessional, ethereal devotion to whatever permutation of fundamentalism you want, demanded and forced loyalty to the institutions leaders, conformity to rules (skirt lengths!?), insecure existentialism (a lot of smaller fundy U's have since closed their doors), resistance to accreditation, rampant seperationism, Christianity baptized in conservative Americanism - and worst of all, theological presuppositions that fuel racial segregation that, at Bob Jones University for years, implicitly supported soft racism. I take particular umbrage at this one since I'm half-Asian. Bob Jones University would also go on to have some serious implications in sexual abuse and assault as well that the current administration is politicking: but the damage is done. Everyone has their warts, and many of the big Fundy U's featured here (Biola, MBI, Gordon, Wheaton, Bob Jones, and Liberty) have tried to shed theirs off in the recent years - but at what cost? My Christianity was seriously stunted by being involved in the constituent milieu of many of these institutions (Bob Jones and Pensacola). Yet incongruously, there was much good accomplished - I was rescued by the Gospel, and because of that, I'll be forever thankful for this quirky tradition within the larger stream of evangelicalism. I fully believe that was in spite of the culture, not because of it. But this doesn't excuse the damage done. If you want an education - these aren't the institutions to eat from. If you want Christianity - unless you can find a good church, even if it apart of these particular constituencies - these aren't the institutions to drink from. Go to a real university. Go find a good church that preaches Christ crucified and is serious about inculcating their faith to you and the following generations.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Reid Mccormick

    “…an evangelical Christian community of disciples and scholars who seek to advance the work of God…” “...a University that fosters wisdom, faith and service through excellent academic programs within a Christ-centered community.” “...liberal arts community serving God's kingdom by cultivating thoughtful scholars...” These are just a few snippets from some school mission statements I have worked for in my career. They are heavy and quite wordy, but they all say the same thing: the Christian faith is “…an evangelical Christian community of disciples and scholars who seek to advance the work of God…” “...a University that fosters wisdom, faith and service through excellent academic programs within a Christ-centered community.” “...liberal arts community serving God's kingdom by cultivating thoughtful scholars...” These are just a few snippets from some school mission statements I have worked for in my career. They are heavy and quite wordy, but they all say the same thing: the Christian faith is the foundation of our school. Writing a verbose mission statement is one thing, executing your mission statement is an entirely different thing. Why is it so difficult? Simply put, Christian institutions have a hard time defining what “Christian faith” means. Fundamentalist U by Adam Laats is a unifying work on disunity. Christian universities were mainly built on a foundation of disagreements, be it a disagreement with a specific doctrine, a disagreement with modern education, or a disagreement on the direction of American culture. The heart of Christian higher education is built upon a sense of rebellion. As whole, the history of Christian higher education has been better defined by it antagonistic ideals than it Christian ideals Laats layouts the rocky history of fundamentalist schools such a Bob Jones University, Moody Bible Institute, Biola University and the like. Each school faced a near continuous line of criticisms from students, alumni, donors, church leaders, faculty and even other administrators. With every criticism, schools had to double down on their holy image. Administrators condemned alcohol, sex, dancing, playing cards, going to the movies, and (at many times) thinking independently. As society shifted and culture changed, Christian schools were slow to change. Their rebellious nature taught them to only to be reactive and never proactive. I have lived and breathed Christian higher education for over a decade and half now. I am in the trenches of these fights. I think someone from the outside would be amazed that Christian higher education has been so successful for so long when the foundation seems so shaky. Thus I think this book could have benefitted from a little more positive conversation. A lot has gone wrong, but what has gone right? I really enjoyed this book. It was a great history lesson and I think it is vital to understand this history.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy Gardiner

    What a fantastic and fair book on the history of Fundamentalism in Christian education. It provides an in-depth look from the 1920's to the modern day of schools like Gordon-Conwell, Moody Bible (where I am a student), Bob Jones, Biola, Wheaton, and Liberty. He touches on other schools too like DTS but those six have a more prominent focus. Some of my takeaways are that Creationism has always been a forefront issue. I found it funny hearing about the battle with evolution from the 1920's-1960's a What a fantastic and fair book on the history of Fundamentalism in Christian education. It provides an in-depth look from the 1920's to the modern day of schools like Gordon-Conwell, Moody Bible (where I am a student), Bob Jones, Biola, Wheaton, and Liberty. He touches on other schools too like DTS but those six have a more prominent focus. Some of my takeaways are that Creationism has always been a forefront issue. I found it funny hearing about the battle with evolution from the 1920's-1960's and realizing nothing has changed. I also learned that Fundamentalism has always been involved in politics (the "Christian Right" under Falwell wasn't new--a myth he substantiates). I especially hearing an academic, non-Christian take on some of our darker history with authoritarian control (especially Bob Jones) and racial segregation. Learned a lot, and was reminded how watchful we must be because of how easy it is to turn cultural issues into theological positions.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ben Vance

    A very in depth read of a fascinating slice of an American subculture. Fundamentalist colleges and universities are an almost parallel world with a fairly large influence on the US. The author has very detailed notes on the positions and changes to most fundamentalist school from their foundation to the 1980’s. Along the way he cover the change to neo evangelicalism and how the conservative movement in general deals with cultural changes. One of the best books I’ve read on fundamentalism and eva A very in depth read of a fascinating slice of an American subculture. Fundamentalist colleges and universities are an almost parallel world with a fairly large influence on the US. The author has very detailed notes on the positions and changes to most fundamentalist school from their foundation to the 1980’s. Along the way he cover the change to neo evangelicalism and how the conservative movement in general deals with cultural changes. One of the best books I’ve read on fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Taylor

    An excellent historical review of the original cancel culture: fundamentalist colleges.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kendra Morgan

    Reads like a text book.

  16. 4 out of 5

    William

  17. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Cheresnick

  18. 4 out of 5

    Josh Hinen

  19. 4 out of 5

    John

  20. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Russell

  21. 4 out of 5

    Austin Steelman

  22. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

  23. 5 out of 5

    Anna Marten

  24. 5 out of 5

    Eric Miller

  25. 5 out of 5

    David

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jason

  27. 4 out of 5

    Laurie Gold

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tyler

  29. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

  30. 5 out of 5

    Carol

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