A College on the Prairie

Don’t join too many gangs. Join few if any.
Join the United States and join the family.
But not much in between, unless a college.

– Robert Frost, Amherst College, 1931

During a visit to The College of Wooster Frost said that if you had to love you could do worse than give your heart to a college.

I find myself thinking about what the great American poet said every time I attend or am involved in a college Baccalaureate and Commencement. This year there are two, both small liberal arts colleges. At one I was a speaker. At the other I will sit in the audience and witness a grandson graduate. All in all I have been present for twenty graduations: five as a parent, two as a grandparent and thirteen as a participant. Each time I loved it and found myself engaged, impressed and, finally, deeply moved.

What national and cultural treasures these small liberal arts colleges are. Nearly all of them were started by religious denominations more than a century ago, some of them two centuries old and more, in towns and villages that were outposts in the wilderness. They represent one of the noblest and most important religious impulses in American Christianity, Protestant and Catholic – accessible education, faith seeking understanding, scholarship inspired by theological conviction, faith pursuing truth, and finally, faith unafraid and supportive of free intellectual and scientific inquiry.

Today, the presence of an ongoing relationship between church and educational institution varies among these colleges and universities. Some affirm their denominational origin and connection in their public relations and promotional literature. Some do not, and a few have actually taken steps to disassociate themselves from religious affiliation altogether as a presumed hindrance to recruiting students who are uninterested in or hostile to religion in general. My denomination continues its relationship with 65 colleges and universities, has an Office of Higher Education and supports campus ministries at those schools as well as many public universities. The Chaplain is still an integral part of the staff at many of these campuses and a variety of religious programs and pastoral ministries continue with enthusiastic student involvement.

Many of these small schools are regional, their student bodies coming mainly from the surrounding area. Denominational financial support for many of them has declined and in some cases dried up altogether. Each faces its own particular financial challenges, rising costs, mounting student debt, and the ongoing universal reality that it costs more to to provide a four-year undergraduate education than a student can possible pay. The result is the need for aggressive fund raising, sophisticated Development operations, and college presidents devoting more and more of their time and energy to travel and donor cultivation.

Somehow, miraculously, it continues to work. I love being around these institutions. At Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one of the Presbyterian related schools, a much loved and respected president, James Phifer, is retiring after 28 years of service to the college. Graduation this year was his last and affection and admiration for him and gratitude for his commitment was in the very air all weekend. At Coe, tradition dictates that graduating seniors process between two parallel lines of faculty and teachers who applaud as beloved students walk toward their Commencement and the rest of their lives. The same thing happens when Freshmen arrive in the fall to begin their studies. It’s the sort of thing that happens only at these schools. When my part in the proceedings was completed, I got to sit on the platform and watch the ceremony.

It was a bright, clear Iowa morning. The expansive quadrangle was was crowded with extended families and friends of the graduates, standing, sitting in bleacher seats and folding chairs. There were people with walkers and in wheel chairs, infants in strollers and toddlers running to and fro. For many of them, I assumed, this was a first time experience for their family. I could feel the pride. The graduates listened patiently to speeches, watched passively as awards and honorary degrees were presented, and applauded enthusiastically when one of their own delivered the Senior Speech. The best part for me, and the special privilege of sitting on the platform was watching at close hand as each graduate walked across the stage to receive a diploma from President Phifer and shake his hand. More than a few couldn’t hold back an affectionate hug as well. Both he and they were commencing to a new future and everyone knew it. I loved reading where each young woman and young man was from and watching as their families applauded, shouted and whistled in obvious joy at this great event in their lives and in the lives of all of them.

It is, quite simply, an extraordinary life moment. I was grateful again to witness it, and particularly thankful for the reminder that faithful Presbyterian Christians, in 1851, started a college on the prairie, in Cedar Rapids.

You can do a lot worse than give your heart to an enterprise like this.

Comments

  1. Stephen W Littell says:

    Thank you, Dr. Buchanan, for the wise reflections & Frost’s beautiful bit of advice. I am most proud of my own Wesleyan heritage for its strong focus on music & education. One could do much worse, indeed!

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