Anabaptist and College

I just finished reading Loren Swatzendruber’s article, “Liberal or Conservative” in the Spring 2007 issue of Our Faith. It was a good article, although his conclusions seem to be very different from what the title would indicate. I found myself enjoying the article, and felt like giving a hearty amen by the end of it, but then I remembered that I just graduated from a Mennonite institution (Bluffton), and my feelings deflated. My initial reaction was to write a letter to the editor of Our Faith with my thoughts, but instead, I will publish my thoughts here on YAR.

I fully agree with the premise of Swatzendruber’s article; that Anabaptists have a distinct theology that is based on the Christo-centric interpretation of the Bible. Based on this interpretation, we cannot really align ourselves with the political ideologies that are offered to us in America. Swatzendruber seemed to lament that this is not the case (many Mennonites are aligning themselves to political parties), and the solution to this problem was to get more Anabaptist young adults into Anabaptist institutions of higher education. Sounds like a good sales pitch coming from a president of a Mennonite college.

As I mentioned above, I just graduated from a Mennonite college, and during my time there my peers and I were continually frustrated with the way that the college was run. Where as Swatzendruber contends that “we’re[Mennonite colleges] different from other colleges,” my experience was that the only difference came from the theology department and some history profs. Yes, our theology and biblical interpretation are distinctly Anabaptist, but that is all.

I remember in one of my classes we got into a discussion of whether of not Mennonite Colleges function any differently from non-Mennonite, or secular institutions. We couldn’t come up with anything. Everything, and I mean everything, revolves around the precious dollar. From food service, to maintenance, it is all about making money. Admissions counselors are not recruiting good qualified students, they are chasing after 20+ thousand dollar chunks of change that happened to be attached to high school seniors. I have a friend who is an admissions counselor that often times vents to me about this.

If I had a dollar for every time that I heard, “young adults want authenticity” I would be a couple hundred dollars richer than I am now. Our colleges now are a far cry from displaying “authentic” Anabaptist values outside the theology departments. Mr. Swatzendruber, my challenge to you is find a new way to do college, a college that is holistically based on Anabaptist values, and you will find a more effective way to propagate our perspective to the next generation.

Comments (10)

  1. rachel

    As an employee of a Mennonite university, I certainly see MANY ways that we are different from secular schools, but I’d be interested in hearing some of YOUR ideas for “doing college” in a new way. Don’t just leave it up to the college presidents!

    And if I had a dollar for every time you left the first R out of Swartzendruber… ;)

  2. Skylark

    I couldn’t get the link to open for me, probably because I’m using an old browser at the moment.

    How would any college not also be a business? Even if it is run off donations, the basics of maintaining the premises and program have to happen somehow. Is there a model for this outside of capitalism?

    Back in the day when the University of Salamanca was the hot item on the education market, it was inexpensive for the students, based around research and reflection. Miguel de Cervantes, later the author of Don Quixote, went there. Lecture halls were the starting place for individual study. Wealthy people gave money to the universities, and possibly also wealthy organizations such as the state and the Catholic Church. But only the privileged few got to go. Most people never had the option of studying, and common women only were allowed to study if they were nuns.

    It’s shifted dramatically for our day. Education is something everyone can get if they have money or access to it. For many, it’s not about learning how to learn or whatever. It’s a stepping-stone to a job that makes money. Universities aren’t beholden to a handful of benefactors the same way they once were. Now it’s a business that has to make money to continue to exist. That means competition.

    Do Anabaptist principles require Anabaptist colleges (and other businesses by extension) not to make a profit? Would Anabapist colleges bring in many new students if they didn’t promise all the amenities (computers labs, nice buildings, laundry facilities in the newly-updated dorms, sports teams, etc) and instead had just the basics? What are the basics of an education anymore? Would professors have offices on campus? Would schools even provide housing and meals? To this day, the University of Barcelona does not itself have dorms. Housing associations saw a need and built cheap apartments near the unversity. UB has libraries, offices for professors, and cafeterias… most of which is government-subsidized. It costs comparatively little for native Spaniards to attend there. Their taxes are probably high to compensate. When students want to get together and study or talk, they don’t do it on campus. They go to local cafés. (“Els Quatre Gatos,” anyone?)

    Is that closer to Anabaptist ideals? Did the early Anabapists create any higher education that fit their principles?

  3. Nate Myers

    Did we read the same article, Tom?

    Near the end of the article, Loren stated quite clearly that he didn’t care if the university existed 20 years from now…but what he DID care about was the faithfulness of the church. The commitment of Mennonite colleges to reflect Anabaptist values in forming young persons is only a part of that vision of taught faithfulness that extends from birth from death in each person’s life cycle.

    At its essence, it seemed Loren’s article wasn’t a sales job for Mennonite colleges, but rather a call for Mennonites to quit trying to be like everyone else and instead celebrate the healthy distinctives that make Anabaptists beautiful and truthful in the eyes of God. It’s a holistic vision for what the community of God’s people can be, in my reading.

    I remember hearing the quote once (I can’t place the exact person or quote, but it went something like this);

    “Mennonites rejected modernity all the way up until the 1960’s, then jumped in both feet first, and have been busy extracting themselves from that mess ever since.”

    I think there’s some truth to that. I’m a member in the Church of the Brethren, and our smarmy, New-Testament-is-our-creed theology has led to a bleh spirituality. We don’t know who we are. Loren, for better or worse, is trying to attack that problem proactively.

  4. Brian Hamilton

    True, our universities need to continue striving to be faithfully Anabaptist, faithfully Christian. We’ve been insisting on that, quite rightly, since we first had universities. That we haven’t achieved our goal of a ‘university set apart’ is reason to critique and analyze, but we should not imagine that we are the first to say so.

    Honestly, I think a converse point bears more emphasis at this stage: Anabaptist universities need to start looking more like universities. (I’m speaking particularly of the humanities, since, from a distance, our sciences seem to be doing quite well.) Quite a few of our professors are capable of high-level scholarship, but we lack rigorous standards of academic work for faculty or students. Budding and serious scholars usually apply elsewhere; students leave our seminaries for lack of real challenge. Most students are taught to think that devoted scholarship is misplaced attention, and so we’re largely incapable of the sort of hard work necessary to sort out and articulate well the things we’re so passionate about.

    Crafting a coherent ‘Anabaptist university’ involves making sense of the way these two words overlap–which requires, first of all, that we do away with the notion that faithfulness might lead us to get rid of our universities. Driving a wedge between faithfulness and the disciplined pursuit of truth and understanding fractures our faith itself. Even being able to name our values, faithfully and with precision, demands studied attention to our Scriptures, to our ways of speaking theologically, to our history, and to our way of living together. We cannot let Mennonite simplicity become a learned ignorance, or imagine that parsing our own faith requires less work and training than making a quilt or running a farm.

  5. tomdunn (Post author)

    After reading what all of you said, I think I agree with most of you….especially Rachel. My spelling has always left much to be desired. I’m glad I chose to blow of steam in YAR apposed to any other venue, although I learned from my last post that there are more people reading YAR than I would have guessed.

    I think part of my frustration is what some of you revealed. If a college/university wasn’t run like a business, it would go under pretty fast (probably sooner than 20 years), yet at the same time we say we are different. I would be willing to concede that the difference in our theology/history departments is enough. But lets stop saying that we are very different in other ways. Maybe I’m wrong. What are some ways we are different outside outside of theological perspective, what do you have for us here Rachel?

  6. Skylark

    Brian Hamilton said: “Anabaptist universities need to start looking more like universities. […] Quite a few of our professors are capable of high-level scholarship, but we lack rigorous standards of academic work for faculty or students. Budding and serious scholars usually apply elsewhere; students leave our seminaries for lack of real challenge.”

    Thank you! I’d hazard a guess that the Friends college from which I graduated (Malone) is quite similar to Bluffton, EMU and the other Menno colleges. Malone is a teaching institution, not a research institution. That was fine for my undergrad work in communication. When I was facing graduation two and a half years ago, I considered my options. I could get a job in my field, I could go on to grad school, I could become a service worker in a Third World country, I could join a commune… The reason I opted not to go to grad school (for now) was partly because of the lack of actual academic research in Christian universities with graduate programs in journalism or communication. At that time, the ONLY Christian journalism grad school was Regent University, which my trusted professors told me would kill any chance of being taken seriously by secular research institutions. My research would be dismissed. If I wanted to teach in a college, I’d be limited to Christian schools. No thanks.

    My favorite undergrad classes were the ones that had high standards for what I should learn and be able to do with the information. The students who expected to float through college got little sympathy from me.

    But I have no idea how to be taken seriously academically without embracing a traditional business structure for the daily operations of the university.

  7. jdaniel

    perhaps there’s a way to adapt the concept of a triple bottom line to the running of a mennonite university.

  8. Lora

    Brian said, “We cannot let Mennonite simplicity become a learned ignorance, or imagine that parsing our own faith requires less work and training than making a quilt or running a farm.”

    You’re exactly right. As I’ve been visiting seminaries (planning to transfer credit from my one semester at a Mennonite seminary), I’ve been told that I’d probably be happier in an MA/Ph.D program (rather than the M.Div track). But I’ve often felt that Ph.Ds are still rather suspect within the Mennonite church, even if it’s something one pursued in order to be able to teach at a (Mennonite) university. (And since I know I don’t want to teach, what would I do with it?) I’m glad to see someone else articulate why we need rigorous academics in our schools. Perhaps some of us should collectively respond to Loren’s letter?

  9. Brian Hamilton

    I think a response to Loren’s letter, from Mennonite students, would be a wonderful idea. Anyone else interested?

  10. John

    I really enjoyed reading this discussion as I went to two Menno schools at various times. Growing up S. Baptist, I found my first experience (junior college during Vietnam War)to be very beneficial. This was less for the content that was taught than for the positive interaction with students. The college itself seemed, like others mentioned here, to be well into the business model of education. I often felt it was a sell-out to the wealthy authoritarians (pro war) in the local community. But I greatly valued my interaction with fellow students and people like Sol Yoder.

    It takes a tremendous effort to defy the “rules” of society, some as simple as providing credit in a such a way that is acceptable and rigorus for students to be able to transfer their credits.

    Some good efforts in academic reform have failed to flourish because of these and similar problems. Sometimes I think that if we really decide to have change we also may have to give up what we hold dear in order to get the change or “improvement” we really want. Not an answer, just more questions to deal with at this point!
    jhg60 at

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