STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 05/30/2012

The Last of the Rowanberrys—or, The "Living Ground" of Gordon College

Not long ago the members of the Cabinet were in the President’s Office preparing for a conference call with the Board of Trustees. We were scurrying around to ensure that we had all the right papers ready, when we suddenly ventured onto one of the thornier philosophical topics we had faced in some time. Was it possible to taste the difference between Coke Zero, Diet Coke, and Diet Pepsi? While we were at it, why not add Pepsi One and some generic store brand to the mix?

So the next week I asked Jerry Logan, our academic programs coordinator, if he would conduct a taste test among the visitors to our office. We found what many studies have confirmed: That virtually everyone would boldly declare what drink they would buy if they saw these choices in the store. And yet only 13 percent were successful in picking that flavor simply by taste. You would have better odds if you rolled dice.

What this implies, of course, is a triumph of marketing. The actual distinctions between colas are relatively slight: this one has a few more milligrams of corn syrup or artificial sweetener than that one. But almost all of us who have spent any time watching television have absorbed images and theme songs associated with each beverage. We may not fully realize how effectively Coca Cola has targeted Coke Zero at men and Diet Coke at women, feeding the absurd notion that a few milligrams of saccharin or aspartame defines the boundary line between genders.

For the last ten years, when I have been engaged in discussions about the distinctions of Gordon, it has usually been part of a quest for that Holy Grail of sales—a market differential. Too many advisors have told us to define reality by our marketing jargon. What saved me was reading Wendell Berry. Like many of you, I have long had great affection for Berry’s essays, stories and poems, often lingering over his succinct elegance and his love of the Kentucky farms, streams and hills where he lives and writes. One of Berry’s short stories, in fact— “Are You All Right?” —has been part of the reading list for our Great Conversation course. The story takes place in a Kentucky village after the great rains have caused the river to overflow its banks, disturbing some split-rail fences, flooding paths and roads, and, most of all, dividing the town from the home of two elderly brothers, Arthur and Martin Rowanberry. They lived on the land that the family had stewarded for over two hundred years, when previous generations first set up lives in log cabins. Worried that the two brothers—the so-called Last of the Rowanberrys—were in danger, the narrator and his friend venture out into the moonlight to check up on them in their home on the outskirts of town.

The people of the town saw in the Rowanberrys "an old-fashioned independence, an old-fashioned fidelity, and an old-fashioned generosity." Arthur, it is said, "knew what he knew and what had been known by a lot of the dead kinfolks and neighbors. They lived on in his mind, reminding him of what needed to be remembered. Something that happened would remind him of something that he remembered, which would remind him of something his grandfather had remembered. He lived in the place, but the place was where the memories were, and he walked among them, tracing them out over the living ground."

This is certainly one of the few colleges where you can look out the window of your third-floor office and watch people swinging on high wires in something called the flying squirrel.

The distinctives of Gordon College are not simply market differentials or inflated aspirations but themes we can trace in the living ground—and in our memories. What sets Gordon apart? When asked, I first thought of the lily pads that turn brown on the edges of Coy Pond and nearly blanket the waters in late spring. Or the canopy of white blossoms on the magnolia tree that spreads its limbs over the site where Prince Chapel once stood. This is certainly one of the few colleges where you can look out the window of your third-floor office and watch people swinging on high wires in something called the flying squirrel. This is a college where the liberal arts are deeply valued—and compared affectionately by French professor Damon DiMauro to Gallic cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, and full of bacteria.

It is impossible for me to think of Gordon’s distinctives without considering how Marv Wilson’s lifelong commitment to respectful dialogue with Jewish rabbis and leaders has not only encouraged us to understand Protestant tradition in light of the Hebrew Bible, but has also tempered the usual evangelical triumphalism. It is impossible for me not to recall that the faculty have spent more than a decade remolding the Core curriculum——but for good reason: to ensure that general education does not settle simply into a smorgasbord of distribution requirements. When I look at the new murals in the Ken Olsen Science Center (painted as a class gift by recent graduates Anna Taylor and Garrett Ames-Ledbetter), I can see intimations of their conversations with me about their philosophy classes even as I perceive motifs shaped by their time as students in Orvieto.

We are, in short, the sum total of our dreams, quarrels, false starts, persistent journeys, and the experiences and memories that still shape the way we think about teaching, learning and faith. I would like to offer here five themes about Gordon’s distinctives; but in doing so I will try to link aspiration to our sense of history and place. The conscience of the future is indebted to an understanding of the past, and place.

1. We reside between the urban and the wild.

We have roots in Boston, and we live on the edge of the forest. We love the beautiful wooded campus and still carry some guilt about withdrawal from urban Boston back in the 1950s, when we left to make our "errand into the wilderness"—or, what in fact is a North Shore full of horses, tennis clubs and wealthy Caucasians. We have lost—and been scolded for losing—some of our ties to the multicultural communities of Boston. Recently, several of those connections have been improved, with our Lynn partnerships, Clarendon Scholars program, and our rekindled partnership with the Emmanuel Gospel Center.

We love the beautiful wooded campus and still carry some guilt about withdrawal from urban Boston back in the 1950s.

But I don’t think we should ever forget that one of the distinctives of Gordon is that we have the ability to give our students an experience in the wilderness and in an urban context. However, this needs to be more than simply an occasional drive into the city and a walk in the woods. It requires of us more than simply using the wilderness and city as catalysts for personal development— "character formation," "leadership development," or whatever we might call it. In a richer sense we need to use our urban and rural landscapes more dynamically and fully to explore the responsibilities of global citizenship. In many respects, to talk about globalization is to talk about urbanization and its challenges: education, employment, racial and class differences, healthcare, and sustainability. A Gordon student needs a walk around Coy Pond now and then for fresh air and personal renewal, but he or she also needs to leave here with a fuller understanding of the interplay between land and species preservation and urban crowding, food supplies, sustainability and justice.

2. We have a tradition of both creativity and criticism—and some childlikeness.

For nearly fifteen years now we have held an annual Gordon College Symposium, with most events created and led by students. I remember the Symposium when we shifted from a college-sponsored series of events to a student-generated one. It was our third symposium, advised by art professor Jim Zingarelli, and devoted to the theme "Art: Consumers and Makers of Culture." Some of the culture making caught us by surprise, including one student who put up a line of laundry in front of Jenks.

The Board of Trustees actually happened to be on campus that day and I had to explain to some skeptical trustees why a display of t-shirts, jeans and underwear on clothespins in front of the library was evidence of intellectual maturity and Christian character. I had to admit to them, frankly, that this was sportive and fun, and that we were all really kids at heart. The late John Holt stressed in many of his books that learners need time to "mess around." Fortunately, Gordon has always allowed a little more space for creative risk tasking, such as Michael Monroe’s recent encouragement to us to come out and try to be piano heroes—or Bruce Herman’s persistent attempts to scratch and scrape his paintings to discover new textures and nuances.

To be honest, we live in a world where the kids are often the only ones who are encouraged to be creative or imaginative. One of the reasons that there has been such strong reaction to the death of Steve Jobs is the notion that he, somehow, embodied for many people a playful sense of discovery that managed to infiltrate corporate America. Each new Apple gadget, it seemed, refueled our own childlike wonder.

A creative, innovative culture is not one that just champions the arts, but leads to other forms of problem solving and innovations as well.

So, in my view, one thing that does distinguish Gordon is the desire to sustain this link between being "consumers and makers of culture." We see this in our Communication Arts Department, where media studies focuses both on film criticism and video production. We see it also in our Gordon IN Orvieto program, which John Skillen has longed described as a "studio for art, faith and history." We see that in the theatre, where students write and produce their own plays. Some of that youthful creativity is also apparent in the sciences, such as when David Lee has his physics class create nerdy, motorized Christmas ornaments.

There is a moral dimension to this. On several previous occasions, I have said that one of our most vital challenges is to awaken the moral imagination of our students. At some point in my own schooling, my art classes became art appreciation, and I learned to love Rembrandt and toss away the watercolors and sketch pads that my parents gave me when young. I became a critic, or interpreter, or consumer of the arts. Today there are many Christian schools, churches and colleges that encourage “a classical education” and a knowledge of great ideas, but at the same time there can be the implied assumption that the mastery of the classics, or the development of a high-class, cultivated aesthetic, translates into “character” or wisdom appropriate to the elite. But the tragedies of the last century should have warned against that: lots of fascists loved the opera.

A creative, innovative culture is not one that just champions the arts, but leads to other forms of problem solving and innovations as well. For example, one of the most imaginative institutional initiatives at Gordon in recent years is the Center for Balance, Mobility and Wellness, which provides both a practical and necessary service to the community and an opportunity for research for our kinesiology faculty and students. We have seen great creativity in other areas as well, coming from students who are given the opportunity to pursue their curiosity: initiatives in green chemistry, artwork and mission trips.

As theologian Richard Hays observes, the call of our faith is to live in "imaginative obedience" to the “moral vision” of the Gospel. How do we emerge out of structural dead ends and calcified thinking into creative problem solving? Sustaining freedom to create and explore during the college years can bring childhood and adult life together, not simply for diversion and fun, but for moral agency and just relations. In that spirit, the new Initiative for the Study and Practice of Peace, first envisioned by sociologist Daniel Johnson, links creativity with hope.

3. We value faith-and-learning integration by osmosis—or hospitality. 

At evangelical institutions, the project of integrating faith and learning is now at least two generations old. It emerged at a time when many evangelical institutions were trying to create some distance from their fundamentalist roots, the kind of anti-intellectualism that Mark Noll noted in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It also emerged at a time when there was growing fear about the secularism of the academy and the exclusion of religion from scholarly discourse and exploration. Nationwide, the project of integrating faith and learning can point to some remarkable gains, especially in promoting the life of the mind and a broader Christian discourse that transcends some of the denominational subcultures and divisions.

Yet much of the project of faith and learning at American Christian colleges still carries a fearful, Christ-against-culture spirit. On so many occasions, I have heard discussions about redeeming the disciplines, dismantling the secular assumptions and methodologies that underline epistemologies and worldviews of the academy. We at Gordon do have a Reformed sensibility about redeeming Creation after the fall (including the disciplines), but we hold it a little more lightly. We are less likely to rush faith-learning treatises into print than to linger in conversation with colleagues from different fields. At its best, we have a faith-learning integration that is hospitable to, not fearful of, multiple lenses provided by multiple disciplines.

On this score, I think of Gordon’s stance on the sciences. Gordon’s biology faculty, from the days of Dick Wright and his book Biology Through the Eyes of Faith, have been at ease with Darwinian theory and evolutionary science, clearly distinguishing the empirical study of biological evidence from the ideological use of evolutionary theory to downgrade religious belief. Where many Christian colleges have turned the issues into an ideological war, we have respected the insights of the disciplines, including the strengths and insights of evolutionary theory.

Christian vocation, in other words, is a synthesis of new possibilities, providing intellectual generosity and hospitality. In considering this notion of hospitality, I think specifically of the spirit of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum here, designed not as a retreat for elite students in the company of a single scholar, but as multidisciplinary conversation, with faculty invited to teach certain books and forums and debates for the community at large.

4. We have a large quad—and an oversized chapel.

Many New England schools have attractive, tightly manicured quads in the middle of the campus, but I don’t know of any others that have a polo field—or a soccer field—overrun at times by geese or protected by a rubber coyote.

But let me speak metaphorically: we have a larger "center" than many of our peer Christian institutions and with it, the capacity to practice a vibrant ecumenism. Part of this is demographic. In many other regions of the country, there are several Christian colleges that endeavor to distinguish themselves from one another like cola brands, playing on small distinctions to assert that they are more conservative or orthodox or spiritual or relevant than the others. For me, happily, since Gordon is the only nondenominational Christian college in an area where there is already a low density of evangelicals, some of the intramural squabbles that set Christian colleges or churches against one another seem more foolish here, distractions to our core mission rather than defining identities.

The New England community needs to know that evangelicals have great ideas—and a generous spirit.

Yes, we do have an oversized New England chapel—or, as one colleague puts it, a "Puritan meeting house on steroids." But this big building is also home to the largest worship gathering of New England evangelicals. It is then, as it were, a megachurch: designed more as a performance space than for intimate conversation. That tension underscores another distinction that I see about Gordon. Compared to the evangelical culture of the United States, Gordon tends to prefer a conversational evangelicalism rather than a celebrity evangelicalism. This is a place that has valued dialogue as much as declaration, or what several colleagues refer to as "sacred conversation"—or "respectful conversation," as Harold Heie called it, when he was initiating the Center for Christian Studies. During the heat of the culture wars, the institution was more likely to welcome reflective discourse than to pontificate. True, we have our ideological and political divides, but I do feel that we have achieved greater levels of candor and mutual respect than most Christian colleges. 

What’s ahead? Preserving the conversational culture of the institution, with its concomitant commitment to hospitality, while allowing Gordon to be more of the old New England lyceum. The same irenic spirit that defines internal conversations needs to be heard in the public square. The New England community needs to know that evangelicals have great ideas—and a generous spirit.

5. Global Education is approached as an investment.

Since the adoption of the European Seminar over 50 years ago, Gordon has thought of itself as a leader among Christian colleges in international education. Part of that leadership has been in the investment that we make in financial aid support for international study, which exceeds the vast majority of institutions. That investment is not simply in the experience of students, but in the ethos of the campus, as any time a large percentage of students return from study overseas they import new ideas and perspectives and questions into the Gordon community to which they return. Over 50 percent of our students have some kind of international experience before graduation. We have also allowed faculty and administrators over the years to invest considerable time on international boards and advisory groups. It is not simply the fact that we encourage global study, but some of the characteristics of the way it is approached here—themes suggested by the phrase Gordon IN . . . (i.e., Gordon IN Orvieto, Gordon IN Romania, etc.).

We are thinking less of a "semester abroad" and more in terms of international partnerships.

That phrase was chosen several years ago by the Global Education staff to express the desire that our off-campus programs were not simply our investments in students’ lives but also those students’ investment in the local setting of the program. Our intention was that the students would not be outside observers with only academic curiosity about the host setting, but rather "citizen-sojourners" who patiently earn the trust and respect of the local populace and its leaders, and therefore could contribute to the cultural, social, economic and spiritual life of the community.

This vision, to be honest, comes not from any prescriptive agenda that we developed several years ago, but from the experience of sharing space and communities with local citizens, whether it was the home stays in Aix-en-Provence or apartments in Oxford. Our students have joined choirs and worship bands in France and Italy, taught dance to Romanian children, painted murals for cloisters, prepared scripts and sets for local theatrical productions, picked fruits and vegetables with local farmers, and helped renovate old facilities. When possible, they have taken tutorials with local scholars, or attended classes with local universities, sometimes forcing them to confront the differences in pedagogy between the United States and other nations. In its very first year, the new Salzburg Institute hosted a successful symposium with Austrian, German and American scholars.

Shortly after World War II, Senator William Fulbright led the drive to invest some of the American war dividend into an international exchange of scholars, with the goals of reducing the likelihood of future international violence by promoting cross-cultural understanding. The Fulbright program has itself evolved away from being primarily a scholarly exchange (where scholars reside for short terms in other countries) into a scholarly partnership (where the grants support scholarly collaborations and focused exchange of ideas between faculty and administrators). In many ways, I think we are in the midst of that shift in global education throughout the nation, as we are thinking less of a "semester abroad" and more in terms of international partnerships. Gordon’s instinct and experience toward investing in the local setting situates us well to move toward that future, but it is going to take some proactive and imaginative endeavors to lay the groundwork for our students to blend research projects or social entrepreneurship endeavors with faculty and students in other countries.

Senator Fulbright’s vision may have played its own small part in reducing the likelihood of massive conflict again in Europe, but our eyes now need to look toward India, China, the Middle East and Africa. As we do, we need to consider global education not merely as an investment in students’ lives, but in the development of the global church and the world’s communities, in all of their diversity and shared interests.

Final Thoughts

I began with a reference to Wendell Berry, so let me close with one. Last year I wrote a Thanksgiving column about the ways that Coy Pond serves as an emblem of our exploration and a source of renewal. A walk around the pond (especially in great weather) does the soul some good. I thought of our pond when I recently reread this poem from Wendell Berry:


When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

We stand in the theological tradition of New England’s Puritans, but the Puritans usually saw the wilderness as a source of fear. I cherish the fact that Gordon has been a community that can see the grace of the world as a gift from God, not a threat, and can accept the freedom and renewal that we find here as a catalyst for responsibility rather than license. In other words, we are a community that can find peace in the wilds, even as we find freedom in the framework of faith.

Mark Sargent is concluding his sixteenth and final year as Gordon’s provost, and has become the new provost at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.


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