Southwestern Seventh-day Adventist University president Eric Anderson presented this message to Walla Walla University graduates in June 2010. Some elements of the oral presentation have been retained.—Editors.
How many recent graduation talks have gone something like this?
“Graduates, you are unique—and your educational experience has been unlike that of all previous generations. You have received something called a ‘twenty-first-century education.’ This education is different from all forms of education in the irrelevant past. We now understand, you see, that most of what you have learned will be obsolete in three years.”
I deny these common assertions.
I believe that the fundamental goals of education are not changed by the passage of time or the invention of new technology or even broader access to schooling. The process of producing a research paper, it is true, is more convenient in 2010 than it once was, but writing itself remains an intense and demanding art. The existence of the Internet, while speeding up some kinds of research, does not change the basic challenge of testing sources or synthesizing a wide range of evidence.
At its heart, in its central truths, university education in this century is not totally different from education in the Middle Ages or the eighteenth century or the ancient world. Today’s democratic education and democratic society are more thoroughly open to merit than ever before, of course, but education still asks recurring core questions: What is justice? When is it right to rebel? Are all men created equal? Is anything worth dying for? What is beautiful?
The questions are still compelling—and that’s why we ought to study the apostle Paul and Plato and Augustine and Shakespeare and Thomas Jefferson. This is not the knowledge that becomes obsolete in three years.
I have recently returned from taking a group of Southwestern University honors students on a study tour of Greece. The books we read, the art we studied, the old churches we visited were all intensely relevant to genuine “twenty-first-century education.” To choose just one example, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War might sound superfluous to 2010. But our students found the story of Athens’ defeat by Sparta to be full of perceptive observations on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy, the continuities of human nature, and the role of character in leadership. None of those insights is likely to lose its power
A Never-ending Process
Over the years I’ve discovered that education—my education—means returning to the books and ideas that I didn’t fully understand the first time. It means wrestling again with difficult concepts that had been over my head. Education, I’ve discovered, involves finding more of the truth. It’s a process that never ends.
A former student once wrote me a note thanking me for my teaching, but adding ruefully, “I did not take full advantage of it.” He said, “I wish I had grasped the moment handed to me.” Regretting that he had not pushed himself harder, this bright young man said that I was teaching him even when he was not listening.
Perhaps none of us was really listening the first time around.
In my senior year in college, for example, I read a book entitled The Idea of a University by the brilliant Victorian thinker John Henry Newman. (You may remember Newman as a famous convert to Catholicism and the author of the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light.”) I pulled out my book review of The Idea of a University the other day, noted Professor John Waller’s red “B+” at the top of the page, and reread what I had written. With lofty confidence I had closed my review by accusing Newman of being “a little naive” for believing in the cultivating and refining effects of education.
Since then I have turned back to Newman’s book several times, each time seeing how weak my college understanding was. Today I would say that, far from being “naive,” Newman was ruthlessly realistic. By itself, a university education does not have the power, according to Newman, “to make men better.” Deep understanding, breadth of knowledge, careful analysis—all those things we associate with “liberal education” (or the training of free citizens)—were not the same as virtue, he said.
Gentlemen, Not Christians
“Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another,” Newman wrote. “Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, . . . but the gentleman.”
In Newman’s day, of course, the word “gentleman” actually meant something. (He would have been mystified by the way the word is often used today, as in “I caught this gentleman robbing a liquor store.”) A gentleman, according to Newman, had “a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life.” As important as these traits are, they are “no guarantee for sanctity,” and may, indeed, be associated with an irresponsible or heartless person.
The Catholic and the Adventist
Newman, in short, said something that was deeper than I realized back in 1970. In one respect, of course, his assertions might be controversial for a Seventh-day Adventist audience. Ellen G. White’s philosophy of education taught that true education must take into account eternal life. The right sort of education, she taught, had the power, in fact, to produce Christians and not just gentlemen.
It’s possible, however, to exaggerate the difference between White and Newman. Both agreed that what was left out of the standard definition of education was of eternal importance. Each affirmed that choosing Christ and “partaking of the divine nature” were more important than mere refinement. The Catholic and the Adventist knew that the articulate, well-informed, cultivated person prized by educators might well lose his soul.
Explaining the Paradox
The achievements that we celebrate today are not directly based on your spiritual maturity, your acceptance of the teachings of Christianity, or signs of the steady illumination of your life by the Holy Spirit. How can we explain this paradox: we say that the restoration of God’s image in us is the ultimate object of our kind of education, but we grade and evaluate and distribute prizes as if the only goal were creating Newman’s liberally educated “gentlemen” (of either gender and any class).
The reason we grade on important but secondary matters is that students’ freedom matters to us. Although Adventist universities and colleges have clear and distinctive commitments, it does not follow that they may indoctrinate; that is, tell students only one side of the story and reward them for agreeing with us.
There is another sense in which educators cannot grade students on these truly primary matters. For one thing, their education is not over at graduation.
The Cure for Skepticism
Ten years from now, let us admit, some members of the Class of 2010 will no longer be Seventh-day Adventists, or Christians of any kind. In many cases you may conclude that lost idealism, ebbing faith, and failed love are just a part of the process of maturing—what might be called the collateral damage of growing up.
That’s a familiar story line. We have met it in many novels and movies and autobiographies: an innocent believer faces a complex dilemma or a shocking new idea or overwhelming evidence and becomes an agnostic. We know that narrative.
But all around us there is another story—the thousands of unbelievers who change their minds and become believers, people who in the face of new evidence or additional experience choose to bow the knee to Jesus. In the wry words of C. S. Lewis, himself a “reluctant convert” who moved from atheism to Christian faith: “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”
In this story line the cure for skepticism is sometimes more skepticism. In dealing with dogmatic
Darwinians or cocky materialists or absolute moral relativists, the beginning of wisdom is sometimes to say, “Are you sure?” In this narrative, faith grows from doubting the world’s certainties.
Even as they pray for you, your teachers and mentors must wait to see what choices you will make over the next few years. The most accurate spiritual grade they could give you now is probably an Incomplete.
Before that Incomplete can be removed you will need to learn one central insight: understanding cannot be separated from participation. Educated people learn to analyze ideas, to debate interpretations, and to discover context. But that is not enough. At some point we must ask, “Is it true?” then act.
Not a Spectator Sport
As Robert Louis Wilken recently wrote in his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God: “In matters of religion, the way to truth is not found in keeping one’s distance.” Entering “the mystery of God,” according to this eminent historian of early Christianity, involves “loving surrender.” “It is only in giving that we receive, only in loving that we are loved, only in obeying that we know.”
Being a Christian, in short, cannot be a spectator sport. Knowledge of God is not “knowledge from a distance.” To quote the surprising and luminous words Wilken set down in the middle of this scholarly book published by Yale University Press: “Unless we invest ourselves in the object of our love, we remain voyeurs and spectators, curiosity seekers, incapable of receiving because we are unwilling to give.”
If your faith is to be a living thing, you must move from analysis to participation. To change the metaphor, a person must stop reading cookbooks and menus and actually “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).
When—or if—you reach this point, you will understand the title of this talk: “In Thy Light We See Light.” Several schools have adopted the Latin version of this phrase as their motto, but these words from Psalm 36 could be the motto of any Christian college. “In Thy Light We See Light” says that Jesus Christ should be the organizing principle of our learning, the Light that shows us all other light.
As the apostle Paul wrote in that lyrical hymn in Colossians 1: “In him everything in heaven and on earth was created, not only things visible but also the invisible orders of thrones, sovereignties, authorities, and powers: the whole universe has been created through him and for him. . . . All things are held together in him” (verse 16, NEB).*
Many of you have already glimpsed this truth, the vision of “In Thy Light We See Light.” But if that vision does not apply to you, I am praying that it may yet do so. Your education is not finished.
*Texts credited to NEB are from The New English Bible. The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970. Reprinted by permission.
Eric Anderson is president of Southwestern Seventh-day Adventist University in Keene, Texas. This article was published October 21, 2010.