Westmont Magazine Called to Love and Learn
This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:3-11
“What’s it all about, Alfie?” Remember that song? It’s a reasonably inane song and an even dumber movie. But the question is a good one — and asked far too rarely, especially in higher education. All too often the big questions are displaced by the easier ones. The forest being rather difficult to describe, we retreat to the trees. Or less.
Interestingly enough, that is not true today. We are asking bigger questions, at least for the time being. We find ourselves at the cusp of a moment, which I believe is quite unusual and full of possibilities for good as well as for ill.
Things have changed, of late, haven’t they? Quite dramatically, it seems to me. The seminal event for this change is 9-11 — the dissolution of those twin towers not only etched itself on our brains but skewered our hearts. We are a different people today, no doubt about it. Nevertheless, the economy — which is part of the issue — was already a bit shaky before Sept. 11. The world certainly was not at peace, regardless of our lack of interest or perceptions. Terrorism was alive and well. In some ways, Sept. 11 was a wake-up call — and a learning moment. The almost palpable truth we have suddenly discovered is this: Peace and prosperity aren’t a given. Not forever.
And not enough, actually. We will need lots of discernment and good judgment, born of wisdom and character and an understanding of the way things really are, not the way we want them to be. The nation will need that. The world will need that. And higher education will need that, as well. We will need to keep the forest in mind as we navigate the trees. We will need to know where we are going and why we are going there. Or, frankly, we will never get to our destination, nor even know we are there should we happen to arrive.
What is the big picture? And who decides? That’s the question, right? It’s the problem of pluralism, and it’s the concern that usually gets raised in conversations like this. But I don’t really think that is the problem. How do you decide? You argue about it and debate like crazy, just like we’ve been doing with regard to the trees for many years now. You debate the forest as well as the trees — graciously, courageously, respectfully and candidly — all in an effort to contest for the truth. That’s what we do in higher education, isn’t it? So why haven’t we done it when it comes to the forest? Or when we do manage to have a big-picture debate, why do we stuff it into a special forum or conference — as if it’s a rogue athletic contest, like professional wrestling, that has no business invading the inner sanctum of academia?
That, I believe, is the question. And the answer, I suspect, has to do with a little fear and a lot of fantasy. The fear is that we won’t be able to contain this debate, that it will get out of hand. It’s an understandable fear, especially if we are satisfied with the status quo. But it’s an odd fear for those who care about the truth. It’s as if we say, “Well we won’t talk about these things, which we acknowledge are at the core of human existence, because we might not behave ourselves.” What kind of pursuit of knowledge is that, anyway? How would we even know what it means to “behave ourselves” without talking about such issues?
Which is why I think the real issue is not fear, but our tendency to think that these core issues don’t really matter. It’s the fantasy of assuming that one can grow in knowledge and understanding without attending to issues of character, wisdom, and world view. It’s the assumption that the heart and hands have nothing to do with the head and that one can become a well-educated person without paying attention to the longings of the soul. But that, I think, is a fantasy. September 11 has made that abundantly clear. The soul has everything to do with what we learn, why we learn, and how we use what we learn. Everything. It can send you into space, transfixed by the beauty of the heavens, or it can send you into the twin towers, mesmerized by something very different.
Heart and soul matter. Every parent knows that, right? Who raises their child to select random bits and pieces of information devoid of commitments or unconcerned about effect? Some parents do, but we don’t applaud them, we put them in jail. Why would we applaud an educational model employing those same assumptions? Character is not irrelevant to education because, without discipline and willpower, you can’t learn nor grow from the learning. Faith is not irrelevant to the learning process because it gives us a reason for learning and shapes the very bone and marrow of the learning itself. Knowledge and praxis are not distinct categories because learning comes through use and use refines the learning. Commitments of the heart are neither enemies of learning nor distant cousins: They shape, hone, propel, select, and connect learning — for better or for worse. They shrivel minds, in some cases — and they make possible knowing in all its fullness and wonder in others. Commitments of the heart — along with faith, character and practice — aren’t irrelevant.
We believe that at Westmont and have from the beginning. And we believe it not in spite of being a liberal arts college, but because of it. Indeed, these are some of the core commitments that gave birth to the liberal arts in North America in the first place. It is higher education that has done the striptease over the last half century, not the faith-full liberal arts college. And if there is any embarrassment about what’s happening on stage these days, I don’t think it should be among those who have remained fully dressed.
Now I have to be careful here because my metaphors can have a life of their own. I don’t want you to leave thinking that I believe educational specialization is always a problem. I don’t. We need universities and colleges of different kinds to serve different populations at different points in their lives. I understand that and applaud it. But I also want to say, with some force and passion, that what we’re doing here at Westmont in our commitment to an education for life — heart, head and hands — is not some aberration, some quaint thing that’s nice to have in the hills of Santa Barbara. It’s at the core of what a true education is all about. Quite frankly, it’s what our culture needs at this moment if we are going to survive and thrive in the next century, especially among those who give leadership. Faith, character, knowledge and wisdom are not just nice things to have when the chips are down. They are the armaments for life. The things that will carry us through and get us where we need to be and who we ought to be in the days ahead.
Westmont exists because there is something out there called the Truth, which is worth pursuing, understanding, knowing and living. This Truth is big, with a capital T, and it involves all that is right and true and good and beautiful. We begin with the Truth as we know it — where else can we begin, after all? — and we pursue it where it is unknown.
Our starting point is Jesus Christ — Christ preeminent in all things, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We begin there, not to shut ourselves off from knowledge, but to embrace the knowledge we have received. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says the writer of Proverbs. We affirm that starting point. Better to start with the Creator than the created. Better to begin with the Known than the unknown. Better to begin our walk in the Light than the darkness. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” says Jesus, and we rejoice in his revelation. Why? Because we have followed this Jesus, our Christ, and we have found the footing sure.
This starting point has consequences, of course. One of the very first is that we love to learn at Westmont. Learning isn’t a burden, it’s a delight. Not a drudgery, but a pleasure. Not a mere utility to get something better, but a very good thing in and of itself. We learn because that’s how we were created. To know God and to learn about his creation is one of the ways we love him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Indeed, it is not only a joy to do so, but it is our responsibility. He commands us to love him with our minds and to do anything less is poor stewardship.
Two things have always fascinated me about learning. The first is how easy it is for children to learn; the second how difficult it is. Children love to play, and play is awfully close to learning. To play is to delight in the things around you, to look at a bird in flight and be lost in wonder. But it’s also hard. To go beyond the wondering and on to the studying takes work. And discipline. And even self-denial. We want to play, but we don’t want to work. But learning requires both.
How do you get both? By understanding the good. By knowing, deep in your bones, that learning is good, even when it isn’t easy. That ignorance isn’t bliss. That stupidity and sloth are co-dependents and co-conspirators against wisdom. Loving to learn requires a teleology. A reason beyond itself. That’s why it comes to us as a command from a loving God, because he wants what’s good for us. Which is why it typically comes in that same form from a loving parent, early in one’s life: “Stanley, get in your room and study, for goodness sake.” It is for goodness sake because the good parent knows the value of the good work that produces good learning.
We love to learn at Westmont. It’s our reason for being. But it doesn’t stop there. Because in our learning we learn to live as well. Not to justify the learning, but fill up the life. The learning and the living are connected — cannot be disconnected, in fact. To learn something — to truly know it — is to live differently as a result. If you don’t live differently, you didn’t learn. This is hard for us, in this culture, since we have taken irresponsible knowing to an art form. In one ear and out the other. Read one day and forget the next. Watch the news and yawn in disinterest. Until September 11, that is. Now we watch with a bit more interest, don’t we?
I love the story of the shoe-bomber — the terrorist who was thwarted on the flight from Paris to the United States. It shows that we’re flying differently these days. Fellow passengers are not faceless beings we take for granted. They are human beings for good and for ill, and their behavior is our concern. If they behave inappropriately, they’re likely to be jumped, bundled with belts and filled with sedatives. I like that. Why? Because it’s what you do when you are a responsible neighbor: acting on what you have learned and making a difference as a result. That’s at the heart of learning at Westmont. We learn to live.
Finally, we live to love. In fact, we believe this is the chief end of all humanity. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength and all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself. The command, which Jesus says sums up the law, is central to the learning project at Westmont. It undergirds our learning, in fact. It tell us why we learn, to what end, and how to apply the learning. In a very real sense, the first two elements — loving to learn and learning to live — are predicated on this tenet: We live to love. Why? Because it was God who first loved us, for one thing. But frankly, it’s our reason for being. We will find our happiness here, or we will not find our happiness at all.
I know it is odd to think about love and learning in the same breath. But it should not be. We have distorted the meaning of love by reducing it to a feeling; and we have distorted learning by reducing it to a disembodied fact. The Apostle Paul had no such difficulty, as the passage from Philippians shows.
It’s all there, isn’t it? That is my prayer for Westmont as well. We ought to be lovers, my friends — the greatest lovers of all time whose love for God should abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, to quote the good Apostle. Love seeking knowledge, knowledge bringing discernment, discernment enabling right living, and all of it giving glory and honor and praise to our Lord and our God. That’s us, if we’re doing what we ought to be doing. I can’t imagine a more noble calling.
Nor a more difficult one, to be honest with you. Because this integrated approach to life is not what we want to do by nature. Individually and corporately, this business of loving to learn/learning to live/living to love does not come easily. That’s why it’s rare in this culture or any other. And that’s why it’s so needed. If we carry this thing off at Westmont, we will not only be doing the right thing, but the rare thing: providing a model, an exemplar that this world desperately needs.
I am old enough to have lost a number of people who were special in my life. At the top of the list is my dad, whom I loved and respected more than anyone else. What a gift to be given such a father. My mom would be up there too, very different from my dad, but a balance for him — and for me. I have also lost one of my best friends to cancer. Gerry was a businessman, a vice president for Sears, and we disagreed on almost everything — except Jesus. Which meant we agreed on almost everything that really mattered. As a result, our disputes and late-night conversations became a source of learning and growth and development for us both. At least for me.
How I miss these folks. What I wouldn’t give to have them back, in good form, for even just a short time. For a pickup ride with my dad through the farm at 6 a.m., with the sun peaking over the hills, I’d give this day up in a flash. You learn that with age, by the way. What matters. And what’s really valuable. I am grateful for such knowledge.
But that’s not what they would want, of course. What they would want, and what they’re going to get, is a fairly dogged determination to take the high road, even though it’s a little narrow. To push ahead, even though the path is steep. To stay on course, even though the road might be a little lonely at times. That’s what they would say. How do I know? Because they’ve already come to the end of their journey. Looking back, there’s no question about which way to go. No question.
That’s what we’re going to do, my friends. That’s where we’re going. Because you’ve got an old president, for one thing, with a good memory. But it’s the right thing to do, for another. It’s the good road. And it just so happens that it’s precisely the one our culture needs at this point in time. Which may be why we’ve been given it, by the way. But more important, from the perspective of those who have already completed the journey, it’s the only road worth taking. The only road worth taking. Both now and forevermore.