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Fall 1997 · Vol. 26 No. 2 · pp. 80–84 

Conference on Mennonite Higher Education: Theory and Practice

Robert Forsythe

The Radical Reformation tradition seems peculiarly well-suited to address the current crisis in academia. It can recognize the tendency of the will-to-power to obscure the truth, and yet provide guidance for workable social and epistemic practices.

From June 13 to June 15, 1997, the conference “Mennonite Higher Education: Theory and Practice” was held at the Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The conference was sponsored by the Higher Education Council (GC), the Mennonite Board of Education (MC), the Canadian Mennonite Bible College, and the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. I will pass along my impressions and memories of the conference, vague and sketchy though they be in places. Except for a longer treatment of the keynote address, my thoughts will be organized loosely around the schedule of events at the conference, which included the following talks and speakers:

“Institutions: Who Are We?”

—Gerald Gerbrandt, Canadian Mennonite Bible College

“Students: Who Are They?”

—Ritch Hochstetler, Hesston Mennonite Church, and Abe Bergen, General Conference Mennonite Church youth worker and Canadian Mennonite Bible College {81}

“A Theology of Education” (keynote)

—Nancey Murphy, Fuller Theological Seminary

“Teaching for Peace”

—J. Denny Weaver, Bluffton College

“Teaching for Community”

—Dale Schrag, Bethel College

“Administration: An Inside View”

—Joe Lapp, Eastern Mennonite University

“Administration: An Outside View”

—Ted Koontz, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary

“The Invisible Curriculum”

—Tom Yoder Neufeld, Conrad Grebel College, and Shirley Showalter, Goshen College

“Being a Mennonite Professor”

—Jim Yoder, Hesston College, and Shirley King, Bethel College

There was, in addition, plenty of time for questions, discussion, coffee, worship, and other types of fellowship.

The “we” of the first talk involves the following institutions of higher education, arranged by the dates of their founding. The speaker compiled the list, which appears here without several qualifying remarks.

Bethel College (1887), Goshen College (1894), Bluffton College (1899), Tabor College (1908), Hesston College (1909), Eastern Mennonite University (1917), Winkler Bible Institute (1925), Bethany Bible Institute (1927), Steinbach Bible College (1936), Columbia Bible College (1936), Concord College (1944), Fresno Pacific University (1944), Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (1945/46), Canadian Mennonite Bible College (1947), Eastern Mennonite Seminary (1948), Rosedale Bible Institute (1952), Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (1955), Conrad Grebel College (1964), Aylmer Bible Institute (1976), Institut Biblique Laval (1976), Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute (1977), Menno Simons College (1989), and Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre (1990).

The church affiliation of the above includes Mennonite Brethren (7), Mennonite Church (6), General Conference Mennonite Church (2), Mennonite Church/General Conference (3), Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference (1), and “Inter-Mennonite” (4). These institutions also come in various forms, including traditional and nontraditional liberal arts colleges, Bible colleges or institutes, and seminary or graduate {82} schools. To this reviewer, who has not yet become fully practiced at “the Mennonite game,” this list is impressive for both its length and its variety.

The “they” of the second talk reflect many of the characteristics of our surrounding culture with (1) its shift away from a dominant, monolithic culture toward multiple subcultures, with an accompanying emphasis on relationships and loyalty to one’s “friendship clusters”; (2) the pervasiveness of the “three Ts” (TV, technology, and travel), which makes for, on the one hand, a better informed “they,” at least to a certain depth, and on the other, a need for frequent “hits”; and (3) the widespread experience of others having failed “them” with an understandably accompanying lack of trust in authority. How depressing, yet how motivating—if ever we in higher education were called to serve, we are called to do so now.

J. Denny Weaver’s talk made me start dreaming about a mathematics textbook with no militaristic examples or exercises. His proposal of the rabbit as an image of God’s self-sacrificial love versus the rabbit as lunch will probably remain with many of the attendees for many years. The illustration was partly meant to show the possibilities of reinterpreting the “facts” of a particular discipline, in this case biology, in the light of biblical beliefs. Dale Schrag’s talk gave a much- and oft-needed reminder of the several roles, in addition to imparter of knowledge, that we professors play—including those of model and pastor.

Another welcome reminder was gleaned from the insider and outsider talks on administration—the institution relies on an entire community of believers working toward a common goal. The two views meshed well, though the ensuing discussions could have done without the remark of the nameless participant to the effect that the tendency of Mennonites to view other Mennonites as automatically more righteous than non-Mennonites is a form of either blindness or arrogance.

“The Invisible Curriculum”—insight, enthusiasm, love for a subject, discipleship, character, and all those other things that we really hope to impart at least as much as the goals and objectives on the syllabi—was the focus of two separately prepared talks that spoke with remarkable unanimity. Something of a subtitle to Tom Yoder Neufeld’s talk—“A Love Song to Sophia!”—could have been the title of either talk and sums them both up almost perfectly.

As for the last two speakers’ presentations, I remember saying to myself, “Yes, exactly,” or similar words, often during each talk. It is good for brothers and sisters to “dwell” together in this house of higher education in unity. Keep up the struggle and the good work, all of you! {83}

And now a word or two about the keynote address, “A Theology of Education.” Nancey Murphy began her talk with a brief sketch of the history of higher education, beginning with the nineteenth century when most colleges and universities were affiliated with a church, through a subsequent “disestablishing” period, another period wherein the “liberal” education was replaced in large part by a “relevant” one, yet another “therapeutic” period wherein institutions’ goals shifted toward helping their students “find themselves,” and finally into the present period (or have we already shifted out of this one?) with its preoccupation with having the curriculum reflect the interests and identities of several and various subcultures.

One force at work in some of the most recent changes in higher education, she points out, is the “spirit of postmodernism,” one of whose fruits is that many professors disparage the notions of truth, knowledge, and objectivity. Murphy pointed out that “much of what is called ‘postmodern’ is actually nothing but a recognition of the failure to find indubitable foundations for [the] universal knowledge” sought for since the Enlightenment; that “postmodernism” is essentially modern, accepting the Enlightenment conception of knowledge but, in the Nietzschean tradition, rejecting its attainability.

A real eye-opener for me was the connection she drew between Nietzsche’s idea of the will-to-power, which often conceals itself as a will-to-truth, and the Augustinian—and especially the Calvinist—understanding of the fall and total depravity. She also contrasted this traditional understanding with that of another tradition, the Thomist. If, for the Augustinians, in the hierarchical organization of the capacities of the soul the will is above the intellect, then when the will falls the intellect is corrupted. On the other hand, if the intellect rather than the will is the highest of human faculties, as for the Thomists, then “the fall does not affect it directly. Humans can still fall into error, when the will leads them to form judgments prematurely, but the capacities for knowledge are not intrinsically darkened or depraved.”

It is regarding this interplay of the will and the intellect that the Radical Reformation has the most to say for epistemology and hence for education. In her sketch of a Radical Reformation alternative, Murphy illustrated that Radical Reformation churches have developed “a communal practice aimed at the pursuit of truth”—what she calls a “Christian epistemic practice.” She showed the beginnings of this development in the letters of Pilgram Marpeck wherein he identified four signs by which the body of Christ can judge the impulses behind one’s teaching. The sign that Murphy focuses on is “a devaluation and giving up of life {84} unto death to suffer for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.” She suggested that “what we see here is a social practice aimed at discerning truth” and that this social practice (when it works) counteracts the distorting influences of the will-to-power.

Murphy made a point in passing to the next section of her talk that I think deserves some attention. This method of discernment will not be successful unless the people practicing it have certain virtues, or at least a certain level of virtue. The Radical Reformation practices of nonresistance, simple living, and self-subordination, she claimed, produce such people.

I conclude my remarks on the keynote address with a quotation from the speaker.

I have suggested that our own Radical Reformation tradition is indeed distinct in its point of view and form of life from . . . several traditions. . . . Furthermore, our tradition seems peculiarly well-suited to address the current crisis in academia. With the Nietzscheans we can recognize the tendency of the will-to-power to obscure the truth and in addition provide guidance for workable social and epistemic practices aimed at developing the capacity to live (and think and do research) without the assertion of power.

Robert Forsythe is Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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