Can a University Change the World?
The Academy Risks Irrelevance to the World We Are Called to Serve
Philip Eaton spoke to SPU alumni at a Homecoming luncheon in February.
He cast the vision of 2014: A Blueprint for Excellence. “We’ve
built some very strong foundations,” says Eaton. “Where do
we go from here?”
I HAVE TALKED AT times in this column about what I fear may
be the dwindling influence of the American academy on the culture in which we live.
Because this runs so contrary to what I believe
are the purpose and vision and opportunities for Seattle Pacific University,
I find myself both deeply troubled and profoundly challenged.
One university president laments that “the topics we address [in the academy today] are circumscribed by what I suspect are shrinking spheres of influence.” How can it be that our colleges and universities have circled the wagons so severely, distorting the original purpose that a university should serve its community? How can it be that the academy has created a cultural, spiritual, and moral world that is disconnected, perhaps irrelevant, even worse, scandalous, to the world we are called to serve?
Tom Wolfe’s new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, depicts in graphic detail what this new world of the university looks and feels like. Wolfe spent several years hanging out on university campuses, talking to students, going to class, trying to put his finger on the pulse of campus life today. The novel is raw and vulgar, painful to read at times, but it is at least this novelist’s report of the world we call the American university.
What happens, Wolfe seems to ask, when we create a community free from all moral constraints, a world where truth is problematic, a world where adults have completely abandoned their responsibility to help guide and shape the lives of the next generation, a world where the tyranny of tolerance reigns, where anything goes, where everything is acceptable? What happens when you toss a bright young woman, straight from any small town, city, or suburban community, into the mix of such a world? Well, you get this novel, and you get something we might call the contemporary university experience, a place that is shaped by commitments, a worldview, and assumptions that are likely quite alarming to the parents of the young woman just enrolled. Indeed, this is an alarming book.
The New York Times columnist David Brooks says that Wolfe has “located one of the paradoxes of the age. Highly educated young people are tutored, taught, and monitored in all aspects of their lives, except the most important, which is character building. When it comes to this, most universities leave them alone. And they find themselves in a world of unprecedented ambiguity, where it’s not clear if you’re going out with the person you’re having sex with, where it’s not clear if anything can be said to be absolutely true.”
In a recent Christianity Today article, Vigen Guroian, speaking about Wolfe’s novel and as well drawing from his own experience as a professor at Loyola College in Baltimore, says the modern American university “fosters not growth into wholeness but the dissolution of personality, not the integration of learning and everyday living but their radical bifurcation. It most certainly does not support the church’s values of marriage and family.”
A “radical bifurcation” between learning and everyday living. “A world of unprecedented ambiguity” where little if anything can be said to be true. A university world like this is surely frightening to parents who send their children off to be educated, to be shaped and formed into responsible human beings, contributing citizens, wise participants in their families, leaders for our local and global communities.
Scary and scandalous? To be sure. But what an enormous opportunity for SPU. Perhaps we just might have a vision to lead the way out of this sorry picture. What if, at Seattle Pacific, we actually believe that given just the tools we possess as a Christian university the tools of learning, the commitment to character formation, the pursuit of wisdom, the value of community, and all of this framed by the powerful gospel of Jesus Christ we can change the world and in doing so reclaim and renew what a university was intended to be in the first place?
In order to realize such a goal, we’ve got to intensely sharpen our focus on the vision that drives us as a university. We must define, declare, and deliver the very distinctives that make us who we are. No vague sense of purpose, but real clarity. We must certainly proclaim that very special faith identity that shapes our community. To be sure, we will have to transform our resource paradigm and dramatically increase our applicant pool, position ourselves nationally and invest in our faculty. But if the vision is right and good and worthy and clear, we can do these things.
Here’s the good news. This is precisely what 2014: A Blueprint for Excellence is all about. In this document, we are trying to shape a very bold vision to become a premier, national Christian university not just any kind of Christian university, but one that is fully committed to engaging the culture and changing the world. The Blueprint puts in place detailed objectives we feel are necessary if we are going to reach this big goal, and action strategies are now launched all across campus.
Perhaps we stand at a crossroads. Down one road we see ourselves complacent and accommodating to the world of the university as described by some of our astute cultural observers. Down the other road we see a huge amount of hard work, and enormous and exciting challenges, but we also catch a glimpse of a flourishing Christian university with national scope, a world leader in what it means to engage the culture and change the world.
I believe our Blueprint points down a road just like this. Bold and exciting, and yes just a bit presumptuous, but I know we really don’t have a choice.
— BY PHILIP W. EATON, PRESIDENT
— PHOTO BY JOHN KEATLEY
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