Bible scholar Bart D. Ehrman gave a convocation speech in February at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan. He encouraged the students to read each book of the Bible for its own unique message. Pointing out differences among the Gospels, he showed that paying attention to each writer’s specific choices about how to tell the story of Jesus enriches our understanding of Scripture.
Ehrman delivered a lively talk that seemed to hold just about everyone’s attention. For an hour on a Friday morning, most of the Bethel community gathered in one place to learn together about one important thing.
This shared experience epitomizes the value of a Mennonite college education. Ehrman’s lesson on biblical interpretation wasn’t just for Bible majors. It was for everyone. It was an essential part of what students of business or music or chemistry are supposed to get out of their time at Bethel. It was the very essence of a Christian liberal arts education at a Mennonite college.
These days, colleges are judged more closely than ever on the value they deliver for the price they charge. People try to measure the value of a college education based on how much you’ll earn when you get a degree, as if gaining vocational skills and climbing the salary scale were the only purposes.
Job training for a meaningful career is important. And there’s nothing wrong with a cost-benefit analysis, as long as the benefits aren’t defined too narrowly.
But the fact is, you can’t put a dollar sign on the life-shaping impact of Christian higher education. You can’t use a financial yardstick to measure how an Anabaptist college’s culture of seeking truth while caring for each other can set a life’s path.
College should be a time of intellectual development and spiritual growth. It is a singular opportunity for self-examination and discovery. You learn things you didn’t know you wanted to know until an inspiring teacher turned you on to them. This kind of education doesn’t happen only in the lecture hall or science lab. Some of it occurs in the dorm, the chapel, the rehearsal room and the athletic field.
Students at Mennonite colleges absorb ideas and values from their campus community. They learn that the community expects a lot from them. They get the chance to act or sing or have their writing published, even if that’s not their specialty. They have a part to play in making the community strong. They learn to contribute and to serve. In a community that learns together, they are each other’s teachers.
Many liberal arts colleges share these good qualities. But Mennonite families must not lose sight of the fact that our own church colleges are unique. They teach the timeless values — as this annual College Issue emphasizes — of our faith tradition.
For Mennonite students and others who are drawn to Anabaptist values, a Mennonite college education will prepare many for a lifetime of contributing to their faith communities. Today’s Mennonite college students are tomorrow’s Mennonite church leaders. You could see them in a convocation at Bethel College, immersed in new ideas as a fulfilling life of faith opened up ahead of them.