Dire prognostications have been floating around based on the supposed lack of preparation incoming college students are likely to have because of the tumultuous disruption in their education caused by COVID. I worry that the class of 2025 will get discouraged by these pronouncements to the extent that they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. To help nudge their thinking in a different direction I plan to share the following (true) story with my students by way of introductory comments on the first day of classes. The story is well-known within the mathematical community. But a humanities colleague was unaware of it when I discussed it with him the other day, so repeating it here may be worthwhile. The remainder of this blog gives, more or less, the planned script.
Welcome! I’m looking forward to a great semester with you. I hope, however, that you will not fall prey to the bleak predictions I’ve read about your generation. The claims boil down to this: COVID has disrupted your lives to the extent that you will not be able to function well in college, regardless of whether you are a new or returning student. Indeed, it has been a rough year for you—actually one and one-half years! But I know of a student—Isaac—who may have had a worse year than you during the pandemic. He had to surmount lots of additional hurdles, yet he was able to thrive. Though he is not an American, I urge you to listen to his story and see what you think. Perhaps he will be an inspiration to you.
To appreciate Isaac’s circumstances fully you should know something of his background. His father died two months before he was born, and his mother remarried when he was three. However, her new husband didn’t like him. So, Isaac’s mother and stepfather moved to a different town—effectively abandoning Isaac—leaving him to live with his grandmother. Can you imagine what kind of effect that treatment would have had on a three-year old? As it turns out, his stepfather died just a few years later, and when Isaac’s mother then returned to their original home, she pulled him out of school and forced him to work on the family farm. I’m not sure that was even legal in his country, but that’s what happened.
Eventually, Isaac returned to school, and after what must have been some arduous years, he was finally old enough to begin his college education. Predictably, even though her economic situation was quite good, his mother refused to pay a fee that would have enabled him to be housed in better living circumstances. Despite that slight, he began a happy time of learning away from home—but then the pandemic struck. As a result, he, like you, had to return to his home and quarantine there. Unlike you, his quarantine lasted for a full year because the pandemic hit his part of the world much more seriously than it did anywhere in the United States. Given his family situation, it must have been a difficult time for him. Even worse, when he returned to college, so did the pandemic, and he was forced to quarantine at home for yet another year.
Now, you may be wondering how that account can be factually correct as the timing of the pandemic I just gave does not sync completely with the course of COVID. But the pandemic I’m talking about is not COVID; it was the Bubonic Plague. The year was 1665. The college was Cambridge University. And Isaac? Well, you have probably heard of Isaac Newton. The exact dates of his work are not completely certain, but roughly during those pandemic years he developed his theory of gravity, laws of motion, and calculus. So, class of 2025—and returning students also—congratulations on making it through some very challenging months, but don’t feel sorry for yourselves. Instead, go and do likewise!
Don’t misunderstand that last exhortation. It is not meant to set as a standard that you must produce results equally as dazzling, or achieve the same kind of success as Sir Isaac Newton. We all want success, of course, but the calling you have as Christians is not to be successful; it is to be faithful—faithful in the development of the gifts God has given you. And you can take your admission to this institution as prima-facie evidence that God has given you a mind he wants you to train for future service to his kingdom. Is there any biblical support for that claim, or even that God wants you to develop your mind?
Plenty. For starters, have a look at the blog that Perry Glanzer wrote for Christian Scholar’s Review: “Is Jesus Irrelevant to Our Defense of a Liberal Arts Education?” The link to it is posted on our class website. It was written for faculty, but is also a worthwhile read for students. And for a scriptural text, look at 1 Peter 1:13 (KJV): “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The introductory “wherefore” refers to the fact mentioned in prior verses that the gospel has now been proclaimed, and the exhortation that follows is a consequence of that proclamation. But what does the metaphor of girding up the loins of your mind mean?
Loins refer to the part of your body between your ribs and thighs. In biblical times a common outfit was a long flowing robe. Before engaging in any kind of strenuous activity that garment would be “tucked in” to a belt worn around the waist, thus allowing the legs freedom of movement while simultaneously girding and supporting the loins. Similarly, Peter is saying that your minds need to be “tucked in” so that you can be ready for the strenuous activity of effective service. In particular, he is instructing you to think properly, deeply, and well about your Christian conduct as you attempt to bring the good news to a world in desperate need of it.
This “tucking in” requires some discipline, and for someone who displayed an impressive amount of discipline we may look to Isaac Newton again as an example (though a rather extreme one!). Why was he able to accomplish so much in such dire circumstances? Partly because he had a passion for learning new things, even while quarantined at his home in Woolsthorpe, England. It was probably for that reason that Richard S. Westfall titled his massive biography of Newton Never at Rest, and in an abridged version described Newton’s thirst for knowledge to be so intense that he often forgot to eat: “The tentativeness suggested by the earlier unfinished notes vanished, to be replaced by the passionate study of a man possessed. Such was the characteristic that his chamber-fellow Wickins remembered, having observed it no doubt at the time with the total incomprehension of the Woolsthorpe servants. Once at work on a problem he would forget his meals. His cat grew very fat on the food left standing on the tray.”1
As we go through this course together, I hope you will develop some of that passion—the passion for learning—with the knowledge that doing so will make you a more effective instrument for the gospel. The passion you have should be serious, but maybe not as someone “possessed.” After all, the world can put up with only so many “fat cats”!
Ironically, over in The Twelve blog at the Reformed Journal, today’s blog (https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2021/08/30/no-one-sees-clean-windows/) is about all “well-behaved women who seldom make history”. You note above that Newton commonly would forget to eat because he was so engrossed with his work. In other words, he was a workaholic, a common problem in this period of history as well. What Koerselman at The Twelve reminds us is that someone faithfully brought him food. Perhaps there is a record of who this person was, but certainly that person, along with others who maintained the household, were essential to Newton’s work, yet get none of the glory.
I see that your point is to encourage your students to be faithful rather than successful, but it is curious then to use Newton as an illustration given your description of his obsession with work. You want to develop a passion for learning in your students, which is good. But how many future Newton’s are sitting in your classroom? There’s maybe a one in a million chance that you would see one Newton during your entire career. In contrast, how many of the students actually sitting in your room this semester will make impacts that are much smaller or local, or even go unnoticed by anyone but God himself. Perhaps we would be well off to take a bit of Koerselman’s advice: “The leaders and shakers and headline makers will always be seen in the historical record. But perhaps we could spend more time reclaiming the regular women and people who were, for the most part, well-behaved.”