Culture Friday: Advice for Christian colleges

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Well, it’s Friday, the 20th of April. This is The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

It’s Culture Friday and time to welcome John Stonestreet. John is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

John, good morning.


John, last week we heard and talked about the bombshell testimony when Facebook’s founder submitted to questions from Congress.

But I want to play an exchange that I think didn’t receive enough attention last week. It’s Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. And he asks about internet addiction among teenagers.

Listen to this exchange. Senator Sasse asks several questions of Mark Zuckerberg:

BEN SASSE: I’d like to talk a little bit about social media addiction. As a dad, do you worry about social media addiction as a problem for America’s teens?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: To your point about teens, this is certainly something that I think any parent thinks about is how much do you want your kids using technology it at Facebook specifically I’ve, our responsibility is not just building services that people like, but building services that are good for people and good for society as well.

So we study a lot of effects of well-being, of our, of our tools and broader technology. And you know, like any tool, um, there are good and bad uses of it. What we find in general is that if you’re using social media in order to build relationships, right, so you’re sharing content with friends, you’re interacting, then that is associated with all of the long-term measures of well-being that you would intuitively think of long term health, long-term happiness, long-term feeling connected, feeling less lonely.

But if you’re using the Internet and social media primarily to just passively consume content and you’re not engaging with other people   doesn’t have those positive effects. And it could be negative.

SASSE: I want to ask you one more: Do social media companies hire consulting firms to help them figure out how to get more dopamine feedback loops so that people don’t want to leave the platform?

ZUCKERBERG: No, senator, that’s not how we talk about this or or how we set up our product teams. We want our products to be valuable to people and if they’re valuable, then people will choose to use them.

SASSE: Are you aware of other social media companies that do hire such consultants?

ZUCKERBERG: Not sitting here today.

EICHER: Well, as I said, last week it was all about privacy and politics, but Mark Zuckerberg’s answer was interesting. I’m not prepared to believe that hours and hours of sharing content, as he says, to build relationships is healthy. But Zuckerberg does seem to concede that just passive consumption of social-media content could be negative.

That’s quite a concession. What do you think?

STONESTREET: Well, I think it’s actually something we’ve seen from numerous reports of the Mark Zuckerberg world, ya know, basically Silicon Valley elites who don’t let their own kids consume social media at the rate that — or other forms of online screen life like they hope that other kids will.

It’s kind of the basically, ya know, we talk about not practicing what they preach, they don’t preach what they practice. It’s the exact opposite. 

So, I mean, I think it is amazing that they really understand this. They really realize what’s going on and that there’s really brain rewiring that’s taking place, there’s a little bit of everything.

In fact, that’s what we talked about, I think, last week when we talked about how Facebook’s power right now to shape culture. And, of course, there are others. I mean, teenagers today really aren’t on Facebook. They’re on other forms of social media. But when it comes to people staring at screens, using all their leisure time, which some sociologists think is the biggest indicator of the health of a culture is what we do with leisure to mindlessly scroll — this is not a problem just for teenagers. It’s a problem for adults and that’s why social media has been such a powerful culture-shaping force in our world.

I think one of the individuals that I’ve really read a lot on this and I think everyone should – particularly if you’re a parent – is Sherry Turkle from MIT who’s been watching kind of the — what technology, particularly internet technology, has done to us for 30 years and she’s reached that point now where the optimism that she had in her early part of her career is now gone and she’s really quite pessimistic on what it does — especially our ability to have authentic human relationships.

To the extent that so much of our relationships are now artificial, not authentic. They’re mediated relationships, there are even artificial intelligence relationships. I mean, think about the number of interactions we have with Siri or Alexa compared to, ya know, or compared to the amount of interactions we have with our own children every day. Suddenly these numbers are getting, I think, too close for comfort.

Let’s switch gears, John, and let’s talk about Christian colleges. You discussed this in a recent Breakpoint.

I saw a report about the recent conference of the CCCU, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The report talked about a packed out off-the-record session titled, “Is Government Funding Replaceable?”

Now the reason that’s a potential issue here is that with government funding comes government strings. Case in point: The previous administration’s position on sex discrimination law. The definition got stretched, to include transgender rights, LGBT priorities. The Trump administration reversed that.

But all it takes is an election and that reversal can be reversed back. There are some storm clouds on the horizon for Christian schools, and now’s the time to talk about it.

So what’s your advice to those schools, to those who may attend them, to those who help to fund them?

STONESTREET: This is precisely the time when higher education in America is showing somewhere between cracks in the foundation and huge fault lines that are unsustainable. 

So the crisis that CCCU or other Christian colleges are facing – and it’s a real crisis – is happening at the same time where the opportunity has never been greater. Where there is a big hole happening in terms of our culture has lost its place for robust debate, real education, the pursuit of wisdom in all the classical senses. We don’t have a culture anymore where this stuff is possible and this is precisely the time when CCCU students are struggling. Now, they’re struggling — my argument is they’re struggling because of pressure from without and within. The pressure from without is exactly what you said. It’s the strings attached. Now, some schools have made that decision. Hillsdale, Grove City, to untether themselves from any sort of funding and I think that helps for awhile. You will have these kind of activist local legislatures that start kind of forcing transgender rights, bathrooms, and things like that on all institutions — is, of course, what happened in North Carolina with Charlotte. There wasn’t religious exemptions in any of these laws. Anyway, you just have that. That’s a constant threat.

Most colleges right now– the margins are so thin. I mean, if you’re a Wheaton you have an endowment. Most schools don’t have it. Most schools are tuition driven. The margins for failure are almost, ya know, miniscule.

But as you said the federal stuff could come back with a fury and it could come back within two-to-three years and the math problems aren’t going to be any easier in terms of funding. So what happens?

So you’ve got pressure from without, you got pressure from within and you’ve got a context in which higher education is failing and Christian institutions have an unbelievable potential.

And, yeah, where do we go forward? I think we go forward, first of all, with clarity. What makes us Christian needs to make us Christian unapologetically. We’re going to be able to offer what the world needs in terms of robust debates. And when we do that, when we provide those kind of clear goods then I think the money will flow from vision. Right now I think you’ve got a lot of churches that aren’t willing to support institutions because they’ve seen that sort of fuzziness and they’re not happy about it.

So, last Thing I will say is thank God there are some educational leaders like David Dockery at Trinity and others who have — who are weathering these storms and are providing clear leadership and make people listen. Because otherwise the Christian colleges that have these wonderful opportunities aren’t going to be worth funding to begin with. But those that are are worth funding and we should get behind them.

John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. John, thanks so much. We’ll talk to you next time.

STONESTREET: Thanks, Nick.

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