On Friday evening, October 3, 2008, members and friends of the Central Florida Chapter of Adventist Forum gathered in the fellowship room of the Florida Hospital Seventh-day Adventist Church to hear Dr. George Babcock give a presentation on Adventist education.
Dr. Babcock is a highly respected educator of some 48 years' service experience in the Seventh-day Adventist Church both in North America and elsewhere in the world. George has traveled to some 124 countries while serving at the General Conference level, and has also served in Bangladesh and in Africa as a long term missionary in educational administration and so has earned the title "Mr. Adventist Education" and wasted no time laying down some challenging questions and statements: "Will the future be like the past?" "What about spiritual commitment?" "Where will the money come from to support a super high quality educational system?" "If the educational menu is no different from that of the world around us, we merely educate more capable sinners." Relative to the beginnings of the Seventh-day Adventist educational system in the 19th century, Babcock asked, "What educational menu do we want for Adventist youth?" (a question that remains relevant!). He then declared that "God arranged a school with a different menu." That school (Battle Creek College, which became Emmanuel Missionary College and then Andrews University) had an "invaluable asset . . . God's promised blessing", as have the schools that have followed in its train.
But those schools are not without their problems. Dr. Babcock told the (perhaps – hopefully! - apocryphal) story of a research scientist studying grasshoppers who ordered the grasshopper to jump over a pencil. It did. He then tied one of the (hind) legs of the grasshopper, which could then still jump, but with difficulty, upon the scientist's order. The scientist tied the other (hind) leg of the grasshopper, which then could not jump over the pencil when ordered. The scientist's conclusion: tying its legs made the grasshopper deaf!
"Have we crippled the" (Seventh-day Adventist school) "system somehow?" Dr. Babcock asked. He proposed that two things are needed. The first is commitment on the part of all the members, which he sees today as "waning". In the North American Division of the church, for example, only approximately 30% of Seventh-day Adventist children and young people are enrolled in Seventh-day Adventist schools. One large conference (that he did not name) has 7.5%, another 10%, of its children and youth enrolled in Seventh-day Adventist schools. Spiraling costs have had an influence, but "we don't have any corner on difficult financial times", Dr. Babcock stated.
The second "leg" is the Adventist family and home itself. Our schools tend to reflect this in their standards. Schools' attempts to raise standards meet with severe opposition by parents. Among other challenges cited by Dr. Babcock are that "The experience that many of our youth have in church schools tends to harden them" against both the school and the church. As well, many Seventh-day Adventist pastors today are fairly recent converts to the church and thus have spent little or no time themselves in the Adventist K-12 system. "As a result, some of them are not sensitive to the great need for this program" (education) "in the church. They resent being asked to raise funds. Many new members are not given information about our schools" and so are ignorant of their existence and of what they offer to Seventh-day Adventist young people.
Citing the experience of a friend, he contrasted the quality and cost of an exclusive but representative private K-12 school with those of Seventh-day Adventist schools, stating that students in Seventh-day Adventist schools in that same county rank in the 80th to 92nd percentile academically, nationally (using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, as do most Adventist schools in the United States) – and at much lower cost! He pointed out that "Some Adventists complain that Adventist schools are too expensive, then send their children to private schools that are more expensive." For example, Vanderbilt University is more costly than Harvard, yet some Seventh-day Adventist students there (at Vanderbilt) complain that costs at Southern Adventist University are too high!
The church, Babcock said, "could do many things to keep costs down and to subsidize – if it really believed in Christian education." Boarding academies are having a terrible struggle; day academies are faring a little bit better. Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities in North America "have their own unique challenges, due largely to low enrollments. There are a few . . . that are doing very well." He cited examples of each.
One caveat he issued was that "When you start taking government money, you are headed for disaster!" He said that Seventh-day Adventist education is continuing to grow overseas ("as long as they don't make stupid decisions – and some of them do!") Giving several recent and current examples, he supported these statements in a manner that was very convincing (to spare the affected school systems some embarrassment, this writer chooses not to identify them).
Returning to the North American scene, Dr. Babcock indicated that there is a great need for Seventh-day Adventist schools to keep up with technology and science as well as to keep up physical plant (which in several cases has been allowed to deteriorate badly).
In conclusion, Dr. Babcock stated, "What a tragedy it will be if our schools close before they need to . . . due to our own ineptitude."
In the discussion period that followed, it was brought out by one participant that donations as compared to tithe have declined to 10% of what they were in 1950. As well, some 30% of members are tithing with any regularity in the North American Division (a scary parallel to the 30% of Seventh-day Adventist young people enrolled in its schools!).
When asked to compare Seventh-day Adventist higher education with that of other denominations (for example BYU, Brigham Young University), Dr. Babcock stated that "If the Mormons tried to have as many schools as we do, they'd be in a terrible fix." He also pointed out that Lutherans have the second largest parochial education system in the United States. Worldwide, the Catholic church has the largest system; Seventh-day Adventists are in second place. Asked about specific Adventist colleges and universities, Dr. Babcock responded with information about enrollment and finances for several (again, to avoid embarrassment, the author chooses not to identify them). Ending on a positive note, he indicated that "There are people in the church who will sponsor a child."
It is the author's fond hope that more such people will be found, and that the children and youth who so greatly need and deserve a Seventh-day Adventist education will be helped to get it. The future of the church, he feels, lies in no small part in the ability of the church to solve both the financial and academic challenges that its schools face. This session was an excellent opportunity, if not to solve them, at least to point them out and to have worthwhile discussion about them so that awareness will be heightened, and, hopefully, progress made. Let's all renew and increase our commitment to the Lord and to meeting the challenges that our church faces not only in education but in other areas also.
Michael Lay is currently teaching religion courses for Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences. He and his wife Marilyn are graduates of Atlantic Union College (he, 1961 and she, 1959) and have been happily married for 48+ years and are parents of three sons, all of whom have had their K-12 and up to Graduate education in the Seventh-day Adventist school system. This is his first contribution to SPECTRUM.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1149