Last night I spoke in the Lumens Lecture Series at Berry College; later this year, Stanley Hauerwas, Charles Marsh, and James K. A. Smith will speak in this same series. In every way possible, I have been impressed with the college, and its vision for what higher education could be, and should be.
More than a hundred years ago, Martha Berry built a log cabin to teach mountain children to read and write. The daughter of a local businessman and farmer, she gave her life away to the people of northwestern Georgia, over time growing her hope into a remarkable reality that now serves over 2000 students with a campus of 27,000 acres—and along the way, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie helped build her college.
Head and heart and hands, together. A century later, that is still the way they talk about their reason-for-being. Academic rigor, yes… but character formation too… and necessarily embodied in work that makes the college “work.” So they study biology and history and philosophy and business and more, but students farm the farms that grow Angus cattle. and they milk Jersey cows for the college’s dairy. And they are all over the campus, working for the president and the professors, mowing the lawns and cooking the meals; in hundreds of different ways they are learning to labor as they are learning about life. Responsibility is expected, because everyone is needed, if the school’s vision is to be sustained.
I chose to begin and end my lecture with Tom Wolfe, the novelist whose stories about business in Atlanta and education in the Smokies seemed right for this school set in the highlands of Georgia. So “A Man in Full” with its story of Charlie Croker, “the last great white football player at Georgia Tech” who spent his life remaking the skyline of Atlanta, onto the novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons” with its fresh-off-the-mountain story of a freshman year at a modern university, so sure she knew who she was—I am Charlotte Simmons, after all –and facing the intense challenges of learning in an increasingly pluralizing, secularlizing society.
In both stories I explored the dissonance between ideas about the world, and the ways we live in the world. Charlie Croker stumbled, as did Charlotte Simmons– what they believed was different from how they lived, which raises the question of what in fact they really believed. The question becomes our question too. Of course my interest was in what makes for a coherent life, especially why it is and how it is that one’s college years should be a way towards learning to connect education to vocation. There are questions that need to be asked, and courses that have to taken, yes, but in and through it all, students need to learn to choose well, realizing that at the end of the day, they are responsible for their own education—as they will be responsible for their own lives. We can “get all A’s and still flunk life,” after all, as Walker Percy never tires of reminding us.
When the lecture was over, I answered questions for quite a while, and then talked to a number of students longer than that. Clearly, the best response was from one young man who said, “Well, Dr. Garber, I want to tell you that this was the first evening lecture I’ve come to that I haven’t fallen asleep!” Of course, I was glad, and smiled.