The Cultural Value of Christian Higher Education
Editor’s Note: David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of the best-selling book The Road to Character, was the keynote speaker at the 40th Anniversary Celebration Gala in Washington, D.C. The following is a transcript of his speech; it has been edited for length.
Whenever I’m at events, especially in a Christian community, I think about how odd it is that I got here. I grew up in Greenwich Village in the 1960s in a somewhat left-wing household. When I was 5, my parents took me to a “be-in” in Central Park, which was where hippies would go just to be. One of the things they did was they set the garbage can on fire and threw their wallets into it to demonstrate their liberation from money and material things. I was 5, and I saw a $5 bill in the fire, so I broke from the crowd, reached into it, grabbed the money and ran away, which was my first step over to the right.
I grew up in a Jewish home but went to a church school, Grace Church School on Lower Broadway. I was part of the all-Jewish boys’ choir at Grace. We were about 40 percent Jewish – it’s Lower Manhattan, New York – and when we would sing the hymns, to square with our religion we wouldn’t sing the word “Jesus.” The volume would drop down and then it would come back up again. So that was unusual [background] to get here.
I’ve spent much of my life with secular morality. I think the most spiritual institution I would go into is Whole Foods. So it’s odd, but God willed it in some way. Five years ago, I started writing a book on cognitive humility. I had a colleague at the New York Times named Anne Snyder who’s a Wheaton grad, and she persuaded me it should be about moral and spiritual humility. The book changed a lot, and over the ensuing two years, Anne fed me so many books from her Wheaton College curriculum that I feel I deserve a Wheaton diploma by proxy. Writing the book and working in this sphere turned out to be more transformational than I could have imagined.
There are moments of writing that book, I remember, where I was expanding my knowledge of theology and God’s work. I was coming to new understandings of history. There were moments when I was experiencing the lives of my characters, like Augustine’s final conversation with his mom, Monica, who was the helicopter mom to beat all helicopter moms. But at the end of her life, she says to him, “You are the Christian I wanted you to be.” They had a conversation of harmony after a life of conflict. They go beyond the material to the spiritual, talking about the life behind and the life to come. She’s about to die and he has a word repeated over and over again: hushed. “As we spoke, the sound of the trees was hushed. The sound of the birds was hushed. The sound of the voices was hushed. The sound of our hearts was hushed.” You get the sense of tranquility in falling into God’s grace.
Since the book has come out, I’ve gone on a Christian college tour in the last couple of months. I went to chapel at Hope College. I met students at Calvin College, Union University, Whitworth University; a beautiful dinner at Gordon College; a choir performance by Nyack College students at St. Patrick’s Cathedral; commencement at Westmont College; a retreat with Wheaton faculty members; and many others. I’ve come to love and appreciate the world of Christian colleges.
Some Christian institutions adopt an adversarial posture toward the mainstream culture, a “Benedict Option” of circling the wagons, because things seem to be going against them. From my vantage point, it’s the complete opposite [for Christian colleges]. You guys are the avant-garde of 21st century culture. You have what everybody else is desperate to have: a way of talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion and intellect. You have a recipe to nurture human beings who have a devoted heart, a courageous mind and a purposeful soul. Almost no other set of institutions in American society has that, and everyone wants it. From my point of view, you’re ahead of everybody else and have the potential to influence American culture in a way that could be magnificent. I visit many colleges a year. I teach at a great school, Yale University. These are wonderful places. My students are wonderful; I love them. But these, by and large, are not places that integrate the mind, the heart and the spirit. These places nurture an overdeveloped self and an underdeveloped soul.
My students, as I say, are amazing. By the time they get to Yale, they’ve started four companies, solved three formerly fatal diseases, and majored in a lot of obscure sports. They have the ability to dominate classroom discussion while doing none of the reading. They do amazing community service. In class, they are vibrant and curious and wonderful to be around, but they’ve been raised in a culture that keeps them frantically busy putting out fires — the next deadline, the next test. Their friendships are never on fire, and they get neglected. Their souls are never on fire, and they get left behind. They’ve been raised in a culture that encourages them to pay attention to the résumé virtues of how to have a great career but leaves by the wayside long periods of time to think about the eulogy virtues: the things they’ll say about you after you’re dead.
They go through their school with the mixture of complete self-confidence and utter terror, afraid of a single false step off the achievement machine. Many of them are victims of conditional love. Their parents shine strong beams of love upon them when they’re doing what their parents approve, and the beam of love is withdrawn when they do something the parents disapprove. They have not been provided with a moral vocabulary, so the only vocabulary they have is a utilitarian one. They use economic concepts like “opportunity cost” in an attempt to understand their lives. They have not been taught words like “grace,” “sin,” “redemption” and “virtue” that would enable them to get a handhold on what’s going on inside.
They assume that the culture of expressive individualism is the eternal order of the universe and that meaning comes from being authentic to self. They have a combination of academic and career competitiveness and a lack of a moral and romantic vocabulary that has created a culture that is professional and not poetic, pragmatic and not romantic. The head is large, and the heart and soul are backstage.
Most universities have made this worse. Most universities have gotten out of the business of spiritual and character development, and they’ve adopted a research ideal. We’ve all benefited intellectually from this research orientation, but as Tony Kronman writes, this orientation “draws our attention away from the whole of our lives and requires that we focus on some small special aspect of it instead.” It makes the idea of our lives as a whole seem less familiar and less compelling. It emphasizes the instrumental reasoning over the other faculties of heart and soul. It teaches students how to do things but less why they should do them and less how to think about what is their highest and best life. To ask about the meaning of life is to appear unprofessional.
In a sense, what’s happened is obscene. “Obscene,” if taking that word literally, means it’s something that covers over and eclipses the soul. The result of this is not shallowness, particularly. It’s not decadence. It’s hunger. My students are so hungry for spiritual knowledge. On book tour, I would go into rooms of CEOs or into these rooms of business conferences. These guys would be the most materialistic people you could imagine, and I’m coming in with this wahoo stuff about soul – I don’t know how they’re going to take this. Yet when I would start talking about this stuff, the audience locked in because they, too, are hungry. They’re hungry because God made us restless until we rest in him. They are hungry because they have an unconscious boredom when they realize they have not achieved the highest level of their own fulfillment.
I think that God has given us four kinds of happiness. First, at the lowest level, material pleasure – good food, nice clothes. Second, ego and comparative happiness – winning status, being better than other people. Third, generativity – the pleasure you get from giving to others. Fourth, and the highest and the necessary kind of happiness, transcendence – an awareness of one’s place in a cosmic order; a connection to a love that goes beyond the physical realm; a feeling of connection to unconditional truth, love, justice, goodness, beauty and home. God calls us, and our nature demands, that we try to achieve level four. We’re endowed with a moral imagination, and if it is not met, there’s a longing; there’s a loneliness; there’s a hunger for life’s meaning.
Many of our institutions, and especially our universities, don’t do much to help our graduates achieve that transcendence. But for Christian universities and other religious institutions, this is bread and butter. This is the curriculum. This is the chapel service. This is the conversation students are having late at night. It’s lived out. Now, you in this room, have the Gospel. You have the example of Jesus Christ. You have the beatitudes; the fire of the Holy Spirit; you believe in a personal God who is still redeeming the world. As Pope Francis demonstrated, when a single person acts like Jesus, the whole world is transfixed. Carrying the Gospel is your central mission to your students and to those you serve beyond the campus walls, but that’s not all you have. You have a way of being that is not all about self. You have a counterculture to the excessive individualism of our age. You offer an ideal more fulfilling and more true and higher than the ideal of individual autonomy.
You offer lessons in the art of commitment. When I go to Christian colleges, the students there strike me as especially adept at making commitments – sometimes too adept; they want to make all their commitments by age 22. But they know how to commit, and they’ve been taught how to think about commitments. After I finished my book, I realized that the thing all my characters had was the capacity to make infinite commitments. All the characters in my book – some religious, some not – made a covenant. They made a promise, the kind of promise that Ruth made to Naomi: “Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.”
For most of us, our inner nature is formed by that kind of covenant in which the good of the relationship takes place and precedence over the good of the individual. For all of us, religious or secular, life doesn’t come from how well you keep your options open but how well you close them off and realize a higher freedom. Hannah Arendt wrote, “Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities. We would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.”
I came to see that the fulfilled life involves four big commitments: to a spouse and the family; to a vocation; to a faith or philosophy; and to a community. Achieving levels three and four happiness requires those commitments to be solid and in good shape. We live in a society that is in conspiracy against commitment-making. My students are plagued by FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. They don’t want to close off any options. We live in a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on individual liberty and personal choice. We live in a society filled with de-commitment devices. The entire Internet is commanding you to sample one thing after another. Tinder is luring students to sample one person after another. Our phones are always beckoning us to shift our attention. How do you make long commitments when you can’t keep your attention on anything for more than 30 seconds?
Moreover, commitment-making is hard, especially for young people. One philosopher said it’s like a vampire problem. Maybe you want to be a vampire; the problem is you don’t know what it feels like to be a vampire. Vampire problems are the kinds where, when you make the decision, you’re making a decision to become somebody else. It’s very hard as your present self to know what it will feel like to be your future self. Getting married is a vampire decision. Your marriage will change you, but you don’t know how. Having kids is certainly a vampire decision. They will change you. Going to med school is a vampire decision. Committing yourself to a faith is a vampire decision – God will change you.
It’s cognitively a very hard problem, and many people are paralyzed at its face. You can’t think your way through these problems. You can’t do it by pure reason. In any commitment, love is at the core. A commitment is falling in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for those moments when the love falters. It arises at a deep sensation of certainty, a moral and spiritual sensation that something is right, that you’ve been called to something.
To understand a calling, to make a commitment, your mind and heart and soul have to be prepared. First, the emotions have to be educated. We’re not necessarily born with wise emotions. At some level, we have to be taught what to feel, what to revere and what to love, what to detest and what to reject. We educate our emotions through having experiences and relationships. We educate them through religious practice. We educate them through culture and literature and the arts. Middlemarcheducates the emotions about love and regret. There are symphonies that teach us about joy. There are Taylor Swift songs that teach us about sadness.
Second, we have to provide students with opportunities to fall in love with a person, a subject, an activity. This capacity for love is part of our nature, but to know what to love and to fall in love in life’s busyness takes some encouragement. Love humbles you because you realize you’re not in control of your own mind. You think obsessively about the person you love. It opens up the crust of life and reveals soft, tender flesh below so you enjoy more and you suffer more. It de-centers the self. You realize your core riches are not in yourself; they’re in another. Love also teaches you how to endure. We’ve all had that first romantic passionate love, but when you educate a love, it’s not reliant on that immediate, passionate first embrace. It longs and endures. It’s what the philosopher Roger Scruton calls a second love. This long second love carries people through the tragedies and the blessings of life.
A commitment is about fusion. The author Louis de Bernières wrote in the book Captain Corelli’s Mandolin about a love that fused people together. One of his characters says, “Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it. We had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches, we found that we were one tree and not two.” To cultivate that facility is part of the mission for people who educate young people so they know what love is.
The second thing is to teach an appreciation of God’s beauty and use beauty as a guide post toward what is good and virtuous. Plato said in Symposium, “He who would proceed aright in this matter should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms.” First, the outward forms, and from outward forms would become an appreciation that the beauty of the mind is higher than the beauty of the form. From that, it would become an appreciation of the beauty of laws and the beauty of existence and that he who follows the trail of beauty, Plato wrote, will come to see “a nature of wondrous beauty, a nature which in the first place is everlasting and not growing or decaying, a beauty absolute, separate, simple and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase or any change is imparted to ever growing and perishing beauties of all other things.” Colleges can thrust objects of beauty before their students and hope for one in a thousand you will provoke one of those primordial experiences of wondering awe that can transform a life and point toward a vocation, a marriage or a faith.
Third, secular colleges have gotten out of holding up exemplars of excellence. At Christian colleges, you have the ultimate exemplar: the life and example of Jesus. But there are other ideas to copy and to inspire, and the ideals of exemplars inflame a desire for excellence. We’ve ruined the word eros; in this culture, we associate it with sex, but for the Greeks, the word eros was a longing for the pure, a longing for excellence. In our culture, we don’t even have a name for this longing. Dorothy Day called it loneliness. She wrote a book called The Long Loneliness, but she didn’t mean solitude. By loneliness, she meant longing, longing for God. C. S. Lewis famously called it joy. Joy is not the fulfillment of desires. Joy is the longing itself. We’ve lost that vocabulary, as we’ve lost a lot of moral vocabulary. With it has gone some of the insufficient ideals. There was a guy named Robert Livingston in the 19th century who said that when people don’t do good, it’s often not because they’re bad but they have been given an insufficient ideal. That is not true at Christian schools, but it’s often true at other schools.
I’ve tried to express the things that help people find their commitments, find the things that make their lives valuable. Those are things like falling in love with something, being attracted aesthetically to beauty and having this hunger for excellence. Those are all motivators. But to do a commitment through life and through decades, a commitment is not only motivated – it’s disciplined. These are the other things colleges can offer their students: ways to discipline their longings.
The first thing a commitment is disciplined by is truth. Tim Keller said that truth without love is harshness, but love without truth is just sentimentality. The ability to look at something and study something honestly is a thing that has to be taught to young people. John Ruskin, the 19th century art critic, said, “The more I think of it, I find this conclusion more impressed upon me, that the greatest thing a human soul ever does is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.”
The second [discipline] is the deep commitment to the craft. When you undertake a craft, a doctor has to lay out the tools. The carpenter has certain practices. My practice is laying piles out on the floor as a writer. It is that craft of organizing the structure of a column or a book that is the discipline that keeps my life in structure and order. Of course, all religions have disciplines.
The final thing that discipline loves is community. None of us is capable of acting out our commitments alone. We all depend on redemptive assistance from outside. We’re all uplifted by contact. We’re all reinforced by the norms of the people we know and admire. We’re all purified by the service to those around us. I have a friend named Rod Dreher who had a sister who lived in little town in northern Louisiana. She loved her town, and she was one of those people who touched lives. The town had maybe 600 people in it, but when she died of cancer in her early 40s, 1,200 people showed up at the funeral. She had a practice in her life as part of her commitment to her community of going around on Christmas Eve and going to the one town cemetery. On each gravestone, she would place a lit candle. She died just before Christmas, and Rod was home with his family. He asked his mom on Christmas Eve, “Should we go out and place the candles on the gravestones?” His mom said, “You know, in some future year, I’ll do it, but right now, with her death so fresh, it’s just too much. I just can’t do it.” They were driving to another family gathering on Christmas Eve, and they drove by the cemetery; somebody else had placed a candle on every gravestone in her honor. That’s community reinforcing community and disciplining the commitment to each other.
What I’ve tried to describe is this task of helping young people build the commitments, the foundations of their lives. A lot of the schools I go to do a great job at many other things, but integrating the faith, the spirit, the heart and the soul with the mind is not one of them. When I go to Christian colleges, that’s exactly what I see. That is the gift [your] institutions offer the wider culture. That gift is a gateway drug to the gift of the Almighty.
I’ll close by reading one of my favorite prayers from one of my characters in my book, St. Augustine, his famous and beautiful prayer, “What Do I Love When I Love My God?”
It is not physical beauty, nor temporal glory, nor the brightness of light so dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers or ointments or perfumes, nor manna, nor honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh. It is not these things I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God. A light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can satisfy, where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love, when I love my God.
That is the highest ideal. Everyone, religious or not, is on a road to a holy place. You guys have the language. The rest of the world needs it. I hope you’ll be out in the world leading the way.