Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Morning Joe—rather late in the afternoon: Re-imagination

The following is the first of three entries--three parts of a reflection on the state of Christian higher education as well as some ideas about next steps. This first entry is a kind of prologue to what follows.

Prologue: Thinking out loud about the state of Christian higher education:

I’ve been passionately involved in the “business” of Christian (and church-related) higher education as student, full time and adjunct professor, and administrator since 1962. The best years of my life and a considerable amount of my energy have been given to this good and worthy cause. I think about education in general and Christian higher education a great deal. I want to write about it now. I hope that persons reading this—who might share my passion—will allow an older (although questionably wiser) colleague to speak a little more into the ongoing discussion around the future of the family business. For those of you who know me, you know how much I love this calling and how powerful it has been in my formation as a human and a teacher who aspires to follow of Jesus. I don’t even want to think how different my life might have been without Christian higher education—and the people who radically changed my life, again and again. I care about it and I think we are at a place of hope and danger, a place of rich and wondrous paradox: a place that has may be perilously close to losing its potential.

(I think I need to say in way of disclaimer that most of those years have been spent in one place—Warner Pacific College, Portland, Oregon. I’m an alumnus and have served WPC as teacher, dean of students, and provost, among other roles. I am retired now but continuing to work as an adjunct professor in the humanities—in traditional as well as on ground and on line adult degree programs. But I have not served only there and have had occasion to teach or consult at other places, principally the other colleges, universities, and seminary of the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana—the movement that has had a long and suspicious relationship with its churches. I have colleagues at each of them and others.)

What I want to speak into is potential. I have a deep and abiding faith in the ability of caring, thoughtful and committed persons to address, resolve, and rebuild. When we don’t, it is not because of inability; it is because of a lack of imagination and hope. Not too long ago in a faculty meeting, the word “re-imagine” popped out of my mouth. It suddenly seemed the right word, so I said it. Then, I asked myself, what in the heck does that mean? I’ve been ruminating on that since. Here are some Random Observations and Questions about re-imagining the future of Christian higher education.

• Before that question about re-imagining can be answered, I think we need to think about the context in which it can take place. I suppose if there’s any significant way my years of teaching and working in the life of the church have changed me, it is that I have become even more committed to the essential truth of relationships—that is, relationships in which we grow ever more into knowing each other. I don’t think we can really re-imagine anything, at least not well, if we don’t know each other and, I suspect, in Christian higher education, in general, we know each other not well, certainly less well than we might. Certainly, not well enough to trust each other with our deepest thoughts and fears and loves. Certainly, not well enough to abandon our passive aggressiveness. Without that trust, hope is hard and the possibility that our hopes, thoughts and dreams will be realized or our fears lessened is diminished.

• When I teach the humanities courses I am assigned from time to time, I ask my students, “What kind of a world do you want to live in—and what are you willing to do/be to make it happen?” I think we need to be willing to ask that kind of question about Christian higher education—I think that is the door-opening question to re-imagination: What kind of community of learning do we want to teach in and what are we willing to do/be to make it happen? Can we create not only a community of learning but also a community of trust?

• At the heart of the mission of most schools in Christian higher education is an unstated assumption about what we teach and why we teach it. I think we often get stuck at some pretty superficial discussions about these questions simply because we don’t engage the unstated assumptions. We fall easily into discussions about what constitutes the right number of hours or how to divide the core or how many seat hours equal how many credits or how we fulfill national normalizing outcomes. While we can’t avoid those tasks, they should not define us. Instead I think we need to ask, in light of our missions, what do we really teach? Well, subjects, I guess; but certainly subjects are not the heart of it, are they? And, yes, we teach students—and we mustn’t forget them.

• But I don’t think it is about the courses or the majors; it’s more fundamental than either of those—as important as they are. It seems to me that an assumption of our mission statements and the way we talk about them is that what we are about is teaching how to live in the world. Subjects are finally a means to an end, right? In the context of our mission statements, especially those of who define ourselves as Christian and liberal arts colleges, can they ever be ends? If we can’t agree on this, there is no point in even beginning to consider how to re-imagine….

• The world of higher education is worried about mandates. We ask, “Whose mandates are these?” We ask, “Who says they are mandates?” We ask, “What makes them mandates?” We ask, “Are we being told, again, that this is what defines what I do in my classroom?” Frankly, I think that’s the fear factor at work. The truth, from my perspective, is that the reality of the world is our mandate—and our students’ need to live well in a world that seems more often against them than for them. Increasingly, it seems to me, our students aren’t getting it. I think they are so gobsmacked by the challenges of their lives that they often look more like deers in headlights than students. Of course there are exceptions and we all work so hard to light the light—and nothing is ever more satisfying or exciting than when a student lights up—but on some strategic level, many (most?) of our students really don’t know, on a personally meaningful level, why they are here—and ever fewer seem to care.

The certainty of the world I graduated into is gone and they know it. They are here often because they don’t know what else to do, where else to go, or because someone told them this is The Plan. It doesn’t seem really important to many of them and more than half doubt it value; our effort to reach out to them is valued but not always trusted. Leonard Cohen sings, “The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it’s overturned the order of the soul.” I think Yeats said it also when he said, “The center does not hold.” An old word—anomie—might be the right word.

You see, I think, the mandate is to re-imagine what we do, why we do it, and how—it is the mandate of the world and it is our mandate. The world demands it of us; the future is bleak without what we do. And I think that our students deserve it. We usually engage the challenge of our task with thoughtfulness, resolve, relationally, with love and imagination. The strategic planning documents that so dominate our lives and work often demonstrate our ability to rise to the occasion and the challenge. But I wonder how many of those plans are taken to heart and into our course and departmental planning—even into our classrooms and onto our syllabi?

• We need to answer these questions—“Who are our students?” “Why are they here?” We need to know them—not as numbers or scores or grades but as persons who actually, on some level, look to us with some glimmer of hope that we can help them make sense when there seems so little sense. How can we ever hope to light the fire if we have no sense of the kindling with which we work? (I think we also need to ask those same questions of ourselves.)


  1. As a father, I find that mandate to be very similar to the one I feel. Our colleges now trying to fill that gap left by parenting, and ever larger and growing gap for sure? A large mandate indeed! Perhaps it is embedded in the meaning of "how to live", but I would sharpen it to be "how to live and live powerfully in this world." I offer that in contrast to the impotent living done by all too many claiming to be child of the all-powerful and loving God. As my own son approaches college and we examine offerings, I note that neither secular nor Christian offer to impart life" to their students, at least not explicitly.

  2. Joseph, yes, you are right. It is not about staying alive; it is about abundant life--I think WPC offers that. I see it daily in the classes I teach, in the conversations around coffee and lunch tables, and in the writings of my students. It is what I want for my students--to live powerfully, as Jesus lived, in this world.