Yesterday I spoke at Friends University in Wichita, a school in the Quaker tradition. A glorious building was imagined, and then brought into being in the late 19th-century to house this hope for educating the next generation of “Friends,” as they called themselves. For a time it held more floor space under one roof than any other educational facility west of the Mississippi River.
I was drawn in because they have been reading the Visions of Vocation— administrators, faculty, students and board of trustees —and we spent a day talking about what its thesis would mean for them. It is always a strange grace to walk into a place where I am “known” in a certain way, and yet in every way that is most important am not.
The first address was to a larger gathering, “Learning to Learn About Things That Matter,” but it was that theme that I pursued through the day in different settings, small and large. Of course I met students that I loved, wishing we had more time to talk, more hours to hear their questions, more days to know more about who they are and why. But then it was also very interesting to talk with trustees who care about the school’s history and hope, giving themselves to its present and future, knowing that it must be marked by visions and practices that will sustain it. And faculty too, in their own unique way, asking good questions about the world at large and why and how a university like Friends matters.
Because it always seems important to me, I drew on what I know about the Quakers and their highest ground. Who were they, and are they? And what about them is meaningful for higher education in the 21st-century? From Josiah Wedgwood and his china to Cadbury chocolate on through to the Clark Wallabees I wore on the plane coming to Wichita, the “Friends” have been known for way of life marked by deep convictions about good work well done in service to God and the world. The history is rich, and worth remembering as the school steps into the future, thinking through what vocation as common grace for the common good still means as a thread for who they are and what they want to be.
For many years I have been traveling America, entering into worlds like this. In their own ways they are each parochial, whether they see themselves as that or not. While so very “public” in one sense, the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia are just as much “bubbles” as is a school like Friends University. Years later, I still remember a “fourth-year” at UVA— in-house language if there ever was —responding to a lecture I gave for the Institute for Advances Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, wanting to understand more what life would be for him after his years of learning in “Mr. Jefferson’s bubble.” I invited him to come take a walk with me, and a couple weeks later he did, driving from Charlottesville to Washington— and I am still watching his life with honest interest.
The bubbles abound, and the question is always the same. I want to learn about things that matter— can you help? Sometimes it comes from a 20 year-old longing to learn, and sometimes from a college president who knows that her institution will only succeed if “learning about things that matter” becomes the ethos of education, shaping and forming the way learning is experienced for everyone, students and faculty together.
And it is that hope that keeps me going, yearning in my heart for education to be what it might be, what it could be, what it ought to be.