Stanley L. Olsen
Presented at a Region III ELCA symposium
A Common Calling?
Opening up our curriculums to the rich diversity of the world has impacted our colleges for good. Needless to say, it has not made our curriculum shaping easier. We are struggling together -- faculty and students -- with issues of racism, sexism, and prejudice toward the diverse cultures that make up America. Understanding the broader world makes these exciting times for teaching because they offer keen challenges to teachers and students. A character in Christopher Fry's play A Sleep of Prisoners poses the challenges we face: "The frozen misery of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move; The thunder is the thunder of the floes, The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring. Thank God our time is now when wrong Comes up to face us everywhere, Never to leave us till we take The longest stride of soul men ever took. Affairs are now soul size. The enterprise Is exploration into God" (209)
Fry challenges us to awaken the soul: "Affairs are now soul size. The enterprise is exploration into God." Some feel that opening the curriculum to new voices has diluted its Christian content. We need to seriously listen to these critiques, but they may reflect a narrow view of the religious nature of our colleges. Change occurs, but our mission in the world remains firm -- awakening the passion for and the commitment to the life of the mind, the life of the spirit, and a life of service. On the positive side I see a heightened sense of community on today's campuses, an enriching of the curriculum, and broad spirituality.
What the church colleges offer students is the strength that comes from being a part of a faith community. We offer students a strong intellectual experience and provide resources for their physical, emotional, and spiritual stamina. We promote the full growth of students in a faith community. We are set apart from the isolation and fragmentation that is part of the larger research university. Our size helps us sustain community. And standing in community, if it does not guarantee, certainly promotes caring.
In the last twenty years our colleges have more openly embraced community. There is greater faculty-student interaction and more faculty-faculty interaction: more of us are team teaching and are energized by team teaching, more of us are discussing teaching and focusing on active learning--how students receive !what we do in the classroom. We have created first year programs to begin -student-faculty academic conversations. We have strengthened student services by adding key people and programs. We monitor more carefully student progress in classes. We continue emphasizing residence halls as living-learning centers. We have opened writing centers and trained tutors for skills improvement. We have expanded wellness centers. In addition, we have extended outreach into the world: going into area churches with outreach teams, building houses for Habitat for Humanity locally and nationally, sending students into the community on a broad range of internships. This spring students, faculty, and staff donated a day's work to the community. Over eight hundred participated, after a rite of send-off, cleaning up along highways and riverbanks, painting houses, and laying trails at the YMCA day camp for children.
We must realize that students look to faculty members for examples of how to live in community. Students note the way faculty carry out their roles in their classrooms and in larger work of the college. A student now in medical school told me that when she came to college she was looking for models for her life. Although not from a church background, she said that the discussions of faith issues and value issues in classes were extremely important to her education. Her senior capstone class focused on courage and evil in the twentieth century. She learned respect for matters of faith and solidified her values. As a result, she found herself prepared to address value questions in her medical school interviews. And she felt that her medical school classmates who went to universities had not received the same benefits from their contact with professors. It is critical for sustaining our faith communities that faculty are open to involvement with students who are determining faith commitments and values.
Opening to the rich diversity of human beings has resulted in courses on issues such as race, gender, and cultural diversity. A former student said that coming to know others was God's intent when God asked us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He likened going to church colleges to bunje jumping: the rope being the college, the jumping being our ventures in the world. We may lament the losses of an older curriculum if we believe that only one voice has value.
What it means to be a college of the church in the world is emphasizing that we are connected. We need to expand non-Western offerings, other ways of knowing, recognizing that other ways of knowing have "directness, depth, and spontaneity" (Pelikan 38) and cannot be squeezed into Western thinking (Pelikan 38). One area in Augustana's general education curriculum exposes students to other cultures. But we need to generate more classes and more student interest. Additionally, we need to continue scholarships for both minority and international students. Our popular Native American Studies classes at Augustana promote cultural understanding of those within our own neighborhood. Unfortunately, not all faculty think that other ways of knowing are important. One senior student wrote in her journal that she had escaped Native American Studies classes at Augustana. When she had expressed her interest in taking a class, her faculty adviser dismissed her desire by telling her that she wasn't Native American. Not all students think other ways of knowing are important to hear either. However, events such as International Awareness Days combining foods, music and dance, and native costumes compel student interest. Several church colleges have long-standing international programs, and interest in study programs in non-Western cultures increases. Global education programs such as Augsburg has developed and programs like the community Development in India awaken students to the efforts of those-who work in development, to the role of church world agencies, and to their own personal religious and ethical commitments.
Courses allowing students to stand in relation to important moral issues are also central to our mission in the world. The capstone classes at Augustana involve students and faculty in conversations. The framing question is How shall we live in the face of fundamental moral and aesthetic issues. The titles alone awaken interest: Odysseys of the Spirit, The Seeker's Guide to Art-Full Living, Toward a Global Community, Courage and Evil in the Twentieth Century, and Ways of Knowing. I was a part of a faculty team in a spring capstone entitled The Land: Perspectives and Challenges. A notable response from students was that they had never considered the land as alive. A weekend on family farms highlighted the class. One student wrote, "I had been to Molly's farm in Madison before, but this was definitely a special trip. . . We sat around the kitchen table and talked until late. We talked mostly about their farm situation." Another said that the class "served the purpose of really opening my eyes and realizing everyone needs to play a part in order for change to occur." After his farm home stay, one young man asked that his outline for the final paper be returned to him. He told me, "I'm not going to write a paper on the outline I turned in. I didn't know. I'm going to look deep inside and write from there." He said that held never been on a farm, although he had lived in Brookings, South Dakota, all his life.
Jaroslav Pelikan points out in The Idea of the University:A Reexamination that "Anyone who cares simultaneously about the environment and about the university must address the question whether the university has the capacity to meet a crisis that is not only ecological and technological but ultimately educational and moral" (20-21). Pelikan notes the appearance "environmental programs" as evidence of the universities being alert to the outside world. But he wonders if the universities are ready "to address the intellectual issues and the moral imperatives of having responsibility for the earth, and to do so generations in obeying the command to have dominion over the planet" (21), Or, he wonders, are the universities just tinkering with the curriculum to suit popular taste (21).
The liberal arts colleges of the church can awaken students to crucial issues such as the environment. We cannot do the business of research universities. But we can provide students for those universities and for society who stand in relationship. one environmentalist told students that they can't have a land ethic until their identity points to a relationship with the land, until a landscape filters and fibers their being. A phrase in a Thomas Hardy poem can be adapted to further develop that suggestion--Not to Mend was Not to Know. This phrase has poignancy for our students: Not to mend was for me not to know. It's in the awakening to the relationship we hold from the land, the relationship that is spoken of in the Bible, Ole Rolvaag, Black Elk, Walter Brueggeman, Dean Freudenberger, and many others. The mission of the liberal arts colleges in the world is to offer voices, both in the classroom and outside the classroom, that address the issues of the world.
Our students tell us that they have high aspirations. They are nervous about doing life right. I was moved by the nervous autobiographies for my January Interim class. One student wrote, "Many of my fears are related to my goals--basically that I won't achieve them or that I won't be happy when I do achieve them. I want to be able to wear a smile on my face most of the time, but the fear of not being happy is particularly gripping. His autobiography began, "Perhaps the best spot to start would be my goals. I want to lead a fulfilling life. I want to be happy with my career goals and I want to find a partner who can understand and deal with my idiosyncrasies and obsessions. Another senior wrote, "I'm ready to start the next stage of my life without wanting to qualify. I want to be finished with my degree, but not my learning. I have a number of friends who say, "Oh man! I just want to be out of here. I don't want to learn another thing!" I don't see how this is possible. When I sit listening to Dr. Owen recite lists of books which, as he says, we are "lucky enough to be able to experience for the first time," I feel like I've only begun to learn!" A third said, "I want to change the world, along with every other college graduate before he tries to pay off his student loans. But really, I want to leave a mark. I want to be remembered. I want the world to be a little bit different because I have existed." He also said he wanted his faith to be more than a matter of geography. A fourth student said she came from a very lazy high school, but she hadn't realized it until she came to college. After the first year, she wanted to transfer to be with friends and party, but she couldn't let herself and her parents down. These four typify our students, and their aspirations are soul size.
The affairs at our church colleges are soul size. Our enterprise is exploration into God. If we exist in a culture of disbelief such as Stephen Carter points to, a culture full of God-talk that trivializes belief, then we should stand in tension with that culture.
Our Baccalaureate Services mark a fruition of our mission. We ended Baccalaureate at Augustana with a rite of sending and In the rite of sending and blessing. Pastor Steve Wohlfeil said, "Beloved in Christ, with Abraham and Sarah, Naomi and Ruth, Paul and Barnabus, we are teachers, sojourners, situated in a given place sometimes only for a season. Changes call us forth from one community to another and from the familiar to unknown." Then the graduating seniors acknowledge that they have been enriched by their life in the community, and they receive the Blessing that sends them out in Christ's name to a new place, a new community, a new home." The'hymn "God of Wisdom, Truth, and Beauty" affirms our sense of community:
God of drama, music, dancing, God of story, sculpture, art, God of wit, all life enhancing, God of every yearning heart: Challenge us with quests of spirit, Truth revealed in myriad ways. Word or song for hearts that hear it, Sketch and model forms of praise. God of atom's smallest feature, God of galaxies in space, God of every living creature, God of all the human race: May our knowledge be extended For the whole creation's good, Hunger banished, warfare ended, All the earth a neighborhood.
(From "A Singing Faith." Words by Jane Parker Huber, 1984)
Fry, Christopher. A Sleep of Prisoners: Three Plays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Idea of the University: A Reexamination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
[Sandra Looney's presentation is included as part of What Does
it Mean to Be a College of the Church: ELCA Region III Symposia, 1993-94.
Compiled by the T'NT Committee, Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD. Available
at Mikkelsen Library, Augustana College.