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Autumn 2006 | Volume 29, Number 4 | From the President

Beyond Intellectual Mastery

At SPU, a commitment to rigorous learning is not an end in itself

Why is it so much fun to learn about something? Learning of all sorts brings such joy and satisfaction to our lives, doesn’t it? There is something very profound and even mysterious about this deepest of human experiences.

President Eaton
President Eaton joins SPU students for lunch on campus. Higher education, argues Eaton, is about much more than shaping minds.

For the last few years, I have been trying to read all I can get my hands on about Islam, in part to understand the ancient roots to the conflicts in the Middle East and all over the world. I believe the encounter between Islam and Christianity is perhaps the most important challenge for Christians in the 21st century. While there is often such conflict and complexity, and even violence, in the subject matter, this journey of learning seems not only necessary but also good.

I am deep into the study of the Apostle Paul as well, trying to track his enormous influence and leadership in the formation of the early Christian church. I am intrigued by what those historical and theological roots tell us about living the Christian story in our own time.

This is where my curiosity leads me these days, and I find myself experiencing, when we are on that edge of truly grasping something for the first time, a thrilling sense that we are ready to leave some barrier or limitation behind us and move into new territory, liberated somehow, stronger. This feels healthy. Learning feels good, and right.

I can remember the day I returned home after defending my dissertation, that last step in the long and intense journey of advanced degrees. It was springtime, and the flowers seemed all in glorious bloom just to celebrate my liberation. I walked out into the backyard, kicked off my shoes, sat down in the grass, and opened a book. After all of those books I had been reading, imagine that, I picked up a book. But it was a book I wanted to read. No more assignments for me for the rest of my life, I thought. I could follow my curiosity wherever it might lead. Oh, what incredible joy.

I remember thinking that Alfred North Whitehead got it right. There are three stages of learning, he says. We are drawn into learning first of all by what he calls the romance of it all. Every new discovery is exhilarating, and there is so much to explore. Then we settle down into a more specialized experience of learning, where we invest ourselves in the tools of mastering a discipline. But then, finally, if we are lucky, we come out of that phase and emerge into an open landscape of general learning again, although now we carry the tools and training and language of all that focus.

Curiosity and exploration and discovery and mastery and then even more curiosity — all of this runs so deep in our experience. What a profound human blessing. While we often try to shift into practical ways of describing the value of learning — career preparation, added earning power, competitiveness for our economy — important as those things are, the starting point must be this God-given joy, this genuine goodness, this consuming curiosity. To squander this gift is shameful. To nurture it is one way of describing human flourishing.

Let’s take this reflection a step further. We are making a huge commitment at Seattle Pacific University to sharpen our focus through five signature commitments. One of those signatures claims that we will be a place that masters the tools of rigorous learning.

But we have concluded that this signature must be fundamentally linked, seamlessly interconnected, with other signatures that talk about embracing the Christian story, knowing what’s going on in the world, reconciliation and community formation, and character. Learning as an end in itself is not finally the purpose of our university.

John Henry Newman’s masterful book The Idea of a University, written in 1852, is surely the most penetrating discourse on the purpose of the modern university ever written. At the core of these marvelous reflections is a passionate claim that learning must never be tainted by anything remotely resembling the practical or utilitarian. For his new Irish university, what he imagined as a genuine competitor to the great Oxford in England, Newman cast a vision for a “culture of the intellect.” The deepest purpose was the “cultivation of the mind,” and the goal of all curricula was to bring “the mind into form.”

Higher education everywhere lives under the massive shadow of Newman. But I find myself more and more impatient with the notion that education is all about shaping minds. To be sure that is part of the learning enterprise. To be sure that is part of the competence required to succeed in the world, and indeed part of the joy we have been talking about. But I have come to believe that the future of the modern university depends upon finding the way to believe again that its work of learning is fundamentally connected to a larger purpose, a bigger story than our own little pieces of intellectual mastery.

God promised Abraham some three or four thousand years ago that he would set the world right. Justice would be restored, peace would reign again, and the suffering of the poor would be lifted. That was the promise. Of course, Paul discovered that it was in Jesus that this promise had been fulfilled, even now, already, and yet Paul also knew that the story still unfolds. And best of all, we are invited to participate in that unfolding.

At Seattle Pacific, we are trying to think about rigorous learning that is profoundly connected to a story bigger than ourselves, learning that embraces a story of human flourishing. As we do this, I believe we are stepping out from under Newman’s long shadow and defining a new kind of learning for our day.

— photo by luke rutan


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