Westmont Magazine The Adam's Challenge
Recently, on a very long trip, I finished reading David McCullough’s book, “John Adams.” It’s a good read, and one worth taking seriously. And leisurely. Which I did. In fact, I started reading the thing months ago, only setting it down to either ponder its contents or to take up more pressing matters. The consequence is that John Adams has been my friend for quite some time now. And it has been a fruitful relationship.
In part that’s because we have mutual interests. His upbringing, the marriage of the farm with intellectual pursuits, his theological underpinnings, and the tough love of New England are easy for me to identify with. I found it fascinating as well, to see the American Revolution through the eyes of Adams and to understand more fully the inherent tension with Thomas Jefferson — not just personally, but philosophically. Nevertheless, it is his relationship with Abigail that intrigued me the most, along with their mutual convictions about how true character is formed.
At one point, John Adams was heading off to France for a second time, taking his son, John Quincy, along. John Quincy was not altogether happy about the journey, wanting to stay home for safer pursuits. His mother’s response is worth quoting. “It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, waken to life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.”
I must say, the moment I read Abigail’s words, my mind snapped to attention. Why? Well, we talk a lot about character formation at Westmont, and for good reason. It’s one of the hoped-for outcomes of a Christian liberal arts education, where the mind is stretched, the heart is moved, and a faithful life is learned. But as Abigail reminds us, character takes a lot more than information. It’s a personal response to difficult circumstances. “Great necessities call out great virtues,” as she puts it, assuming one takes them on.
The point is, character can’t be manufactured. There is no cookie-cutter approach to character formation. It’s an individual, responding to the times, in the context of wise counsel. We live in challenging times; of that I am quite certain. As challenging, I believe, and as worrisome, as those faced by Adams at the end of the 18th century. The question is, will we provide the wise counsel — the kind of education — that will enable a select few to respond to the challenge and lead us into the century ahead?
Westmont exists for such a time as this. We have the convictions, the counselors — faculty and staff — as well as the students for this moment. But will we take advantage of it? Will we stick to our principles, even when they are tough to live by? Will we teach the truth, even when it is hard to hear? And will our students board the boat, even when the journey promises to be a difficult one? My daily prayer is that we would rise to the occasion. And that “those qualities that would otherwise lay dormant” in our students would “waken to life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.” For a nation’s sake, to be sure. But for Christ’s sake, more than anything.