November 27, 2000
Methodism and the academy
Susan Henry-Crowe is dean of
the Chapel and Religious Life. This essay
was her 2000 convocation address at Columbia College.
When I arrived at Emory in 1991, I thought it would be important to mark
this new beginning with an inter-faith service. I invited various religious
leaders and faculty to a planning meeting, and we gathered to discuss
the nature of the service: what we would and could do, and what we would
not and could not do. It was a warm, open discussion about texts, reading
When the discussion on symbols came up, the rabbi looked at me and said,
We cannot live with the cross and all that it means. To which
the Muslim said, Neither can we live with the Star of David.
And the Hindu said, We can live with most anything. The Buddhist
This story has become the metaphor for my work at Emory.
In looking back at the history of church-related higher education, the
truth is there were people, most notably John Wesley and subsequently
the Methodist Church, who recognized from the beginning that there are
problems within society that can best be addressed by education.
In the mid-18th century, Wesley said the only thing more expensive
[than education] is ignor-ance. In 173839, he and George Whitfield
began discussing and raising funds for a preparatory school meant to provide
education to poor children and preachers children, both boys and
girls. By 1740 there were enough resources to begin operation, and Kingswood
College opened its doors.
The rigorous curriculum at Kingswood included reading, writing, arithmetic,
Greek, Latin, prayers three times a day, public worship and gardening
or house work. The only difference between the boys and girls
curriculum was that girls also had to take needlework. While this may
seem odd and sexist now, it was ingenious because it provided a way for
educated young women to make a living in a society that had little use
for women in the workplace.
There is more that I could say about the genius of Kingswood and Wesleys
vision and deep commitment to education as a foundational principle for
the transformation of society, but we should turn now to look at what
it is that makes Methodist higher education distinctive and laudable.
First, Methodist education has always seen its value not in and of itself
but in the potential for a transformation of society. Kingswood and the
other Methodist colleges in England, some 120 colleges and universities
in the United States, and 250 more Methodist institutions around the world
have implicitly if not explicitly viewed their mission as (a) grounding
leadership in intellectual life as well as in pietism; (b) promoting an
egalitarian view of education; and
Today this may be less true, but certainly the historic mission statements
of the colleges and universities have had impulses in this direction.
Second, Methodist higher education is liberal as opposed to orthodox
in its orientation.
A liberal arts education should educate the whole person, as Wesley said,
in every branch of useful learning. For those of you who are
worried that I am making a political statement, let me assure you that
I am describing a perspective or a point of view. Liberal arts education
is open to an array of ideas and theories; it does not teach a right
belief of practice.
This means that the Metho-dist college will not prescribe ideas, beliefs
or world views to which one must adhere. Students are not expected to
hide their thoughts if they try on agnosticism or fundamentalism for a
while. Nor are they thrown out of school if they date someone of a race,
culture, religion or creed different from theirs. Their liberal education
will encourage them to read, think and write about ideas in their fullness
rather than dictate what is considered to be right thinking.
Third, Methodist higher education has always supported education for
women. Our great-grandmothers, for the most part, were educated for teaching
and nursingnot for ministry, law, medicine or commerce. In fact,
in the 19th century, it was the church that made broader education for
women possible. The Methodist-related Boston University was the first
institution in the United States to admit women into all of its schools
in 1872, and it granted the first American Ph.D. to a woman in 1877.
One of my challenges to you as womenand to your faculty members
to helpis to claim your education, not to expect it to be something
handed to you for you to graciously receive. In fact, in many ways, the
academy has excluded womens history, experience, voice, leadership
and contributions. It is your responsibility, to yourself, your family
and to the world, to refuse to let others do your thinking, talking, writing
and naming for you. You must, as women, learn to respect and use your
own brains and intellect, and instincts to grapple with every difficult
issue that arise in every age.
Fourth, Wesleyan Methodism is at its best when it is expressed in cross-cultural
mix. The school/university is the community where this has happened historically
and where it continues to take place today. Metho-dism has paved the way
for diversity, and this commitment to cross-cultural education is vitally
important. In higher education, Methodists first crossed class lines,
then (to some degree) race, then gender and now faith.
Finally, because the academy addresses the future as well as history,
church-related institutions have a moral responsibility to be the conscience
of the church. Colleges and universities have a responsibility for moral
education that serves as an agent of transformation.
There are challenges in this relationship between the church and the
academy. Both must continue to define what it means to be in a collegial
partnership; the church cannot attempt to define or control colleges and
universities. In 1976 the National Commission on United Methodist Higher
Education asserted that its related colleges were not auxiliaries or properties,
but colleagues and partner institutions. The churchs mission, therefore,
was to support and not control these institutions.
The charge of both the church and the academy to educate and act as a
moral conscience includes, but is not limited to, issues of race, gender,
biomedical research, ethics and issues of public policy. Both also are
responsible for providing education for the marginalized and disenfranchised
not only in this society but in a global context.
These challenges are neither insignificant nor insurmountable. Methodisms
commitment to them is one of its great strengths and gifts.
I want to close with a story. In 1998, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a
Tibetan Buddhist who has lived in exile from his native land for many
years, spoke at Emorys Commencement. I had the joyous responsibility
of helping students plan a service in which His Holiness would participate.
There were some 20 studentsChristian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim Bahai,
Jewish. Every issue, from readings to prayers, symbols and even speakers/readers,
was on the table for consideration. After deep discussion, argument and
hard work, the studentsto my great delightresolved to offer
this service as a gift to His Holiness.
They decided to write their own statements around topics they believed
to be important to them, to the world and to His Holiness. They wrote
and spoke on violence, human rights and care for the earth.They worked
through every issue on the table.
During the service, His Holiness leaned back and closed his eyes and
said to the Epis-copal priest next to him: It is as if I am home
It can happen best in a United Methodist institution.