Higher Education and the Life of the Mind

Historically, Presbyterians value higher education. In the best traditions of our Reformed faith, this commitment is always being challenged, examined and restated. Prospective students and their parents, along with professors, alumni/ae and governing bodies frequently ask, "What does it mean for a college to be related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church?" The question deserves a thoughtful response.

My wife and I graduated from, have taught at or serve on the boards of trustees of five Presbyterian related colleges. We also encounter confusion, even embarrassment, over the designations “church-related” or “Christian.” The term “church-related” can easily be misinterpreted to mean narrow, even sectarian. The word “Christian” reflects many laudatory attributes; however, the word carries all the baggage of the crusades, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Semitism and countless mean-spirited actions. Because this confusion persists, I propose we drop the terms “Christian” and “church-related.”

The Reformed tradition treasures the life of the mind. The mind is part of the spiritual dimension of life. Although the mind depends upon the brain, it is far greater. When the mind is engaged, wisdom emerges. A more accurate description of schools related to churches of the Reformed tradition would be “Shaped in a significant way by people who treasure the life of the mind, and profess faith in Jesus Christ and the kingdom Christ proclaims.”

A question I often ask young people is “When did you begin to realize that having a mind is more than having a brain?” Memorable responses include one from a high school junior who said, “Well, I think I realized that I had a mind when I began to think abstractly, but could come to concrete conclusions.” An eighth grader recently looked me in the eye and answered, “Last year, I realized my parents talked about doing things one way, but actually did things another way. My mind kicked in and I started wondering about why people say one thing and do another.” These responses reflect wisdom; a “higher education” is occurring.

As people of the Reformed tradition established institutions of higher education, the institutions offered courses that teach Scripture in ways that are academically challenging as well as spiritually nurturing. Historically, these institutions have been expected to challenge students to consider a call to ministry, mission service or education. However, more important than the teaching of Scripture or the call to church-related vocations is the larger vision of leading students to think faithfully, to use their minds to critique, evaluate and imagine in such ways that whatever they do, they seek to move the world toward the kingdom of God. International studies, service projects, honor systems, athletics as well as the most secular of majors can lead graduates to a life of service to God and service to the people of God if students gain a vision and share in a revelation of what it means to live beyond themselves after the manner of Christ.

Higher education in a tradition “shaped by people who treasure the life of the mind and who profess faith in Jesus Christ and the Kingdom Christ proclaims” affirms humanism at its best: growing in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humanity. Such education does not seek to convert but rather to confront — to confront students, faculty and the world with a search for that which is eternally true, which transcends the present, and which looks to the future with confidence and hope. Such education understands sacrifice but prefers to embrace a servant lifestyle. Such education values human life, including the capacity to excel, but knows that wisdom involves a refusal to make an idol out of any human ability or ideal.

To be “shaped by a tradition that treasures the life of the mind and professes faith in Jesus Christ and the kingdom Christ proclaims” is to discover a truly “higher” education.

Art Ross is pastor of White Memorial church, Raleigh, N.C. He serves on the board of trustees of Davidson College and Union-PSCE; his wife Jan, a graduate of Agnes Scott College (Ga.), has taught at Queens (N.C.), where Art has also served as a trustee, and Eckerd College (Fla.). She is currently a trustee of Peace College (N.C.).