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The 3 C’s of Mennonite higher education

12.21. 2017 369 Times read

Dr. Susan Schultz Huxman is President of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. You can read more about her in the January edition of The Mennonite magazine. 

More than 100 years ago, the seeds of Anabaptist education were planted by Mennonites in mostly rural locations across North America. These industrious men and women from the church launched an educational experience committed to enacting the belief that Mennonites should be “in the world but not of it” (John 17). They envisioned Mennonite schools rising from humble roots and thriving amid other, mostly well-funded secular schools.!

Many naysayers along the way thought that for such a small faith community these humble “mustard seeds” would not take root. Yet here we are today with most of our schools already entering their second century. The Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada mustard seed variety has yielded flowering Anabaptist trees in the higher education forest in four states and three provinces.

All our schools have experienced profound change since their origins, including but not limited to such things as (1) economic vacillation of significant growth and serious retrenchment over the roller-coaster course of their institutional histories; (2) the expansion from largely Bible schools to full-spectrum, highly accredited liberal arts schools; and (3) dramatically changing student demographics, with far more non-Mennonite than Mennonite students and greater diversity on our campuses.

Some things haven’t changed fundamentally, however. One of those constants is our unique, collective brand of Mennonite education.

Today, Mennonite schools remain committed to their founding spirit; they have a “peculiar seed” that gives them important space in the cluttered higher education marketplace. One way to consider that unique ethos is to look at three distinctive, mission-centered factors, all starting with C: (1) Our schools’ countercultural mandates serve a purpose grounded in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ; (2) connections are the heart and soul of our academic, relational and spiritual mission; and (3) community as practiced on our campuses transforms lives by grooming students to serve and lead with compassion and global awareness as they engage a beautiful and broken world.

 Mennonite education matters because it is countercultural.

The founders of Mennonite schools planted unusual educational seeds. Their countercultural, nonconformist attitudes reverberated: “We must dare to be different” because our faith tradition demands it.

The Christian story is countercultural. We see this in the story of Jesus from birth in a barn to an unwed teenager to his life and ministry, where he consorted with outcasts, misfits, sinners and unbelievers, to his death on a cross with common criminals, to his resurrection—first presenting his risen self to women—scandalous for his day—and then to the Great Commission, given to all people. An “upside-down kingdom” captures the peculiar countercultural identity of Mennonite education that runs through the visible and “invisible curriculum” in our schools.[1]

The Anabaptist story is also a countercultural tale. Our flowering as Mennonite schools harkens back to the unconventional stories of our 16th century faith ancestors—many of them martyred for their stand on believer’s baptism, lay leadership and military service.

Our students, most of whom are not Mennonite, are also taken with these Jesus-inspired narratives of disciples, apostles and martyrs whose lives confounded the established order and planted the seeds of an incarnational model of education. We seek to practice the countercultural idea that grace and works, wisdom and witness, intellect and faith cannot be separated. We try to adhere to a “Third Way” Christianity that is neither Catholic nor Protestant, neither “stridently conservative nor ambivalently liberal,”[2] but a humble, abiding walk with Jesus in search of peace and justice, love and mercy.

Mennonite education matters because it forges deep and abiding connections.

The origin of the term “liberal arts” comes from ancient Greece and means the freedom to explore a broad education in order to become a well-rounded citizen. Our Mennonite schools are conditioned to create strong connections in the spirit of the liberal arts. We connect art and science, theory and practice, values and action. We connect “what” questions with “why” questions. We connect the individual with the world.

Our faith commitments demand that we make deeper connections, that we teach and model how to connect faith and science, competency and compassion, expertise and empathy, academic research and social justice advocacy, the local and the global, diverse voices to speak into complex problems. Our Mennonite educators sharpen these many connections with “the saltiness” of the Anabaptist ethos.

The axis of the cross neatly captures this both-and connection. We need contemplative prayer and bold practice, salvation from God and service of others, to be redeemed and to repair the world.

Mennonite colleges and universities are connecting with one another in even bolder and imaginative ways to strengthen the brand. Our new web platform, Mennoniteeducation.org, shows how we are cooperating with one another in the highly competitive higher education marketplace.

Mennonite higher education matters because it builds authentic community.

While many colleges and universities affirm community, few practice it intentionally as a part of their mission and core values.

The sense of belonging to a group or community is so important to human well-being yet is in short supply. Research from the University of Oregon has shown that the number of Americans who feel a sense of belonging has fallen by half from 1976 to today. That’s a problem because, as the Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam has argued, “the single biggest predictor of happiness is the depth and breadth of our community ties.”[3]

We are discovering that “the going solo world is overrated.” What we are losing with all our emphasis on self-reliance over the support of others is enormous. As Emily White in her book Count Me In says: “There’s not a whole lot in our culture urging us to join together in real, in-person ways. We can tweet, but we’re not encouraged to meet.”[4]

So how does Mennonite education respond? We aspire to practice community diligently because it features so prominently in our theology of how to practice “shalom”—that ancient word that means faith-inspired wholeness and peace. Palmer Becker captures the simple yet profound insight of shalom from an Anabaptist perspective: (1) Jesus is the center of our faith; (2) reconciliation is the center of our work; and (3) community is the center of our lives.[5]

Another way of looking at our emphasis on community is to remember that Jesus was more about “kindom” than “kingdom.”[6] He was more about us learning to be compassionate healers committed to living and sharing abundantly in community than learning to chase power and material success at all costs for self-gratification.

You may be surprised at how few schools pay attention to such community building—the knitting together of communities that are deep and abiding. They’d rather tout, “Bigger is better” and, “Anonymity is good.” This de-emphasis of community is peculiar because the number one reason students give for leaving a given school after one year is not feeling a sense of belonging.

In the spirit of Isaiah 54:2, Mennonite schools build community by “enlarging the place of our tents and stretching our curtain wide.” We “lengthen our cords as we strengthen our stakes.” Our schools proclaim that Mennonite education should take place in a community that is both a “safe harbor” and an “adventure on the high seas,”[7] that is welcoming and that holds each other accountable, that prays and reads the Bible together and that feeds the poor and visits the prisoner, an academic community that practices writing across the curriculum and a faith community that practices peacebuilding across the curriculum.

Even as our Mennonite colleges and universities hustle to reinvent themselves to accommodate our changing stakeholders’ aspirations we continue to take sustenance from our Mennonite roots.

 

Read more reflections on the status and impact of Mennonite education in the January issue of The Mennonite magazine. 

 

Works cited

 

[1] Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside Down Kingdom (Herald Press, 2011). See also John D. Roth, Teaching that Transforms: Why Anabaptist-Mennonite Education Matters (Mennonite Publishing Network, 2011). Roth uses the concept of “the invisible curriculum” (the culture of care and concern that is palpable from faculty and staff toward students) to explain much about what is unique in Anabaptist-Mennonite schools.

[2] See Walter Klassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Pandora Press, 2001), and Donald B. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Counter-cultural Education (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017).

[3] Robert Putnam as quoted in Emily White, Count Me In. McClelland & Stewart, Div. of Penguin Randomhouse, CA, 2015, p. 3 and 11.

[4] White, p. 265.

[5] Palmer Becker, Anabaptist Essentials: Ten Signs of a Unique Christian Faith, Herald Press, 2017, p. 9.

[6]Hannah E. Heinzekehr uses this term in “Making Peace with Ourselves: Mennonite Peace Education and Interchurch Conflict” in Education with the Grain of the Universe: A Peaceable Vision for the Future of Mennonite Schools, Colleges and Universities, edited by J. Denny Weaver (Cascadia Publishing House, 2017).

[7]Gerald Mast, “Why the Anabaptist Academy Should Go to Church,” in Education with the Grain of the Universe.

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