This long article/essay/meditation by Ruth Graham on the disturbing events at Wheaton College last year — click on the “wheaton” tag at the bottom of this post for some of my thoughts about that situation, and other issues related to Christian higher education — is by far the best thing that anyone has written on the subject: the most deeply researched, fair-minded, and thoughtful. I commend it to you whole-heartedly.
I’m going to take a personal turn now. Ruth was a student of mine, so I’m especially gratified by passages like this:
During my four years at Wheaton, I drifted away from evangelicalism. But I never contemplated transferring to another school. I was reading Foucault and Judith Butler (Shakespeare and Milton too); my professors were brilliant and kind and I found plenty of kindred spirits. When the religion scholar Alan Wolfe visited Wheaton for a cover article about evangelical intellectualism in The Atlantic in 2000, halfway through my time there, he found a campus whose earnestness was both endearing and impressive: “In its own way, campus life at Wheaton College resembles that of the 1960s, when students and a few professors, convinced that they had embarked on a mission of eternal importance, debated ideas as if life really depended on the answers they came up with.” At a suburban dive bar on the edge of a marsh, we drank illicit Pabst on Saturday night and talked about politics, music and philosophy like undergraduates anywhere. Then we got up on Sunday morning and went to church.
(By the way, Wen Stephenson, who became my friend during his work as an editor on that Atlantic story, interviewed me about its topic. I can’t bring myself to re-read that interview, but there it is.)
During my 29 years teaching at Wheaton, I saw many students “drift away from evangelicalism.” I didn’t always regret that — it depended on what they drifted to. Evangelical Protestantism is by no means the only way to be a faithful Christian, and for some people it proves impossible, or at least very difficult, to be a faithful Christian in that tradition. But sometimes I did regret the drifting, if it led away from Christian faith altogether.
Still, we all, among the faculty, accepted that risk — it was and is built into the DNA of Wheaton (as it is in my current academic location, the Honors College at Baylor). As I’ve commented elsewhere, “The likelihood of producing such graduates is a chance Wheaton is willing to take. Why? Because it believes in liberal education, as opposed to indoctrination.” So I understood and accepted that the exposure to new and powerful ideas, some of them quite alien or hostile to Christianity, has a tendency to change people, sometimes quite dramatically.
But here’s my True Confession: what I’ve always found hard to accept is how many of my students — how many of my best students, including the ones I’ve invested the most time and energy in — become so embarrassed about having attended Wheaton that they never, later in life, publicly acknowledge the quality of the education they received there. In their determination to separate themselves from the religious world they grew up in — and also, it must be said, in attempts not to have their careers or social lives torpedoed by anti-evangelical prejudice — they are just not willing to say what Ruth says here: that however frustrating they found the chapel services, and however stiff-necked they believed the college’s administration to be, at least they received a first-class liberal-arts education from smart and caring teachers, most of whom also understood and sympathized with and did not judge students for any drifting from evangelical orthodoxy.
Let me emphasize again that I very much understand the impulse: many of these students can pay a social or vocational price for acknowledging that they attended Wheaton. What a blessing it is that there’s another Wheaton College, in Massachusetts: Maybe people will think I went there. And if people do find out that you graduated from “that fundamentalist school,” then perhaps the best strategy for moving forward is to say that you hated every minute of it, and repudiate it with all your being.
So I get all that. But it makes me sad, you know? Because I devoted my best energies to teaching those students — it was always a heart-and-soul thing for me, it really was. And because, while some graduates of Wheaton hated everything about it and can’t stand anyone involved with the place, many of them place a great value on the education they received there. I know: they tell me. But they only do so in private. And for my part, I keep their shameful secret.