Educating for Life
by Guy Erwin (March / April 2004 — Volume 20, Number 2)
At California Lutheran University, where I teach religion and history, there has been much conversation among faculty and administrators over the last few years about questions of vocation and identity. Like many of our partner ELCA-affiliated colleges and universities, we have been asking ourselves two major questions: "What does it mean to be a Lutheran university in this place and time?" and "How do we educate our students in such a way as to nurture in them a sense of their vocation in the world?"
On the first of these questions we have had a rich and productive dialogue at Cal Lutheran. Part of the answer to this question lies embedded in each aspect of what we are as an institution — a relatively small, private, church-affiliated, and liberal arts-based university. In light of these four characteristics, we have freedoms and opportunities for service and teaching that would be impossible to imagine in, for example, the large, public, secular, and research- or technology-driven campuses of the University of California and Cal State systems that are the dominant educational force in our region.
With about 1,850 undergraduate and another 1,000 graduate students, Cal Lutheran is a very good size for developing strong relationships. As we live out the Lutheran ideal of mutual responsibility, our interaction with our students as mentors, and with our colleagues as partners, and the students' relationships with each other can all be informed by an institutional ethos of neighbor-love.
As a private university, we can develop our identity and mission in a way that can — if necessary — challenge and critique the society in which we live and can focus on what we see as the "big picture," not trimming our sails to every political wind.
As a university of the ELCA, we take seriously the idea that higher education is a form of ministry and service and as such, an element of the church's work in the world.
Finally, as a liberal arts institution, we stress the idea that a university is a community of learning in which the professors, students, and administrative staff are all engaged in a collective activity, not just producing a product or providing a paid service but enriching each other and the world in which we all live.
What do all four of these features have in common? First, they all have community at their heart, rooted in the fundamental belief that education is both a collective and cooperative activity. Second, they are all centered on service, reflecting our conviction that we serve both by our own teaching and by teaching others to serve.
No part of this fourfold self-understanding is unique to Lutheranism or Lutheran colleges, of course — many other church-related colleges could (and do) say many of these same things. But I believe that this particular combination of community and responsibility, of freedom and obligation to service, is uniquely well-expressed both in the Lutheran tradition and in the distinctive ethos of our ELCA colleges and universities.
We understand ourselves at Cal Lutheran thus to be living out Luther's dictum that we are at the same time both free persons in God and servants of all around us.
And that is where "vocation" comes in, for our special Lutheran understanding of this word as a combination of dedication to God, mutual responsibility, and service to others expresses precisely the combination of joyfulness and purpose that we strive to foster among teachers and learners alike. Our understanding of vocation is a broad one, encompassing every discipline and career path and every student's whole thinking about her or his place in society.
As a Lutheran college, we are concerned for the identification and nurturing of young women and men as future pastors and lay leaders in our churches. But, even more, we aspire to prepare students for service in every aspect and walk of life. At the same time, we constantly try to raise awareness of the vocational aspect of our common educational enterprise in this place: to live out our common call to being students and teachers and to create a community of learning.
There are a number of ways in which we strive to communicate this vocational ideal, some explicit and programmatic but many of them subtle and informal. Among the programmatic emphases is an intentional cultivation of the idea of service, explicitly in activities such as the "Invitation to Service" program, which brings young people of high school age to our campus to sing, pray, play, and reflect on what the vocational future might hold for them.
On the one hand, this is a clear opportunity to raise the subject of church vocations. On the other, it lifts up and dignifies all their future vocational choices as reflections of their commitment to their faith. Here, both the broader and the narrower purposes are served. We hold up the church as a place of service, and we show off Cal Lutheran (and college generally) as a place brimming with purpose- and service-driven students.
Another area in which the call to responsibility and action is articulated formally is in the community-service and service-learning aspects of the curriculum. Though we do not yet have a formal "community service" requirement as part of our core curriculum, our first-semester seminar for entering students includes a significant service-learning component.
Many of our students come to us already old hands at community service, through the excellent programs of service at many of our high schools. What Cal Lutheran tries to add is the reflective component necessary to turn "good works" into a mature understanding of the responsibilities of our common life. We are developing ways to return to this emphasis in the senior year, to underscore the fact that, though the area and type of service may be different, graduating and moving on to a career is itself an invitation and a challenge to serve.
Increasingly, individual Cal Lutheran faculty members are looking for ways to add service-learning components to their existing classes; in the exploration of these opportunities, professors often find themselves teaching each other. There is strong institutional support for innovative and integrative teaching at Cal Lutheran, and the emphasis on service is contagious.
The activities of our Lord of Life student congregation and the other campus ministry programs and student-driven organizations all revolve around service principles. Even if their main articulated goal is to provide a space for a particular activity or interest, student clubs and organizations at Cal Lutheran are all expected by its Student Senate to be able to serve the common good. Some do this explicitly, like the multicultural clubs or leadership organizations. Others do so by including service opportunities among their social and cultural activities.
Cal Lutheran's campus ministry sets the tone for student life, as it takes as the core of its mission the call of Jesus to make disciples, showing that to live out that primary call means to love by serving.
Today's college student faces a much less certain economic climate and employment picture than existed even only a few years ago. This tempts them to make important educational decisions on the basis of the perceived future usefulness of those courses rather than on either their coherence within a broad program of study or out of pure personal interest. As a liberal arts university, we thus face a challenge to our more indirect methods of teaching, which focus on reflection and critical thinking as much as on marketable forms of concrete knowledge.
Like all our peer institutions, we strive at Cal Lutheran to balance the strongly utilitarian concerns provoked by the tight job market with a curricular program that encourages vocational clarity, intellectual growth, and the cultivation of a broad curiosity about the world and our society. The success of this, of course, depends much on our effectiveness as teachers and mentors. Cal Lutheran is very clear in its expectation that its faculty be dedicated and skillful teachers and themselves people of well-articulated vocation. This expectation is reflected in its recruitment and hiring practices.
If this all sounds too good to be true, it is. As is the case with many of our sister institutions, Cal Lutheran is underendowed and operates on a very tight budget. Our university is young (founded in 1959 as the only Lutheran four-year institution begun in the 20th century), indeed still in its infancy by the standards of Lutheran colleges in the United States, and lacks the accumulated affection (and dollars) of generations of alumni that many older institutions have long enjoyed.
To do all that we do here requires us to have developed great skill at making much of small things, of existing personnel, and of scarce resources. Perhaps that is why this intentional reflection on the "two big questions" is so valuable and important to us: We cannot afford to do anything that does not represent movement toward our mission.
The clarity that our conversation on our own vocation as a university brings to our efforts to live it out makes the process highly worthwhile at every level. For only in full consciousness of our calling to teach and to serve can we live out our Cal Lutheran mission statement: "to educate leaders for a global society who are strong in character and judgment, confident in their identity and vocation, and committed to service and justice."
R. Guy Erwin, a faculty member in religion and philosophy, has the Belgum Endowed Chair of Lutheran Confessional Theology at California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, California.