posted August 30, 2009

Text of 2009 Fall Convocation Address

A Boy Called Eustace and a Hope Education

Fall Convocation Address
Hope College
30 August 2009

by Peter J. Schakel

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." [1]

That's the opening line of C. S. Lewis's story The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader," and one of the best opening lines ever. Lewis is well known today as the author of seven classic children's stories, the Chronicles of Narnia. Two of the books have been turned into successful Hollywood movies, and a third will be released in December 2010. He is known also for writing books about the Christian faith, like Miracles and Mere Christianity. But his day job was college teaching. He was a faculty member at Oxford and CambridgeUniversities for almost forty years, and he did a lot of thinking about the nature and purposes of education. Today I want to talk briefly, particularly to the members of the class of 2013, about Eustace and his Narnian education and you and your Hope education - he got the education he deserved, and you, I suspect, will too.

For those of you who have not read The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader," here's a quick summary.  The story starts two years after the four Pevensie children - Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy - entered Narnia through a magic wardrobe and saved it from the wicked white witch, as related in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Two of the children, Edmund and Lucy, return to Narnia, accompanied by their obnoxious cousin Eustace, very much against his will. They get into Narnia this time through a picture frame - they are looking at a painting of a beautiful Narnian ship sailing across a rolling sea, when suddenly the picture comes to life and they fall into cold, salty sea water. They are rescued by the ship, the Dawn Treader, with their friend King Caspian aboard; he is on a quest to find seven lords who had been sent into exile by the previous king, Caspian's evil uncle Miraz. As they accompany Caspian and encounter a series of exciting and dangerous adventures, they come to know themselves and the world a great deal better. Running throughout the story is a theme of education - no one needs it more than Eustace, and no one learns more than he does.

Before he went to Narnia, Eustace Clarence thought that education was about mastering content. "He liked books," the story says, but only "if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools" (chap. 1). He probably was a good test-taker, especially on the kind of standardized exams used now-a-days to measure education. But accumulation of information, Lewis believed, is not the real goal of education; rather, the aim is attainment of understanding and ultimately of wisdom. And these come through the ability to think clearly, critically, and perceptively; the ability to analyze problems and situations acutely; the ability to ask probing, incisive questions; the ability to reflect deeply.

These are characteristics of a liberal arts education, which Lewis specifically indicates Eustace was not interested in before he visited Narnia. As the story says, "Although [Eustace] didn't care much about any subject for its own sake, he cared a great deal about [grades]" (chap. 2). Lewis deliberately included the words "for its own sake" because they are part of an old, traditional definition of liberal education: that is, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, for the love of learning, not for its usefulness.

Eustace probably never thought about the liberal arts, or about its potential values for his own growth - and perhaps you haven't either. Many of you may have chosen HopeCollege because of its record of admissions to med school or graduate school or law school, or because of its reputation as a Christian college, or because it had the right look and feel as you walked around the campus and talked to people here. You may not have noticed or cared whether it's a liberal arts college or not. But you should notice now, and you should care, because an understanding of and commitment to the liberal arts contribute significantly to a Hope education.

So, what is a liberal education? Some people define it by its structure, as a broad-based education in which a student studies a variety of different subjects. Lewis found this inadequate as a definition because structure doesn't get at essence. The structural approach runs the risk of reducing liberal education to a checklist: fulfill a set of General Education requirements, complete the courses for your major, accumulate 126 credits; when all the boxes have been checked, voila! you have a liberal education. Or maybe not.

A better approach is to define a liberal education in terms of its essence or purpose - asking why a liberal education includes studying a variety of subjects. The answer is that a liberal education is an education for life. Such a view of education is an ancient concept. The origin of the word liberal is the Latin word for "free." Thus the Roman orator Cicero says a liberal education is the education of free persons for a life of freedom. Slaves were trained for work; free people were educated so they could carry out the responsibilities of citizenship, such as participation in government and the development of culture and society. That tradition carried over to the early colleges in America - they were liberal arts colleges. Education was preparation for leadership, not preparation for a specific career. A Hope education does aim to equip students for future jobs and careers, but that is not its primary aim: The primary purpose of a Hope education is development of the whole person; it is a preparation for life.

That preparation for life begins with the intellect - with the development of mental habits you will continue to use the rest of your life. The object of every course you take, every hour you spend on homework or in the lab, every late night discussion in your dorm room, should be improving, refining, and reinforcing good mental habits - habits such as curiosity, questioning, analysis, reflection, making connections, considering implications. These stay with you long after you have forgotten the specific content covered by your professors. As you develop these mental skills, you are learning how to learn - that is, how to find and understand information, how to relate information to other information, how to achieve a sense of wholeness and synthesis.

A Hope education takes intellectual development very seriously, but not just so students can compete effectively in the global marketplace. HopeCollege values the life of the mind because, as literary scholar John Acker puts it, the life of the mind "reflects, however imperfectly, God's perfect and perfectly true mind." [2] In the words of James Emery White, former president of Gordon-Conwell Seminary: "to be fully human is to think. . . . We were made in God's image, and one of the most precious and noble dynamics within that image is the ability to think." [3] James Sire, former senior editor at InterVarsity Press,adds, "Thinking is integral to our call to be what God wants us to be. God calls every one of us to think and to do so as well as we can." [4] The fact that you are here today suggests that for the next four years your calling is to pursue a life of learning, to develop your intellect to your fullest capability, to stretch yourself and to become all that God intended you to be. "Hold onto instruction; do not let it go," says the proverb of the wise king Solomon. "Guard it well, for it is your life."

Developing the whole person means nurturing the imagination as well as training the intellect. Eustace Scrubb needed to develop both. Before he went to Narnia, he was not only intellectually lazy, but also unimaginative; as the story puts it, he was "quite incapable of making anything up" (chap. 1). And he didn't like imaginative stories: The books he read "had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons" (chap. 6). His lack of knowledge about dragons turned out to matter a great deal to Eustace.

Nurturing imagination is an important part of a liberal education. Every Hope student takes at least two courses in the arts; but students should look for additional ways to stimulate imaginative growth. Use of imagination is not limited to the arts - the leaders in every field are those who can apply imagination to what they do. Imagination is as important to a scientist or sociologist or someone running a business as to a sculptor or creative writer. As University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson puts it, "A democracy needs to constantly develop, and to do so it requires the most powerful visionary minds to interpret the present and to propose possible shapes for the future." [5] John Guthmiller, a professor at VirginiaCommonwealthUniversity, adds: "College is where visionary minds go to be challenged, grow, and mature. It is also where people go who aspire to have visionary minds." [6] Imagination isn't just something you have or don't have. It is a habit of mind, something that can be enhanced and expanded, if you deliberately make it a part of your liberal education.

In addition to training the intellect and nurturing the imagination, development of the whole person requires expansion of one's outlook. Lewis says most human beings have a natural desire to do that. He writes in An Experiment in Criticism, "We seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. . . . [We want to] go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, [in travel], and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this." [7]

Eustace started out inhabiting a very small world, without realizing it, of course. He lived a life of wealth and privilege in upper middle class England, an only child, indulged by his parents, going to private schools, getting his own way. His little world revolved around himself. Then he suddenly found himself pitched into another world, a very different sort of world. Gradually, as his Narnian education proceeded, he became able to view our world in a new way by looking back at it from this other world. (Hope students often derive a similar benefit by spending a semester abroad.) Experiences in Narnia also enlarged his outlook: by being captured as a slave, he was forced to see life from a new perspective. By turning into a dragon, he gained fresh insights into his world and himself.

Expanding one's outlook is at the heart of a liberal education. The essence of a liberal education includes a first-hand encounter with "otherness," entering the lives of people from other times, places, cultures, and beliefs through literature, history, philosophy, the social sciences, the sciences, and the arts, so that we understand them from within, not just critique them from without, by our own standards. A liberal education involves a willingness to be open to positions and beliefs different from our own, to listen to them with attention and respect, and to subject them (and our own positions and beliefs as well) to rigorous scrutiny. It involves asking and wrestling with hard questions, and not holding desperately to our own positions as unassailable truth. It involves the willingness to live with some degree of ambiguity, because safe, tidy answers are not always available for the kinds of questions that we inevitably will encounter in life.

Development of the whole person in a Hope education goes beyond growth in intellect, imagination, and outlook. It also includes spiritual growth. Eustace needed that. At the experimental school he attended, we are told, Bibles were not encouraged, [8] and that seems to have been true in his home as well. In Narnia he encounters the great lion Aslan, who changes his life, after which "he [begins] to be a different boy" (VDT, chap. 7). But that beginning is not enough: His knowledge of Aslan needs to grow from a child's encounter to an adult's comprehension. Lewis talks about that in his book Mere Christianity. He is commenting on Christ's words that only those who receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will enter that kingdom. He tells us not to misunderstand this saying. "Christ never meant that we were to remain children in intelligence," he says. "On the contrary. . . . He wants a child's heart, but a grown-up's head. He wants us to . . . [use] every bit of intelligence we have. . . . [You must not] be content with the same babyish ideas [of God] which you had when you were a five-year-old" (Book 3, chap. 2).

As you pursue a Hope education, it is vital that your knowledge of God keep up with your intellectual, imaginative, and social growth. If you remain content with a junior high or high school conception of God, there will be a gap between your mind and your spirit. Your God will be too small to cope with the challenges you are going to face, too small to deal with dangerous ideas. You'll be tempted to oversimplify complex issues and be content with stock answers to difficult questions.

There it is - Eustace's Narnian education and your Hope education: an education for life. You can have it if you want it, and are willing to work for it. But it doesn't happen automatically, just by enrolling at HopeCollege and taking classes for eight semesters. You will need to work hard to make such an education yours. Some college students study just enough to get by. You can receive a Hope degree that way, but you won't be getting a Hope education - and if all you want is a degree, you can get one a lot cheaper from Degreesforsale.com than at HopeCollege. To gain a true Hope education you need to do more than the minimum, go beyond just what is assigned, because you love to learn and want to stretch yourself as far as you can reach.

I close with a word of caution. A Hope education comes with a warning label on the package: If you choose to commit yourself totally to a Hope education, it will change you. You won't be the same person when you walk across the stage on Commencement Day 2013 that you are now. Your Hope education will change you just as Eustace's Narnian education changed him. Before he went to Narnia, he was the most spoiled, stubborn, opinionated, self-centered child you can imagine. When he returned to our world, the story tells us, "everyone soon started saying how Eustace had improved" (VDT, chap. 16).

The difference is that he has joined the human race, not just by being undragoned, but by his growth in intellectual astuteness, moral outlook, and compassion for others. Arthur Holmes, professor of philosophy at WheatonCollege for over forty years, sums up a liberal education as "an open invitation to join the human race and become more fully human . . . by seeing life whole rather than fragmented, by transcending provincialism, . . . [by finding] meaning for everything [you are] and do." [9] That's what I, and my faculty colleagues, and the administrators and staff members at Hope College wish for each of you in the next four years - that a Hope education will help you grow and mature and change as a human being, and develop to its fullest the great potential that God has placed within you.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952), 1.

[2] John Acker, "A Mind for God," posted on the InterVarsity website http://www.intervarsity.org/ studentsoul/item/mind-for-god>

[3] James Emery White, A Mind for God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 15.

[4] James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 9.

[5] Mark Edmundson, "On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students," Harpers Magazine (September 1997), 49.

[6] John Guthmiller, http://www.sonoma.edu/users/n/nolan/n312/values.htm

[7] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 137-38.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1953), chap. 1.

[9] Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College, revised edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 30, 35, 36.

[3] James Emery White, A Mind for God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 15.

[4] James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 9.

[5] Mark Edmundson, "On the Uses of a Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students," Harpers Magazine (September 1997), 49.

[6] John Guthmiller, http://www.sonoma.edu/users/n/nolan/n312/values.htm

[7] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 137-38.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1953), chap. 1.

[9] Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College, revised edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 30, 35, 36.