Note: Below is the second part of Dr. Reynolds’ series on the future of Christian education. See the first part here.
Reasonable expectations matter: if you judge The Voice because you wanted to watch Downton Abbey, then your standards will be skewed and both experiences will be diminished.
What should you expect from a college?
There is a personal element to the choice, but given the expense, perhaps it would be wise to know what American college is designed to do. College is not, or should not be, designed to be entertaining — so pause before picking a college based on “cruise ship experiences.”
Americans have given colleges at least two jobs: training for the workplace and creating leaders for civilization. There is tension to these tasks and doing one well does not guarantee that the other will be done well.
Some schools will get you a good job when you graduate, but fail to expand your horizons or make you a better person. For a Christian, a question must be whether an undergraduate education that ignores metaphysics, and the Lordship of Christ, is not too limited to do the job well.
The school that is (at best) ambivalent to the Bible, the Church, Christian morality, and Jesus is missing the center-point of reality. Creating a person that compartmentalizes religion from the rest of reality is dangerous: a person with a good understanding of physics but a poor understanding of metaphysics is a threat to himself and the community!
Many students think they are going to major in one area, but end up in something totally different. In picking a major, ask: Will this major make me a better person, thinker, or lead to an obvious first job? If you cannot easily say “yes” to any of these goals, then don’t waste your time. Ideally, find a major that will attempt all three with hope of success!
Are there more general academic goals that will serve you well for the rest of your life? Academically demand that graduates read well, communicate well, and think well.
Read well. Do most of the classes require reading and is the reading a key part of each class? Piles of reading never discussed are less valuable than reading that is used in classroom discussion. A good college will not just tell you to read a lot but teach you to read well.
Outside of “content” areas, prefer schools that read books to schools that use textbooks.
Communicate well. Knowing is good, but being able to share knowledge makes a great good better. My obvious problems in communication skills are not the fault of the University of Rochester. They not only tried to make me better, they made me better.
Blame me for the mistakes. They are my limitations. But credit my teachers (parents, high school, college, to U of R) for the virtues.
Communication is not limited to writing, but includes the ability to persuade in a business meeting, a blog post, or a tweet.
Make sure your college demands good writing and rhetoric, and teaches both.
Think well. A good college will challenge everything, many do that, but few then help you form a thoughtful worldview. We need an examined life, but the examination is for life and not for the sake of examining.
Ask your college: what will the ideal graduate be? What will she or he do? What will the ideal graduate believe? Ask yourself: “Is this who I want to become?”
If Socrates is in Austin, then go there. If Jesus is teaching in Dallas, then do not consider anyplace else. Of course, knowing that Socrates and Jesus are Socrates and Jesus before history makes it obvious is almost impossible, but the idea is there: find a mentor.
Assuming no college employs someone that good, find a college that gives you access to their best. Better to go to a smaller school (as an undergraduate) sending their stars out to you than a big school where the stars only teach grad students and mentoring is not a priority.
If peers mentor you, then the schools are not spending your money well. Peer mentoring will happen anyplace, but older men and women mentoring the younger well must happen by plan or it will not happen at all.
Ask for the plan for mentoring and the number of students assigned to each professor. Ask the average number of meetings you will get.
Who is the good mentor? The good mentor is a man or woman who turns toward the beautiful, the good, and the true. This person will turn you in that direction and journey toward them with you.
A mentor will show you beauty. College should refine your taste and introduce the beauty that popular culture will not.
A mentor will help you be good. Good people may not all make good mentors, but no good mentor is a bad person. The usual response is that: nobody is perfect. This is true, but at least a mentor can be better than the student. Of course, this means that that you will have to decide what makes a good man or woman, before going to school.
An eighteen year old receiving mentoring will find the experience pretty overwhelming: you better know ahead that you are comfortable with the preferred outcome. For example, if the college views traditional Christian sexual moralities as “wicked,” and you think Christianity is true, then do you want merely to “survive” school? Can you think of a Biblical example where someone seeks a mentor who is pagan? I might hire a pagan plumber, or learn plumbing from a pagan, but why would I choose to learn morality for a pagan?
A mentor will love truth.
You are paying for access to people. In this era, information is becoming very cheap. Sitting in your bedroom, you can access more books than you could ever read, more film than you could ever watch, and more well formed opinions than you could ever consider.
What we need is community, informed community that will get to know us and help us learn.
Humans are here to love God and love our neighbors. Will the college you are choosing make you better at loving God and your neighbor? Will it even try?
College is expensive, but it should be if it delivers what it promises. If your college does not bother to promise an education and mentoring then you should find a new college. My teachers and mentors placed ideas in my heart and mind that nourish me years later.
Expect a good television show and get a mediocre one and you have lost an hour of entertainment time, but expect an education and miss it and you will have lost a priceless gift and gained debt. Expect and demand this good, because if school does the job well, then it is a mother to all good things that happen to you: dear alma mater.
John Mark Reynolds is Provost of Houston Baptist University.