The thought of sending my daughters off to college does not excite me, as it has been many years now since I last heard an encouraging news story come out of an American college campus. I do not doubt that good colleges yet exist, although the question of whether I can afford them is another matter. And I am sure that good professors may be found on every college campus in the country, though I am not persuaded that three fine literature teachers can justify a hundred thousand dollars of student loan debt. Nonetheless, beyond high school, my daughters will need something more. Camilla’s desire to please her teachers is a separate thing from her desire to please my wife and me. Both of my children are willing to do things for their teachers that they are not willing to do for me and my wife. Their teachers have found ways of motivating them that my wife and I simply cannot tap into, and while this hurt my feelings a bit at first, I am now glad that someone is able to do for my children what I cannot. My love is obligatory, but the respect of an outsider must be earned, and so my daughters have learned to strive.
I want my children to learn wisdom, and I want them to learn it from someone other than myself and my wife, though I am not convinced that a classroom is the only place where such learning can take place. I have lately begun pondering the possibility of sending my daughters to live with wise friends for a few years after they graduate high school. Within the classical Christian world, I could name a dozen wise men and women who my daughters would do well to imitate. These are men and women who do not simply say compelling things, but live compelling lives. I have dined with them, spent long weekends at conferences with them, stayed up late with them laughing, lamenting, and pontificating. I deeply trust these people. I would love for my children to absorb as much of the beauty of their lives as possible, for I don’t want my daughters to only have teachers. They should have mentors.
What I have in mind is really quite simple: that my daughters should become tenants in the home of wise men and women. My children should have jobs and pay rent, but also tend to the house and do some cooking. I would ask nothing more of their landlords (so to speak) than that they talk with my children, share their thoughts, converse in the evening, and occasionally allow my children to accompany them in suitable weekend outings. While such a situation would not be college, it would most certainly be an education. There would be freedom, there would be the possibility of failure, and such possibilities would convey the weight of maturity.
This kind of education would have great purchasing power among the very few people I trust, and very little purchasing power among people I do not know. Were I a high school administrator, I would hire someone who was discipled for several years in the home of Grant Horner, Chris Schlect, or Chris and Christine Perrin far more readily than I would hire someone with an education degree granted by complete strangers. The only reason I’m in education today is because I knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone. Granted, the kind of education I am proposing for my children would narrow my children’s job possibilities, and while I suppose some people find such narrowing a tragic violation of individuality and freedom, at the moment I am not convinced the average university less a risk. Neither is my interest merely in keeping my children safe, which I cannot do forever. Rather, my interest is in my daughters growing wise and not wasting their time. When I hear reports from former students who have gone on to state schools, my concern is not only for their souls, but for St. Paul’s command to “make the most of your time, for the days are evil.”
I would want this education to carry on for several years, at least. I am sometimes only been able to teach a certain student for a single year, while other students sit under my teaching for two years or three. I can always do more for a student in the second or third year than in the first year, for a deeper bond of trust and respect shared between teacher and student promotes deeper credulity for the text. On the other hand, I sat under Peter Leithart’s teaching for many years, met with him often outside of church, and few men have held greater sway over my heart and mind. The deepest relationships between teachers and students are typically long relationships, and while I had a few fine teachers in college, I never had any of them more than once.
The issue of college is still quite sticky, so I mean none of this as judgment of parents planning to send their children to big state schools. Planning college is a good bit like planning a wedding reception: both require so much finesse, so much polity, and so many issues of finance and manners, I cannot possibly judge another’s choices from such a distance. Besides, I am now on the advisory board of the Templeton Honors College, and after a recent trip to the campus to meet with the faculty, attend a few classes, converse with the students and alumni, I would very happily recommend the place. I could probably send my children off to New College Franklin without a second thought, as well, so please don’t read this little essay as a blanket condemnation of American colleges.
Still, Christians are now at the point wherein creative alternatives to college look more and more attractive. I put the possibility of a long-term mentoring relationship, one which exists entirely outside the classroom, on the table for consideration and debate.