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
|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.
— By PHILIP W. EATON, PRESIDENT
— photo by luke rutan
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