new Mennonite Life logo    March 2003     vol. 58 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

Love and Hospitality in Mennonite Higher Education: Negotiating Culture in a Competitive World

by Loren L. Johns

Loren L. Johns is academic dean and associate professor of New Testament at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana.

In his analysis of higher education today, Dale Schrag identifies lack of hospitality as a primary problem--perhaps even the primary problem facing Mennonite higher education today--and suggests that if the Mennonite colleges were to address this problem with care and seriousness, it could give our colleges "a real marketing edge."

Schrag briefly considers Karlstadtian and Erasmian solutions to this problem, but finally advocates what he calls the Benedictine solution. An important element in the Rule of Benedict (chapter 53) is that guests are to be received like Christ, requiring hosts to show great honor to their guests in all humility. It is a call, in other words, for the exercise of hospitality as a most serious spiritual discipline, a sacred trust. Since this discipline has proved to be powerful and life-changing for people who have visited Benedictine convents and monasteries, what would happen if our Mennonite colleges were to take hospitality seriously in the next few years as the key orienting component in a rethinking of their mission?

The Brightest and the Best?

Colleges that seek "the brightest and the best" seek in turn to produce "the brightest and the best" at the next higher level. This phrase, "the brightest and best," sounds inherently classist, and classism in higher education is close to the heart of what is wrong in higher education today. Why? Because classism feeds on and produces competition, cynicism, contempt toward "the average," and arrogance. Teachers who are classist and arrogant produce students who are classist and arrogant. Is that what we want for our children?

In 1989 I was living with my family in New Jersey, working on my Ph.D. in New Testament studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. Our daughter Kendra was a fifth-grader in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district. Kendra was a good student and we were proud of her progress in school. It worried us some that as a fifth grader she consistently had two or more hours of homework every evening. At the next meeting of the parents with the teacher, a parent asked about this. She expressed some distress at the amount of homework her daughter had and suggested that it may be inappropriate for children this age. The teacher's response floored me. She said that the reason she assigns so much homework is that we live in a rat-race world that will make many demands of our children in the workplace; her aim is to prepare her students for that rat-race world so that they can be competitive. I was disappointed; as a parent, I hoped for different values.

Schrag anticipates that some readers may worry that his emphasis on hospitality could reflect a certain soft-headedness about academic excellence that will result in a plummeting of academic standards. He is right that a clear commitment to hospitality in our colleges need not entail a softening of our expectations for academic excellence. And because the most valuable learning experiences are inevitably personal, Schrag is also right to lift up hospitality as a key concern for Mennonite higher education. We live in an impersonal information age that seems increasingly fragmented at the level of human storiedness, connection to tradition, and the construction of meaning in life. If Mennonite colleges were to lose sight of their sacred responsibility to attend to the personal, faith-oriented context that places all knowledge and skills into perspective, we might as well close them. We must value the person as intentionally as do the Benedictine orders.

Hospitality as Paradigm

However, I have two nagging worries about using hospitality as a major paradigm. First, while context is crucial, it is not everything; I would argue that knowledge about our world and the perspective provided by critical engagement with the Christian liberal arts are closer to the heart of the purpose of higher education than is hospitality, even if hospitality contributes crucially to the gaining of that knowledge and perspective. Second, both parents and students must "negotiate culture" as they sort through their own mixed motivations and competing values when they make decisions about college.

In the second half of his article, Schrag offers some suggestions about how our Mennonite colleges might "develop and nurture an attitude of hospitality." We will do so, he says, not by developing "beautiful minds" (à la John Forbes Nash Jr.), but "crucified minds," a term coined by Bryant Myers in an International Review of Mission article.

Our colleges, universities, and seminaries need to be Christian [Schrag says], need to have a vibrant spirituality about them, not in order to mollify our conservative constituencies or out of loyalty to some hallowed tradition. Our colleges, universities, and seminaries need to be Christian if we are to have a ghost of a chance of dealing successfully and effectively with the inhospitable forces of academe.

I am mostly happy with Schrag's descriptions of how we should work at producing "crucified minds" in our institutions of higher education and with his arguments that colleges deeply committed to the Christian agenda can truly be open to those who do not share that agenda. I also agree that radical Christian hospitality, rather than signaling the abandonment of that great Shibboleth, "academic excellence," can actually serve it. What I would like to revisit and question is the prior question about what we hope our colleges to "produce."

All good education is education that "messes with the minds" of students. God save us from education that does not do so! Education that consists merely of sterile knowledge--even if advanced knowledge--or of the training of skills--even if advanced skills--that does not "form" the person in the Christian faith and contribute authentically to the "considered life" lived in response to God's grace must inevitably fall short of good education. This has been a central theme of Parker Palmer's books on authentic teaching and learning. That is why the critical engagement with all subject matters that characterizes the best of education requires personal investment and a certain amount of vulnerability. That vulnerability is best served in a hospitable and safe environment; yet hospitality is not itself critical engagement.

Negotiating Culture: Mixed Motives and Competing Values

In my opinion, the college years can hardly be over-estimated in their potential to shape the values and character of life. It is for this reason that the Mennonite Church has invested so heavily in these years. We invest with hope--hope that our children will be shaped in the crucible of values that we as parents and "uncles and aunts" in the church hope to pass on to them. We want them to be prepared to negotiate the challenges of the workplace, to learn the information and skills that will equip them for various careers, yes. But more fundamentally, we hope that they gain that knowledge and those skills in an environment that is spiritually formative. (I use the phrase spiritually formative here to refer not only to the religious life of the spirit, but also to one's identity, values, and sense of place in the world). While public schools from elementary to post-graduate may claim to provide a spiritually neutral--or values-neutral--environment in which to learn the professional skills and knowledge necessary for a career, they do not. All colleges and universities are spiritually formative, but in what ways, toward what ends?

Parents and youth evaluate colleges somewhat differently and I suspect that acquiring a "crucified mind" is not high on the list for youth considering a college. At some level, hospitality is a key factor in college choice, even if it does not rise to the level of consciousness. Many intangibles go into a student's sense about whether he or she will "fit" well in this college, whether he or she will be honored and treated as an individual in campus visits and in the application process, and whether a college has sufficient strength in an academic area to prepare him or her for a productive career. My point in emphasizing the issue of college choice is that all along the way, we are "negotiating culture." If we have a child who is above average in intelligence, who deserves extra attention, and who shows great potential in life--and who doesn't have such a child?--we may be tempted to choose a college on the basis of what we think will provide that "competitive edge" that he or she needs. Life itself is an exercise in negotiating culture as we express our values in a world whose pressures and values are occasionally at odds with those of God's Reign. Whether as a parent or a rising college student, we are partially aware of those cultural pressures and partly unaware.

Schrag's article is an invitation to take seriously the values that characterize Mennonite higher education and to place great value on hospitality as a sacred trust. This attention to the context in which we do Christian education is valid and on target. Hospitality begins in the home. Although a parent may think that he or she has better values for making a college choice, hospitality itself requires that we take seriously the hopes and perspectives of the very children whose lives we hope to form in our values. It requires vulnerability and negotiation.

Ultimately, we must decide as a church and as parents whether we want our children to become successful competitors in the marketplace or lovers or good negotiators of life. If our goal is first to produce successful competitors, then perhaps our colleges are not the best place for our children; if our goal is first to produce persons who love God, the church, and even that inhospitable world that God loves, then perhaps they are.