Why We Teach

It’s made by one of my best friends. It consists of nothing but interviews with professors at a small university, plus images from public domain films. I’m in it.

For all these reasons, you won’t want to believe what I’m about to write. But it’s still true:

Why We Teach is the most compelling documentary you’ll see this year.

If you have any interest in teaching or higher education, you’ll want to spend ninety minutes watching the movie my colleague Sam Mulberry has spent his sabbatical filming. It features fifteen professors at Bethel University (St. Paul, MN) who have won its faculty excellence award for teaching: Ken Steinbach (Art); Sara Wyse (Biology); Nancy Brule and Leta Frazier (Communication Studies); Jay Rasmussen (Education); Susan Brooks, Joey Horstman, Marion Larson, and Dan Ritchie (English); Patrice Conrath (Mathematics); Sara Shady (Philosophy); Dick Peterson (Physics); Kathy Nevins and Carole Young (Psychology); and me. Sam edited clips together in the style of Errol Morris (cf. Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control), without any narration or titles, and the result is a masterpiece.

Our board of trustees should watch it at their meeting next week. Our admissions, marketing, and fundraising teams should watch it. I just wrote an email recommending that we redo our faculty retreat schedule this August in order to let our entire faculty watch it together. Failing that, it should certainly be on the schedule for new faculty orientation.

And even though it’s very much about one Christian liberal arts college, I think it would ring true for many others at similar kinds of institutions.

It’s not just that Why We Teach is thought-provoking, though it is; or compelling, though it is.

It’s moving.

Sam Mulberry speaking at the premiere of Why We Teach
Sam making some introductory comments before the premiere last night

At the campus premiere last night, I found myself on the verge of tears for more than half the movie.

Now, in part, that’s because Sam picked some especially emotional segments: Kathy recalling a specially arranged early graduation for a student whose mother was dying; Dick wishing that he’d written fewer articles in order to spend more time with students; me talking (twice!) about the Holocaust; Ken’s closing anecdote about a missionary and an insect. (If you do nothing else, skip ahead to 1:21:40.)

But that’s not why I was so deeply moved. It’s because, coming at the end of a year of financial and existential crisis at Bethel and many other universities like it, this film communicated so clearly the fragile importance of what we do. It left me feeling like I was on the knife’s edge between two futures:

One in which this film serves as a curiosity, an artifact of a Bethel — at least as we know and love it — that no longer exists.

The other in which this film serves as a cornerstone, the first brick laid in the foundation of a new Bethel that (to paraphrase a part of *my interview that Sam didn’t use in the film) learned how it needed to change and how it needed to stay the same.

So especially if you’re part of the Bethel community — or another liberal arts college — please take the time to watch Why We Teach, and let yourself be challenged or inspired, chastened or encouraged.

*I can’t imagine why you’d want to do this… but if you do watch that original hour-long interview with me (and Sam has placed all the interviews, plus clips by topic at a website called, simply, Teaching Project), you’ll notice a couple of things. (Not counting my winter beard.)

First, that I use the word “fundamentally” way, way too often. Second, that I seem almost frantic.

It’s because I came straight to the interview from a meeting at which our cabinet previewed the cuts necessary to resolve our budget crisis. I came into that interview seeing that first future start to appear over the horizon and wanting desperately to do something, anything to keep the second future possible. The last eight minutes are almost impossible for me to watch, as I plead with students and decision makers to rethink how they’re approaching Christian higher education.

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