" The Wabash community is an environment where creativity can flourish; a college that has resisted "the forces of conformity that have engulfed so many institutions of higher learning."
*The title for this article comes from the Convocation lecture delivered by Jerald C. Brauer, University of Chicago Divinity School, in the Fall of 1990. It was later reprinted as "A History of the Divinity School: Creatively Out of Step," Criterion 29/3 (Autumn 1990).
Wabash College: Creatively Out of Step*
by Michael J. Brown, Ph.D.
I first arrived at Wabash in the fall of 1995. I was finishing my graduate work at Chicago, and I looked forward to sharing this "wealth of knowledge" I had acquired with some eager students. I was prepared for a college that was different. What has surprised me is just how profoundly different from the average school Wabash really is. Having attended some of the "best" schools in the nation, I really did not think that I would find something at Wabash that I could not find-or had not already found-somewhere else. Yet, in this community known as Wabash College, the students, faculty, and administration have created an environment where creativity can flourish, and they have done this by resisting the forces of conformity that have engulfed so many institutions of higher learning in this nation.Wabash has distinguished itself to me as an institution creatively out of step in five distinctive ways.
Wabash is a college that is driven, but it is not agenda driven.
There are people on campus with agendas, but I have yet to see any one person's (or group's) agenda hold sway over the College. It has been unfortunate that some have distorted this reality, and have claimed that there is a "faculty agenda" or an "administrative agenda."
What some people object to is really part of what an institution of higher learning does: it constantly re-assesses and re-ascertains knowledge. This means there is no sacred canon of knowledge that can never be questioned. In fact, such an attitude is contrary to the meaning and purpose of colleges and universities. Academics have a peculiar obligation in our society to study what they deem to be important. Anything less would be bowing to someone else's agenda.
This debate at Wabash is part of the larger debate of the role and purpose of education itself. Recently, the country has engaged the issue of the purpose of education head-on. Books, such as Cultural Literacy, bemoan the loss of unity within American culture. This point of view maintains that the American cultural ethos is being lost within the present pluralistic enterprise of education. Advocates for this view contend that there are certain "ideas" or "values" that make every American, despite ethnicity or class. It is this core of culture that its advocates seek to preserve.
On the other hand, colleges have been bombarded with hordes of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty seeking to promote politically correct thinking. That is, they recognize that certain concepts that determine our American notion of education subtly promote discrimination and disenfranchisement. Those who promote politically correct thinking seek to make the institution of higher learning a place where every person-regardless of race, gender, or class standing-is a full and meaningful member of the community.
Thus, it appears that there is a tug-of-war going on within the American educational community about the role and purpose of education in our society.
The dialogue surrounding education has at its heart the issue of the liberal arts education. Voices within the academic community (students as well as scholars) are questioning the role and purpose of the liberal arts education in modern America. What I have experienced at Wabash is a desire on the part of the faculty and students to rigorously study serious and important things. The so-called Protestant work ethic is alive and well in the halls and dormitories of Wabash College. The level of dedication students bring to the study of intellectual matters has been impressive. This level of dedication is matched by a faculty and administration driven to provide the latest research and facilities for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. The atmosphere is in many ways contagious, but it is driven by the desire to ascertain the truth and not the espousal of a particular agenda.
Wabash is a college that seeks to educate and better a human being, and is not just a training ground before professional or graduate school.
I strongly believe that the acquisition of a liberal education makes us better human beings. I must admit that I garnered this belief through my study of religion. The phrase I return to most in this regard is theologia habitus est ("theology is a way of life"). In the context of the liberal arts, this means that learning is a matter not just of the mind but of determining how to govern one's life. In this sense, all knowledge has a practical component.
What I have found at Wabash is a college dedicated to meeting a paramount obligation in society through giving its students substantive knowledge and the methods of acquiring and assessing knowledge which will be valuable to them in their lives after leaving the College, in their occupational activities and outside them. Wabash not only transmits to students substantive and fundamental knowledge, it also gives them an understanding of how such knowledge has been acquired or established. Wabash carries the student further into some of the best elements of the intellectual and moral tradition of his civilization-and to some extent of other civilizations-and enables him thereby to appreciate the dignity and the value of knowledge in human life. Wabash men who have been taught the substance, principles and methods of a subject are, by virtue of what they have gained from their teaching, improved in their quality as human beings and hence as members of their society.
Wabash is a college committed to equal opportunity, and not a finishing school for the elite or an institution in search of a buck.
There has been a disheartening trend among institutions in recent years to cater to a certain clientele. Some of the "best" schools in our nation with outstanding faculties and state-of-the-art facilities have become enclaves of the rich. Through the generous support of its alumni, Wabash has resisted this trend. It is one of the few places left that is dedicated to the education of all members of the student body. For example, I have been continually impressed at the financial commitment Wabash makes to its students who study overseas. In my undergraduate experience that would not have been possible.
Moreover, I continue to be surprised at the number of students at Wabash who are the first in their families to attend college. This often means granting generous financial aid awards to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. In this the faculty and administration of the College have demonstrated a strong commitment to making a first-class education available to all. I stand amazed at the College's commitment to this endeavor, and it is one of the reasons I am most proud to be a member of its faculty.
There has been an equally disturbing trend among some colleges and universities to admit students who can either pay the entire cost of an education or are eligible for sizable government financial aid, almost regardless of academic potential. Wabash has also resisted this trend. Colleges and universities who succumb to this trend generally increase in size quickly, but habitually to the detriment of the academic ethic. The sheer increase in size in both student body and teaching staff often renders it difficult to maintain the kinds of relations among students and teachers and among colleagues which are necessary to maintain the institution's high morale in its devotion to the advancement of learning through teaching and research.
Moreover, it has lead to a repugnant trend in some colleges. Such schools tend to "dumb down" their curriculum based on a conviction that the capacities of the students are weak and that they cannot master an exacting syllabus. Students are assigned intellectually shabby text books and thin reading lists. The larger number of students-garnered because of their money-making potential-means that although many have met all the formal qualifications for admission, they are not always well qualified for studies on a college level. Teaching large classes of uninterested and unmotivated students has a discouraging effect on teachers. Furthermore, uninterested teachers bore their students.
Wabash has realized that great institutions of higher learning become what they are because they help bring intellectual traditions into focus and concentrate them on individuals by bringing persons of intellectual talent and disposition into contact with each other.
Wabash is a college that believes strongly in the (free) exchange of ideas.
Wabash is a community where persons are encouraged to think and discuss matters openly, within and outside the classroom. The College offers many vehicles for the expression of one's intellectual creativity. Groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ, shOUT, the Malcolm X Institute, Unidos por Sangre, the Parliamentary Union, and the campus fraternities; publications like The Bachelor, The Whisper, and The Wabash Commentary; events like "It seems to me that . . . " and the newly reinstated chapel period sponsored by the Sphinx Club; all contribute to the exchange of ideas on campus. The only temperament on this exchange being the observance of the "Gentleman's Rule."
Wabash is a place alive with intellectual zest. Wabash students think as hard as they play-and Wabash always fights!
Moreover, I am continually amazed at the College's dedication to providing numerous opportunities for students and faculty to interact, think, and discuss outside of class. This is a by-product of good teaching in class. Members of the community may not always agree, but no one can deny that there are numerous opportunities at Wabash to express one's own thoughts and be enlightened by the thoughts of others.
Wabash is a college that promotes intimacy among men.
I must admit that I was one of those persons who was not initially convinced of the value of an all-male education. Although I believed in the value of an all-female education, something about an all-male education seemed sexist to me. As I experienced Wabash, though, and saw how single sex education can assist one in coping with the larger society, I became a believer.
Of course, there are drawbacks to single sex education, but I have no doubt that the benefits outweigh the liabilities. Young men in college are attempting to understand and define themselves within the context of a larger society. This is a difficult time for them. It is only exacerbated when one adds coeducation into the equation.
Why? Because men and women within coeducational institutions are more likely to assume a role or persona in their social contacts. Now, no social situation ever completely eliminates the need for a persona, but it is heightened in the coeducational situation.
Moreover, sociologists confirm that when men are undergoing profound social changes, they are more likely to join or form secret societies. That is, men need a place where they can "let down their guards" and express their vulnerabilities to one another.
As a society, we have been dismissive of the needs of men in this regard, because we were under the illusion that men can handle it themselves. Yet, we realize today that this is not true. Men need a "space" to define themselves and develop their self-esteem just as much as women. Wabash College gives men that space.
I believe that one reason Wabash men do so well is not just the superior education they receive, but also the space the community provides for young men to mature into responsible adults. As William Allen White said, "In education we are striving not to teach youth to make a living, but to make a life."
College is more than just books, assignments, and classes;
the social development is just as important as intellectual development.
And, while I sometimes fear that communities such as Wabash run the risk
of fostering an "ol' boys network," such concerns are vanquished
when I see how intimate our students can be with each other and with the
faculty. Such intimacy spawns an affection for this institution that is
unparalleled in my experience. Wabash men love Wabash so much because, in
many ways, they grow up here. In this, and other ways, Wabash distinguishes
itself because it tenaciously continues to be creatively out of step.