College should be more than tomorrow’s meal ticket.

“Education is not a preparation for life—it is life.” So claims a headline in one college’s promotional brochure.

Several recent books have explored how our culture robs children of a childhood exempt from adult experiences. Today’s college students suffer from a similar trend.

College was once a time of preparation in which young adults could search for truth, broaden their intellectual and cultural horizons in multiple directions, and decide what vocation best suited their talents. Today they are pressured to regulate their college years around the job they think they have the best chance of landing upon graduation. In the process, students are increasingly turning their backs on the subjects that interest them most, which may be the areas where their greatest potential contribution to society lies.

Advertisements for colleges increasingly picture students in front of computer terminals. “One of our fastest-growing majors,” these colleges proclaim, hoping to send out the message that they can produce technicians with a marketable skill.

Today’s college students are caught in an identity crisis. Their instincts as learners pull them in one direction, while voices of activism and a preoccupation with landing a job pull them in another. It was once an axiom that education was a preparation for something in the future. Today young people are made to feel guilty about being in a preparation phase.

The time has come to revive an idea that once seemed natural: the student’s life as a Christian calling. By calling I mean vocation—the occupation of being a student. It is not an idea that students alone need to hear. My remarks are intended for anyone who rubs shoulders with young people: pastor, parents, or friends.

When we begin to describe the ingredients of the student’s life as a calling, we quickly start to formulate a theory of education as well. Some methods of education measure up to the description of that calling, while others do not.

This should not surprise us, for as T. S. Eliot once noted, “We must derive our theory of education from our philosophy of life. The problem turns out to be a religious problem” (“Modern Education and the Classics”).

What Is Education For?

In one important way, a Christian student’s calling is the same as it is for a Christian in any situation of life. Its central focus is the individual’s relationship to God. Loving and serving God should be the foundation for everything else that a student does at college. It is a requirement, not an elective.

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When the Puritans founded Harvard College just six years after arriving in Massachusetts, one of the rules at the new college was this: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well [that] the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ …, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”

When Thomas Shepard’s son entered the college, he wrote to his son, “Remember the end of your life, which is coming back again to God, and fellowship with him.”

And in that noblest of all educational treatises, John Milton’s Of Education, Milton gave this definition of Christian education: “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.”

Contrary to trends in our own century, Milton here defines education in terms of its end or goal. There may be many ways to achieve a Christian education, but in the meantime we must not lose sight of what it is for. What it is for is to produce Christian growth.

Albert Einstein once remarked that we live in a day of perfect means and confused goals. When we obscure the goals of education, we trivialize it. It is no wonder that students today so easily reduce education to completing the required number of courses, obtaining a degree (but often not an education), and—in that most irritating of all student clichés—getting a requirement out of the way.

Our whole milieu has conditioned students to conceive of their education in measurable quantities, with grades and jobs upon graduation topping the list. But to conceive of the student’s calling in Christian terms—to view it (as Milton did) as a process of redemption and sanctification—is to substitute an entirely different agenda of concerns. Here the crucial question is not how many requirements students have met nor even how much they know, but rather what kind of person they are in the process of becoming during their college years.

The nurture of one’s soul is finally a more important part of the student’s calling than is obtaining marketable skills. I said at the outset that my description of the Christian student’s calling would be at the same time a theory of education. Education governed by a goal of Christian nurture obviously means Christian education, however it might be achieved.

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All Of Life Is God’s

A second cornerstone of the Christian student’s calling is the premise that all of life is God’s. There is no division of life into sacred and secular. For a Christian, all of life is sacred.

What goes on in a college chapel is not more glorifying to God than what goes on in the classroom. What goes on in the classroom is not more important to God than what goes on in the dorm room or the dining hall. We have no basis for viewing some academic courses as sacred and others as secular. Nor are some academic majors holier than others. God calls Christians to make his will prevail in every area of life.

As a variation on that theme, we should be convinced that all truth is God’s truth. In the New Testament, Paul several times quotes with approval from pagan Greek poets whom he apparently knew by heart. In his commentary on one of these passages, John Calvin wrote, “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.”

Thomas Shepard wrote to his son at college, “Remember that not only heavenly and spiritual and supernatural knowledge descends from God, but also all natural and human learning and abilities; and therefore pray much, not only for the one but also for the other.”

The integration of every academic discipline with the Christian faith is an essential part of the Christian student’s calling. It is the differentiating feature of Christian higher education today. That ideal should not be confused with the situation of a Christian student’s attending a public college and gaining spiritual sustenance through a Christian fellowship group. A college is not Christian by virtue of having chapel services. By the same token, a weekly meeting with a Christian student group on a university campus is not the same as an education in which the very curriculum is structured to view human knowledge from a Christian perspective.

Liberal Arts Education

It is an easy step—I would say an inevitable step—from the idea that all of life is God’s to the idea of a liberal arts education. Liberal education is comprehensive education. Martin Luther wrote to the councilmen of Germany, “If I had children and could manage it, I would have them study not only languages and history, but also singing and music together with the whole of mathematics.… The ancient Greeks trained their children in these disciplines; … they grew up to be people of wondrous ability, subsequently fit for everything.”

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“Fit for everything”: that has always been the goal of liberal education, as distinct from vocational training in a specific field.

Milton’s definition is even more famous. He defined “a complete and generous education” as one that “fits a man to perform … all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.” The heart of Milton’s definition is that a complete education frees a person to perform “all the offices” of life. A liberal education prepares people to do well all that they might be called to do in life.

May I say parenthetically that such an education is possible only as students realize that all education is ultimately self-education. Education is learning, and someone else cannot learn for a person. The most perfect educational climate in the world will not make someone an educated person. An adequate education does not stop after one’s college years. To be generously educated is to have acquired the lifelong habit of self-education.

What are the “private and public” roles that Milton had in view when he defined liberal education? Education in our day is obsessed with a single public role, that of job, which is increasingly defined in terms of one’s income. But the public roles that a person fills cover much more than that. They include being a good church member, a good board member or committee member, and a positive contributor to the community. One of the tests that I apply to people’s education is whether they can teach a good Sunday school class.

And what are the private roles of life for which an education should prepare a person? They include being a good friend or colleague, and a good spouse or parent. And they include the most private world of all—the inner world of the mind and imagination. One of the best tests of whether people are liberally educated is what they do with their free time.

Let’S Be Practical

The liberal arts education I have described is not necessarily more Christian than other types of education, but it is more practical. More practical? Surely we all know that liberal arts education is impractical in today’s specialized world. But do we? In a rapidly changing world, how can anyone know what he or she will be doing 5 or 10 or 20 years from now?

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Several years ago I spoke at a conference where I had dinner with a couple who had graduated from a Christian liberal arts college several years earlier. During their college years, she had gone on a summer missions program and he had been an intern in a social work program. Both had come back from those experiences painfully aware of the needs that exist right now. Their activism had led them through a time of intellectual lethargy in which they regarded their academic courses as misspent time.

Two years later both could speak with regret about the wasted time that their attitude had in the long run produced. She was a resident director in a dorm on a university campus, holding weekly meetings with Christian students who were trying to relate their studies to their Christian faith. The liberal arts courses that she had regarded as impractical were now exactly what she most needed. Her fiance was trying to make up for what he had neglected in college by taking a year of science courses at a university near home, trying to raise his MCAT scores so he could get into medical school.

The intellectual aspect of a student’s calling is a foundation that is worthy of every student’s best effort. There is still much to commend the wisdom and practicality of T. S. Eliot’s theory that “no one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest—for it is a part of education to learn to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.”

The Legitimacy Of Preparation

We live at a time when education is regarded in such a utilitarian way that its legitimacy finally depends on its being a ticket to a job. In recent years I have seen pathetic examples of parents putting so much pressure on students to know exactly what job they expect to enter upon graduation that the student could not possibly avoid feeling guilty about taking time for an education.

Parents and advisers to young people need to stop making students feel guilty about being in a period of preparation. When God calls people to a task, he also calls them to a time of preparation. This preparation time, moreover, is as important as performance of the task.

What should we say about the hours it takes to prepare for a sermon or Sunday school class or lecture or term paper or ball game or recital? Is this time and effort somehow ignoble? Does God turn his head the other way when a person prepares?

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Jesus did not begin his earthly ministry until the age of 30, living until that time as an obscure carpenter in an out-of-the-way village. We might protest: Think of all the people he could have preached to and healed between the ages of 20 and 30.

Moses spent 40 years of his life being educated in the court of Pharaoh, receiving the best education his day afforded. Then he spent 40 years in Midian, from a human point of view rotting away in exile, but actually being prepared for wilderness survival, the skill he needed to lead the Iraelites from Egypt to the promised land.

According to Galatians 1:17, Paul, upon his conversion, did not at once become an evangelist. Instead, he spent three years in Arabia and Damascus being instructed in the gospel.

Learning, in whatever form, is the student’s calling. It is the arena within which students display good stewardship or lack of it.

Several years ago I entered my office to find the following letter that had been slipped under my door: “I do not know where to begin, except I am preparing for the next test. I tried reading late into three successive evenings and found myself moving in and out of consciousness. I fell behind early after the first exam. This year I am heavily involved in the community. I am trying to wean myself from college life (not studying). College is just a transition period (a period of preparation). This term I have four reading courses, 20–30 hours in a ministry, a job, and meetings almost every night, and two speaking engagements a week.”

What was this person’s problem? An inadequate view of the student’s calling. And where did he get it? From his pastor, his family, some of his fellow students, and a general atmosphere that denigrates the idea of intellectual preparation for one’s eventual vocation in life.

During one’s college years, being a student is one’s vocation. That occupation involves more than studying, but studying is by definition its major ingredient.

Education And The Mission Of The Church

The Christian student is not peripheral but central to the church’s mission. The future health of the Christian church depends on the quality of its young people’s education now. After all, tomorrow’s Christian leaders are being molded today.

A number of recent surveys have shown that the majority of today’s college students are primarily concerned to get out of school and find a lucrative job. Students will do almost anything for a good grade, but zeal for learning is currently at a low ebb. Can Christian education offer a vigorous alternative to the national trend?

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It can if it protects what I have called the student’s life as a Christian calling. In a sermon entitled “Learning in War-Time,” C. S. Lewis compared the Christian student’s calling to the soldier’s life. The Christian church, he said, cannot survive without Christian students taking time for an education.

“To be ignorant and simple now,” Lewis said, “would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

John Calvin said that God’s calling is the sense of duty that God gives us to enable us to reject what is superfluous. In Calvin’s terms, vocation is a sentry that spares us from distractions to our main task.

There is much that would divert young people today from getting a high-quality education. The strongest antidote to the forces of activism, utilitarianism, materialism, and anti-intellectualism is a renewed commitment to the dignity of the student’s life as a Christian calling.

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