An Antidote to Cynicism, or, Why I teach college, now that I know.

A common feeling among my peers, best summed up by Kate Blanchard in the Chronicle, is one of mild depression upon receiving tenure. The dynamics of my despair were shaped by an intense course load, significant pressure to spend substantial time mentoring my students, a marked decline in my students in even basic writing skills, an even sharper decline in critical thinking ability and the knowledge that I was participating in giving them an huge debt load by the end of college. The work is hard, the rewards few, but more importantly I am giving my students this huge debt and for what. I teach religion, that most useless of disciplines, at a denominational school that only serves 14% of that denominations members. My aspirations for my students upon their graduation; voluntary service. I want them to give something back to the world after their four years of “luxury”. It’s genuinely hard to give something back when you are in significant debt. I know this.

And so I listen to Rick Santorum brand me and my students as elitists on the stump, to David Levy indict my hard work in the Washington Post, and to Peter Morici brand my work as a liberal art-ist as useless on Marketplace Money. They are all deeply wrong, but until now; until the last cases of plagiarism have been caught and sent and away empty, my grades handed in, my students bundled off for the summer, and my own relationship with my pillow restored; until now I have not had the energy to think about why.

In the midst of my depression I asked a senior college administrator at midwest college with a better reputation than my own what he thinks about my predicament. He gave a good answer. With the demise of the public square, the failure of the media and newspapers in particular, he said that the small liberal arts college is the last hope of American democracy. It is the last place in which people can be formed into citizens who care about others and in that caring work towards the common weal.

He might be right, and, that answer helped my anomie. But I know that there are other, cheaper, more productive places which encourage a similar growth. They may not steward the special approach to time that the small college, or the university generally offers. (I mean here the ability to consider an idea carefully, at length and without regard to a bottom line.) But these places do exist for those who want to find them.

The thing that we do that does not happen elsewhere is the encouragement of students, en masse, to think. This is not as easy as it sounds. The last thing I had to grade this spring was the exam from my introductory religion course. The common refrain in this set of handwritten essays was that in this course students had been encouraged to think differently, or more broadly, or deeper, or in a more focused way on what they thought that they knew about the Bible. I realized that the important thing about these exams was not the content that students remembered (in most cases very little), the synthesis or analysis present (oh, for a world in which we still cared even a bit about logic), or even that they thought differently, broadly or deeply (very few were actually able to show evidence of this). The important thing was that this course made them think. It was a beginning in attuning their mind to deeper desires, a reference to D.H. Lawrence. “we [have] a double set of desires, the shallow and the profound, the personal, superficial, temporary desires, and the inner, impersonal, great desires that are fulfilled in long periods of time. The desires of the moment are easy to recognise, but the others, the deeper ones, are difficult. It is the business of our Chief Thinkers to tell us of our deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears.”

This beginning in thinking that happened for my students, and it happens reliably, if only in small ways, is a beginning in recognizing that the world is not quite what it seems to be, and that what passes for politics and economics in this world is only a pale glimmer of what real discussions and production could be. I am deeply grateful to my students for trying to catch what ever part of this that they can each year. I hope more try.

I do not harbor any illusions that education will save the world, that my students will change it, or that we aren’t going to be extinct in a 100 years. I am not in control of these things. But in a world in which presidential candidates call education snobbery, out of touch former university chancellors attack 80 hour work weeks as relaxed, and respected economists who teach at universities openly attack thought, I know that in my work, slowly, some people are learning to think, deeply, and might question, for a little while, the shrill echo in their ear.

Baccalaureate Address: Bluffton University

Good Morning,


I am deeply humbled by the honor, privilege and responsibility that accrues to me upon being chosen as this years baccalaureate speaker. I’m deeply grateful to you, graduating class of 2012. In fact, in some ways, I’m speechless, and really that’s kind of awkward for all of us.  I’m caught by the desire to show you one more thing about the world but at the end of these years of your education what can I say?


Now many of you are expecting me to talk about animals and I did ask my cat what I should say this morning. She looked at me quizzically, with an expression that recognized the difficulty of the task, and then in an attempt to be more helpful, said, “meow.” I’ve decided not to go in that direction.


Some of you are thinking, perhaps Trevor will have a story about the narwhal, the whale with one long tusk. That’s right, there is a creature with one long beautiful horn protruding from the centre of its head and it is as real as the fact that you are graduating today. Doesn’t that make you want to laugh?


Appropriately, the narwhal is an animal symbolic of transformation. In the Inuit (the correct term for Eskimo) legend a blind son with a wicked mother finds his sight slowly improving only to have his mother insist on his continued helplessness. He then regains all of his sight with the help of a red loon who encourages him not to reveal his sightedness to his mother until he is visit by a pod of beluga whales in late summer. When the whales come the boy goes to the ocean with his harpoon. His worried mother follows. He asks her to tie the rope on the end of harpoon to her waist to hold the animal he is about to spear. He then expertly spears the largest whale and she is carried out to sea and becomes the narwhal.


In a recent late summer you all also left much kinder parents, families, and lives and underwent a transformation like the blind boy in the legend, or like the blind man in the scripture for today’s service. You came from many different places, in many different ways, with many different plans, to study at this university. You all also asked to see. For what is education if it is not learning how to see the world?


Some of you have studied for four years straight out of high school, others transferred in. Some of you are in your twenties but others of you have come back to school. Some of you are receiving bachelor’s degrees and some master’s degrees.  All of you are accomplished, and you have accomplished significant things while you have been here. I could speak to your accomplishment but it is uneven spread across many different degree programs, and in theatrical, musical, literary, artistic, athletic and spiritual endeavors. I could speak to your future accomplishments, but it’s difficult to predict the future, and while I and many of the funny looking people on the stage with me think that you will go on and do great things, my guess is that that looks to you like so much vainglory in this moment.  Also, the history of the baccalaureate address is that of a sermon, and we’ve had enough of sermons that encourage young people to go out and conquer the world, even if I tell you to conquer it with love.


And so, what I want to do this morning, is reflect on these two young men who asked to see. Because what is education if not learning how to see the world. I might suggest Alexander von Humboldt as a model to you. Humboldt was a prolific scientist working at the dawn of a number of natural sciences as they took their modern form. Highly precise instruments and long practice in observing the world around him led to “discovery” after “discovery” as Humboldt learned to see his world in ways in which it had been seen before. From the Jurassic period, to a theory of climate, to significant observations of plants, animals and people Humboldt attempted to see the world holistically. Long before its abolition in this country Humboldt spoke against slavery and at the height of colonialism he opposed its worst excesses. Like the narwhal, which can dive miles deep into the ocean Humboldt dove deeply into his world. Humboldt was able to see his world uniquely perhaps because of his own differences from the people around him. In any event he is a good example for you in that, like Jeremy Lin, he was deeply practiced and focused and was therefore ready to succeed when his opportunity arose.


But you do not live in a world in which “conquering” and “discovering” should take centre stage. And success is a word that you need to redefine rather than seek after. In many ways you live in a discordant world of madness dominated by a need for calm and healing. Conflicts around climate, race, gender, creed, and love dominate our headlines. How can you work to see all at peace in health and freedom? How in the weak, worn, dreary, stormy life around you can you point to God’s guiding, holding, lingering presence? How might you see the world so that the public health of our society, of your communities and of your selves might flourish?


I could not do better than to follow the four speakers that have preceded me this weekend. They are evidence that while much of our work here at Bluffton has been to encourage you to see the world straight on, to understand its workings and movings, to set you as instruments of peace in the midst of hurt and rancor, that we have also been about helping you to see something else; a world of laughter and beauty. Beauty and laughter give us the gift seeing the world sideways. And this is a gift which knows no ending.


Chalsi Eastman spoke of her work bringing a prayer labyrinth to Bluffton. A prayer labyrinth is a particularly beautiful way to see the world. In a labyrinth we pray our way to the centre of our lives stone by stone, knowing that in prayer there are no tricks, no dead ends, but only communion and praise.  Alex Woodring reminded us that some of our greatest learning are the results of our failures. The right attitude towards our failure not only gives us the ability to heal ourselves into the person that will do better the next time. The right attitude to failure also gives us an endless supply of humor. We do well also to laugh at our mistakes. Emily Shellabarger invokes the sage who divides our time into laughter and weeping. And we realize that in transistions these are intimately connected.   They stem from the same desire which animates our spirit.. Tim Yoder talks about the beauty of teaching students music and of stirring the desire to learn in his student. Desire is at the heart of beauty. And this beauty repeats itself. From Tim to his students in the cards and gifts he received. Beauty does this everyday.


The answers of these four speakers are also my answer.  This is how to see the world. See it with beauty and laughter.


The rich and endless store of beauty gives us an inexhaustible source of interest, focus, attention, and of course, creativity. I would even go so far as to say that beauty is the meaning of life. As Elaine Scarry says, “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” When we encounter beauty it arrests us and stops us short in the ordinary patterns of our lives. When we work towards creating beauty we start to see the whole of our lives as the beautiful things that they are. Our ordinary becomes sublime. When we see the world as a beautiful place we praise God. We name ourselves with the name that the Inuit gave to the Narwhal; the one that points to the sky. Be ready to see beauty as you leave here.


We know that laughter makes us healthier. Laughter puts the world in perspective. It gives us a vantage point from which we can dive deeply into the world. And everything that laughter does for our view of the world it also does for us. It lets us take ourselves less seriously. This is not a threat to accomplishment. But when our lives are torn by sadness humor can heal our wounds with a tuneful balm. Be ready to laugh as you leave here.


The blind man’s faith was ignored by the people around him. They could not or would not see the beauty in him. Just before this story the disciples are reportedly unable to understand the parables and proverbs that Jesus has been saying. I think that they could not or would not see the humor in them. Luke brings understanding and seeing together and connects faith to laughter and beauty. He shows us how to see the world and by seeing to go healing, teaching, and reclaiming, serving God by serving all.