I interview college students as part of my job. When first year students arrive at our university, I have a group of researchers ask them, “What do you think is the purpose of college?”
As a professor, I am always disappointed with students limited dreams and desires for college. They dream incredibly small. One recent first year student told us, “Well, ideally, the purpose of college is to basically further your education in hopes of furthering you career and getting a job.” Another one shared, “The purpose of college is to learn and prepare for your future in a given field.” Still, another one told us, “I think it is to prepare you for like, the real world and what you’re going to be doing afterwards. And it’s really just to give you, not really a head start, but just kind of like an upper hand than people who didn’t go to college.” You get the picture. They simply see the university as providing them with job preparation.
There is another type of student who dreams a little bigger. They mention things like these students, “I think the purpose of college is to grow in yourself and to find what you love to do through education.” “Besides preparing you for job, it’s also to make connections with others and grow as a person.” They see college as a place for them to grow as a person, whatever that may be, whether socially, intellectually, or in other ways.
One thing you will notice about both of these purposes is that they are focused solely on the student and their own ends. Others, particularly politicians and educational leaders argue that college should also fulfill another purpose. It should help you move beyond yourself and think about how you can serve, especially serve your country. For instance, a recent book by Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be summarized the three most common purposes of colleges. The first two were basically what we have already mentioned—college should help students get a job and contribute to the student’s life-long pursuit of happiness.1 For his third purpose though, he though higher education should develop leaders to further democracy, particularly America’s form of liberal democracy.
Christians should find something lacking in all three of these narrow aims. Our lives do not consist of our working in our jobs, living for our own happiness or even serving our country, although these are important aspects of life. Jesus revealed that for a Christian the two most important commands are simply: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). The most important reason we have for attending higher education is that it should cultivate, direct, order, and enrich our loves in the context of our most important relationships and human practices. God calls us to think about excellence (Phil. 4:8) and consider what it will look like in our lives.
Consider the world’s greatest athletes. All of them still have coaches. No matter if you are the greatest player in the world in golf, tennis, baseball, basketball, or any other sport – you still need a coach. The same proves true with almost any other endeavor. Talent and practice on their own are not enough. Loving God and others proves the same. Like any practice or endeavor in life, you need God’s grace and human mentors to help you figure out how to do those things in particular contexts of life. While the goals of loving God and others are quite simple to articulate, we also need to recognize that love often becomes complicated when put into practice.
Christian universities in particular exist because we need help with this endeavor, particularly as life becomes more complicated. Even when we achieve excellence in a narrow field, we need help in learning to love God and others in not just our jobs but in every aspect of our lives: family, friends, neighbors, jobs, our care for the earth, how we relate to culture, how we manage our money and more.
My best friend’s nephew won the championship of the National Junior Track and Field decathlon. I asked the father how his son trained for so many events. The father described how he sought coaches out for each different event to teach the unique skills associated with each practice to his son. Like a decathlete, we need to learn how to love God in multiple contexts and ways and they need multiple mentors who can teach them how to do it. How can we love God as teachers, philosophers, engineers, historians, or accountants? How can we love God as citizens, spouses, sons or daughters, neighbors, brothers or sisters, men or women, stewards of creation, and more? How can we love God in these areas with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength? Going to a Christian university involves being around faculty, administrators, staff members, and other students who seek to guide you in the search for wisdom.
Furthermore, this task becomes even more complicated as we move beyond our individual lives and form organizations and institutions to accomplish any number of tasks. How should the Church care for the poor? How should schools best educate a diverse population? How can family members better love one another? How should a Christian hospital care for its patients and staff? If we are to provide an education that addresses these issues, it becomes clear that, as Arthur Holmes said, Christian higher education has “a constructive task, far more than a defensive one.”2 Creating communities that love God and others in sophisticated way is an incredible undertaking. This is the inspiring vision for going to higher education. We need a vision for the reasons for going to higher education or attending Christian university that extends beyond limited secular visions of the university’s purpose. God wants us to dream bigger.