Making the most of college: heavy weights, big questions, and the public square

When President George W. Bush was asked who his favourite philosopher was, and he answered, "Jesus Christ," was that "too much?" Mike Metzger offers his 'take' on how explicit students should be about faith on campus—even on campuses founded with an informing religious ethos.

Appears in Fall 2006 Issue: Making the most of college (first annual)
September 1 st 2006

I enjoyed an unremarkable football career. The most memorable moment didn't occur on the gridiron. It happened in the weight room—the afternoon I was alone and put too much weight on the bench press bar too soon. I had barely hoisted the bar off the rack when it quickly settled on my heaving chest; pushing the air out of my lungs like an imploding basketball. I was pinned, with no way out.

My football story has a happy ending. Two players came to the rescue (I could still scream, barely—I had no shame). And I learned a valuable lesson about too much, too fast. That same lesson might apply to recent incident at Dartmouth College where the ending is not as happy; at least so far.

On September 20, 2005, Noah Riner, student body president of Dartmouth gave a speech welcoming incoming freshmen. He started out well but ended poorly. Riner cited statistics confirming Dartmouth freshmen are the smartest and most diverse group ever at the college. He wisely pointed out that pedigree and brainpower are not all that matters. For example, Dartmouth graduate William Walter Remington, class of 1939, started out as a Boy Scout and a choirboy and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He ended up as a Soviet spy, was convicted of perjury and beaten to death in prison. Riner observed: "As former Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey said, 'At Dartmouth our business is learning. But if all we get from this place is knowledge, we've missed something.'"

It looked as if Mr. Riner had hit a home run. An elite education ought not to be a passport to privilege. He appropriately emphasized the importance of character, citing such examples as Martin Luther King Jr. But then he loaded 100-pound plates on the bar, noting that Jesus Christ, who "gave His life for our sin," is also an example of character:

Character has a lot to do with sacrifice, laying our personal interests down for something bigger. The best example of this is Jesus. In the Garden of Gethsemane, just hours before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed: "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done." He knew the right thing to do. He knew the cost would be agonizing torture and death. He did it anyway. That's character.

Jesus is an example of character, but Mr. Riner used that as a segue to discuss everyone's sin, the penalty of the law, Jesus' message of redemption, his death on the cross, and God's love. He challenged incoming freshmen to consider the claims of Christ, arguing that's the question everyone has to address in college.

Steal past those watchful dragons

I'm sure Mr. Riner is a sincere and deeply devoted Christian. But I think he's sincerely misguided. Religion is heavy lifting. You can't go from fifty pounds on the bar to 500 that quickly. People will feel a suffocating weight and cry out for help. Which is exactly what happened.

The next day, the Student Assembly's vice president for student life resigned, calling Mr. Riner's speech "reprehensible and an abuse of power." In the Dartmouth student newspaper, the president of a campus Jewish group wrote a column calling the speech "inappropriate," "disrespectful," and "the complete antithesis of the values that Dartmouth espouses." The student newspaper's editorial board, while noting that the Ivy League college was founded in 1769 as a Christian institution, criticized Mr. Riner for "preaching his faith from a commandeered pulpit." It was too much, too fast.

"Heaven," wrote C.S. Lewis, "is an acquired taste." People of faith should recognize that God and religion is a weighty matter. You can't add too much weight too fast. At least that's my opinion, which has nothing to do with being ashamed of the gospel—it has everything to do with being astute. One of the challenges of the 21st century, as C.S. Lewis put it, is to "steal past those watchful dragons" that are ever vigilant in guarding against the insertion of religion into any conversation. Noah Riner failed to navigate past those dragons without getting his hair singed. Hopefully, lessons can be learned all the way around at Dartmouth.

Back in college, I learned a lesson and was eventually able to lift a great deal more weight. But it took time and perseverance. That's the wonder of weight lifting: anyone can gain strength and muscle mass over time. And the wonder of good conversations is that anyone can tackle weighty truths about God, the universe, and everything. Just be careful you don't ramp up the conversation too rapidly.

Topics: Education
 

Dr. Michael Metzger is the Founder and President of Clapham Institute, based in Annapolis, Maryland. Its mission is solving problems by reframing them. One of the biggest problems that Metzger helps organizations solve is how to establish an infrastructure for ongoing, disruptive innovation—the lifeblood of any endeavor.

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