The Folly of Prestige: Kenosis, Glory and Education

I dislike the word “prestige.”

Prestige suggests glamour, dazzling illusion, and magical influence. There is a whiff of snobbery about the word, and advertisers love it. Driving a BMW, for example, will bestow prestige. Certain expensive whiskeys, they say, or overpriced clothing, or trendy pieces of jewelry are “prestigious.” So is living in the right neighborhood, eating at chic restaurants, or attending exclusive parties.

Though it can’t buy you love, money can buy you prestige, it seems.

This flashy word is sneaking its way into some mighty strange places. Never mind, for the moment “prestigious” churches or charities or causes. This afternoon, let us consider for few minutes the alleged connection between education and prestige.

What does it mean to say “I attend a prestigious college” or “This institution enjoys growing prestige.” Does it mean people will be envious of your privileges? Will people who never set foot on your campus wear University sweatshirts? Will paparazzi follow you from dorm to class to cafeteria?

Ah, but what if you are attending a school that is not rich nor famous nor fashionable?

There are many other ways to judge a college. And by some of those standards Southwestern Adventist University is not very impressive.

Perhaps realism is out of order at a ceremonial occasion like Convocation, but the truth is that Southwestern is not richly endowed or widely known. To be brutally honest, a person does not gain prestige or status by enrolling here–or by working here.

Have I uttered heresy? Let me quickly explain.

Compare Southwestern Adventist University, for example, to Grinnell College in central Iowa. Grinnell is not at the same elevation as Harvard or Stanford or the University of Texas. It is a small school of about 1,500 students–considerably bigger than Southwestern but not out of our league. Grinnell has three times as many teachers as Southwestern and a beautiful campus, adorned with exquisite buildings. In the last few years, Grinnell has built a major addition to its science building, a new student center, another dormitory, a fitness center, and a striking modern structure for the admissions and financial aid offices, spending $163 million in the process. Grinnell’s tuition and fees are about twice what we charge and the school turns away about 60% of those who apply. The average SAT score for the freshman class is 1363. (That translates to the 93rd percentile.) And, oh yes, Grinnell has an endowment of $1billion, making it the richest four-year college in America. If we had that kind of money here, we would have more than a million dollars in endowment per student! Is there anything we at Southwestern can do to catch up to Grinnell?

Perhaps the comparison of Southwestern with Grinnell is inappropriate or extreme. Admittedly, the incredible wealth of Grinnell College makes it almost unique. A more reasonable benchmark for us might be the other Southwestern University, a college in Georgetown, Texas which has Methodist origins. (Considering the Methodist roots of many of Seventh-day Adventism’s founders, you could explain to those folks in Georgetown that we are pretty much “Sabbath-keeping Wesleyans.”)

The other Southwestern has about 1,200 students–not far from Southwestern at its peak. But the college in Georgetown has more than double the number of faculty that this Southwestern has. The Methodist school’s budget is about three times bigger than ours. It has an endowment that is thirty times more than Southwestern Adventist University’s. Students at that Southwestern can choose from a remarkably rich variety of majors, ranging from art history to Chinese and from philosophy to physics. I do not need to add that none of those majors I just mentioned is available in Keene.

Should it be our goal to match the other Southwestern–to have a plan to expand our campus, add to our faculty, increase our academic offerings, and pursue a huge endowment, so that someday we can seen as the equal of the college in Georgetown? If we follow the right strategy now, will people at some point think of us first when they hear the phrase “Southwestern University”? Is there a way to outrun the other Southwestern in a race for prestige?

I ask these questions not to promote humility, but in order to remind us of our real mission. Too many schools have confused themselves on what is desirable or possible or appropriate, and end up neglecting essential matters as their leaders ride off in pursuit of imaginary objectives and impossible dreams. These are the unfortunate results of failing to understand our own strengths and weaknesses, and pursuing prestige.

I have a fondness for a Latin phrase that is the motto of the state of North Carolina: Esse quam videri. It means “To be rather than to seem.” Adventist education, I believe, must focus on what we really are, instead of building on appearances, or longing for greater prestige. We ought frequently to ask ourselves whether we are delivering what we promise, rather than spending all our energy in polishing ever more eloquent promises.

In the spirit of Esse quam videri, I can see much about Southwestern Adventist University–past, present, and future–that is truly excellent. Without fooling ourselves about our wealth or eminence, we should act to preserve and strengthen what has been accomplished here in this small college on the plains of Texas.

What is genuinely outstanding about this school?

In all its incarnations, from Keene Industrial Academy to our current name, this school’s claim to greatness lies in its record of changed lives. From the beginning, we have taken risks. We have not restricted ourselves to students who were already coasting to success, nor have we adopted a safe definition of education. Southwestern has had the audacity to aim at “the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers,” to seek to prepare students not just for a job, but for life, even eternal life, “the whole period of existence possible to man,” in the words of Ellen White.

The most important measurements of our success, I believe, transcend riches or reputation.

If I may be allowed a purely personal observation, the weakest school I ever attended was Newbold College in Berkshire, England. An obscure institution with few outward signs of success–ordinary buildings, a tiny library, a far-from-comprehensive curriculum–Newbold was still a success. The hidden excellence of Newbold College was based upon its teachers. Believing that God had called them to this specific place, these teachers changed many lives, including mine. By certain standards, my later education was much superior to Newbold College, but there may be something misleading about those standards.

Let me put it this way: At the University of Chicago, for all its wealth and distinction, despite the numerous Nobel laureates on the faculty, I never found a teacher superior to Harry Leonard, my history instructor at Newbold. He challenged me in the classroom, demanding my best rather than “good enough,” insisting on clarity and precision in the distinctive essays he assigned every two week. He also taught me by his example. He helped me to think through the question “Can a Christian participate in war?”–not a theoretical question for me in 1968, in the midst of the Vietnam War!

I could give other examples. No one at Chicago had quite the influence on me that one of my Andrews teachers had. Don McAdams, a brash young man only a few years older than his students, was an inspiring and demanding teacher. His essay examinations, I remember, were works of art. You left the test period, still thinking about his questions, realizing that he had been teaching you all along. I was amazed and intrigued, by the way, when, a few years later, he agree to become the president of struggling little school in Keene, Texas.

There are many such Christian educators in this sanctuary now. They know that God has given them the duty of praying for their students–as well as correcting their grammar, challenging their logic, probing their assumptions, and testing their hypotheses.

All around you today there are people who can verify Southwestern’s record of changing lives.

I recently asked several of our faculty and staff members how they were changed by a Southwestern education. They responded by describing teachers, work supervisors, and deans who intervened in their lives with dramatic results. They talked about events in the classroom and outside it, and their stories were filled with new demands, unexpected affirmations, and miraculous new directions. None of them used the word “prestige” even once.

One Southwestern employee, said “I was a mess when I came here.” He was on his fifth step-father, he said, and had a belligerent, know-it-all attitude. Specific teachers accepted him wholeheartedly, but refused to accept his low expectations and preposterous alibis. They held him accountable, and that made all the difference in the world.

Another Southwestern graduate, now a teacher, described his wasted first year of college somewhere else. The “second chance” he got here transformed him. Even though he had flunked freshman comp the first time through, he now caught a vision of what he could do. I am not giving away any secret information when I tell you that he is right now chairman of our English department!

A member of Board of Trustees, Frank Knittel, gave one of most powerful answers to the question “How did your education change you?” He was a very youthful 1944 graduate of Southwestern Junior College. He went on to earn a doctorate in medieval literature from the University of Colorado and achieve a distinguished career as a teacher and administrator at Andrews University, Southern College, and La Sierra University. He is intensely loyal to Southwestern to this day because this school changed his life. Ordinarily a direct and unsentimental man, Dr. Knittel expresses strong emotions about this school. Thinking of teachers who challenged him at just the right time, he says, “My heart has never left Keene.”

He described the religious impact of Southwestern upon him, asserting that he is an Adventist today because of what happened to him here. His teachers at Keene taught him a richer and deeper understanding of Christianity than he had ever heard before. On one occasion a visiting speaker shocked the campus by preaching that most of the students were doomed, that God had already judged and condemned them. Here’s the way Dr. Knittel described what happened next:

Our Bible Doctrines class came immediately after chapel, and a more somber and anxious group could not have been found. The teacher, Ivan Crowder, faced a barrage of questions. I’ll never forget. He did not try to answer the questions at first. Rather, he listened and then slowly turned and looked out of the window in that room which faced the girl’s dorm across the campus and stood there silent for a long, long time, while we silently waited expectantly for his response. Then he slowly faced us again, and with tears streaming down his face, said firmly, “I don’t believe one single word of it.”

All of these voices tell us that Southwestern offers excellent education, though we are not rich or famous or “prestigious.” Indeed, I think that what we are doing is often better than what happens at the famous places. If we had time today, we might consider the serious weaknesses of many schools that are associated with that dangerous word “prestige.” The truth is, that many of America’s elite institutions are failing, both morally and educationally.

Despite their reputations, many of these schools are not delivering the “truth” or “light” that their old university mottoes promise. In too many cases, such universities neglect student learning, offer incoherent, diffuse curricula, and forget their basic mission. Some of them have given up on the goal of producing virtuous graduates.

But that is a story for another day. Suffice it to say, some of the nation’s best schools, as far as real learning is concerned, are not necessarily the best known.
Southwestern’s future is tied to its past. If we build on our past successes, continuing to offer a Christ-centered education, we may not become rich or famous. But we will serve the rapidly growing Adventist population in Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Our work, if we do it well, will also attract the attention of Seventh-day Adventist students and parents around the nation. At least, I suspect that people will want to know more about a school that is rigorous yet open, diverse but not divided, orthodox but not narrow, and faithful without being simplistic.

If Southwestern Adventist University keeps its promises its service will reach beyond one denomination. As we train teachers, nurses, and entrepreneurs, we will be an ever-more valued part of our community. Baptists or Catholics or Presbyterians or “none-of the above” may seek an education at a distinctively Adventist institution.

Indeed, I have a bolder dream for this school. I would like to see Southwestern do such a good job of integrating religious knowledge and spiritual formation into its curriculum, so clearly explicate the role of “mere Christianity” in western civilization, and so articulately challenge relativism and materialism, that Christians around the nation will sit up and take notice. Certainly if we follow God’s leading, we will be blessed beyond our greatest imagination.

And “blessed” is a better word than “prestigious.”

But I haven’t explained that strange word in my subtitle: Kenosis. For Christians, that Greek word shows the true folly of pursing prestige–both for individuals and for institutions.

In the deepest sense, to seek prestige is to miss the point of the story of Jesus.

As you might of guessed, Kenosis is a theological term. It refers to Christ’s renunciation, his self-emptying obedience to His Father. The second chapter of the epistle to the Philippians gives the best known and most powerful description of kenosis. Listen to The Message version:

“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.”

Notice that Christ’s self-emptying leads, in the end, to honor and glory and mastery. In this glorious light, mere “prestige” is a pathetic and pale thing.

On this day of Convocation, let us remember that Southwestern Adventist University is dedicated to sharing in Christ’s kenosis. If you come here, and if you follow our advice, you may make less money than if you had chased prestige. The education we offer here is not about self-promotion, or bragging, elbowing your way to the top. Our education begins with self-emptying, sharing in the sufferings of Jesus.

If you chose to become a missionary doctor, a preacher, a church school teacher, a Christian merchant, a scholar, you may be giving up prestige. You cannot count on a life of luxury. But someday you will share in Christ’s shining glory.

Isn’t that why you chose this school?

And look at the faculty, wrapped in their colorful robes. Why are they here?

I assure you that they are not teaching here simply because they have no other choices. If you ask them, each one will say something like this:

I love teaching here;

God called me to this place;

This is what I’ve always wanted to do.

Many of our faculty and staff have turned down offers of other jobs, in other places. Like you, they believe that this little-known school is truly excellent.
On a flight last December 9 had a startling experience. Somehow preachers always have dramatic experiences riding on airplanes. Have you noticed that? I travel a lot but the person next to me never argues with me, confesses a shocking sin, or says anything memorable–unless I am travelling with my wife! So this was interesting.

I was on a flight home from Atlanta and as we approached DFW my seat mate got to chatting. A teacher at a Texas college, he was coming back from the same educational convention I had attended. He noticed the Southwestern shirt I was wearing and said “I know someone who teaches there.” That was surprising enough, but then he went to describe this person as “as a teacher who changes students’ lives.” Those were his exact words.

It turned out that my traveling companion had taught a summer seminar in England with one of our faculty members, somebody sitting here today. He was deeply impressed by the impact of this person’s teaching on students. “You can see the light go on,” he said.

As we open this new school year, let’s not be distracted be image or prestige. Students, faculty and staff of Southwestern, let us focus on reality not appearance.
And, count on it, you will see lights go on!

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2 Comments

  1. J
    September 10, 05:38 Reply
    My favorite portions: "They know that God has given them the duty of praying for their students–as well as correcting their grammar, challenging their logic, probing their assumptions, and testing their hypotheses." "...people will want to know more about a school that is rigorous yet open, diverse but not divided, orthodox but not narrow, and faithful without being simplistic."

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