Best of The Pietist Schoolman: In Celebration of Alumni

During my Thanksgiving hiatus I’m reprising some older posts: one each from June/July, August, September, and October. This one was originally posted on August 18: as the summer neared its end, I reflected on conversations with former students. If you like what you see, please consider nominating this blog at the Cliopatria Awards, recognizing excellence in history-related blogging. Perhaps the Best New Blog or Best Writer categories?

We’re less than a week away from Bethel’s faculty retreat, which means that the summer is rapidly coming to a close, along with all of my plans for how I’d spend it.

One of the many things I’ll miss most about this summer, as every summer, is that it’s the time I reconnect with former students. I’ve had about half a dozen such conversations so far, one just yesterday.

Two of these alums had crossed oceans for visits home (one Atlantic, one Pacific). Another had just moved back to the Twin Cities; three more were preparing to leave. One was nearing the end of graduate school, three others were struggling to decide if and when to continue their education. Several had been married within the previous year or two, or were on the verge of entering that honourable estate. Three were almost at the end of their time at Bethel when I arrived there; one was a brand new student when he took notes at the first lecture I gave.

Iced Coffee
Licensed by Creative Commons (Frank McMains)

So no two conversations are alike, but there are some common features.

First, I hold almost all of them in the same Roseville, Minnesota coffee shop. So if you’re reading this, management of Dunn Brothers, I’ll happily accept a free iced nirvana in recognition of all the extra business I bring in!

Second, their stories reconfirm that it’s almost impossible to give a simple answer to the question, “What do you do with a History major?”

Easy, right? You write a doctoral dissertation on gender and the Early Church… Or you volunteer with a veterans’ rights group and become a Judge Advocate in the National Guard… Or you teach social studies in an experimental school… Or you go to China to teach English. Or… you move to Uganda to partner with social entrepreneurs… Or you lead worship in a college chapel service. While studying the impact of the Reformation on church art… Or…

(Well, here’s a video we made last year showing a few other alumni pursuing a variety of professions. Or check out John Fea’s ongoing series on what his former students do after studying history — thirty-four now thirty-seven posts and counting.)

Third, whether their professions have something to do with history or not (most don’t), they remain passionate about the past and committed to continuing their studies of it. Every alum I talked to this summer mentioned a book or article they’d read, or a documentary film they’d seen, or a museum they’d visited, or an idea they were wrestling with. It’s a credit to their commitment to lifelong learning, and a not-insignificant component in my own continuing education.

Fourth, they remind me of Mark 9:24. (A rare case where I wouldn’t give up the King James version of a famous verse: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”) If that seems like odd praise…

Education at a Christian college (and, I’ll argue, especially at a Pietist one) seeks the conversion of the whole person — but understands conversion as a long, difficult, life-changing process, not a single event followed by years spent trying to ignore questions and hide uncertainties. If a student or alum can say “Lord, I believe” (or, “Lord, beloved”) with one breath and “Help thou mine unbelief” with the next, I am grateful.

(Let me quote former North Park president Karl Olsson once more: “We do not believe that the academic play should be encumbered by frantic endeavors to make every discussion come out ‘right’ or that creative doubt is an evil…. no student ever matures who has not felt the earth shaking beneath his feet.”)

To a person, the former students I know best love God and others, but they’ve also learned to doubt well: honestly, humbly, and hopefully. And that’s the kind of witness this culture, in particular, needs.

Katharine and E.B. White
Katharine and E.B. White - Cornell University Library

I struggled to come up with a “Featured Image” to accompany this post on the home page, until I recalled an essay by my friend Glen Wiberg. Taking inspiration from E.B. White’s description of his dying wife at work in her garden (“oblivious to the ending of her own days… calmly plotting the resurrection”), Glen wrote:

What a provocative phrase: “plotting the resurrection”! Katharine was a member of the resurrection conspiracy, the company of those who plant seeds of hope, seeds of tomorrow under dark skies of uncertainty and impending death; people going about their living and dying until, no one knows how, when, or where, the tender shoots of life appear, and a small piece of creation is healed. That’s who we are as God’s Easter people—those oblivious to the ending of our own days, calmly plotting the resurrection.

I used Glen’s words as a kind of benediction to a paper I gave three years ago, one considering hope as a scholarly virtue for historians. My inconclusive conclusion was that, for a Christian scholar, all three of the Pauline virtues (faith, hope, and love) must be vital, but the best way I could understand what it meant to hope as a historian was to look to my students, that teaching itself was a way of “[planting] seeds of hope.”

I reflected in that paper that it was impossible to know what students would do with their studies of history:

Palm seedling germinating
Licensed by Creative Commons (thienzieyung)

…for all I know, the outspoken A student who wears a “Save Darfur!” T-shirt and adds International Justice Mission to her Facebook “Causes” application will never risk her own comfort to improve the life of another, while the bored-looking football player two rows back will one day be the next Francis Xavier or Mary Slessor. Here Jesus’ words speak so clearly to me: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how” (Mk 4:26-27).

We encounter students in a time of profound transition, very much caught between the now and the not yet of their lives. But meeting with a few alumni, if only for an hour a year over coffee, blesses me with a glimpse of their continuing conversion, of the germination of a few of Glen’s “seeds of hope.”

Some other highlights from August 2011:

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