The Life of the Mind

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[dropcap3]A[/dropcap3]s part of a course I taught in our January J Term session, students were required to keep a daily journal or log of their responses to course content.  The purpose was two-fold:  first, a daily reflection about each day’s content would force students to reflect and not merely memorize for later test recall; second, their journals gave me a glimpse into the journey of the mind of each student.  One young man, at the half-way point of the course, penned the following:

“I am caught in a little bit of a rift at this point.  I obviously took the course because it is required, but I did not expect to learn a whole lot.  I did not expect to learn a whole lot simply because I did not have a passion for the fine arts.  I just did not understand the art world or care to understand it before college.  I have begun to understand a ton about the fine arts this week.  Initially it was for the grade, but I have been shifting because it is starting to spark my interest.”

This is the aspect of teaching which never loses its thrill:  young men and women catching the spark which ignites the life of the mind.  Education becomes more than merely completing a roster of coursework on the way to attaining a degree.  Connections are drawn which integrate the Arts & Sciences component of their education, any professional program they choose to study, and their major study of Bible and Bible doctrine.   The challenge set before students is to be open to the spark which will ignite that life; the challenge to the faculty is to keep striking that match, knowing that it will light a fire which will keep burning beyond graduation.

But how do we define the life of the mind?  Scripture exhorts us to have devoted minds (Matt. 22:37), willing minds (I Chronicles 28:9), and the mind of Christ (Phil. 2: 5-11).  PBU faculty and students are reminded daily that conforming to the mind of Christ is a mark of the Believer, and students embrace, at least theoretically, the notion that this is a worthy goal.  The core Bible curriculum reflects this process and the University Mission Statement clearly states the goal of shaping biblically-minded men and women.  Sometimes, though, we overlook or only narrowly apply the other descriptor in the Mission Statement:  well-educated.   Too many mistakenly believe that “well-educated” means having a transcript listing successful completion of a prescribed course of study; PBU promotes the concept that to be educated means not only to have a full transcript but equally as important  to have developed the life of the mind which will thrive long after the last exam has been taken and the last paper written.

[blockquote]Too many mistakenly believe that ‘well-educated’ means having a transcript listing successful completion of a prescribed course of study.[/blockquote]

This life is an active life which can only be developed through a rigorous approach to the realm of ideas and worldviews.  It fights against the sentiment, often expressed by college-age students, that the only courses worth taking are those which have a practical application to one’s professional career.  It is fostered by course work which requires not only remembering facts but also demands analysis and discovery.  It fights the culturally prevalent opposition to reading and thinking .

At the beginning of the course Issues in Contemporary Literature, for example, students are confronted with a charge often levied against evangelical Christians:  that they are anti-intellectual and alliterate (having the ability to read but choosing not to do so).  When we discuss the implications of the charge, we have to wrestle with the fact that reading serious literature requires a sustained intellectual involvement with a text that is, in essence, hard work.  In other words, the mind is not the passive receptor of information to be simply memorized and recalled, but the mind must tackle ideas and filter them through the lens of a biblical worldview while forming a response to those ideas.  Notice that all of those verbs are active (“tackle,” “filter,” “form”).  The mind does not merely receive; it acts upon what is received.   In Literature and Arts of the Western World students see connections between worldview and artistic expression; it becomes clearer that art is not just a matter of taste or preference (“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”), but about reading culture and responding to cultural texts.   The Life of the MindAfter a recent sustained discussion about the messages inherent in the visual arts, one student noted that a local all-night restaurant’s copy of Edward Hopper’s  1942 painting Nighthawks communicated a mixed-message to would-be patrons:  while the restaurant believed the painting would invite patrons, the real message was loneliness and isolation.  An interesting paradox, he mused.  Prior to the course, though, he admitted that he never would have given the décor a second thought.  As a result of course work, he began to actively engage with his world and to understand the messages which invited his response.

At PBU we make no apologies for forcing students to a state we fondly call “cognitive disequilibrium.”   As they seek to restore a semblance of balance, they begin to realize that while thinking is hard work, sometimes more exhausting than a rigorous session in the gym or exercise room, it is also invigorating;   the stereotype that the life of the mind is merely  passive and contemplative falls away. PBU faculty and students understand that developing the life of the mind is practicing Mark 12:30. It is not for the faint of heart and it is not only for a season.  It is for life.

[framed_box]Jean Minto, D.Litt., is the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.  She has taught at PBU since 1991.