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Rethinking Adventist (humanities) education

By Jonathan Pichot
A year ago I graduated from Andrews Academy, the Adventist secondary school associated with Andrews University. Having grown up in Adventist education, I had planned to attend a non-Adventist college in an attempt to both prove to myself that I could survive outside the Adventist “bubble” and because I took for granted that the academics at top secular schools were far superior to those at any Adventist university. I applied to two secular schools: one of the top two public universities in the nation as well as a top ten private university. I was accepted at both. Yet, because of a combination of finances, reflection, and a genuine impression that God preferred me elsewhere, I turned them down, and registered at Pacific Union College (PUC) in the Fall of 2006. What had attracted me to the school above all other Adventist colleges was its honors program whose curriculum surveys original texts, most considered “classics” or “great books” in a wide variety of fields. The classes were small and discussion based, and students were encouraged to participate in a more open dialogue with faculty than in a typical class. So, when September arrived, I left with my father and drove for three days from Michigan to California to a school I had never visited and where I knew no one.
Historically, as I understand it, most Adventist young people who attended non-Adventist colleges did so because of finances and location, not because of academics. Up until the past couple of decades, the priority of the vast majority of Adventist students pursuing college was to attend an Adventist school, usually whichever school was nearest them. Yet over time, Adventist students have become more discerning of their college choices. They are beginning to demand not only an Adventist community, but strong academics, internship and research opportunities, study abroad programs, and stimulating classmates. This new sophistication has led to a growth of Adventist students at many of the nations top schools. (The Spectrum Blog recently reported on three Adventist sisters graduating from Dartmouth). This trend is marked by a growing number of active Adventist student groups at many top universities including Berkeley, Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, and Columbia. Adventists attending these schools could have very likely afforded Adventist education but instead chose these more prestigious institutions.
When I first arrived at PUC, I was ready to make the most of the courses available. I studied the class bulletin, highlighting course titles that intrigued me. Yet by the end of my winter quarter, I was disappointed. Of all the classes I had taken, the honors classes felt most like what a college education should be, yet even they were occasionally underwhelming. Perhaps I had idealized college too much, but was it really unfair to expect better? I had hoped for a rigorous education with small classes, challenging reading, and stimulating discussion. I had found inconsistency. Some classes were good, with a brilliant professor and enough engaged students to make it worthwhile. Yet other classes never rose above a high school level and with more than a few students who didn’t either. There were extraordinary professors and others less gifted. But too often, a class that had sounded fascinating in the course bulletin, in the end, disappointed.
I was not alone in my disenchantment. Several of my friends, most of them honors students, also complained about the lack of academically challenging courses. At least the honors program gave the most intellectually curious students a community in which they could find other students with similar desires. In the conversations and friendships that I developed with these classmates I discovered a fundamental aspect of education outside the classroom: my peers. It was my interaction with them–our discussions, our dreams, our projects–that most excited me. The classroom, sadly, was too often dull and uninspiring. My peers, at least, were interesting. I began to realize what had most often limited the quality of discussion in class, and along with it the professors academic expectations, was the quality of students available. The most brilliant professors were often limited by the students in front of them. With these concerns, some friends and I began to search for a solution. We decided we needed a new school, one that would attract the best Adventist students from across the country and so create a vibrant intellectual community.
Though honors programs like the one at PUC do a good job of fostering a small but serious intellectual community on campus, there is the need for a larger commitment. In my mind, the ideal scenario would be the creation of an Adventist college dedicated to a rigorous liberal education the likes of which is found at the best schools in the country. Whether this school would be created from scratch or rise out of one of our existing schools does not matter. Regardless, such a school would attempt to offer something that is currently not found at any existing Adventist college: a rigorous and unabashedly intellectual community, regardless of discipline, dedicated to the highest standards of teaching and learning. I believe the landscape of higher education in the church is now large enough and well enough established to support such a school. Speaking informally about such a college to Adventist students across the country, I’ve always received a positive response. I know several Adventist students at top schools who would have preferred an Adventist community, but because of the competitive nature of their chosen fields, decided on academic quality. There is a demand amongst top Adventist students for such a school. What is needed is a new commitment.
As has been discussed on The Spectrum Blog before, the Adventist community takes pride in the reputation of its top school, Loma Linda University. Medicine has always played a large role in our church, as it should. Yet this emphasis, as well as certain tendencies with the church, has often detracted from other fields of study, particularly the humanities. I believe the Adventist church now needs a flagship liberal arts college if it is going to attract and engage its most promising young people. The best students in Adventism, those at the Ivies and in the honors classrooms of Adventist schools, are the future of the church and its best hope to prosper and remain relevant in the 21st century. Let’s create a college worthy of them.

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