This is a really excellent analysis and vision. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the series.
The framework suggested has helped me understand my own experience in an Adventist university (7 years). That experience was certainly transformative, yet not entirely in good ways. Unfortunately, the “Christian liberal arts” institution I was at tended to apply a top-down lecture model to almost everything. The fact that I was taught in a way that developed strong intellectual character (for which I am forever thankful) was done almost covertly. There was a strong sense that, in many of my best classes, if administration or even the community at large new the questions we asked and the things we talked about, they would be upset and try to stifle those discussions. Thankfully, I had some courageous and thoughtful instructors who were more interested in character development than conformity.
However, my greatest struggles and sorrows, and the heart of much of my cynicism about Adventism came from the active resistance and even personal attacks I encountered when I sought to build character in other areas of my life. Time and again, conformity and submission were presented as preferable to moral character, in particular. Civic character was thus, in turn, reduced to primarily consisting of cooperation to the near total exclusion of justice. Through my time at that University, through various jobs, through a year as a student missionary, the persistent message was conform, submit and do not, under any circumstances challenge the status quo. As such, performance character was almost irrelevant for the way it was reduced to two aspects: completion of courses at the University’s whim (my first degree faced continual drastic revisions over the five years I was enrolled–including one year as an SM) and pursuit of University-ordained projects.
Although I have many stories about my heart being broken for trying to be responsible, morally courageous and just, one stands out. During my year overseas, I faced immense conflict and stress because I was sent to a school which insisted on Saturday programming. Before school started, I shared some lengthy discussions with the principal and his two University-aged sons about the problems with forced worship attendance. The issue was never raised as relevant to the school, but only to our various experiences at Adventist universities. However, when school started, I learned that I was expected to work as a teacher on Saturday mornings. I could not in good conscience agree to this. The other student missionary confided in me that she also struggled with it. We shared some lengthy conversations, but she was afraid to take the stand I had. Over that year, I shared similar conversations with other Adventist teachers (only a small number of staff were Adventist). One day, I received an email from the chaplain at my University. In it, he advised me that I was perceived as an agitator on the Sabbath question and my job was to submit and comply rather than raise any sort of objection. He had never previously contacted me–either to inquire about my well being, nor about this topic. Somehow, he had been contacted, probably indirectly, by the principal of my school. His immediate response was not to investigate but simply to condemn my behaviour and demand compliance. I have never been so angry or disheartened in my life. From a church which lauds “standing for the right, though the heavens fall”–particularly on the sanctity of Sabbath–I was being instructed to keep my moral convictions to myself and simply fall into line. My sense of betrayal was profound.
Some years on from that experience, I suspect I might have handled it differently if I had been more mature (what is a 20-year-old to do?) However, my perspective on the issue has not changed. However, whether I was right or wrong is not particularly important. What is important is this pattern, which I encountered repeatedly as a student at my Adventist University: stand up for conviction, take responsibility, try to engage in good faith, and be attacked, demeaned, and demonized for lack of compliance and submission. Conformity was time and again revealed to be the driving concern and lesson of the University. Courage is needed–insofar as it is in pursuit of faculty approved goals. Insofar as it leads to noncompliance, it is to be rooted out and punished.
Intellectual character was certainly valued, but only insofar as it didn’t interfere with outward conformity and compliance to those (supposedly) ordained by God to make decisions about my life and future. My school was known as being relatively liberal within Adventism, but it still failed miserably at anything more than intellectual character development (and that almost in spite of those in charge). If this failure is endemic to Adventist universities and institutions, perhaps it is no wonder that our church faces the severe challenges it does, especially in North America and Europe.
Thanks again for your article. It has helped me clarify why I have so much ambivalence towards the church community I grew up in–and why I have so many painful memories of Adventist University (alongside many pleasurable and excellent ones).