Briefly Noted: Note to a College Freshman

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on October 28, 2013.]

As we mentioned recently on BtT, I stumbled upon Henry Stob’s Theological Reflections while browsing the “used books” selection at a bookstore. Which, in case you wondered, is one of the reasons why I consider used bookstores one of the great delights of the modern world. (Thank you for having been about to wonder.)  One never knows what sorts of epistolary treasures might be found if one takes a few minutes to browse.

But to the point: Theological Reflections includes an essay which Stob entitled, “Note to a College Freshman” and which I think is worth noting briefly.[1] Stob, a former professor at Calvin College, encourages college freshmen to make the most of their college experience by transcending certain reductionist or otherwise misguided views of college education.

He begins by addressing the college freshmen. “You have come to college and you have taken a mind with you. . . . Mind is intellect, will, and feeling fused into one. Mind is what you are on the deeper level of your being. It is the spiritual measure and size of you, the conscious center and core of you.” (229) A freshman’s mind is more than the sum total of his thoughts. Further, Stob the college freshman is responsible and accountable for his mind. “The mind that is in you as you enter college is the product of many historical forces and influences. . . .This means that you have been an agent in the making of the mind you have. For its present set and temper you must, in consequence, accept the responsibility. And you must accept the same responsibility for its future form and texture.” (229)

Many students come to college with a “sophistic mind,” a mind which has never transcended its own private opinions to genuinely engage with humanity. In the place of the sophistic mind, the first thing the student should seek is to have his mind broadened and deepened. “This more acceptable kind of mind,” writes Stob, “was in ancient times delineated and recommended by Plato, the arch opponent of the Sophists. . . . The mind I am speaking of is the universal, the shared, the common, the human mind. It is the purpose of a liberal––that is, a liberalizing––education to form this mind in you, to enlarge the cramped perspective of your cabined self, and make you kin to the large-minded men who have created our art and our science and become the teachers of the race” (230–31). The freshman must develop a mind which transcends the individual self.

However, this “broadened” mind is not the final end of one’s college formation, as “it, too, must be transcended if you are to achieve your ultimate range and scope. You must attain the mind of Christ.” (231) Thus Christian education will endeavor to bring you to obey Phil 2:5 in all arenas of life. “To be truly educated, to be completely liberated, to be wholly enlightened, is to share in Christ the thoughts of God and thus to transcend the relativity not only of the subjective but also of the merely human.” (231) The goal of Christian education is “to be shaped by the Word and Spirit and the whole of God’s creation into conformity with the mind of Christ, to be fashioned anew in the image and likeness of God.” (231–32) The experience of college, therefore, should not be one of “finding oneself” but rather an experience of finding Christ, and then giving oneself up to him and to others.

In response to Stob’s essay I’ll limit myself to expanding upon Stob’s point that one’s college education—whether it is undertaken at a “Christian” college or not—is always and necessarily related to Christ. Christ is Creator and King, and his kingdom is as wide as creation. This is to say that his kingdom encompasses the various degree programs and potential fields of study which are offered in a given college curriculum. Each area of study—whether it be art, science, politics, education, medicine, agriculture, or business management—can be undertaken Christianly and with any eye toward submitting to Christ’s Lordship. As I’ve noted before on this blog, the college student must answer at least these three questions concerning his chosen area of study: (1) What is God’s creational design for this area of study? (2) How has it been corrupted and misdirected by human sin and rebellion? (3) How can I, through my study and work in this area, bring healing and redirection to it? When viewed in this manner, a college student’s disciplinary studies are vested with meaning and significance, and his mind is increasingly conformed to Christ.

So each discipline in the university must be conformed to Christ. But further than that, vast array of disciplines in a given college find their unity in Christ himself. He is “the clue” (as Newbigin put it) to every dimension of creational life and therefore to every area of study in a college or university. Ultimately the coherence of the university curriculum is found in Christ. Without Christ at the center, the university becomes a “disuniversity” of sorts. Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe is one of a spate of treatises which argue that the university has lost its coherence. He describes his own experience in college:

What was striking about my experience … was how little cognitive dissonance there actually was. Since the perspectives of the literature and sociology courses never came together to be compared and contrasted, they remained in separate mental compartments, leaving my exposure to divergent viewpoints incomplete and unconsummated. Clearly, it is crucial to begin providing students with a more connected view of the academic intellectual universe, one that lets them recognize and enter the conversation that makes that universe cohere and relates it to the wider world.[2]

Modern universities have lost the unifying center of the curriculum—Christ himself. The Christian freshman’s task, therefore, is consciously to embark upon his education with an eye toward understanding how Christ stands at the center of his studies.

[1] Henry Stob, Theological Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 229–39.

[2] Gerald Graff, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (Yale, 2004), 65; 67.

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  1 Comment

  1. Wesley L. Handy   •  

    Bruce, helpful post. I will be sharing this with my high school Juniors and Seniors (who are currently studying Christian worldview by the way). Thank you for putting your mind to work on these topics.

    Your friend,

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