It is beginning of August, and I am starting to think about the coming school year. Soon students will be returning to the university with a new or renewed sense of commitment to their academic pursuits. First year students are especially interesting to watch. Not only are they trying to figure out where their dorm room is or where the cafeteria is, but they are also attempting to understand what is proper social behavior at the university.
It is something that all of us do. When we enter into a strange social situation we attempt to size up the room and situate ourselves so that we don’t stand out to much in a crowd. We attempt to understand what is socially acceptable and unacceptable in the new situation, and attempt to comport ourselves properly. Most new students are very cautious when entering into this unknown country called the university, and are hesitant to establish themselves too quickly just in case their read of the social lay-of-the-land turns out to be incorrect.
No where is this more evident than with a group of gifted and academically motivated honor students. For years many of them have toiled in a private academic world that most of our culture sees as nerdy or weird (or both). They have known for years the private joys of a particular realm of science or literature that invigorates and inspires them to deeper investigation of subterranean academic realms. They have also learned to carefully cloister those joys lest they become the object of ridicule amongst their fellow classmates.
This is because a majority of our modern society does not enjoy learning for its own sake. Society has increasingly viewed academic endeavors as a necessary (albeit onerous) hoop to jump through so that one can get a job. In our society wants immediate gratification, and the life of slow and careful intellectual pursuit is seen as arduous. Today’s society is conditioned by television shows that come to some sort of clean resolution within 30 or 60 minutes time. To think of a task that may take hundreds of hours to begin to master is often too much for many in our world to even consider. Our microwave world doesn’t have much patience for the slow fermentation of intellectual inquiry.
So a world in which a student takes joy in a deep intellectual pursuit puts them at odds with their fellow students who are just trying to get through the educational expectations of society. Most honors students would rather share a deep dark sin than admit that they enjoyed checking out as many books as the library would allow or that when they had read all of their library books they would read the family encyclopedia for fun. They believe that they are an anomaly in their world. They are the ones who ask their youth pastor those annoying (difficult) questions during youth group. They have come to believe that they are very different from most (if not all) of the students their age.
In a recent study of honors students, Thomas P. Hébert, an educational psychologist at the University of Georgia, and Matthew T. McBee, an educational researcher at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, state that honors programs can be an important part of a student’s intellectual and emotional development.
One student described their experience in their honors program as an “oasis following years of isolation in an intellectual and emotional desert.” What happens is they find individuals who are much like themselves. They meet and befriend others who find joy in intellectual pursuits. They value studying and work on their academic habits, want constructive criticism, and enjoy spirited discussions about ideas.
When a student first meets other people like him or her they are shocked, but their shock quickly turns to excitement and joy. They have finally found people who are interested in the ideas they are interested in. They have found individuals who are dedicated to the life of the mind, and who will push them on the logic of their ideas.
What they discover, often for the first time in their lives, is that they are in a community that is just like them. They are surrounded by faculty, staff and students who are deeply interested in their ideas and their questions. They find that it is okay to ask hard questions about their beliefs, and that there are answers to those difficult questions if you work hard enough.
They are also able to talk to upper-classmen who have experienced the same struggles that they have been through. What an honors program does at a Christian university (such as Biola’s) is allow students to become immersed into a community that values the life of the mind and does not see it as distinct from the biblical and theological truths of Christianity. This is certainly not the case of in all university honor programs.
Often, honors students are convinced they have to choose between either their intellectual life or their Christianity. This is because these students are often exposed to secular intellectuals and intuitions that see the church as an obstacle to real intellectual pursuit and development (especially if they are in a honors program at a public school). Conversely and tragically, Christian students who are smart and asking difficult questions also find themselves at odds with their local churches who often see the academic life as a potential impediment of spiritual growth.
A Christian university with an honors program is equipped to engage a student in difficulty questions of the faith, and enable them to be able to develop the tools by which their questions are answered and their faith is strengthened. Academics and spiritual growth are not two distinctive paths. It is a holistic way in which we pursue and understanding of Christ and his kingdom purposes.
Education can be an important way in which we enable students to engage with all of God’s creation in all its various disciplines. Students must be able to fearlessly pursue hard questions about God without feeling that they are going to endanger their immortal souls because God desires us to be a people who radically pursue him. C.S. Lewis famously said that,
He [God] wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up head… he also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim…God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers.
Let us encourage the students who have been gifted by God to pursue academic excellence, and enable them to see how their strengths can serve God for His glory.