Last November, I visited the battlefield at Gettysburg for the first time. During the orientation film, I was sitting in front of a young family. Every time the screen flashed an image of a person, the little boy eagerly asked his mother, “Is he good?” or “Is he bad?” The boy’s simple categories did not easily match the complexities of the Civil War or the lives of many of the faces who appeared on the screen that day.
The challenge of that boy’s questions stayed with me as I walked the Gettysburg battlefields that November day, and they have stayed with me since as I seek to navigate the complexities of higher education’s place in our society today.
Like the little boy, we yearn for simplicity in the midst of our confusing and fallen world. We want the world to make sense and to fit into categories that we can manage. We want things to be “good” or “bad.” Like the disciples of old, we want the world to fall neatly into “wheat” and “tares.”
Unlike much of our contemporary world, I believe in the reality of categories of good and evil. I believe it is part of the work of Christian colleges like Houghton to prepare graduates who take these categories seriously; to recognize good and evil in the midst of the muddled and confused moral landscape of our time.
I also believe it is equally part of our responsibility as college graduates to challenge overly simplistic efforts to categorize the world into “good” and “bad.” Sometimes we need to actively resist efforts to reduce complexity into terms that do not capture the richness of reality.
We are dealing with just such a time in the world of higher education. The federal government wants to create one scale that can rate and rank all institutions of higher education according to a simple list of categories such as completion rates, tuition, earnings of graduates, and percentage of PELL eligible students. The declared motive is laudable. They want to help parents, especially parents of first generation college students, navigate the confusing world of college and university websites. They want to promote transparency and clarity. Who can argue with those goals?
In the process, we risk losing the very richness of options in American higher education that have made our system the envy of the world, especially if the availability of federal loans is tied to college and university rankings on this scale, as some have proposed. No one is agreed yet on how to define any of the supposedly “simple” categories of the proposed rankings. Yet, despite admitting this problem, the government continues to assert the plan to move forward with the rankings. I must admit to having a range of concerns for Christian higher education in this process.
No one debates the need for making higher education in this country more affordable, available and accountable. As college leaders, we must take this challenge seriously—very seriously. We must also dare to hope that enough people in the country will recognize that having the federal government try to solve this problem in a “one size fits all” regulatory scheme is not the answer!
Today, as I reflect on the particular task for higher education—how we must seek bold approaches to complex challenges without falling into the temptation of over simplification—I realize that this is simply the nature of the moral and spiritual life in a fallen world.
This is the task to which Houghton graduates are called – to pursue courageous, transforming, redemptive, and improving efforts in the midst of a complex, fallen world. Some of the clarity and simplicity we yearn for eludes us. We must continue to labor, resisting the temptation to make things simpler than they are, confident that God is at work accomplishing His purposes amid the very complexities in which we find ourselves.
Blessings on you as you seek to be faithful to this call in 2014.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976