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Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education

Perry L. Glanzer and Todd C. Ream. Palgrave Macmillan. 2009. 275 pp.

The key argument of this book proceeds as follows: Each individual has many identities, and these identities are linked by a guiding identity or meta-identity, which helps to give meaning and purpose to one’s lived existence (p. 25) and which helps to order other identities in one’s life. In times of identity conflict, it is the meta-identity that guides the individual to choose the identity to which she is most loyal; for example, she may view her identity as a citizen, professional, family member, or religious devotee as the most valued identity.1

Meta-narratives of moral traditions (in stories, histories, myths, and so on) help to shape moral identity by means of their influence on what qualities, virtues, and beliefs the person thinks would make up the ideal self. In other words, the meaning of character virtues is closely connected to one’s moral orientation, which is a fundamental aspect of human identity. Thus, the formation of human identity, and the meta-narratives that influence this formation, is crucial for moral education, argue Glanzer and Ream.

Despite the importance of human identity formation, university administrators and faculty generally do not focus on this type of identity formation because these leaders cannot agree on the crucial but often elusive aspects that define human identity and what it means to be a good human being. Instead, institutions, on the whole, focus on those aspects that define the more restricted identities (on which they can agree): for example, an expert professional, a productive citizen, a trained biologist, or a knowledgeable historian. University leaders and faculty can also largely agree on what specific values, methods, and role models can aid students in their development of these narrower forms of identity. In turn, the majority of universities have shifted away from what the authors refer to as “fully human approaches to moral education,” which were a central focus of education institutions in the past. The approaches included those policies, curricula, and practices whose purpose is to help students to become good human beings (p. 20).

However, although universities’ intentional focus may not be on the cultivation of human identity with a decidedly moral dimension, education never takes place wholly apart from a particular tradition and set of values. Thus, universities represent traditional and cultural mores that influence curricular and co-curricular choices, and in turn, educational institutions cannot avoid promoting a specific “moral order or way of shaping our social world” (p. 17), nor can they avoid helping to “shape the moral identities of students” (p. 94). This unavoidable shaping of moral identities is due to the fact that educational institutions have invariably their own meta-identities.

Intuitional identities are formed as a result of their close connection to social and scholarly communities and larger societies that influence their history, traditions, and purpose. As a result, the institution is an important guardian and conveyor of particular world views and narratives which help to further specific aims.

For example, Glanzer and Ream point to the moral assumptions that underlie liberal individualism. In the university young people encounter various worldviews and outlooks that purport to portray (implicitly and explicitly) characteristics of a successful life. Like seeking romantic partners in causal dating relationships, students may try out one moral option and then another. All may be considered equally ranked in value, and any option demands no more commitment than another. This attitude that commitment to any set of particular principles is not necessary conveys the idea that moral commitment is not important enough to be a major focus of one’s life, and in turn, such an attitude influences students’ moral orientation and identity.

Furthermore, as the purposes of approaches and their identity contexts become more specific—such as those approaches whose aim is teaching young people to become good citizens or neighbors—identity formation approaches become less and less “fully human.”  For example, if the overall institutional goal is to produce  good citizens, the institution’s guiding narrative conveys to students specific knowledge, values, and types of role models that define what the institution considers to be the ideal citizen. However, when the resources and efforts of institutions are not explicitly devoted to individuals becoming good human beings as well (a much broader and encompassing identity), what results is that the institutions reduce one’s understanding of “humanity” only to “citizenship” and doing so communicates that citizenship should be each individual’s “first love” (p. 110). This reduction of the scope of humanity conveys the message that the most prized worth of any student is based on her service to the state, and as a consequence, the institution devalues other aspects of lived experience, such as religious or familial aspects, which exist outside the meta-narrative associated with this guiding meta-identity.

The most basic and common forms of identity formation approaches in higher education include helping to teach young people to become successful students and good professionals, aiding them in making appropriate vocational choices, and guiding them in the intellectual and ethical development needed for one’s occupation. While these types of identity formation are necessary for educating young people to succeed in various vocational aspects of their lives, educational institutions that promote only these forms of identity formation fail to address the many different aspects of human experience. As a result, universities communicate to students that an educated and successful person’s meta-identity is, e.g., prosperous professional or productive scholar—not good human being, and thus that all other identities are subsumed under the professional or scholar guiding identity.

Hence, the authors emphasize that the issue upon which educators should focus is not “whether colleges and universities should promote moral ideals beyond professional standards [which is unavoidable], but what identity, narrative, or tradition should give shape and focus to those ideals” (p. 112). The authors argue that higher education leaders and faculty should make choices about policies, programs, and curricula based on a deep appreciation of the rich and complex concept of human flourishing that would result in offering a wide scope of human approaches—(p. 3), with moral identity being an essential aspect of helping to shape the human identity of students.

For Glanzer and Ream, universities perpetuate moral identities already (such as educating good citizens, successful professionals, or athletic competitors) by doing the following things:

  • Telling narratives that inspire and shape views about ends
  • Teaching skills or virtues acquired by habitation and refined through critical thinking and practice
  • Transmitting rules, general principles and wisdom
  • Cultivation of the above by studying role models, listening to mentors, continual practice, and communal participation in those things associated with the perfection of the functional identity;
  • Teaching the learner to think critically and independently about his or her performance in light of all of the above. (p. 21)

According to the authors, universities can help to encourage a much richer cultivation of human identity by creating and supporting the establishment of smaller communities that reinforce character values. Thus teaching ethical decision-making should not be restricted to academic programs and practices. These sorts of communities or initiatives are common in co-curricular and student affairs programs and practices in secular universities, but the crucial connection to a particular social identity and moral tradition is often lacking. In light of this gap, the authors propose an integration model that emphasizes the need for students to acquire the necessary critical thinking skills to analyze their own and other moral traditions on the basis of a particular moral orientation. The educational institution can aid students’ intellectual development by providing the means for them to have a greater understanding and appreciation of their own particular moral beliefs, traditions, and practices, as well as to obtain a basic grasp of other prevailing moral traditions. Not to do so, argue Glanzer and Ream, is “to stunt . . . intellectual growth” (p. 162).

In the final portion of their book, the authors speak directly to administrators, faculty, and others interested in Christian higher education. They present ways that various Christian traditions can provide context to the moral orientation of Christian institutions, and zero in on institutions they consider to exemplify these traditions, based on their empirical study. The purpose of their empirical study was to identify Christian colleges and universities that endorse specific kinds of moral knowledge and are committed in their programs, policies, practices, curricula, and co-curricular to a particular “vision of the good life” (p. 132).

Glanzer and Ream surveyed 156 Christian colleges and universities associated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and the Lilly Fellows programs. The authors selected these institutions for their study because Lindholm et al. (2005), and Sax et al. (1999) indicated that the faculty of these institutions supported encouragement of moral education, and Kuh (2002)  indicated that these institutions had substantial success with moral education outcomes. Out of the 156 schools, 64 were noted in Colleges that Encourage Character Development(Templeton, 1999).

Glanzer and Ream identified five means for determining that educational institutions significantly value moral education in their practices and promotion:

  • clear moral mission;
  • the prevalence of appeals to moral ideals in marketing the school;
  • the integration of ethics into the curricular realm;
  • the integration of ethical ideals and language into the co-curricular realm; and
  • an integration of efforts being made in the curricular and co-curricular realms. (p. 133)

Based on information they gathered from examining such resources as academic catalogs, admissions materials, and student handbooks, they selected nine schools out of the 156 that they concluded most indicated an inclusive attentiveness to moral education: Bethel University in Minnesota, Calvin College, Eastern Mennonite University, George Fox University, St. Olaf College, Seattle Pacific University, University of Dallas, the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and Xavier University in Ohio (p. 133).

Following this identification of the nine institutions, the authors visited each school to interview site leaders who could explain in more specific ways that their institutions were committed to students’ moral development. The leaders typically included the chief academic officer and student development officer, as well as the officers in charge of general education, residence life, student discipline, and religious life.

Based on the information they gathered from their studies, the authors provide suggestions for ways by which Christian colleges and universities can improve their moral mission, programs, practices, and curricula. These suggestions are closely tied to the formation of the identity of the whole person and is the central focus in the Christian concept of the fall and redemption of human beings. Thus, the institution, the student, and human identity are bound together in the meta-narrative of the Christian story that the authors argue should pervade all aspects of the Christian campus setting.

. . .

Glanzer and Ream challenge institutions and organizations to prove that their primary focus is on the moral development of students. The authors’ five sources of evidence indicating that colleges and universities “take moral education seriously” (p. 133)—as noted above—provide a proposed starting point for schools to create specific goals and indicators to guide them in this mission. These criteria also offer a basis for researchers, parents, students, and others interested in students’ moral development to compare and contrast institutional efforts to promote moral education practices. Readers interested in specific programs and practices in moral education can learn more about such initiatives by reading the section on the nine schools selected for in-depth study.

The historical account of moral education in colleges and universities in the first sections of the book is a good beginning source for students, faculty, and administrators to use for tracing the shift of institutional roles of those responsible for students’ moral education. This shift from faculty and administrators to student affairs leaders parallels the emerging profession of student development in higher education.

The authors take to task contemporary research in student development theory. Glanzer and Ream offer students and faculty in higher education the opportunity to look at the pros and cons of the claims made by researchers in developmental psychology such as Kohlberg and Perry, which may often be taken as given in today’s higher education departments and programs and, therefore, not challenged enough. In addition, the authors closely examine the arguments of popular writers on education such as Derek Bok and Stanley Fish. The comparison and contrast of the ideas of these writers with the thoughts of prominent philosopher Alastair McIntyre elucidate as well as add depth to the conversation surrounding the topics Bok and Fish discuss.

The authors also emphasize the need for open, informed dialogue among university leaders and faculty representing various colleges and universities where honesty, tolerance, and sincere interest in others’ ideas (that may contrast considerably with one’s own) can promote profound learning opportunities and growth, as well as amicable communication instead of isolation and mistrust.

While there is much to commend about Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education, I would like to have seen some critical analysis of the authors’ use of Christian identity. The authors argue that reducing one’s citizenship to one’s primary moral identity can be very dangerous. Glanzer, for example, has studied and written about the potential dangers of government dominance in the everyday lives of individuals (Glanzer, 2002). The authors use the term “sinister realities” (p. 111) to refer to laws that purport to insure that universities (such as the University of South Carolina School of Law) do not use tax dollars to establish one religious view over another (pp. 111-112). The authors might have provided more discussion about the “sinister realities” that can result from religious indoctrination as well.

For example, while the authors recommend that institutions encourage students to “take their own or even a foreign moral tradition and analyze it with the paradigm of another tradition,”  using critical thinking skills (p. 161) and that commitment to a particular tradition should always make room for students’ doubts, I am interested in knowing if students feel free to abandon their Christian identity in the institutions that Glanzer and Ream extol. The authors use an interesting metaphor when they describe ways in which persons of non-Christian identities might be treated. Those who do not profess a similar faith of the Christian institution such as potential faculty are house “guests” (p. 194) and are treated hospitably, but would not be taken into the fold as family (e.g., hired to teach there). For students and faculty who attend such institutions to feel authentic freedom and to be able to engage in real critical evaluation, they must have the freedom to challenge and possibly even abandon their Christian identity. Do the authors account for such freedom in their recommendation that institutions be a place of genuine freedom and dialogue? This question is not addressed as clearly as it might have been.

Finally, the authors praise universities such as Bethel University in Minnesota that strive to “value human life in all of its diversity and fullness,” “view racism and sexism as sinful and reflective of some of the most harmful aspects of our culture,” and “abstain from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, age and disability” (p. 145); however, the authors do not discuss issues relating to sexual orientation. Student affairs organizations have primary initiatives such as a knowledge community (NASPA) or standing committee (ACPA) on LGBT awareness, rights, programs, and so on. As a consequence, I would like to have read how the Christian meta-narrative  as  presented in the authors’ chapter, “A More Humane Christian  Education,” treats this important, as well as pervasive topic in contemporary college life.

. . .

According to the authors, scholars in the field of higher education and developmental psychology makeup one group of the intended audience of Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education, and in the last sections of the book, as noted earlier, the authors particularly speak to administrators and faculty of Christian colleges and universities. A wider range of intended audience includes scholars and students in various fields with interest in the ongoing dialogue of what it means to be a human being. I hope that those in the fields of higher education, moral education, Christian education, and student affairs, as well as others, will recognize that Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education makes a significant contribution to the ongoing debate concerning the meaning and purpose of a moral education. College professors and instructors whose goal is to educate future leaders in higher education to think critically about reasons for—as well as the place of—moral education in colleges and universities should consider using this book as a required text of their program curricula. The authors’ careful analyses and descriptions as well as the wide range of resources from which they draw have added much to my knowledge in the field of moral development and higher education—and I recommend that others take advantage of the opportunity  to read the book by these accomplished authors as well.


Glanzer, P. L (2002).  The quest for Russia’s soul: Evangelicals and moral education in post-Communist Russia. Waco, TXBaylor University Press.

John Templeton Foundation, Ed. (1999) Colleges that encourage character development. Radnor, PA: John Templeton Foundation.

Kuh, G. (2000). Do environments matter? A comparative analysis of the impression of different types of colleges and universities on character. Journal of College and Character 1(4), 1-14.

Lindholm, J. A., Szeleny, K., Hurtado, S., & Korn, W. S. (2005). The American college teacher: National norms for the 2004-2005 HERI faculty survey. Los Angeles: Higher EducationResearch Institute.

Sartre, J. (2001). Being and nothingness. (H. E.  Barnes, Trans. ). New York: Citadel Press.

Sax, L., Astin, A., Korn, W. & Gilmartin, S. (1999) The American college teacher: National norms for the 1998-1999 HERI  faculty survey. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.

Tillich, P. (2000). The courage to be. New Haven: Yale University Press.

1An interesting task for researchers might be to compare and contrast the meta-identity, which Glanzer and Ream describe, with Sarte’s “original project” (Sartre, 2001) and Tillich’s “ultimate Concern” (Tillich, 2000).