The struggle over education’s purpose

A Mennonite College for Everyone (?): Goshen College and the Quest for Identity and Inclusion, 1960-2020 by John D. Roth (Goshen College, 2023)

While reading John D. Roth’s social history of Goshen College, the words of Ecclesiastes 1:9 came to mind: “There is nothing new under the sun.” ­Goshen’s challenges were (and are) similar to other church-affiliated schools. Concerns about “theological drift,” raised at Goshen a century ago, continue not only there but at other faith-based institutions. A faculty member at my university recently expressed similar worry about losing our faith-centered focus, using the same language of theological drift.

In A Mennonite College for Everyone (?), Roth challenges his readers to understand Goshen College and its history in a new way. He argues for the universal in the particular. The challenges Goshen has faced in attempting to become an inclusive institution offer a “microcosm of the church’s own tumultuous response to rapid cultural, economic and political changes,” Roth writes. The lessons learned from the tumult can be instructive not only for Christian higher education but also for churches, other institutions and people of faith who struggle with what it means to be truly inclusive. 

Although Roth focuses on the era from 1960 to 2020, he begins by reaching further into the past: ­Goshen College’s beginnings, its lean early years and its brief closure in 1923 after the Mennonite Board of Education shut the college, hoping to purge it of worldliness. When it reopened the next year, leaders privileged Mennonite orthodoxy and uniformity over critical thinking and creativity. The closure foreshadowed tensions faced for the next century as people with competing views grappled over the purpose of education: to ­codify tradition or to encourage liberation, diversity and innovation.   

Questions about the purpose of education, and thus the purpose of Goshen College, inform Roth’s inquiry. The Vietnam War, racial unrest, the feminist awakening and the sexual revolution forced college leaders to perpetually reevaluate what a Goshen education should look like — especially when expectations about what it meant to be Mennonite differed, sometimes drastically, from changing cultural norms. 

Roth deftly handles the matter of LGBTQ inclusion, contextualizing Goshen’s changing policy by placing it within the broader framework of Mennonite discussions. He explores ­Goshen’s courageous decision to hire queer faculty — a decision that put it at odds with most other Christian-­affiliated institutions in the United States, precipitating its exit from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in 2015. (Eastern Mennonite University also left the council around the same time.)  

The chapter exploring Goshen’s 2009 decision to play the national anthem before some athletic competitions describes the difficulty administrators faced: trying to hew closely to a Mennonite identity while cultivating a diverse student body that didn’t understand the historical or theological reasons for eschewing public displays of patriotism. Alongside this inflection point, Roth dedicates significant space to Goshen College’s attempt to become more racially diverse, describing its many initiatives to attract and retain Black and Hispanic students through specific programs, targeted recruitment and funding. 

Although some of these efforts were successful, Roth notes that “the most significant barrier to full inclusion — and likely the most subtle — was the cultural power exerted by the White majority on campus who perceived themselves to be at the cutting edge of Mennonite progressivism.” The majority’s assumed identity as capacious hosts, he suggests, caused racial and ethnic minorities to be perceived as guests rather than as full members of the college community. 

This interrogation of the inclusion ideal may be the most important contribution of Roth’s book. His last chapter, “Reflections on Institutional (and Personal) Transformation,” looks at the risks inherent in allowing those with power and privilege to define community, inclusion and identity. Roth considers it “overly nostalgic and ethnocentric” to believe that the college’s diverse student body diminishes its Mennonite identity. But it’s also problematic to replace that identity with “an equally simplistic progressive narrative.” Instead, Roth advocates “right remembering”: telling our histories with factual accuracy, empathy for other viewpoints and a posture of confession. 

Roth offers a new narrative about old and ongoing tensions that will interest alumni of Mennonite colleges and universities and anyone who cares about Mennonite higher education. 


Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.

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