Uni clues

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There’s nothing quite like the buzz you FEEL starting a new year at uni. There’s so many new people to meet, opportunities to explore, and new, exciting and challenging ideas to play with. I loved every year I spent at uni, which is just as well, as altogether I spent nine years in the cloisters, lecture theatres, libraries and dining halls of what we broadly term “higher education”.

In candour, I should say I loved eight years of the experience. I did spend one year at Andrews University, which is located in an almost unimaginably cold part of the world. But my three years at Newbold College in England were pure magic, as was my time at the University of Virginia—founded by Thomas Jefferson and set in one of the greatest college towns in America. My final stint sitting at the feet of the masters was at Georgetown University law school, located smack in the middle of Washington, DC. The study was gruelling but never dull, the city was demanding but amazingly lively. 

As easy as it is to lose touch with God, when you’re half way through life, it’s pretty hard to get back on track.

All in all, this uni gig fit me like a glove—though after nine years, I’d had my fill…

But there was something I noticed transitioning from high school to life as an undergraduate, and from undergrad to graduate school. At every transitional stage, a whole slate of my Adventist friends lost touch with their Saviour. Here I am at mid-life and very, very few of my closest friends from high school or college are still in love with Jesus Christ. The sad thing is that I don’t think most of my friends intended to lose touch with God. It was just one of those things that sort of happened when they weren’t paying attention—or when they were paying attention to other things. Like putting on that extra kilogram or two a year—we didn’t intend it, but it happened anyway.

As easy as it is to lose touch with God, when you’re half way through life, it’s pretty hard to get back on track. We have commitments, we have lifestyles and we’ve raised our own kids with an entirely different value system. 

For those of us who are heading to tertiary education this year, there are going to be a world of opportunities before us—friends, subjects, majors, social and cultural events, hopefully some travel and a whole series of life changing experiences. The whole panoply that defines the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to paint in the colours that will in large part define the rest of our lives is right in our hands. As we do this, it’s worth being intentional about a few things.

Mum isn’t cooking for us anymore—so watch out for the pies and fries in the cafeteria. All those late night pizza feasts and sugary drinks to get us through morning lectures have a bad habit of catching up with us—making bumps and lumps where we never thought they should be. 

It’s also worth being intentional about our spirituality. To do this, one of the most important things is to keep our professors and peers in perspective. It’s natural enough to be intimidated by the intellectual achievements and mental dexterity of the academics we learn from: they have a depth of knowledge and skill in presenting that knowledge honed over many years of study and experience. And of course, there’s a power disparity—they are, after all, the ones who are handing out the grades. It’s a naive student who thinks he’s going to go head to head with a lecturer and win an argument. 

But we shouldn’t confuse the ability to “wow” with knowledge and win an intellectual argument, with being right. I remember a professor I had in law school who proudly proclaimed his continued adherence to unreconstructed Marxist economics. He had all the knowledge and arguments to support the Marxist state honed to perfection. Today the last unreconstructed Marxist nation is North Korea—hardly a paragon of economic prosperity (even Cuba has undertaken free market reforms). Reality aside, he was utterly convincing. None of the students could win an
argument with him. But his powers of persuasion didn’t mean he was right. It just meant he was the most experienced and skilful debater, in a debate where he held all the cards that come with power.

Similarly, when we go back to uni this term, we may encounter academics who are ready, able and willing to make everything we hold dear sound like foolish chaff fallen from simple minds. This shouldn’t dismay us. They may be able to deconstruct the history of Christianity, magnify every apparent discrepancy, misconstrue and malign every tenet of our faith. That’s OK. That is what skilled, disciplined, practiced minds have been able to do for generations. 

That we encounter academics with these skills shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the perfected intellectual argument does not trump the greater reality. Like the unreconstructed Marxist professor who is likely still going strong preaching the eventual triumph of mandatory collectivisation of agriculture, etc, we don’t have to win an intellectual argument with someone with greater experience and power over us, in order to know what is right, and what is wrong. 

But we will only be able to measure the validity of what is presented to us if we keep a firm hold on the greater reality. In the field of economics, my view of the greater reality came from working in the real world, studying economics at graduate school before going to law school and, most important of all, travelling widely—including to Eastern Europe and Vietnam before they reformed their economies. The opportunity of experiencing unreconstructed Marxism inoculated me against even the most deft rhetoric in its support. 

Similarly, in the field of faith, our understanding of the greater reality is strongest if it comes directly from our experience. And the most powerful experience comes from a personal relationship with Christ and in thorough study of His revealed Word. As long as we keep that relationship alive and our Bible study fresh, we are on solid ground. 

As impressive as our instructors may be at uni, our peers can be even more influential. If we’re lucky, we’ll make friends from a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences and with a whole host of views of life. Indeed, in an ideal tertiary education, we learn as much from our peers as we do from our lecturers. But once again, it’s critical to keep our peers in perspective. For all the confidence that can accompany discussions in the uni quadrangle or late night debates in the dorm, underneath the swagger is the uncertainty that accompanies all voyages of discovery. 

Sometimes our non-Christian friends seem so much brighter and insightful than our old friends from church. If we’re tempted to extrapolate our idiosyncratic uni experience to the world in general, it’s worth keeping in mind that for a small community, Adventism has produced an astonishing number of first-rate intellects. Just as uni students may not be entirely representative of society as a whole, our local church is not the sum total of the Adventist experience.

All of this is sounding a little preachy, and I don’t want that. But if we’re off to uni this term, the truth is that if we’re not deliberate, there’s a good chance we’ll end the process disconnected from Christ and our church community. If that’s not where we want to end up, now’s the time to take the practical steps to keep our faith alive—most importantly, spending time with Christ to ensure our relationship is strong and staying involved with our church community. 

Today my spouse is on the faculty of Macquarie Uni in Sydney, and I’ve had a stint or two teaching college classes. But there’s still something a little magical in walking onto campus at the beginning of a new academic year and catching that very special buzz. Study gives us so many fabulous opportunities to expand who we are, what we are and where we’re directed. It gives us an opportunity to grow in leaps and bounds spiritually and intellectually. To wring every ounce of joy and enlightenment that this opportunity presents us with, we must keep it all in the perspective of the greater truth. And no matter what our discipline, that truth begins and ends with God—the Author of knowledge. As the ancient maxim states “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10).  

James Standish is communication director for the South Pacific Division.