Student: In class, you talk a lot about the temptations which come with college. How did you do in college?
Gibbs: Badly. If I had it to do over again, I would do college very differently.
Student: Occasionally I hear about graduates from this school going off the rails in college.
Gibbs: So do I.
Student: Why do you think some students go off the rails and others don’t?
Gibbs: Let me offer you three very basic rules for not losing your head in college. First, go to church. Second, go to class. Third, call your dad. Most students who go off the rails in college fail to obey one or more of these rules.
Student: Why not, “Don’t do drugs”? Or “Don’t sleep around”? Doesn’t “going off the rails” in college typically mean drugs and promiscuity?
Gibbs: Sure, but Christian kids usually don’t show up at college and immediately take to drugs and promiscuity. They have to work up to those vices, which typically means quitting church, skipping class, and rarely checking in back home.
Student: Why is skipping class such a big deal? If attendance isn’t required in a class, and the class isn’t that great, isn’t skipping it simply a matter of prudence?
Gibbs: The first time you skip class, nothing bad will happen, and so you will only be emboldened to do it again. Skipping class is slippery, though, and it’s a habit that will quickly get away from you. Take note of the reasons why you skip class, or why others do so. There’s rarely a good reason. The reason is usually no better than, “I don’t want to go.” Or you manage your time badly and need to finish something which could have been done the previous night. Skipping class is a good way of forgetting why you’re even going to college.
Student: Why am I going to college?
Gibbs: Either to learn virtue or to get a job. Either way, skipping class is bad juju.
Student: Why? If I can still do well in a class, what does it matter if I skip?
Gibbs: In and of itself, getting good grades in college means very little. If you want to get something out of college, you need to go to class every day, sit in the front row, and know something about what the prof does outside of class. What does this look like? It looks like you sitting up front, saying, ‘Hey, Stephen. Great article on Huffington Post last week. Really strong.’ That’s how you get invited to professor’s parties. That’s how you get nominated for departmental prizes. That’s how you get letters of recommendation, letters of introduction, and the kind of contact info which opens doors.
Student: That’s all I have to do? I don’t have to… study? I don’t have to be brilliant?
Gibbs: Study won’t hurt. Here’s the thing, though: I’ve been giving students this advice for years and no one ever does it. Why? When you get to college, you’re going to quickly realize you don’t have to go to class to get good grades, and you’re going to start skipping. At that point, it’s all over for you. You fell for the good grades trap. If you want to start getting over the good grades trap now, look around this school, figure out which teacher leads the happiest, best life, and then start following that teacher around everywhere. Ask him what he thinks about taxes and birth control and the Academy Awards. Ask him what he does on Saturdays, what he reads his kids, what he buys his wife for her birthday, what his favorite Beatles song is. That will get you somewhere. What won’t get you somewhere? Getting good grades and ‘just wanting to be left alone.’ That will get you nowhere.
Student: So maybe someone who skips class isn’t going to get nominated for departmental prizes. When this conversation began, we were discussing how to not go off the rails in college.
Gibbs: Yes, and when you forget why you’re going to college, going off the rails becomes quite easy.
Gibbs: Because your friends quickly become your reason for being in college— and those friends have started skipping classes, too.
Student: But friends are important. Community is important.
Gibbs: That’s the kind of pious gloss you slather on top of skipping classes to feel better about it.
Student: There are things that my friends do for me that my church can’t do.
Gibbs: If you mean you can’t go to the movies on a Friday night with your church, I’m inclined to agree.
Student: I think you undervalue the importance of friends.
Gibbs: What would overvaluing the importance of friends look like?
Student: I don’t think you can overvalue the importance of friends.
Gibbs: Very good. That kind of statement is exactly what overvaluing the importance of friends looks like.
Student: No, I actually meant what I said. I really don’t think the importance of friendship can be overvalued.
Gibbs: Ah, I see. That’s typically the kind of sentiment that leads a Christian college student to quit going to church.
Gibbs: Where do you go to church now?
Student: My family attends a PCA church.
Gibbs: If you move away for college, there’s a good chance none of the friends you make will be PCA. Going to church in college often means going to a church where you really don’t know anyone. When you move away for college, you should commit yourself as quickly and uncritically to whatever PCA church there is in town, even if they don’t have a singles group, even if you don’t like the music, even if the pastor is too stodgy or too hip for your taste.
Student: When I make new friends in college, what will be wrong with going to their church?
Gibbs: If you only go to a certain church because your friends go there, you’ll quit going when they quit going.
Student: Wait— why are they going to quit going to church?
Gibbs: Because they’re going to get jobs and have to work on Sunday morning. Or they’re going to take a road trip to New York or Boston for the weekend. Or they’re simply going to be too tired, or have papers to write. Christian kids new to college don’t quit going to church in protest. They quit going because the worries of life overwhelm them. That makes it easier to go off the rails. Going to church reminds you what you are. When you haven’t been to church in a year, you forget what you’re for. It’s far easier to do things Pastor Steve doesn’t approve of when you haven’t seen Pastor Steve since last October.
Student: What if I want to look around at a few different kinds of churches when I go to college, though?
Gibbs: Pick one church for Sunday mornings. Do your looking around on Wednesday nights. Going to church twice a week will be helpful in balancing out the inherent danger of shopping for churches.
Student: That seems a bit drastic.
Gibbs: If you want to keep your head in college, it’s going to require being a bit drastic.
Student: I see.
Gibbs: Attending a PCA church in college will also scale back the possibility that you’ll gutlessly bow down and worship the zeitgeist.
Gibbs: While drugs and promiscuity represent a sad capitulation to what both St. Paul and Christ commonly refer to as “the world,” there are other ways of becoming the world’s stooge. I am just as vexed when my students, who have studied beautiful things and true things and old things, graduate high school and suddenly adopt trendy opinions on beauty, art, gender, marriage, politics, and so forth.
Student: You mean you don’t like it when conservative students go liberal in college?
Gibbs: There are plenty of self-professed conservatives who fawningly serve the zeitgeist, as well.
Student: Admit it. It galls you to see your students veer left in college.
Gibbs: When I was in my 20s, I said an awful lot of foolish things to people who were older than me, and now that I am nearly 40, people in their 20s say those kinds of things to me. Several months ago, a college sophomore spent twenty minutes trying to persuade me that it was actually important for Christians to understand Transformers as “a revealing work of social commentary.” But I would regularly bore adults with the same kind of pablum back when I was in college. There was this movement called “the Emergent church” which was quite popular back when I was in my 20s, and I was a little entranced by it for a while. One of the central figures in the Emergent church movement was this fellow who would do stuff like wear a Mickey Mouse shirt while he preached and reference emo songs in his sermons. I used to think that was pretty cutting-edge stuff.
Student: You’re just so above it now, huh?
Gibbs: I spent my 20s regretting my teens. I’ve spent my 30s regretting my 20s. It’s not hard to guess what I’ll be doing in my 40s.
Student: Does it really matter if a guy wears a Mickey Mouse t-shirt if he’s preaching the Gospel? This just brings me around to my original question, though. If the teachers at this school cared less about petty stuff like how students dress, and what music we play at school parties and sporting events, and cared more about the Gospel, maybe students wouldn’t quit the faith in college.
Gibbs: What do you think became of the Mickey Mouse preacher?
Student: I bet he’s still preaching the Gospel.
Student: So, a conservative kid goes off to college, realizes that liberals have a few decent ideas, then he gives his life over to sex, drugs, and rock n roll?
Gibbs: Not exactly. College tends to create an optical illusion which leads many students to believe they’re in a better place to judge their parents than they actually are, and as soon as you’re dismissing the politics of your parents, dismissing their morality is much easier, as well.
Student: What’s the optical illusion?
Gibbs: That you’re taking care of yourself and so you’re entitled to a few opinions of your own.
Student: Isn’t a college student taking care of himself?
Gibbs: An acrobat who is embarrassed to admit he uses a safety net nonetheless acts more boldly because he knows it’s there.
Student: So a college student has to believe everything his parents say?
Gibbs: In the Analects, Confucius says that after a father dies, the wise son changes nothing about the estate he inherits for three whole years. I like that. It sounds like something Edmund Burke would say. When you go to college, work hard, work more, pray more, but hold off on the temptation to radically reinvent yourself.
Student: Is that why you think college students should call their parents?
Gibbs: Call them often, yes.
Student: What good will that do?
Gibbs: It will be a good reminder of just how much you’re doing that you shouldn’t be. When you call your father, your father will say, “How’s it going, son?” and if you’ve been fooling around with girls and smoking dope and skipping class, you can always just lie to your father, but lying to him will clarify for you just what kind of person you’re becoming. You’re becoming the kind of person who cannot be honest with the people who love you.
Student: That’s kind of a grim reason to call your parents.
Gibbs: (laughing) Yes.
Student: Is that seriously the only reason I should call my dad when I go to college? So I feel guilty about lying about all the bad things I’ve done?
Gibbs: It’s not like you want to talk to him. I’m trying to give you a good and pious reason to call home.
Student: How about because I love him?
Gibbs: Is that reason sufficient right now to compel you to talk to him for more than ten minutes a week?
Student: I mean…
Gibbs: If you don’t talk to your dad for more than ten minutes a week now, you’re not going to start doing it once you go off to college. Look, of all the Christian kids you’ve heard about going off the rails in college, how many were male?
Student: (Pause) Most of them.
Gibbs: Had you realized that before this moment?
Gibbs: It’s hard to be young, male, and free to stay up as late as you want. You’ve got a sister, don’t you?
Gibbs: And she talks to your mother far more than you talk to your father, am I right?
Gibbs: For kids not raised in the church, the college vice squad is an equal opportunity employer. For kids raised in the church, it’s far harder on young men. You need a plan to fight that kind of temptation. You can’t just cross your fingers and hope it turns out okay.