Where conventional education deals with abstract and impersonal facts and theories, an education shaped by Christian spirituality draws us toward incarnate and personal truth.” — Parker Palmer, To Know As We Are Known, 14
I have always found the phrase, ‘the real world,’ both perplexing and damnable. It is perplexing because of all the worlds we may think we inhabit there is none more real than the one we all live and move and have our being in. And before the phone lines light up—yes, caller, I am aware of metaphors and analogies and similes. Still, the force with which those three words are usually hurled at someone—“Wait until you have to survive in the real world, then you’ll see!”— suggests the hurler believes the reality of this world transcends figures of speech.
The phrase is damnable because it cordons off a group of people, usually students, and then condemns them for being isolated from the world. The students I teach are well acquainted with the real world. Many of them hold two jobs, take a full load of classes, and care for a child. Some of them play sports in and out of state, while maintaining their classes and work. All of them know the depths of disappointment in striving oneself to weariness and still falling short of goals and expectations. So it is not a phrase I use on students in particular nor most people in general.
There’s no question that we are in the world; the real question is how we are to be in the world. For Christian teachers and students this is the central question they must answer every day.
Recently, I’ve had reason to question what the advantages of an Adventist Christian college education might be for a young person over one in a ‘secular’ college or university. This is a recurring question for me, a kind of diagnostic to be run in those times when the church as the body of Christ seems pocked with disease, to say nothing of being blind and lame.
It’s not in the buildings, the landscaping, the amenities, or the sports fields. Most North American Adventist colleges were built near the turn of the 19th century and cannot keep pace with state or even private college campus facilities. On the other hand, I’ve taught on a campus where some buildings pre-date the war—the First World War—and yet students and faculty cheerfully go about their days working around the charm of an infrastructure that was new not long after Oscar Wilde was released from the Reading Gaol.
It’s not in the endowments, the gifts outright, or the scholarships. Nor is it in the tuition rates, the sports teams, the residential halls, or the food service.
It’s not in the research facilities, the government and military contracts that bring in millions, nor in graduate assistantships and grants. Most Adventist college professors are too busy teaching four or five classes each semester, plus working on committees, and engaging in service to the college, the church, and the community, to do any research except that directly related to the teaching of their disciplines.
And it’s not even in the ‘star’ quality of the faculty, although many of the Adventist college professors I know could walk into any college classroom—from community college to Ivy League—and teach as well, if not better, than current professors.
Where it differs, sometimes dramatically, is in what Parker Palmer calls “a living and evolving community of creativity and compassion.” He goes on to say, “Education of this sort means more than teaching the facts and learning the reasons so we can manipulate life toward our ends. It means being drawn into personal responsiveness and accountability to each other and the world of which we are a part (To Know as We Are Known).”
That kind of community, one that draws in students, faculty, staff, and administration, takes time and nurture and care. It develops when the community weathers financial crises together, when difficult decisions about people, programs, and purposes must be made. It can only develop when there is trust and trustworthiness. And if it is formed in the crucible of hard times, it survives because “truth is not a concept that ‘works’ but an incarnation that lives. The ‘Word’ our knowledge seeks is not a verbal construct but a reality in history and the flesh (Palmer, 14).”
A community like that will not lack talent and expertise in its teachers. They are guided every day by the overwhelming desire to see their students become ‘thinkers and not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts.’
But a community like that is built up over time. It is not the result of data sets, market relevancy, or alignment with fleeting strategies. It comes about when people sacrifice for the purpose, gladly and well, because they know they are in this together.
If, as a leader, you should find yourself fortunate enough to belong to such a community, walk modestly and listen well. It can all be torn away in a day.