Briefly Noted: Note to a College Freshman

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on October 28, 2013.]

As we mentioned recently on BtT, I stumbled upon Henry Stob’s Theological Reflections while browsing the “used books” selection at a bookstore. Which, in case you wondered, is one of the reasons why I consider used bookstores one of the great delights of the modern world. (Thank you for having been about to wonder.)  One never knows what sorts of epistolary treasures might be found if one takes a few minutes to browse.

But to the point: Theological Reflections includes an essay which Stob entitled, “Note to a College Freshman” and which I think is worth noting briefly.[1] Stob, a former professor at Calvin College, encourages college freshmen to make the most of their college experience by transcending certain reductionist or otherwise misguided views of college education.

He begins by addressing the college freshmen. “You have come to college and you have taken a mind with you. . . . Mind is intellect, will, and feeling fused into one. Mind is what you are on the deeper level of your being. It is the spiritual measure and size of you, the conscious center and core of you.” (229) A freshman’s mind is more than the sum total of his thoughts. Further, Stob the college freshman is responsible and accountable for his mind. “The mind that is in you as you enter college is the product of many historical forces and influences. . . .This means that you have been an agent in the making of the mind you have. For its present set and temper you must, in consequence, accept the responsibility. And you must accept the same responsibility for its future form and texture.” (229)

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Briefly Noted: “Is the Lecture Dead?”

In a recent essay in The Atlantic Richard Gunderman discusses the recent pedagogical trends in medical, dental, and nursing schools.[1] One trend is that the traditional “lecture” is going the way of the deceased patient. Yet Gunderman believes there may yet be life and hope for the academic lecture.

Medical educators increasingly doubt the effectiveness of the lecture, but they’re not the only ones.  “Commentators frequently single out the lecture as the prototypically old school, obsolete learning technology, in comparison to which newer educational techniques offer interactive, customized, and self-paced learning alternatives.” These newer techniques include the use of laptops, tablets, and other technology in interactive group formats. Moreover, this is not simply a choice individual instructors or institutions have made. As Gunderman notes, “The LCME, the organization that accredits US medical schools, strictly limits the number of hours per week students may spend in lectures.” Some schools are even put on probation for not adhering to this criteria, apparently spending too much time on “passive” approaches to learning.

In the wake of all this progressive and interactive learning one asks, “what then of the lecture?” Gunderman believes, recalling Mark Twain’s words, “widespread reports of the lecture’s demise are somewhat exaggerated.” Ineffectiveness is not inherent in the lecture; it is inherent in the poorly delivered lecture. Surely just as there are boring, ineffective lectures there are boring, ineffective study groups. So Gunderman believes educators “must attempt to understand better the features that distinguish effective, engaging lectures [and lecturers]” rather than “disposing entirely of the lecture as a means of learning.” Thus the fate of the lecture is more a matter of the lecture’s purpose and the lecturer’s acumen and passion.

Gunderman encourages educators to ask a basic question: “why am I lecturing?” This question connects administrators and teachers to a more effective means of evaluation. The “why am I lecturing” question evaluates both the lecture and the lecturer. For as Gunderman argues, “the core purpose of a great lecture is not primarily to transmit information . . . The real purpose of a lecture is to show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the hearts and minds of learners.” Because of this sort of teaching, students raise new questions, connections, and possibilities in their own minds. Hence education is far more than disseminating information and tracking its consumption. Education is, then, a very human endeavor; good lecturers and good lectures recognize and strive for this.

Gunderman thus notes the qualities of a good lecturer and lecture. First, “a great lecturer tells a story.” Second, great lecturers enjoy lecturing (use “teaching” if you still dislike the term). “A great lecture is not a rote mechanical reading of notes, but a kind of dance, in which lecturer and listeners watch, respond to, and draw energy and inspiration from each other.” (There is “group study” in good lectures!) Third, good lecturers lecture in person. Gunderman recounts, as examples, two lectures: one given by Randy Pausch (professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon) in 2007 (while he was dying of cancer), and the other by Steve Jobs in 2005 at Stanford University. They did not record their lectures on high-tech gadgets, about which they both knew a little bit, and they did not simply read their notes. Instead, Pausch and Jobs spoke passionately, personally (to their audience), and reflectively about their respective subjects. Their lectures were effective because they caused their audiences to think about their lives “from fruitful new perspectives” and likely without boring their audiences. Gunderman, then, challenges medical educators, and by extension all educators, to think twice before pronouncing the lecture deceased. Rather, “the lecture remains one of our most precious educational resources.”

Kudos to Richard Gunderman, wherever he is. The lecture remains one of our most precious educational resources, and it ought not be sent to the pedagogical morgue on account of its most boring and tedious practitioners. As teachers, we must work hard to evoke from our students a curiosity and excitement about the things of God. To be a lazy teacher, preacher, or writer is a sin. Although George Steiner was not writing about theologians, his words are instructive:

To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.

May teachers everywhere, and especially professors of theology, lecture as if their hair were on fire. May they tell the Great Story passionately, personally, and reflectively, and in so doing inform, energize, and inspire their students.

[1] Richard Gunderman, “Is the Lecture Dead?” in The Atlantic (Jan. 29, 2013).

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A Missiology for the Academy (3): Three Practical Steps & A Conclusion

There are many ways to minimize God’s glory. One way is to reduce his Lordship to immaterial “spiritual” things like our devotional lives and personal ethics. Those things are very, very important, and in fact build the core muscles with which we do everything in life. But alongside of those things we must also recognize Christ’s Lordship over the material and “cultural” aspects of our lives. If we minimize the academy—thereby minimizing the arts, the sciences, the public square, business, sports, and any other realm represented by the academy—we rob ourselves of the ability to fully glorify the Lord.

Practical Steps

What are some practical steps we may take toward building a missiology for the academy? For starters, I’ll say that we should continue to do the one thing that evangelicals have not neglected: campus evangelism through student ministries. We should throw our support behind local church college ministries such as Generation Link and Campus Outreach, and behind campus ministries such as Campus Crusade or Baptist Campus Ministries. In addition to this aspect of campus ministry (on which evangelicals have focused), we must take at least three other practical steps (which we have often neglected):

First, our churches should preach and teach in such a way that they assign significance to the life of the mind, and to the realms of life represented by the academic disciplines. We must rid Christianity of the sub-Christian belief that our physical, material, and intellectual life doesn’t matter to God. It does matter, because Christ is Lord. Every station of life—whether it is biology, philosophy, literary criticism, or business marketing—matters to Christ and should be undertaken in a Christian manner. In taking these stations of life seriously, we are able to leverage them for Christ and his gospel. We proclaim him with our lips and promote him with our lives.

Second, our churches should encourage people with PhDs to take their credentials and their vocation overseas. There are hundreds of major universities in Asia, Africa, and even the Middle East who are eager to hire Americans who hold a PhD. Many of them are willing even to hire an evangelical whose PhD is from a seminary and whose expertise is in New Testament or Theology. Most American students who graduate with a PhD will never find a full-time teaching job here in the United States, but they might easily find one overseas in a country where their gospel influence would be significant.

Third, our churches should encourage some of their most gifted young people to take their PhDs from Ivy League schools or well-respected state universities, so that they might find themselves in tenure-track positions in those same types of institutions. The whole world is sending their best and brightest children to study in American universities. Those children are shaped by our American professors, and then are launched into influential positions here in the USA or elsewhere. Why not send them on their way after having been shaped by several robustly Christian professors who put in the blood, sweat, and tears to earn a position teaching in a major university?


Missional Christians do not seek to escape from their earthly existence, but to shape it in light of the gospel. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.”[1] Missional Christians recognize that the gospel is always proclaimed, and the Christian life is always lived, within a cultural context. Instead of chafing against this reality, we may participate in the joyful task of working out the gospel’s implications in those cultures, allowing the gospel to critique them and bring them under the scrutiny of God’s revelation, and seeking to redirect them toward God’s design.

“We await the return of Jesus Christ,” writes D. A. Carson, “the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth, the dawning of the resurrection, the glory of perfection, the beauty of holiness. Until that day, we are a people in tension. On the one hand, we belong to the broader culture in which we find ourselves; on the other, we belong to the culture of the consummated kingdom of God, which has dawned upon us.”[2]God restores his creation instead of trashing it and expects us to promote the gospel within our creational and cultural context rather than attempting to withdraw from it. As such, we find ourselves with the opportunity to promote the gospel within the university context rather than denigrating it, minimizing it, neglecting it, or withdrawing from it.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller and others, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967), 176.

[2] Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 64.