Teaching Ernest L. Boyer’s Vision for Messiah College


Ernest L. Boyer (1928-1995) is the most distinguished graduate of Messiah College and one of the most influential educators of the last century. He was a Brethren in Christ pastor, the chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, Jimmy Carter’s U.S. Commissioner of Education, and the president of  the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  He also served several terms on the Messiah College Board of Trustees.  My colleague Cynthia Wells, the director of Messiah College’s Ernest L. Boyer Center,  writes:

Across context, Boyer created educational pathways for those disadvantaged by economic disparity and those left out of the education system.  He initiated a nationwide community service program whereby students could could earn credit by participating in hands-on experiences in their communities.  He advocated for a general education program that helped students integrate their educational experiences and make connections between their education and their lives beyond college.  He also developed a concern for Native American education, and worked to improve the Native American school system and to support tribal colleges.  His concern for those on the margins of American society became a hallmark of his educational vision.  Boyer deeply believed that education shaped society.

Throughout his career, he maintained a deep and abiding Christian faith, and there is clear evidence that his Christian faith influenced his commitments.  His convictions to serve those on the margin of society, as one example, reflects his Christian commitment to serve the “least of these.”

Yesterday, my Created and Called for Community (CCC) class read Boyer’s 1984 Messiah College convocation speech, “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College.” In this speech, Boyer identified four virtues that have “shaped the quality and character of Messiah College.”  Boyer adds: “In each regard countless colleges and universities across America would be well served by following the model so effectively engaged on this campus.”

First, Boyer calls for a robust liberal arts curriculum.  Colleges must seek “connectedness” across disciplines.  “Unity, not fragmentation,” Boyer writes, “must be the aim of education, and most especially what one calls Christian education.” He adds: “In the Christian world view the so-called secular and sacred are distinctions without meaning since all truth should ultimately be considered sacred.”

In responding to this “virtue,” I asked my students to think about the difference between a professional school and a liberal arts college.  Messiah is not a Bible college or a place where students only focus on a specialized skill.  Rather, they are exposed, through a heavy general education curriculum rooted in the liberal arts, to a breadth of knowledge about the world.  If God is the source of all truth and beauty, then the study of science, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, philosophy, politics, and language are all ways of exploring God’s created order and ultimately worshiping Him.

Boyer delivered this speech 36 years ago.  Has Messiah College retained its legacy on this front?  I asked the students to consider this question from their own experiences at the college.  Most students could give specific examples of how faith was brought to bear on the liberal arts subjects they study at Messiah.  Several students said that their professors introduced faith into the classroom by starting class with a short devotional thought.  This is great, but I warned them that if this was the extent of how faith was integrated in the classroom it was not enough.  Starting class with a reading of the Bible and then teaching the subject matter in a completely secular fashion was only reinforcing the sacred-secular distinction that Boyer warned against.

Second, Boyer argues that community is an essential part of the Messiah College education experience.  Messiah must be a school where students learn how to be dependent on one another.  Relationships on campus should be defined by cordiality and compassion.  Messiah is a place that enables students to find meaning and purpose in conversation with educators, staff, and, of course, their fellow students.

Ernest Boyer attended Messiah College in the 1940s.  His gave this speech in the 1980s.  As a historian, I wanted to know if my students saw continuity or change over time as as it relates to community at Messiah. Did the college–now nearly 3000 students strong–still value community?  The response was generally positive.  Several students said that Messiah students, faculty, and administrators do a good job of talking about community, but they were not sure how consistently they live lives defined by community.  Others admitted that the search for community at Messiah College was difficult, but it could be found for those seeking it.  The strongest defenders of community at Messiah were transfer students–young men and women who had attended other educational institutions.  Several of these transfer students told traditional first-year students about the virtual lack of community at other colleges and universities.  Their message was clear: Messiah College is a special place–don’t take it for granted.

By this point, the hour was coming to an end, but I at least wanted to get Boyer’s third and fourth virtues on the table.

Third, Boyer says that Messiah College is committed to teaching.  I tried to get the students to consider the differences between a teaching college/university and a research university.   Many of them were drawn to Messiah (and smaller teaching colleges in general) because they did not want to take introductory courses from graduate students.  They wanted to have relationships with their professors.  Many were seeking mentors.

Fourth, Boyer extols Messiah College for inviting students to seek “connections between what they learn and how they live.”  Last week I challenged the students to cultivate their minds as spiritual discipline.  But Boyer reminds us that good Christian thinking always leads to service.  I wish we had more time to discuss this point, but there will be plenty of opportunities during semester to revisit it.

John Henry Newman is up next.    Follow along here.

“Don’t find yourself, find your vocation”

Fuller with Towel

History major Jonathan Fuller holding his towel

When Messiah College students cross the platform during their graduation ceremony they receive a small white towel.  The towel symbolizes service.  As Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, so we hope our graduates will think about their lives in terms of service to others.  I thought about this Messiah College tradition when I read Tom Perrin’s excellent New York Times op-ed, “One Way to Make College Meaningful.”  I especially like the subtitle: “Don’t find yourself; find a vocation.”

Here is a taste of his piece:

Why vocation, though, rather than the old model of learning for learning’s sake? Why not, as the religious studies professor Ron Srigley has recently argued, return to the old, “beautiful goal” of the university, “to discover and then to tell the truth,” disentangled from the mercenary arms of the offices of careers and student life? My answer would be that universities have always been hybrid creatures, serving many masters at once: social norms, the market, churches and the exacting standards of disciplinary research, to name four. But the fantasy of the university as a disinterested sphere of pure knowledge is just that. This is not so much to attack the liberal arts as it is to point out that to link them purposefully with life and career goals is not at all to alter the way they have long functioned.

Read the entire piece here.

Online Learning and Civic Engagement Do Not Mix

This is the opinion of a community college dean who writes a regular blog at Inside Higher Education.  He raises a very good point:  “Colleges are being pushed to increase ‘service learning’ and ‘civic engagement’ initiatives at the exact same time that they are being pressured to move online.  These don’t have to be opposed, necessarily, but in practice they generally are.”

Here is a taste:

Service learning and civic engagement projects — I’ll float between the terms, though they aren’t identical — are high-touch. They’re labor-intensive, and they require close community connections.  In fact, their labor intensity and rootedness in place seem to be keys to their success. To the extent that they tend to pay off in improved rates of retention and graduation, that seems to be tied to a sense of belonging to a community.

Online instruction and service provision are built specifically to make place (and, to some extent, time) irrelevant. Good online teaching is labor-intensive, to be sure — some of its major boosters, and major bashers, don’t know that — but it’s still based on the assumption that students can be anywhere, including in their homes logging in after the kids are in bed.

The former is about doubling down on place. The latter is about escaping it.

As I said before at this blog–the day I am forced to teach all my courses online will probably be the day I leave academia. 

Is there anybody alive out there?

So What CAN You Do With a History Major? –Part 39

Serve others with AmeriCorps, Teach for America, or the Peace Corps.

Over at History@Work, Jeff Robinson tells his story of moving from an M.A. program in public history to work with AmeriCorps VISTA.  What is most fascinating about this post is Jeff’s explanation of how his training in history helped him with his work.  Here is a taste:

Truth be told, I never had national service jobs on my periphery when envisioning my public history career.  I knew I wanted to return to grad school and earn a Ph.D. at some point, but at the time, I saw myself working in education at a museum or a historic site.  After all, that’s what my grad school training emphasized.  A friend of mine, who recently returned from service in the Peace Corps, asked if I was familiar with AmeriCorps, and suggested that I might marry my love of history and community building into a job that paid (!!) and was an enriching and learning experience.  My early perception of AmeriCorps volunteers was green-sweatshirt-wearing young adults who moved to desolate parts of the country to build schools and the like.  I never knew of VISTA, the professional capacity-building division of AmeriCorps that dealt specifically with fighting the political, economical, and social manifestations of poverty. After a lot of reflection and research, I applied to MACC and they offered me a job at MassArt.  Of course, at the time, I lacked hindsight of what challenges and rewards awaited.  Above all, I did not know in the beginning days that not only would I get paid to be a public practitioner, but I would learn so much about myself within the context of the world along the way.

As a public historian, I brought manifold skills into my AmeriCorps job.  I knew how to have conversations with folks.  I understood that history connects people, places, and things to communities.  I recognized that critical thinking was imperative to understanding the communities I worked in, but also acknowledging many aspects of myself that were vital to service work.  Likewise, I had good written and verbal communication skills.  MassArt had the vision; I had the skills in my toolbox to help bring those visions to fruition.

As the field of public history becomes more professionalized, I see practitioners and students of the discipline losing sight of one aspect of the field’s roots in social justice, change, and advocacy.  In fact, as many know, much of public history started as people’s history, which served and celebrated an important democratic function of giving vernacular publics agency and resources to chronicle and tell their own history.  I think service jobs and opportunities are a plausible way for young professionals and academics to reconnect with communities and identify resources that everyone can deploy to challenge a world of acute adversity.  Joining AmeriCorps, Teach for America, or the Peace Corps, among others, affords historians the opportunity to empower fellow global citizens to tell and learn from their histories, which will create a system of change using the power of the past.

For other posts in this series, click here.

David Brooks on Courage, Deference, and Thankfulness

Do you want to live a life of service to others in the developing world (or anywhere for that matter)?  David Brooks writes that to be successful in such a mission one needs to cultivate the virtues of courage, deference, and thankfulness.  Here is a taste:

Many Americans go to the developing world to serve others. A smaller percentage actually end up being useful. Those that do have often climbed a moral ladder. They start out with certain virtues but then develop more tenacious ones.

The first virtue they possess is courage, the willingness to go off to a strange place. For example, Blair Miller was a student at the University of Virginia who decided she wanted to teach abroad. She Googled “teach abroad” and found a woman who had been teaching English in a remote town in South Korea and was looking for a replacement.

Miller soon found herself on a plane and eventually at a small airport in southern South Korea. There was no one there to greet her. Eventually, the airport closed and no one came to pick her up. A monk was the only other person around and eventually he, too, left and Miller was alone.

Finally, a van with two men rolled in and scooped her up. After a few months of struggle, she had a fantastic year at a Korean fishing village, the only Westerner for miles and miles. Now she travels around Kenya, Pakistan and India for the Acumen Fund, a sort of venture capital fund that invests in socially productive enterprises, like affordable housing and ambulance services.