Faith and Higher Education
By Fisher Humphreys, Professor of Theology
Beeson School of Divinity, Samford University
Editor's Note: Though delivered to professional educators attending a luncheon sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Atlanta on June 29, 2001, this address inspires all who teach at any level and all those who learn from teachers. Dr. Humpheys welcomes responses and comments on this article by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- How We Think about Our Students
- How We Think about Our Teaching
About three years ago my friend Gary Furr and I met with Gary Parker to discuss the fact that some of the most devoted supporters of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are persons involved in higher education. We met at a restaurant in Anniston, Alabama, and that may have suggested to us that a good way for the CBF to express its appreciation for persons in higher education was to sponsor a meal for them during the General Assembly. So here we are today, having this good lunch together, the third in a series. I remember with appreciation the very thoughtful address by Jeff Rogers at our first lunch, and though I could not be present last year in Orlando I have read with profit Dwight Moody's provocative address "On Being a Baptist School."
For some reason I have always associated Baptists with eating. I appreciate the story of the kindergarten teacher who asked her children to bring symbols of their religious faith for "show-and-tell" time. One child said, "I am a Muslim and this is my prayer mat." A second said, "I am Jewish and this is my Star of David." A third said, "I am Catholic and this is my rosary." And a fourth said, "I am a Baptist and this is my casserole dish."
One of my Presbyterian friends told me that he thinks that Baptists believe in the three biblical ordinances: baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the coffee break.
My favorite is the church bulletin that contained the following announcement: "The cost of attending the Conference on Prayer and Fasting includes meals."
I am glad that we educators have this time together, and I am deeply honored to have been invited to speak to you. In this address I want to describe some relationships between two sets of commitments that we all share. They are our commitments to Christian faith and to higher education.
The relationships between the two sets of commitments have been the subject of several public conversations. I will briefly mention three of these in order to distinguish my subject from them.
The first is an ongoing conversation about the question: What is a Christian college or university? Is it a college founded by Christians, or financed by a denomination, or owned by trustees who have been elected by an ecclesial body? Is it a university whose faculty, as the primary bearers of its institutional culture, create a Christian ethos in the institution? This seems to me to be a very important conversation; it is certainly one from which I have learned a great deal.
A second ongoing conversation concerns the secularization of Christian colleges and universities. I suppose that everyone agrees that something that may be called secularization has happened to many colleges. Still, I have misgivings about some of the things being said in this conversation. On one occasion James Burtchaell offered as evidence for secularization the fact that some Catholic colleges and universities allow non-Catholic professors to teach religion courses. His example caused me to doubt the secularization hypothesis, because I have taught religion at two Catholic institutions, Loyola University in New Orleans and Spring Hill College in Mobile, and I feel confident that my teaching did not carry forward the secularization of those institutions.
There is a third public conversation, one in which the connection between our Christian faith and our various disciplines is discussed. This conversation, sponsored in large measure by the Education Commission and more recently by the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools, has helped professors to integrate faith and learning and to see the importance of a Christian worldview.
These three conversations have been helpful to me, and perhaps to you also. Today I want to direct your attention to two other issues that, like these, concern relationships between Christian faith and higher education.
How We Think about Our Students
The first concerns students. Given that we are Christians, how should we think about our students? We may begin by observing that our Christian faith teaches us that all persons have been created by God, in God's image, a little lower than God, and are loved by God.
This is, I think, the highest possible estimate of our students, and it is a fundamental and indispensable estimate. As professors we will be attentive to estimates such as, for example, whether or not students are academically gifted, but we will not allow that to blind us to the Christian estimate of students.
Because our students bear the image of God we respect them, we appreciate them, and we take an interest in them. We appreciate them as persons before we know anything about their academic work, and we appreciate them as students when their work is good work. We also challenge our students. We believe because they are in God's image, they need to outgrow thoughtlessness, carelessness, laziness, ignorance, and prejudice, and we who are professors can help them to do that.
Respecting students is not a substitute for teaching them; in fact, teaching them is an ideal way to show respect for them. Last week my friend Philip Wise told me a story about a mother who asked her first grader how he was enjoying school. He replied, "Oh, I love school. It's great!" Then, after a brief hesitation, he added, "Well, except for one thing. . . I don't really like it when Mrs. Decker tries to teach us stuff."
I believe that all human beings have a deep need to be respected and to be appreciated, and for someone to take a genuine interest in them, and for someone to challenge them appropriately. It is within our power as professors to help meet those needs for our students.
Various things can prevent us from giving our students the respect they need. To the extent that we are still scrambling to get this for ourselves, we are hardly in a position to give it to others. Another barrier is that students act in ways that seem to forfeit our respect.
Sometimes some of them don't study, or they plagiarize, or they are chronically late with work, or they are contemptuous of any learning that will not equip them to make money. How can we maintain our interest in students whose lives are superficial and irresponsible?
One thing that helps us is to remember that much of their behavior arises from fear or from ignorance. They are frightened by the challenge of learning and of entering into adulthood, and they know not what they do.
Another thing that helps us is our faith. We trust the Christian doctrine that tells us that, whatever this student has done or failed to do, she is loved by God. In the plainest possible words, we intend to treat our students as Rabbi Jesus treated his disciples.
Caroline and I have two adult children. When they were very young I noticed something anomalous. Before they had become responsible for their actions we had to begin to treat them as responsible in order to enable them to become responsible. Our treating them as responsible helped them to behave responsibly.
So it is, I think, with our students, whatever their ages. As we treat them with respect and appreciation and as we take an interest in them and challenge them, we help them to behave as persons worthy of that treatment.
The alternatives to respecting our students are to treat them with indifference or with contempt. Such treatment is a factual errorﾖno human being is contemptible-it is a moral failure, and it jeopardizes our work as teachers, because only the most superficial learning will take place when students feel that their professors are indifferent to them or contemptuous of them.
One of the most spiritually helpful questions we Christians can ask ourselves is this: "Upon what person or group do I feel entitled to look with contempt?" We professors must struggle with the temptation to look with contempt or indifference on students who do poor academic work, or who do not seem capable of good work, or who hold views that are politically or religiously or morally reactionary. We will become better teachers when we know clearly which groups we feel entitled to look upon with contempt.
In the Christian tradition there is a name for treating people with respect. It is an old-fashioned word, but retrieving it can help us to integrate our commitments to Christian faith and to higher education.
The word is humility. Humility is not contempt for oneself but respect for others as well as for oneself. It is the recognition that the lives of others are as important as my own. Humility is also respect for God, accepting that God is the only divine being and that we are human beings.
Roberta Bondi says that among the desert mothers and fathers humility was understood as "the master virtue that includes all the others." She tells the story of Abba Macarius who, when returning to his cell from a swamp, was attacked by the devil. The devil struck at him several times with a scythe but was unable to hurt him. The Abba was puzzled and asked the devil why he could not hurt Macarius. The devil replied, "Your humility. Because of that I can do nothing against you." Respect for persons is a good defense against evil.
Humility is an appropriate response to reality. Other people do matter, and God alone is God.
Humility also is a quality that is essential for a decent life. It is indecent not to let God be God and not to respect the lives of others.
Humility is indispensable to authentic community. We may have superficial community simply by being in proximity to others. We find that in classrooms in which students are not meaningfully engaged in the learning process.
We may have more meaningful community by sharing in common tasks to which we are all committed. We find that in classrooms in which students study the subject matter with a view to making good grades and getting well-paying jobs.
But community in the full sense comes only when we respect one another. We find that in classrooms in which professors respect students and students respect one another.
Humility provides freedom from tedious, humorless efforts to justify our own existence. A humble person recognizes that the justification for her existence was given to her along with her existence. It is a gift of God's grace.
How do we express humility, respect for students? There can be no comprehensive list, I think.
We express respect for students by being responsible in our teaching
- By not imagining that friendship with students is a substitute for academic rigor
- By teaching that is informed and passionate
- By beginning and ending our classes on time
- By learning students' names
- By never talking down to students
- By taking their questions seriously even when they are not very good questions
- By preparing syllabuses and study guides with care
- By writing thoughtful, sincere comments on students' papers
- By testing and grading fairly
- By giving special attention to those who find it difficult to keep up
- By continuing to challenge as well as to affirm all of our students.
- Perhaps most important of all, we express respect by listening attentively to our
students. The important thing is that we be guided not only by the expectations of the academy but also by what our Christian faith teaches us about the meaning of persons.
How We Think about Our Teaching
The second issue is how as Christians we are to think about the work of teaching itself. How are we to understand what we are doing when we help students to gain knowledge, to develop skills, and to express their creativity?
First, we recognize that teaching is an intervention. Though it is neither intrusive nor manipulative, it does affect students. After they have been in our classes they will never be quite the same persons they were before.
There is a tendency, when professors' influence upon students is discussed, to attend to the large and dramatic effects that professors make upon some students. We could call this the "Tuesdays with Morrie" effect. Its importance is easy to notice because students remember it and talk about it.
But for every student who undergoes a conversion in our classes, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, whose response to us and our teaching is less apparent but no less real. Our attitudes, our manner, our priorities, our integrity, our commitments, our example all shape the lives of the students in our classes. And students are formed by our faith: faith that life is worth living, faith that life is morally serious, faith that persons are more precious than institutions, faith that rules exist for the welfare of persons not the other way round, faith that it is possible to be aware of the tragedy of human life and still to live a happy life, and faith that there is enough love for everyone. From us students can learn to avoid the cynicism and the bitterness that characterize so much of our culture.
In short, the education of students is effectively the formation of persons. I agree with Parker Palmer that "education is spiritual formation." Chaucer's Oxford clerk recognized the formative character of his work: "The thought of moral virtue filled his speech / And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach." There can be no higher estimate of teaching than that it contributes the formation of persons.
I can understand that some professors are reluctant to speak of their work in these terms, thinking them to be grandiose or unrealistic. They might assume that the spiritual and moral formation of persons is done only by religious professionals and only in explicitly religious settings such as worship services. But the Christian faith is incarnational. It teaches us that "the world is charged with the grandeur of God," the whole world. God is present in classrooms as well as in churches. People's lives are shaped by lectures as well as by sermons.
This does not mean that we must speak about religion in our classes. Sometimes it is appropriate to do that, sometimes not. One of the wonderful parts of our legacy as Baptists is our recognition that all Christians are called to give verbal witness to their faith. The flip side of that wonderful legacy is that we may assume that, unless we give a verbal witness, we have not behaved as Christians.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Our formative work in students' lives takes place whenever we are teaching about anything that is, to use St. Paul's language, honorable, just, pure, commendable, and excellent (Phil. 4:8). When we speak the truth in love, our students' lives will be shaped Christianly.
I realize that it is easier to see this with some subjects than with others. It is obvious that we are contributing to the formation of a person's life when we encourage her creativity, as in a class in creative writing, and it is obvious that a class on Dante is formative as well as informative.
But is this the case of all subjects? To take the hard case, is it true when we teach a subject in which our primary objectives are for students to gain knowledge and skills that equip them to earn a living? Can learning how to be an accountant be a matter of personal formation?
I believe it is. Being an accountant is honorable work. It is a good thing to be able to support yourself in our world. To do accounting well you must discipline yourself, and you must think carefully. Accounting can contribute to justice by telling the truth about corporations. It is a collegial activity, bringing people to work together in a way that contributes to community. It is indispensable for the operation of large corporations, and on a planet with six billion people corporations can make important contributions to the commonweal.
Someone may object that accounting is such ordinary work. Indeed it is. But the Christian faith calls us to love the ordinary, to carry out ordinary work responsibly, to feel fulfilled when we do this, and not always to be scrambling desperately for something extraordinary. To use the language of St. Paul again, we are to be people who do what their hands find to do, who do it with all their might, who do it as unto the Lord, and having done it, who learn to be content.
When we go to our classes filled with anxiety, our students are apt to interpret this as disapproval. When we go contentedly, our students will see that it is possible to be educated and contented.
At the end of the second century of the common era the bishop of Lyons, St. Irenaeus, wrote these words: Gloria dei homo vivens, the glory of God is a human being who is fully alive. That is what God wants, human beings who are fully alive. Life is God's good gift to us, but to become fully alive we must learn to embrace the gift of life with gratitude, and we must give ourselves to it with trust and abandon. In the journey toward living life to its fullest professors become splendid guides when they recognize that they are shaping lives and when they treat students with respect and appreciation, taking an interest in them and challenging them to live their lives to the fullest.