Last week I sat next to a seven-year-old “digital native” on a three-hour plane ride.  I had planned to get a lot of work done on the plane.  He clearly had other plans for me.  First, he wanted to know about my fountain pen having never seen one before.  Every few minutes he would look up from his video game with “Watch this,” or “Do you want to see something really cool?”   He was deep into “Minecraft,” an interactive program that he and his cousins regularly worked at.  He explained that “we used to be into ‘Survivalcraft,’ but since ‘Minecraft’ entered our lives, we don’t play ‘Survivalcraft’ anymore.”   At one point, however, he decided to go back to “Survivalcraft,” and prepared for the game by “loading his world” and “generating the terrain” he wanted to navigate.  He also played a version of “Oz” where his character sought to follow the yellow brick road through various obstacles. The trip concluded with his animated interaction with “Plants vs. Zombies,” a game where his objective was to keep obliterating the waves of zombies who were regularly announced on the screen before they obliterated the plants.   

Interspersed at fairly regular intervals were comments about his “non-digital” life.  I learned a lot over the course of the trip.  He did not want to leave his mother. . .His mother would be coming to visit for Mother’s Day. . .He was excited about finding his Easter basket at his dad’s . . .His mother was getting married in the summer.

 As I listened and watched, I was impressed by the great gap between his digital world that he could manipulate and control, creating worlds and destroying monsters at the press of a button, and his non-digital world where he clearly felt almost totally helpless.  Several reflections followed.  First, I could certainly see the appeal for him of escaping and dwelling for long periods in his safer controllable world.  Second, I realized that he was almost inhabiting both worlds simultaneously.  Third, I transferred these thoughts to the recent realities of my own “non-digital world.”  I had just visited Santa Barbara, where several of my former colleagues and friends are dealing with life-threatening illnesses and circumstances that cannot be manipulated at the press of a button. They are not free to “load their world” or “create the terrain” of the challenges that life is asking them to navigate in this season.

Finally, my mind came to rest, as it usually does, on the implications of all this for our work at Houghton College.  Increasingly, our students are “digital natives.”  Some of them may not have seen fountain pens, though I suspect they have.  (Fountain pens are making some kind of “retro” comeback in academic circles.)   Our students, like my travelling companion, are practiced in managing several worlds at once.  They know well the challenge of giving full and sustained attention to only one thing.  They know well the chasm between the worlds they can control and the worlds they cannot.   They know well how quickly any of their worlds can change.

It is an odd time for the media, and sometimes even the church, to be doubting the value of a Christian liberal arts education.  For if ever this kind of education — a Houghton education — is relevant, it is now.  The Christian foundation grounds our lives in realities that do not change, thus giving us a place from which to navigate our rapidly changing world.  The curricular and co-curricular educational programs prepare us to draw from, evaluate, and utilize the wealth of knowledge that comes to us as we move through our various worlds.  The natural context invites us to rest, to take walks, to slow down and listen to what God might be trying to say to us.  The community of faculty, staff, and students give us courage to face the challenges and the opportunities in a world where we know all too well that, at the end of the day, we are not in control.  In short, a Houghton education prepares us to be purveyors of wholeness, grace, courage, and hope in a world where these are, all too often, in very short supply.

Grace and Peace to you today,

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976