40 Years of Classroom Stories

While hanging out with some students from Denver Seminary, I recounted some of the funniest and oddest experiences in my many years of teaching. I told them I would write an essay on this.

Good teachers want students to learn well. We earnestly endeavor to prepare well and create an atmosphere where knowledge happens. But things go wrong or surprise us.

In about 1995, I was role playing as a Hindu philosopher in my apologetics class. I was making a case for non-dualism (or pantheistic monism) and the students were trying to refute me. It was quite philosophical. I had yet conceded nothing when a student asked, “Would you like to accept Jesus as your Savior?” I was incapacitated by hilarity, as was the class.

A few years ago, a student made a remark about me liking Kenny G (knowing my true feelings). I walked out of the class and then came in the back door. The student had panicked and was looking for me outside. The class was hysterical.

Many years ago, I suffered through being in class with a student who was both clueless and talkative. He or she waved her hand eagerly to make another long and inane comment. She then called out to me. I said, “I was trying to ignore you.” She then made her inane comment, nonetheless.

A student asked me a question that was obviously covered in the reading for that day. I asked, “Did you do the reading?” The student answered, “No.” I said, “Then I don’t have to answer your question.”

Before I banned laptops from the classroom about ten years ago, I passed out a piece of paper saying that students would not go on line while they used their computers to take notes. I asked them to sign this and turn it in to me. At this a student stood up and yelled, “You are treating us like high school students.” I replied, “You and I and the Dean will talk about this later.” Not being deterred the student said, “We don’t have to take this: Revolt!” I looked out at the horrified class and said, “If any of you want to revolt with this student, you can leave the class and we will all talk to the Dean later.” The student later apologized and the tension dissipated.

During a doctrinal oral examination, another professor and I probed a student about the present existence and location of Jesus after this resurrection. The student was flummoxed and did not have the categories to respond. He looked more panicked and frozen than a deer in headlights. My colleague said, “I feel like we are doing dental work here, trying to pull the answers out of you.” The student later retook part of the examination and passed. He now knows where Jesus is (besides in his heart).

I made many comments on a student’s thesis in philosophy. He responded to all of them, but neglected one. I gave back his thesis and told him to attend to what he omitted. I also said that as a penalty, he had to take me to a baseball game. He did.

At the break during a class, a student came up to me and said that my button-up shirt was buttoned unevenly. I corrected that in the men’s room.

In apologetics, I pretended to be a jazz saxophone player named Zoot. Zoot asked that the class give him an argument for the existence of God from the existence of a saxophone. They did, and Zoot was impressed.

I was teaching a very large and long class on apologetics on a week night. To keep people interested, I brought a Frisbee to class. When I wanted someone to answer a question, I threw it into the class. Whoever caught it had to answer the question.

One student turned in a paper in which he misspelled both my first and last name: Douglass Groothius.

I was reading a student paper on the philosophy of technology and thought, “This is quite good. This is me!” The hapless student copied two full pages from my book, The Soul in Cyberspace.

When teaching at Metro State College, I received the worst paper I had ever seen. It was terribly written, except where it plagiarized from an atheist web page. The student also wrote, “Because I am a Christian, I am a relativist.” I call this paper F cubed. F for writing. F for plagiarizing. F for logic.

In a history of philosophy class, I assigned a paper on Kant. One of the students turned in a paper on Descartes instead. Oops.

I saw a student looking down at the floor next to her desk and moving a piece of paper on the floor. “Marina, what are you doing?” She said, “There is a spider on the floor and I want to save him.” She then put the spider piece of paper and put him out in the hallway. I’m not sure how long he survived there, though.

I am sure more stories will come to me, but these may amuse you.

 

Movie Thoughts on “God’s Not Dead, 2”

God’s not Dead, 2 (2016)

A teacher is accused of proselytizing in the classroom simply because she answered a student’s question about whether Martin Luther King’s nonviolent protests were influenced by Jesus. The teacher affirmed it and quoted a verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

When word gets out, the teacher is vilified as preaching in the classroom and must take her case to court. She is assigned a young, inexperienced, but tenacious lawyer.

I won’t give away the plot. Rather, let’s consider some of the strengths of the film.

1. The lawyer decides that it is crucial to give historical arguments that Jesus existed and that the Gospels are credible. The plan is that the teacher could cite the saying of a teacher in history. Thus, we hear testimony from the real Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace at some length. Rice Brooks, the apologetic mind behind the film, and Gary Habermas gets to say a few things.

2. Like the first God’s not Dead, someone stands for Christ under pressure, this time the school teacher.

3. The lawyer representing the teacher destroys the claim that “the separation of church and state” has any bearing on the case, since it is not in The Constitution.

However, the plot and logic of the story have weaknesses.

1. The teacher is said to have broken a law by mentioning Jesus in class. That law is never stated or even paraphrased. Thus, we don’t know if she violated any law. I find it unlikely that an historical reference to Jesus as part of answering a student’s question could be construed (even by the ACLU) as illegal. Instead of legal specifics, it is set up as Christianity verses secularism, which is far too vague. US Courts don’t work that way.

2. I am not a judge or a lawyer, but I find it hard to believe that the judge would have permitted some of the behavior in the courtroom. It strained belief.

3. The tables are turned dramatically near the end of the film, and was nothing less than rhetorical genius. The move was a reductio ad absurdum. I won’t say more. However, the maneuver seemed to have nothing to do with the legal issue at question (inasmuch as we can figure that out).

All told, “God’s not Dead, 2,” was more believable than the first installment. It was moving in places. The acting was believable. Since I don’t sink to the absurdity of giving stars (unless a magazine, which shall not be named, makes me), I simply recommend this movie for Christians, seekers, those hostile to Christianity, and for believers in other religions.

4 Reasons Why Leaders Should be Readers

Christian leaders need to direct and inspire through their knowledge and character. I here assume you are not reading romance novels or graphic novels. Leaders should be readers, among other things. Why?

1. Reading deepens your awareness of life. You can see things with other eyes and expand your awareness. God’s people need perspective.
2. Reading helps you not to be a sucker, to be sucked into superficial fads, bad ideas, and general stupidity.
3. Reading helps you love others better, because you have more meat to offer them.
4. You need to be an example of intellectual rectitude and studiousness.

How can this be done?

1. Limit time online. Kindle is good for some things, such as reading while traveling and for capturing text. However, the book affords its unique charms for understanding. See my chapter, “The Book, the Screen, and the Soul,” in “The Soul in Cyberspace.”
2. Find time alone and without distraction to read. Perhaps “a clean, well-lit place,” or in messiness (as I do).
3. Ask thoughtful friends what they are reading.
4. Haunt bookstores for books. Duh.
5. Check the New York Times Book Review.

What to Read

1. That which deepens your calling.
2. History: for perspective on today.
3. Philosophy: sharpen your critical thinking prowess and knowledge of worldviews and the history of ideas.
4. Psychology: better understand yourself and others.
5. Poetry: the kind you can understand.
6. Apologetics: learn to defend your faith wisely.
7. Ethics: for moral discernment.
8. Social commentary by smart people.
9. Everything related to the Bible.
10. Science, especially what is written from the Intelligent Design viewpoint.
11. Classic literature: Plato, Aristotle, Pascal, so much more.
12. Literature: enliven your imagination through story.
13. Spiritual writings: deepen your relationship with God.

That should keep you busy for some time, good time.

13 Ways to Live a Thoughtful Life for Christ and His Kingdom

Spiritual formation, becoming more like Jesus Christ in thought and deed, requires a renewed mind (Romans 12:2) that avoids worldliness (1 John 2:15-17) and pursues godliness (Matthew 5:1-18; 6:33). Our sanctification through the Holy Spirit requires an ongoing dependency on God. We are to grow in the knowledge of God and of the workings of his Kingdom (Matthew 6:33). We are to see ourselves (James 1:25), our place in the church (1 Corinthians 12-14), and the broader culture (1 Chronicles 12:32) in light of his Word.

To this end, here are some principles and recommendations in how to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

  1. Remain faithful in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures, which are God’s cognitive revelation of himself and the ways of salvation (2 Timothy 3:15-16). Acquire and use study aids such as one or more study Bibles. I recommend The Apologetics Study Bible, The Reformation Study Bible, The NET Bible, and The NIV Study Bible. Of course, there are many other tools such as commentaries and other helps. The excellent commentaries of John Calvin and Matthew Henry are available online.
  2. Discern your unique calling as a Christian. No one can do everything, so we must concentrate our energies where we are gifted and in accordance to God’s leading. I highly recommend Os Guinness’s book on this vital topic, The Call. See also John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life.
  3. Be involved in a Bible-believing and Bible-teaching local church, and seek to serve through what you have learned. Biblically, we are responsible to use what we know wisely and for the glory of God. We should not hide our gifts under a table, but employ them to build up the church and witness to the world (Matthew 5; Ephesians 4:15). Specifically:
    1. Develop adult education classes on the Christian worldview, biblical interpretation, theology, apologetics, and social issues.
    2. Make sure your church has some way of preparing high school students for college. Many churched teenagers either put aside their Christian convictions or lose them during this time. For how high school students in the church tend to think, see Christian Smith, Soul Searching. Also consult the essay “Faithful Christianity in College” by Douglas Groothuis and Sarah Geis at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/philosophicalfragments/2013/04/09/faithful-christianity-in-college/
    3. Be involved as a mentor to those who can benefit from your gifts. Try to find a suitable mentor for yourself as well (Proverbs 27:17; 2 Timothy 2:2).
  4. Develop your skills at speaking, teaching, and conversation. American linguistic culture is ugly, sloppy, and lazy. Instead of blending with the inarticulate herd, broaden your vocabulary, work on articulation, and listen to the people with which you are speaking. On writing, see the classic Elements of Style by Stunk and White. On public speaking, see Stand Like Lincoln, Speak Like Churchill by James Humes. Consider joining a Toastmasters club to refine your speaking skills.
  5. Read thoughtful Christian books, both classic and contemporary. While we often emphasize popular books, we should not forget time-tested classics written by Augustine, Calvin, Pascal, and Jonathan Edwards. Twentieth-century writers such as G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, John Stott, J. I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, James Sire, and Os Guinness make for hearty and rewarding reading as well.
  6. Certain periodicals are also edifying. For keeping the pulse of contemporary evangelicalism, see Christianity Today. Political and cultural issues are carefully addressed in First Things, which now has a rather strong Catholic focus. To stay abreast of cults, religious movements, apologetics, and ethics read The Christian Research Journal. Relevant is a popular magazine, which is aimed at millennials. However, I find it a bit trendy and superficial.
  7. Be aware of secular culture and non-Christian religious expressions through your reading of periodicals and books. I also read the Sunday New York Times and The New Yorker for sophisticated secular views—and, in the latter case, for their superb cartoons. Commentary is excellent for conservative Jewish views. This is a resource for discerning what non-Christian books you should read, as is The New York Times book review. I also check Harpers, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, and Wired to look for significant articles. I find browsing at bookstores especially helpful, if you can find a brick and mortar bookstore. I am grateful that the Denver area has three locations of The Tattered Cover Bookstore.
  8. Carefully and prayerfully consider your use of all electronic communications media. These often sap our knowledge and divert us from godly habits of the heart. Consider engaging in a protracted media abstention in which you eliminate a commonly-used electronic system for a week to ten days. It will profoundly change your view of technology. See my book, The Soul in Cyberspace. For my more recent thoughts see my interview with Tim Challies at: http://www.crosswalk.com/blogs/challies/the-soul-in-cyberspace-an-interview-with-douglas-groothuis-11603254.html Consider also the thoughtful, secular book, Hamlet’s Blackberry. For a broader historical and culture critique read Neil Postman’s magisterial work, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. The best book on television is Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. See also my article in The Christian Research Journal, “Understanding Social Media” at: http://www.equip.org/PDF/JAF2333.pdf. For a more scholarly paper, see Douglas Groothuis, “Christian Scholarship and the Philosophical Analysis of Cyberspace Technologies,” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 4 14 (December 1998): 631-640. This is on line at http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/41/41-4/41-4-pp631-640-JETS.pdf.
  9. Listen to thoughtful radio programs and podcasts. Many gifted Christian teachers and preachers can be heard in this manner. Redeem the time by listening to them in your car, or while exercising, or when you cannot do anything else, such as when you are ill. An excellent source of cultural criticism from a Christian or Christian-friendly viewpoint is Mars Hill Audio, hosted by Ken Myers, author of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Eerdmans, 1989). Some audio books of thoughtful books are available for purchase or from a library.
  10. Take periods of time—either short or long—for silence. Our culture is too noisy and over-stimulated. We need quiet to compose our bodies and souls before God in cognitive meditation, prayer, and rest. As Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak (3:7; see also Habakkuk 2:20).

Consider Denver Seminary for further education. I head the MA in Apologetics and Ethics. We also offer a Certificate in Apologetics and Ethics (10 semester hours). See https://denverseminary.edu/academics/masters-level-certificates/ for more information.

As someone who has been laboring to develop a Christian mind since I became a Christian in 1976, I challenge you to think well for the cause of Christ and to even out-think the world for Christ!

5 Truths Billy Graham Taught Us

On Billy Graham

Gordon MacDonald, friend and Chancellor of Denver Seminary, mentioned to me that it is likely that few students at my school know much, if anything, about Billy Graham. It is for those not acquainted with the greatest evangelist of the twentieth century that I write these words.

Billy Graham knew his calling and stayed true to it in active ministry for over 60 years. He drew huge crowds through his crusades, a word we do not use today for mass evangelism. These events included congregational singing, celebrity testimonies, and preaching by Graham.

He was blessed with a commanding, but not imposing, presence. He had a strong voice, was good looking, and later wore his hair a bit long. All this added to his distinctive presence. He preached the biblical gospel in every message and around the world. I encourage you to watch some of them online. You may be moved to get saved again (or for the first time).

Graham ended every service with an altar call, asking those who wanted to “receive Christ” to come forward to pray with workers at the front of the stage. Thousands and thousands did so over decades. These services were often televised nationally. I remember seeing part of one in my home in Anchorage, Alaska, sometime in the 1960’s. Sadly, my father did not want to watch much of it.

Graham did much more than preach, however. He led an organization with integrity: The Billy Graham Evangelistic Society. It publishes a magazine called Decision, produces films, and uses every available venue to preach the Gospel. I recently received an evangelistic card in the mail written by Franklin Graham, Graham’s son. I gave it to an acquaintance at a pub. I hope he read it.

A number of books were written by Graham, the most noteworthy, perhaps, was Peace with God. I gave his book, How to be Born Again, to a good friend of our families back in about 1977.

While he never strayed from his vocation as an evangelist, early in his career, Graham took a stand against Communism, because it was godless. (He later preached in The Soviet Union.) He supported the Civil Rights movement and was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. He also supported the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Understood more broadly, Graham was at the heart of Evangelicalism in the middle to late twentieth century. He and Dr. Carl F. H. Henry founded Christianity Today. Henry was one of his theological advisers. Graham’s winsomeness helped Evangelicalism emerge from a narrower Fundamentalism. He spent pastoral time with every president from Truman to Obama.

Graham lived out his ministry almost entirely without scandal. The worst of it was when he was recorded speaking of the Jews having a monopoly on Hollywood. He apologized and deeply regretted it. To my mind, the remark is not even anti-Semitic. I think it was only derogatory.

Graham was above reproach. Later in life, he regretted not spending more time with his family, pursuing more education, and not studying the Bible more. But, who lives to an old age without some regrets?

In her book, To Me, It’s Wonderful, Ethel Waters recounts her attendance at a Graham rally. Miss Waters was a successful jazz singer who was committed to Christ, but not involved much in the church. But she attended the crusade day-after-day and deepened her Christian commitment. She would later sing at these events and testify to the saving power of Christ. Her signature song was “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a reference to Jesus’ teaching about not worrying in Matthew 6:25-27.

What can Billy Graham teach us?

  1. We must never forget or underestimate the power of the gospel. We must stay true to it. Explain it. Proclaim it. Defend it. Apply it. Graham did.
  2. We should be above reproach, never cut corners, and never play around with sin. The greater the influence we have, the worse the fall.
  3. We should find our calling and stay true to it. The church is called to evangelize, but some are better at it than others. I am more of an apologist than an evangelist, but I try to keep the gospel at the center of my work.
  4. We should capitalize on every opportunity, use every venue, and employ every means to speak the truth in love about our God of truth and love.
  5. Like Billy Graham, we should stay humble. Despite his fame, he never sought the spotlight simply to increase his celebrity. His remarkable success did not go to his head. Whatever our successes, may they never make us proud.

Prayer

God of the harvest,
we pause and remember a great man of God,
remembering his virtues and his achievements,
all of which came from the Holy Spirit of truth.

Lord, may we be like him as he was like Christ.
In Jesus’ saving name,
Amen.

Against Art Forgeries

I sent this to The New York Times on November 5, 2013. It was in a response to an editorial defending art forgeries. It is a short essay on ethics and aesthetics, but never published—until now.

 

Blake Gopnik’s defense of art forgeries “as the art lover’s friend” is an impressive piece of sustained sophistry. All seven arguments he offers fail miserably.

First, if a forgery can fool an expert, it can give the rest of us pleasure. Gopnik thinks this is good. But pleasure does not justify deceit, nor does pleasure define the meaning of art.

Second, the forger may reveal what the copied artist might have himself done; he may even reveal the artists inner essence. Lying imitations have nothing to do with artistic continuity or revelations.

Third, forgeries are justified because artists often use assistants. This is a false analogy, since the artists authorized these assistants, unlike forgers.

Fourth, art forgeries can “tame our absurd art market” by bringing down prices. This comment—if true—has no force, and it purely utilitarian. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Fifth, forgeries endorsed by art experts teach us that “connoisseurship is not to be trusted.” This is illogical. Everyone already knows that connoisseurs are fallible. But they may be fallible and generally reliable, like all merely human judges.

Sixth, because some ancient cultures endorsed the copying and augmenting of valued artworks, this justifies forgeries today. On the contrary, these copies were culturally-authorized and well-accepted—and not forgeries. Seventh, much of 20th  Century art, such as Duchamp’s, “set out to undermine idea of unique authentic, hand-touched works of art.” This is true, but irrelevant. Duchamp’s ready-mades were not forgeries, because he did not claim to make them.

Gopnik’s ambitious essay fails to marshal any good arguments. We await a better apologist for artistic deception.

On Making the Abnormal Good

This morning on NPR, I learned of a documentary about a pioneer in the transgender movement. When the interviewer asked about her life, the documentarist calmly replied that for a time she worked in “the sex industry” in Times Square. She then took a twelve-year-old, lesbian runaway “under her wing.”

Leaving aside what rights transgender people should have, think about these descriptions. “Sex industry” makes normal prostitution and all its degradation–the scaring of intimacy, the reduction of intercourse to commerce, the diseases that plague the promiscuous, and the chains the pimps put on the prostitutes, the abortions the pimps demand. “Sex industry” indeed–remove the stigma, the sin, the pain; it makes normal the abnormal and wrong.

What does it mean to take a twelve-year-old girl “under her wing.” I’d rather not think of it. Perhaps this woman helped this girl in some ways, but not in the best ways.

This world of woe is abnormal because of the fall. We are all damaged goods, but goods we are. Prostitution and gender dysfunction are the sad effects of the fall, not things to celebrate. Without the norm of heterosexual monogamy, there would be no Western Civilization. But now, the pillars shake, threatening an old foundation (See Psalm 11). Gender is divorced from biology and the abnormal becomes normal and even preferable to many. The healing balm of Jesus Christ is denied since the bleeding wound is ignored.

Transgender people have rights because they are human beings, created in God’s own image. We should love them and anyone who cannot seem to find a home in their biology. As Francis Schaeffer wrote in The God Who is There, “We should have compassion for the homophile,” using a word no longer in the cultural currency. Love, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “rejoices in the truth” (I Corinthians 13). We should speak “the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) in the power of the Holy Spirit. We should not speak lies in love, thinking the abnormal to be normal and good. We should not speak the truth in hate, thinking that our correctness justifies bitterness. We should weep, but not let the tear corrode our Christian conscience.

What is the Take Away?

Another new phrase has pressed itself upon us: “the take away.” To “take away” was used to refer to stealing or removing something from its place. Now it means what is valuable out of a larger whole. “What was the take away from that book, film, sermon, lecture, etc.?” The “take away” is what someone finds important or worth remembering. My take away is what suits me.

This new phrase concerns me, since it is another expression of reductionism and over-simplification—something like an executive summary. The executive has no time to read the whole document, so another person reads and summarizes it for her, usually in bullet points, (whose only job is to over simplify and place things in a rather random sequence).

Book, films, sermons, and lectures require serious scrutiny. Consider what is being offered and who is offering it. You may need to experience something you did not want to take away. Perhaps a film takes away your naiveté about religion or jazz or dogs. You got more than you expected. Perhaps you received something you would like to take away from your awareness, but you cannot because it is larger than you are.

I had a student who kept asking me to put things in “a nutshell,” to which I would often reply, “Dave, there is no nutshell for this concept.” It would be wrong to ask, “What is the take away from The Gospel of John?” because we should want all of it. There is no Cliff Notes version of the Bible or of Homer.

Truncated information may lead to loss. “The take away” often takes away needed knowledge. We want the skeleton without the meat, the blueprint without the building, the recipe without the meal. Thus, please take away the take away.

Being a Public Intellectual for Christ

Historian Paul Johnson in his book Intellectuals defines an intellectual as someone who cares more about ideas than about people. True that was for Rousseau and Sartre, but the category is wider than smart selfishness. I take intellectual to be a morally neutral noun, which refers to one well-versed in critical thinking and knowledgeable about one or more heady subjects. An intellectual might write about baseball, as did George Will, but I doubt we would call anyone who had a deep knowledge of baseball and nothing else, an intellectual. Intellectuals may be either sequestered in their academic discipline or public intellectuals who interact with the broader culture. Philosopher Bertrand Russell was a world-class philosopher and wrote some technically challenging books. But he was also a (rather poor) social commentator of some note, especially in his later years. But being a public intellectual does not necessarily mean that one is prudent or worthy of emulation. Publicity does not guarantee profundity.

Publicity does not guarantee profundity.

A public intellectual writes and speaks for a broader audience while retaining the high ground of knowledge. He or she may not hold an academic position, but who is a regular social commentator. George Will and Charles Krauthammer are examples. However, most social commentators are not intellectuals, however much publicity they generate. Some, such as Ann Coulter, trade more on looks and barbs than on intellect (although she is no dummy). Some, while knowledgeable and quick-witted, like Mark Levine, are too caustic to reach a larger audience. I agree with the man’s positions most of the time, but I cannot take him as a model of winsomeness.

Some academics address the wider public. Princeton law professor and overt Roman Catholic, Robert George comes to mind. Given his academic prestige, he bears a gravitas lacking by commentators in the public realm.

Os Guinness, to my mind, is Evangelicalism’s greatest living social critic and public intellectual. While holding a doctorate in sociology from Oxford, he was not called to the college, university, or seminary full time. While a superb preacher and a man of orthodox conviction, he was not called to the pastorate. Rather, he refers to himself as a speaker and writer, who “interprets the world for the church and the church for the world.” To that noble end, he has worked for both secular and Christian institutions, and started The Trinity Forum, a discussion-based ministry that reaches into non-Church settings, including business, education, and politics.

In light of these reflections, what might a public intellectual for Christ look like? Consider three qualities.

First, you must be a genuine intellectual in some subject, who is up for the task, and have no illusions about your strengths and weaknesses. Higher degrees usually help but do not insure competence. Along the way, you need to build some measure of recognition as a thinker. That is, you need to be legitimized in the sight of the public. Higher academic degrees from secular universities serve this end well.

Second, you must have strong, solid, and settled Christian convictions and be able to articulate them to the non-Christian world. You may have a theology degree but unable to bring a Christian worldview into public places. Or, like Os Guinness, you may have no theological degrees and excel at this.

Third, you need to find public venues without being a shameless self-promoter. In the secular world, the Czech philosopher Slavoj Žižek has a wide following outside the academy. But has won it, partially at least, by being a media-hungry, bloviating buffoon.

Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips (Proverbs 17:2).

Finding “a public” is an art and should not be pursued without prayer (Ephesians 6:19).

Professors Making Their Mark: A Thought Experiment

Professors want to make their mark on the world, their profession, and on their students. They spend years perfecting their talents and often receive far less remuneration than those in more lucrative fields who prepare for careers in far less time (such as lawyers). They often sacrifice money (and security, at least before tenure) for meaning. The vicissitudes and foibles of academia are aptly recorded in places like The Chronicle of Higher Education. We read of scholars in the limelight, on the witness stand, in print, out of work, promoted, demoted, outraged, accused, excused, and, of course, always wanting to be taken seriously—to make their mark.

Let us engage in a thought experiment tailored for the humanities, where written papers are necessary for students. What if a professor’s imprint was limited to one thing, a thing seldom discussed in The Chronicle (or anywhere else, for that matter), but something paramount to all of their students: the professor’s comments on their papers. What if all the copious documentation of personal achievement of the curriculum vitae were wiped away and all that remained was what these various scholars wrote on their student’s work? What would remain? It is these words, never published or celebrated by the guild, that often strike into their student’s souls, imprinting them for life—for good or ill.

I vividly remember a comment that Professor Arnulf Zweig (a Kant scholar) made on a portion of one of my undergraduate philosopher papers: “This is an assertion, not an argument.” He was exactly right. I had stated an opinion without rational support. It was not philosophy at all. I cannot count the number of times I have written just that line on my students’ papers. It inflicts a wound that can heal the mind. While struggling to come up with a doctoral dissertation chapter that would please my advisor, I was thrilled to find a short vertical line next to a few sentences of my text besides which Professor Robert Herbert had written, “Good patch.” I lived on that for weeks. A bit later, he remarked that an entire chapter was “heartening.” This has become of one my favorite words. (And eventually the dissertation, “To Prove or Not to Prove: Pascal on Natural Theology,” was accepted in 1993.)

I cannot here expand on my philosophy of professorial comments on student efforts, but I simply commend to you the thought experiment. What if every professors’ written worth were gauged only by comments he or she wrote on student papers?