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What I learned in college

July 23, 2012

I graduated from Wheaton College on May 6th, 2012.

Why did I go to college, again? Reflecting over the past several years has made me realize how little I could have predicted about the value (or not!) of a liberal arts education. The jury is still out on whether college was worth several tens of thousands of dollars, but I did learn some things. Here are a few of them:

1. How to read

We learn how to read in like 5th grade right? Wrong. When my first week of classes at Wheaton dished me Homer’s Illiad (yes, the whole thing), 20-page essays on the history of biblical interpretation, and the first book of Plato’s Republic, I quickly discovered that I had never truly read anything. Until I learned the following lessons, I had mostly been moving my eyes over the pages while thinking my own thoughts inside. Reading is hard work!

Reading as mentorship I see reading as thinking the author’s thoughts, and being taught by him or her. The idea is from Johann Kepler, who saw his research in astronomy as “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” One method I use for getting the most out of a book is to ask myself, “if I were (author), what would I say next?” then see if I guessed accurately. This approach brings out a relational aspect of reading, which is one of the reasons I think I enjoy it so much.

Reading culture Along with reading books, I learned that we can also read culture. The same work of observing and interpreting information in search of meaning takes place when we look at various cultural artifacts, events or trends. A proof-text for this principle might be Karl Barth’s maxim that we should read with Scripture in one hand a newspaper in the other. Understanding culture can open our eyes to dimensions of God’s action in the world, and how he is bringing about his plans in the every-day products of human creativity.

Reading Scripture as food Finally, some reading is more than just a tasty snack — it is nourishment, the kind that contains some essential amino acids. Without this word-food, my spirit will whither and my mind will entertain empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense (Col. 2:8). If we cultivate our God-given desires, and read at Whim (as my literature professor Alan Jacobs recommends in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction) we will find ourselves more spiritually and mentally healthy.

2. How to learn: receiving (in)formation

I will never forget the habits and passions that moved my professors. Some professors lived in such a way that made me want to say, “I desire to emulate that.”  The medium of teaching – the habits I observe and have a deep desire to imitate –  are what influence me most. I desire to imitate the exemplary thoroughness of my professor who provided over 100 pages of online notes for a two-credit class. I desire to imiatate the artful rhetoric with which another professor gave speaches, not boring lectures; I desire to imitate the energy and enthusiasm another professor exudeded for two hours each Tuseday and Thursday. These are habits that I’ll remember and carry with me even when I forget Rousseau’s view of man, or the year Tocqueville came to America.

College did not make me a better person. College can make you a smarter person, and therefore more skilled at deceiving others, (I learned that from a book called The Moral Basis of a Backward Society) but it rarely makes us better people. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. People who are better than me, which is basically everyone, make me a better person.

So if anyone enters college as a Christian and doesn’t find any other like-minded Christians to love and be loved by (ie encouraged in nearness to God), then how can anyone expect to grow? The other side of that, though, is the tendency to form cliques.At Wheaton, we like to pride ourselves on not being like those party schools. While that might be a good thing, the Christian community has its own perils. As one of my professors said, “whenever there’s a Christian version of something, we find whole new ways to mess it up.” Sure, I escaped the Five Year Party by going to Wheaton, but was more susceptible to the four-year summer camp. Have close friends, and have lots of different kinds of acquaintances to learn from.

3. God is Lord of all disciplines: avoid idolatry of discipline. 

Not only does each one of us want to be God, each discipline wants to be Lord over other disciplines. Those who are academically minded have to avoid the tendency to see reality only through the lense of their discipline. The politician believes we’re political animals, the sociologist believes we’re social animals, the philosopher believes we’re rational animals… and so on. What are we? Isn’t college supposed to help us with this fundamental kind of question? Well mine pointed me in the right direction, probably by accident.

I have hinted at this in each of the points above, but I’ve learned that ultimately, we’re loving, desiring animals. I’d like to throw my lot in with this biblically-theologically-informed view articulated by Augustine, and more recently and briefly, James KA Smith. More on that in future posts.

And this biblically-theologically-informed view of the world is more accessible — I obviously don’t think we have to become theologians, in a strict academic sense, in order to see the world this way. In fact, it will probably help if we keep our heads up and don’t get burried in some specialized field that puts blinders over our eyes. Look to the ants, not just the peer-reviewed articles about them.

In the end, I suppose this would be my greatest and final lesson: be a good desirer. 

If you’ve recently finished college, what were some of your takeaways?

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