Stop forming character; start asking questions

President Eaton, in a recent op-ed in the Seattle Times ("John Paul II U: the pope and the soul of the university," May 15) outlines his vision for the American university. Apparently, according to Eaton, the university has fallen into disrepute, nihilism and utter depravity. Academia has given up on "character formation" because "we cannot agree on a moral framework from which to guide our students."

As an alternative, Eaton exhorts professors and university officials to "imagine that we are in the business to teach character and integrity and honesty and hard work. We need to imagine that our work takes place in a moral universe."

Reading his opinions piece, I was floored. President Eaton — the man who runs our college — has publicly announced that he wants to turn the university into a Sunday school.

On the simplest of levels, Eaton’s thinking is atrocious.

First, and this is intolerable in a man who was a teacher himself, Eaton argues that the university has a duty to teach anything other than the subject matter at hand. Presumably, if I enroll in a literature class, let’s say a class on Milton, I can expect the professor to present Milton’s works and help me to understand them as best he can. Not so at SPU. Apparently Eaton would have us undergird our entire college experience with a set of pre-packaged, already-chewed ideals. We are the baby birds and the university is the mother, vomiting conclusions for us to swallow without a second thought.

Second, and worse, Eaton suggests that a university’s work "takes place in a moral universe." This may be true, but it is certainly an assumption worth challenging, and I’ve always thought that this is exactly the sort of question universities are intended to engage.

Eaton’s entire approach to academia begs the question. We are not here to encounter new ideas or to engage significant, unresolved questions. We are here to get the answers to these questions before we’ve even been allowed to ask them. Eaton’s university does not explore, it does not engage; his university cowers, and its students, especially at a place like SPU, end exactly where they began.

Eaton does ask one good question: "Might it be possible that the pursuit of truth could become once again the driving purpose at the heart of the university?" I certainly think so, but this directly contradicts his stated purpose for academia. If you already have the answers, if you set out to promote an established value system or agenda, how in God’s name can you seriously say that you are in any way searching? When you start indoctrinating, when you start forming characters, you are no longer concerned with the search. At this point your search becomes a hunt for converts, and your brain, soul and spirit are, in any meaningful sense, dead.

I came to SPU hoping that I might find a community of Christians interested in moving outside of themselves. I wanted a place where faith could be vibrant, inquisitive and, above all, open. Instead I found exactly what Eaton describes, a university where you come for the express purpose of having your mind systematically raped until you forget what it means to look at the world with fresh, open eyes.

The excellent professors at this school amaze me. They are like plants in the desert, choked by harsh sands and noxious gases; they survive in direct opposition to their environment, and manage to teach well only insofar as they find it in themselves to quietly rebel against the institution that employs them. I am utterly indebted to them, and to one well-loved professor in particular, for keeping my heart alive in this place.

For my part, I’ve been here too long. I’m tired of the endless round of hallelujahs and the perpetual "Jesus loves me, this I know …" mantra. I want an environment with a little elbow-room, a place big enough to be human and, most of all, I want to learn. I want to wrest my mind from the grip of Eaton’s beloved tradition — from the simpering, self-congratulatory cage of conservative Christianity – and do something with it myself.

President Eaton — thanks but no thanks. Mold somebody else, someone who has forgotten that their character is theirs alone to shape. I haven’t sold out yet. I still believe that questions are worth asking when you don’t already know the answer, and I’m still going to ask them. Even if I have to go somewhere else.

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Title: Stop forming character; start asking questions | Author: Michael Seguin | Section: Opinions | Published Date: 2005-06-01 | Internal ID: 4580