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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 and symbols.

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 said nothing.

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 1738–39, 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 Wesley’s 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
(c) contributing to the transformation of the society with particular commitment to the underprivileged, marginalized and disenfranchised.

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 nursing—not 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 women—and to your faculty members to help—is 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 women’s 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 church’s 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. Methodism’s 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 Emory’s Commencement. I had the joyous responsibility of helping students plan a service in which His Holiness would participate.

There were some 20 students—Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim Baha’i, 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 students—to my great delight—resolved 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 again.”

It can happen best in a United Methodist institution.


Back to Emory Report Nov. 27, 2000