Education as a Seedbed of Sound Social Change
Doug Koop of Christian Week
interviews President Michael Van Pelt on education and cultural change:
HAMILTON, ON—Michael Van Pelt has yet to celebrate his 40th birthday, but he’s keen to involve younger people in meaningful work. As president of the Work Research Foundation (WRF), an economic think tank based in Hamilton, he issued a press release celebrating three of his junior staff members who recently graduated from nearby Redeemer University College.
“I would love to identify more solid, bright young people who have completed university and give them opportunities to become active in the public square,” he says. “My generation is a facilitator generation; the next one will be a much stronger influencer. They are very capable of promoting Christian views in sophisticated and credible ways.”
The Redeemer grads helped the WRF relate with donors, develop its website (www.wrf.ca) and promote its “To Change the World” project featuring University of Virginia professor James Davison Hunter. “We look forward to developing this kind of partnership with institutions of higher education across Canada,” says Van Pelt.
Although he earned his degree (history) at McMaster University, Van Pelt attended Christian schools, including Redeemer (“which profoundly influenced my thinking”) and considers himself “a product of Christian education.”
He believes that the best leaders will be those who are deeply familiar with the Bible and the way Christianity has developed its significant impact on human civilization, an education typically best delivered by institutions like Redeemer (“or Regent College or Trinity Western University or any of a number of others”).
This kind of education is foundational, insists Van Pelt. “Someone who is solidly versed in the tenets of the Christian religion, and is well-read in the interaction of Christian religion throughout history, is able to grasp onto things quickly and not be easily swayed by fads and trends.”
With these basics in place they can more easily pick up the specialized knowledge their particular jobs might demand and understand it in its context, he says. They are better equipped to understand consequences of ideas and to apply knowledge in practical ways.
While Van Pelt admires and seeks to encourage “top-of-the-line academics,” he has gained much of his own education in the business world. He says he learned a tremendous amount while working as a district manager for the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses in the late 1980s and 1990s.
“I interviewed CEOs and leaders of small businesses—thousands of them—and because of the credibility of the organization I worked with, I got to talk to incredible people who opened up to me. I could get in the door of a couple of CEOs a day and get their sense of policy and business.
“At the time I didn’t realize the generalist education I was getting, but entrepreneurs are intrinsically interesting.”
He later became general manager of the Sarnia Chamber of Commerce. This meant working with many big corporations, adding larger corporate considerations to the repertoire of small business concerns in which he was already well versed.
Van Pelt sees in these kinds of business groups—as well as in institutions like family and church—the seedbed of sound social development, the environment where “civic social entrepreneurs” can prosper.
“The Chamber of Commerce is one of the business institutions that with the benefit of a 100-year history has the ability to influence national, provincial and municipal policy. I’m not sure how many people realize that. It’s seen as a service and lobby organization, a networking facility, but it’s way bigger than that for influence and impact at all kinds of levels.”
All of which is good training for Van Pelt’s current role at WRF, where he manages a Christian organization—an economic and public policy think tank—that strives to integrate constructive ideas from the academic worlds on the front lines of civic and social application.
He is dedicated to equipping able practitioners with ideas developed through rigorous thinking in order to stimulate effective action that produces social good. The job, he explains, is to seek and discover “civic social entrepreneurs” who are soundly based—or, in other words, innovative and creative Christians with an ability to apply their faith to work and public life in wholesome, authentic and eminently practical ways.
“I have to understand the public policy world and also how to communicate to the public square,” he explains. “I often need to ‘travel with’ brilliant academics to lend more weight to their ideas. A think tank represents intellectual capital, but I’m only a small part of that. I take a small part of an idea and try to increase its weight on the front line.
“I see brilliant people with a lot to offer, and try to broaden the context of those brilliant people and their ideas,” says Van Pelt.
He envisions an important ongoing role for the church in the renewal of society—as the seedbed of the kind of “creative class” required to reverse economic and social decay. “Many churches are dying, but where you see emerging, lively churches growing, you will also find the seeds of good development in urban planning,” he says.
These kinds of ideas must be passed along in an endless variety of innovative and creative ways. Van Pelt says he would love to see more leaders in organizations intentionally taking time to mentor “bright young talent who are solid in their understanding of Christian things and thoroughly committed to it.”
And he is quick to point out that even the savviest formal training available is useless if it isn’t tested and applied in everyday environments.
“Real education happens among family and among peers as well,” he says. “If that informal side is missing, there’s a good chance those players will not be leading. They are not likely to find their place in future leadership if they’re not seriously testing their ideas with their peers and the culture around them.”