What is education all about, anyway?

(Originally posted December 2013)

Lewis and Clark.

An expedition but also a college, and yesterday I found myself thinking about both. Staying for the week in a hotel a few blocks from the Columbia River, where the adventure across America began to end, I spent the afternoon at Lewis and Clark College, which last year was judged “the second-most beautiful campus” in the country. On a wintry December day, it was hard to tell.

What is education all about, anyway? Why do colleges exist? What kind of conversations and curricula ought we to have, for a robust and rigorous education? And of course these questions have their own meaning in an increasingly pluralist society where people believe all kinds of things to be true about the meaning of life, and of their lives.

Living with our deepest differences is hard; learning amidst them may be even harder. At Lewis and Clark the issue is philosophical diversity; we might even call it the challenge of religious pluralism. Almost every account of human life under the sun is honored there, except mere Christianity– or at least that is how some students feel. And that is troubling for some, which is why I was invited in for a conversation with a group of administrators and trustees. I listened for a while, wanting to understand the lay of the proverbial land. What is the history? Who are the stakeholders? What do you want?

I talked a bit about Lewis and Clark, even showing them my two little books, first edition accounts of the expedition that I purchased in a bookstore in Charlottesville—which is where the adventure began 200 years ago –and that are usually found on the mantle above our fireplace. But before it was over I offered my favorite-ever poem, “Creed,” by Steve Turner, the British poet whose work is “bright as a light, sharp as a razor.” With genius for the ages, he cuts through contemporary claims to neutrality about ultimate things, inviting us to own the reality that we are all deeply religious beings, “homo adoramus” as we are. We will make something absolute. The poem concludes:

“We believe that each man must find the truth
that is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust. History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.
We believe in the rejection of creeds.”

I think we will talk again, maybe many more times. They seem to have a true desire to find another way to be a college. When I offered the image of “honest questions, honest answers,” pressed into the heart of the institution, permeating its intellectual ethos, I saw them smile. “Yes, that’s what we want here.” I hope so.

We will see.

(The Columbia River at morning light, with Mt. Hood in the distance.)

About Dr. Steven Garber

Steven Garber has a classroom among many people in many places. As the Founder and Principal of the Washington Institute, the heart of his own calling is that people understand the integral character of faith, vocation, and culture. Author of The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior (2007), and Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good (2014), he writes frequently for Comment and Critique, and in addition was a contributor to the volumes Faith Goes to Work: Reflections From the Marketplace, and Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalogue, as well as to the Mars Hill Audio journal, “Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing: The Life and Work of Michael Polanyi.” For many years he taught on Capitol Hill in the American Studies Program, and then became the Scholar-in-Residence for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He serves as a board member for Ransom Fellowship, the Blood:Water Mission, A Rocha, and the Telos Project, and as a consultant for the Wedgwood Circle, the Murdock Trust, the Demdaco Corporation and the Mars Corporation. A native of the great valleys of Colorado and California, he is married to Meg and is the father of five children whose own callings have them scattered around the world.