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How to Get a College Education

John Fea Teaches Messiah College Students

John Fea is up to his old habits: providing thought provoking posts that state things I’ve been thinking about in clearer, more concise language than I could. I’ve long been frustrated with students who seem to want to skate through Messiah College with the minimum their money can buy. They don’t want me to challenge their mathematical abilities, or ask them to think about connections between course material and faith. They especially tend to moan about their general education courses and the things they are asked to consider and debate there. They seem surprised that Messiah would expect them to think about ideas from perspectives other than their own. It seems to me that some of these students would have been happier going to a secular technical school where general education and the liberal arts would not have gotten in the way.

Personally, the Bible courses I took (I ended up one course short of a minor) were not good for my GPA, but they helped me to think more deeply and critically about my beliefs, and impacted the way I look at my specialty, Statistics. Fea joins me in the wondering in this week’s Patheos column:

Unfortunately, too many students today are unwilling to engage in the kind of risk-taking that is essential to education. Many Christian parents think that college is a place where “cherished beliefs” should be affirmed, not challenged. They want their children to have a four year experience in which they are told that everything they have ever believed about life, God, society, science, etc., is true.

Quite frankly, such an approach to college education baffles me. If this is what college is about, then what is the point? Why spend tens of thousands of dollars on an experience that will not stretch the mind? Students can participate on sports teams, make friends, have meaningful social experiences, find a spouse, play in the band, or learn certain specialized skills, and still not be educated. Why not just send your kids to a four-year Christian camp?

Please don’t misread me. The kind of transformative liberal arts education I am talking about here does not mean that students must always abandon their most cherished beliefs in order to be truly educated. This is why wisdom is so important to the process. While education certainly requires a willingness to “surrender ourselves for the sake of a better opinion,” wisdom, as Schwehn puts it, “is the discernment of when it is reasonable to do so.”

And therein lies the balance. To truly get an education and draw closer to a complete understanding of God’s work in the world, we must fully engage with other beliefs and ask for God’s Spirit to guide us into the Truth. This might be a painful process; I would be surprised if it wasn’t. This is often a long process. At least it has been for me. There have been many truths that God has been in a long process of bringing me to see. Maybe I’m just dense, but I doubt that this experience is unique. Many of the beliefs that I grew up with I still possess, but not all.

Another point here is that this might relate to the debate over the continuation of the faith. If we don’t teach our youth to process and evaluate truth in this way, they may come to think that all of their faith is a package, and that if they want to believe one competing claim, they must abandon all of their faith in the process. If we allow our kids to consider various perspectives, and see how every individual is responsible for their own faith, we might build more robust believers. This is part of discipleship, it seems to me. I want my kids to seek after God, and to learn to trust His Spirit to guide them. If they only every believe things because I tell them that they are true, I become an idol in their lives. This is not appropriate, and would be a huge failure on my part. If my kids grow up to pursue their relationship with God through the Messiah, Jesus, then I will have done my job, whether they follow all of my theology or not. I hope that my kids are blessed enough to study under professors as dedicated to this process as Fea is, if they decide that college is right for them.

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4 comments on “How to Get a College Education

  1. Thanks for the post, Sam. I was wondering where you got that picture. I’ve never seen it before.

  2. I think this is why I’m blessed by not going to a Mennonite seminary. Some folks, in my hearing, have expressed some veiled dismay that me, being a Mennonite and hoping to be a minister in the Mennonite church, are not getting an explicitly Mennonite/Anabaptist seminary training.

    I’ve learned a lot in my seminary years and, while my theology is probably not the “pure” Mennonite theology that some would like it to be, I think it has been stretched, strengthened, and enhanced by my time at Biblical Seminary (http://www.biblical.edu/ for any readers interested). In fact, I think I’ve found that my commitment to Anabaptist theology and ecclesiastical practice has actually deepened more than it would be at an Anabaptist seminary. I’ve learned about many different ways of thinking about and talking about Christianity from many different perspectives.

    I’ve not agreed with everything taught (just look at my Facebook posts about James Cone) but then Biblical doesn’t necessarily teach to agreement, so long as theology is carried out in a faithful seeking of Jesus and his Kingdom incarnated in this world.

    Education is not something that is handed to you on a silver platter. Teachers and professors are there not to just fill you up with facts, they are there to help you to learn not just new information but how to process new experiences and learn to make sense of the world around you. Especially in a world that is changing so rapidly, we cannot depend upon a “static” educational system any more. If all your teacher and professor do is give you facts, then you might as well just read a book.

    And if you don’t have anyone to expose you to new things, new ideas, new ways of looking at things, how are you going to be able to communicate and relate to people who don’t necessarily share your beliefs? How can you speak into the lives of the increasing number of agnostic, post-Christendom young people in the USA if you don’t know what it means to live that way? How can you learn to understand how an Asian immigrant experiences “American life” if you don’t hear it from them directly?

    Yeah, I complained about my Gen Ed in my days at Messiah… but I think I’m better off today for just that experience than I would be in your standard, narrowly defined classes.

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