"Calvin Spark" Article

by Dr. Charles Pollard

This article originally appeared in the Calvin College magazine The Calvin Spark, fall 2002. Reused with permission. 

This is not Disneyland. We are not on a track. 

In my second year of graduate school at University of Virginia, I shared an office with Mike, a sixth-year graduate student whose area of research expertise was the same as mine-British modernism. I was a new teacher, so I would often pepper him with questions about how he organized courses, graded student work and handled classroom dynamics. During one of those conversations, he summarized his pedagogical approach by saying: "Our students are still Victorians. They believe in God, their family, their country and their own success. Our task is to make them Modernists, to make them skeptical of all that seems certain. College is like the shipwreck of the Pequod in Moby Dick. Some of the students remain defiant, like Tashtego nailing his red flag to the mast, as their ideals are sucked into the vortex of skepticism while most of them become Ishmaels, surviving by clinging to their coffins of irony, their newly adopted positions that enable them to watch from a distance as their ideals sink below the horizon. In either case, we remain the Ahabs, leading this crew to a destruction of innocence."

While it is an extreme metaphor, it is not completely idiosyncratic or secular. One hears of a person's faith being "shipwrecked" by college or other life experience, and teachers, even here at Calvin, sometimes boast of their ability to disabuse students of their simple assumptions about life or faith. It is also a metaphor that captures the stakes and the risk of education. However, it is a metaphor that troubles me. As with Ahab's pursuit of the whale, there seems to be an unrecognized hubris that animates the confidence in undermining another's beliefs, an unexamined certainty about uncertainty.

Alternatively, I have spoken with parents and colleagues who speak of Christian higher education as a haven from the dangers of the secular university-with its Bacchanalian dorm life, its relativist, "postmodern" curriculum and its nihilist professors. Indeed, in this view, a school such as Calvin is more like Noah's Ark, a safe place for young adults to ride out the storm of a decadent culture and emerge two-by-two as mature and productive citizens of the Kingdom. Again, there is some truth to this metaphor, for the education and experience at Christian colleges should be recognizably different from their secular counterparts. There are doctrinal statements and community commitments that establish different boundaries for ideas and actions at these institutions. However, this metaphor also troubles me because it too readily assumes that undergraduate education can and should be made safe, that we can or should sequester students from all potentially dangerous ideas, people or experiences.

Instead of a shipwreck or Noah's Ark, college education seems to me much closer to a whitewater-rafting trip. Granted it may be merely self-delusional to envision myself as a fit, deeply tanned person in his mid-20s rather than as the monomaniacal Captain Ahab or the 600-year-old patriarch Noah, but I trust not. While I have only taken a few whitewater-rafting trips, several phrases of advice offered on those trips have helped me think about the mission of Christian higher education and about my role as a professor.

Skin to the Wind
I do not like being cold, which is a liability in rafting because many trips occur on rivers fed by melting snow and glaciers. On my first trip, I determined to insulate myself from the 54-degree water by putting on several layers of clothes under my life preserver and by wearing a blue waterproof poncho over all of it. As my teenage sons were quick to point out, I looked like a blue Pillsbury Dough Boy. When the river guide saw me, he laughed and said: "The best way to keep warm is to ride 'skin to the wind.' You get wet on this trip, but you dry off quicker and warm up faster the less you have on." Similarly, there is a tendency among people of faith to try to insulate themselves and others from experiences and ideas that could chill us to the core, the sufferings of life, the honest expression of disbelief, and the petty and terrible evil within. We clothe ourselves in reputation, respectability and wealth, and then complacently adhere to beliefs without reflection. In the end, we look ridiculous trying so hard to stay dry in a world of suffering. In response, Christian higher education should train students to become spiritually and intellectually resilient in a world that is broken, not shield them from that brokenness. That training often involves students developing a critical empathy for people and ideas that have the potential to challenge, even break, their sense of self. However, this training should be conducted in faith, not in fear, because those who are more deeply aware of this world's brokenness are often better prepared to respond to it.

Lean Into the Wave
Education, like rafting, also works best when the participants work together. When water flows over a large, submerged rock, the resulting hydraulics cause a riptide behind the rock, a "hole" or "keeper wave" that can trap a raft in dangerously buffeting waves. The backside of the hole builds up water under the "high side" of raft until the raft flips over. Everyone in the raft must do two things to avoid this problem: they must paddle together so that the boat is moving faster than the current of the river and those on the "high side" of the raft must "lean into the wave" to break through the riptide. This advice seems straightforward enough when one is sitting on the shore listening to the guide, but it is strikingly counterintuitive when facing a seven- or eight-foot wall of water. The typical novice rafter will take his paddle out of the water and lean away from the wave, a natural reaction of self-preservation. The guide and other members of the boat will then quickly remind the new rider of his collective obligation. Similarly, Christian higher education is a community activity, which works best when everyone is pulling in a similar direction. Faculty, staff and students work hard together in serving, reading, writing and thinking both inside and outside the classroom, and they must accept responsibility to hold each other accountable to the community standards in a gentle, wise and consistent manner. We should be encouraging each other to "lean into the wave" of the next book project, the arduous class assignment, the challenging honors thesis, the difficult administrative task or the overwhelming personal trial. Indeed, the shared achievement of rafting or education is one of the most gratifying rewards of participating in these activities.

Surviving a Spill
Whitewater-rafting is not always a story of achievement: people fall out; rafts flip over; participants are hurt, even killed. A vibrant Christian education involves analogous risks. Indeed, Christian colleges should perhaps revise their promotion materials to include a pre-trip warning similar to the one delivered by one of my whitewater-rafting guides: "Listen. This is not Disneyland. We are not on a mechanical track. Students will encounter powerful thinkers and ideas that have been known to knock people off-balance, even to the point of questioning their beliefs about themselves, about the world and about God. This experience may cause injury to one's spiritual, emotional and intellectual life, even a loss of faith." Grappling with alternative explanations of human origin, alternative religious worldviews or alternative epistemologies can upset even the most grounded of individuals; students should not, however, be left to rescue themselves. Faculty and staff should anticipate the challenges of college life and be ready to advise and respond to students in trouble, recognizing, of course, that not all troubles begin in college and that not all students are looking to be saved.

Again, the river guide's advice to those who fall out of the raft, "swimmers" as they are affectionately known, is instructive in thinking through how to help students survive an intellectual, personal or theological crisis. Swimmers are taught to stay near the raft where help is at hand, and troubled students should be encouraged to stay close to people of faith. Swimmers are also instructed to float downstream with their feet up so as not to become ensnarled in the boulders and tree limbs on the bottom of the river, debris that can cause permanent injury. Similarly, students should be trained how to maintain a position through a crisis that minimizes the risk for life-long emotional, physical or spiritual damage. Finally, swimmers are reminded to look for the guide in the raft who will be standing ready to throw the rescue rope. Faculty and staff should also be prepared to extend words of encouragement that offer students a way to regain their balance.

Listen to your Guide
Having a trustworthy guide is instrumental in this journey. A student should want someone who has experience on the river, a person who knows the field intimately, including the difficult ideas in the class, the prevailing currents of the discipline, and the best position to steer the class through a difficult stretch of water. A student should want someone who has experience on longer and more difficult rapids, a person who is actively involved in the scholarly issues of the material to bring a depth of knowledge to their teaching. And, a student should want someone who has experience with people, a person who knows how to counsel and cajole them to navigate successfully this time in their lives. Such a guide earns the trust of others, a worthy goal that takes a long time to achieve and must be continually earned.

Of course, it is the thrill and personal challenge of whitewater-rafting, not the potential hazards, which draw most people to the river. The best of a student's college experience will offer similar thrills and challenges-the thrill of mastering organic chemistry, statistics or continental philosophy or the personal challenge of getting along with a difficult roommate, of adapting in a semester abroad in Honduras or of mourning the death of a friend. And a Christian college education should offer more than just the isolated thrill of a vacation excursion. Rightly done, it develops the habits, skills and knowledge that enable a person to serve in God's kingdom for a lifetime.

Often rafting companies end their trips just after the most scenic and the most demanding part of the river, offering their customers a memory that will last. Syllabi can take a similar shape. Imagine a guide at the end of a trip, the bent light of a setting sun deepening the golden tone of the canyon walls and the pick-up spot just around the next corner after the last big rapid. Pausing in the quiet water to offer a few words of advice, he relishes the expectancy in the eyes of those in his raft. He squints in the fading light to pick out the route through the rapid and then pushes off. Smiling at the exclamations of the rowers, he steers the raft through the final large wave and then points out the eagle's nest on the bluff. As they pull into the pick-up spot, the raft is abuzz with stories of the trip. The people move off to the passenger bus and back to their lives, but the guide stays behind to pack up his gear and transport it back to the beginning of the river for the next day's journey-tired, content and deeply grateful.