Joshua Harris’s Fall and Christian Higher Education

I kissed dating goodbyeIf you, like me, were a kid who was a teenager in church in the 90s, then you know the name Joshua Harris. He wrote THE book on dating, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I confess that I’ve never read the book, but then again, I didn’t need to. We all knew what was in it. Dating was bad. Courtship was good. Romance was dead. Christians should retrieve romance and courtship in their relationships, and all this should be done with a commitment to purity. At the time, it all made perfect sense. In many ways, it still does.

However, there were unforeseen problems. When Harris wrote the book he was only 21 years old—hardly experienced enough to opine about all dating and all relationships. The book also contributed to a broader movement that is sometimes called “purity culture”—a movement which prioritizes sexual purity in the ethics of the young, with the unfortunate effect of both minimizing other aspects of formation (character, charity, mercy, peacemaking, etc.), while idolizing sex and marriage. In some people, it appears—and especially in certain young women of the time—sexual purity came to be seen as a bargaining chip for a good marriage. Save sex for marriage, the logic goes, and God will bless you with both a great marriage AND great sex. Christian teaching undoubtedly holds that sexual purity matters, but to turn it into a kind of bargaining chip for God’s work in your future relationships is to try to leverage God. In this respect, it’s a kind of prosperity gospel: if I do this action in faith, God will bless me.

Like I said, I knew the basics of Harris’s thinking without having read the book, and if the prosperity exchange of purity for future pleasure was taught, I didn’t hear it.

The book, like the 90s, faded into memory, until once again Joshua Harris’s name came across my newsfeed. This time it was 2015, and Harris had announced he was leaving his church to get some formal theological education—something he’d never had, despite serving as a pastor for more than a decade. The reason it was of interest to me was because he would be attending Regent College, the seminary I had attended. I remember thinking, at the time, that this was a great thing. I’m always happy when Pastors get educated.

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In the intervening years, Harris’s name popped up again—this time as he began to distance himself from the claims of his famous book. He helped to produce a documentary, called “I survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and eventually formally recanted the teaching of the book and asked the publisher to stop selling it. I read through the information at the time, and felt then that these seemed very much like the moves of someone coming into maturity. Harris was growing up, theologically speaking, and we should all rejoice about this.

I survived I kissed dating goodbyeThese changes weren’t without concern, however. A growing reaction against what had been “purity culture” was growing in the church. Women (it seems to me especially) from the 90s who had grown up on Harris’s logic were frustrated with how it had idolized sex and marriage, and how the realities of those institutions didn’t match up. Perhaps no greater image of the rejection of purity culture can be found that that of Nadia Bolz-Weber, gathering purity rings from her female members and (without any apparent awareness of Aaronic irony) causing them to be melted into he shape of a giant vulva. Those who had sacrificed themselves to purity would redeem the image of the vagina.

Harris emerged again last week, of course, with two subsequent bombshell announcements. The first (through Instagram) that he and his wife would be separating (apparently amicably? a kind of Gwyneth Paltrowian ‘conscious uncoupling’?), the second (also through Instagram) that he had left the Christian faith. Harris’s journey of ‘deconstruction’ (his own word) appears complete.

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This was the (cheerful?) picture posted along with the instagram announcement of their divorce.

The news was met with grief (from Christians) as well as joy (from atheists and other former Christians). Naturally, the circumstances invite speculation, as well as unfortunate puns. What happened to Harris? Why did he kiss Christianity (and his wife) goodbye? I don’t intend to answer either of those questions, especially since the answers lie in Harris’s heart, to be discerned between him and God alone. But there are two things I want to point out as frames for thinking about his trajectory—both publicly known. The first is the nature of the church he came from, the second is the nature of Christian Higher Education.

First, Harris’s church home. Harris had been trained, and nurtured, under the direct tutelage of C.J. Maheny, once powerful and respected megachurch pastor. Harris was, to my understanding, Maheny’s chosen successor. Over the past several years, Maheny’s Sovereign Grace Ministries has come under serious fire. There was a series of accusations from former members and leadership about Maheny’s abuse of power and controlling nature, then a series of members (11, I believe) who accused the church of covering up child sexual abuse. The church has denied these allegations, but the fallout has still been immense—Sovereign Grace has lost a number of its member churches, a number of its members, and Maheny has lost much of his influence (Al Mohler publicly severed ties with him). It was about this time that Harris left his ministry church to pursue education, declaring in a sermon that now he sees there were “flaws in the system.”

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C.J. Maheny

(As a fascinating, if tragic aside, when Rachael Denhollander, the Olympic gymnast, began to speak up about the abuse she had experienced, her church wanted her silenced, and she and her husband were eventually asked to leave their fellowship. That church was one of the churches which worked to restore Maheny to leadership.)

It seems to me that the Sovereign Grace story is a key component to the trajectory of Harris’s faith journey. He was raised (homeschooled as well) in a very conservative, apparently controlling environment. Tutored under a controlling, apparently power-hungry leader. Educated on the job in a self-protecting institution which hurt its members. Neither Maheny nor Harris were seminary educated, and it appears (from Harris’s own account) that Christian Higher Education was something actively dismissed by them.

The point is this: we might look at Harris’s story and conclude that he’s left our Christianity, but it seems far more likely to me that he’s left Maheny’s Christianity. He’s left a Christianity of control, of fear, of rules, of power, of hurt, and of a lack of grace. If this is accurate, then Harris’s honesty (about his faith) is something that should genuinely be applauded. In his public statements he displays a remarkable self-awareness and honesty. Of course, that honesty is marred by two things—one of them being his divorce, which is fundamentally dishonest, the other being the snazzy marketing means of the announcements. Instagram is a weird place to cheerfully declare the destruction of all you publicly held important.

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Harris was pastor at CLC, a Sovereign Grace Ministries Church.

This leaves us with the question of Christian Higher Education. Maheny and Harris are not alone in their belief that seminary—and with it education—is dangerous to faith. In this, they tap into a longstanding trend in American thinking: that intelligence is dangerous. John Erskine, famous American educator, wrote the following over 100 years ago:

Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the heart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.

A certain kind of Christian piety continues to hold today that an increase in intelligence is cause for suspicion, that blind obedience is to be preferred to carefully thought-out action. To those pious reasoners, Harris’s loss of faith is easily accounted for: he went to school. If he hadn’t gotten that seminary education, he would have stayed in the faith.

pew+research+center+logoCuriously parallel to this is recent data from the Pew Research Center. In one study last year, they showed that there had been a significant uptick in those who identify themselves as religious “nones”—that is, people who claim no religion at all. “Nones,” Pew astonishingly found, account for as many Americans as Evangelicals. In a more recent study, from just a few weeks ago, Pew showed that Jews, Atheists, and Agnostics outperformed all Christians on tests of basic religious knowledge. One way to tell the story is to claim that education is linked to lack of, or loss of, faith.

While some read these data with alarm, I find it encouraging and challenging news. First, it is encouraging that if more people identify as religious ‘nones,’ then we are equipped with a better understanding of the evangelistic task. If these are the same people who previously identified as “Christian,” but now identify as not, then there is an increase in honesty of reporting. Too long has a kind of cultural Christianity swayed American self-perception. Honest answers frame an honest mission. Second, the gap between education and faith presents itself as a challenge. It appears that Christian education is sorely lacking in American faith. It suggests that, in the command to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, we’ve opted instead for the wisdom of doves (and therefore the harm of serpents!).

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But with education does come danger. And here we might return to Harris. I remember my own time at Regent, and the laments of my peers about the nature of their own deconstructions—learning that the Church was bigger than expected, learning that the text must be carefully interpreted, learning that the history of the church was more fraught than anticipated (and, in some cases, that it began before 1906). Through it all, the faculty wouldn’t tell you what to believe—that wasn’t the methodology—but would present, and leave the work in your hands. For many students, this new knowledge, combined with the freedom to think for yourself, was simply too much. In this respect, I don’t think the problem was completely Regent’s—I think the problem is the educational state of American Christianity. (And, for what it’s worth, I think Regent could have done a better job of shepherding people through this process.) Once again, I don’t think it’s right to speculate on the shifts in Harris’s heart, but it would not surprise me if he discovered, while educating himself about the Christian faith, that the faith he’d publicly believed in wasn’t quite the Christianity he was learning about. And if that’s the case—in fact, either way—it presents us with a mandate to pray.

An Uncharacteristic, Personal Update

Dear Reader,

As you may or may not have noticed, this is not a blog where I talk about me very often, if at all. Today, however, I wanted to break that convention in order to let you in on some significant life changes in the near future. Long story short, in January I’m beginning PhD studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I’d like to take today’s post to tell you about how I’ve been led to this decision.

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Years ago, when my faith was first truly coming into its own, it did so under the influence of two men who taught me to love Jesus. Those two men were Lyle Dorsett and Jerry Root—both were C.S. Lewis scholars, both were committed to the Church and the Academy, and both exhibited a pastoral faith that had been deeply enriched by their respective PhD studies. It was a model that appealed to me.

When I graduated from Wheaton with a degree in Ancient Languages (Greek and Latin), and my wife with hers in Art, we were well situated to be highly educated but unemployable. I knew that further education would be necessary for me to advance in a career. One option I considered was Classics (further Greek studies), potentially at Oxford. Another option was a program in Patristic Studies (early Church history) at Notre Dame. Neither seemed quite right.

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In the meantime, worshipping one Sunday at Church, our minister put out a call for volunteers to preach at a local retirement home. I felt like I ought to give it a go, prayed it through with my wife, and before I knew it I was preaching to a group of 80 year old women. To my astonishment, I found that I loved it. Once a month I wrote a fifteen minute sermon and delivered it, and I was energized after each visit. I was so energized that, while walking with my wife and discussing further education, we came to the conclusion that seminary was the best option for us. Our provisional plan was that I would pursue a seminary degree, then move on to complete a PhD immediately following. We began to look at schools.

The events that brought us to Regent College in Vancouver, BC, are outside the scope of this post—but suffice it to say that we went in a very brief time from being unable to identify Vancouver on a map to deciding to emigrate there. Regent especially appealed to us because of the sense we had that Regent offered a kind of “liberal arts” version of the seminary experience (they even advertized themselves as the “un-seminary” at that time). Because of this, it felt like an ideal place to pursue an MDiv on the way to a PhD.

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The next four years involved an enormous amount of discernment as to the nature of my call, and in the process I experienced a curious vacillation. One month I would be encouraged in pursuing pastoral ministry, but it would be accompanied by some measure of discouragement about pursuing a PhD. Another month I would be actively encouraged in PhD studies but discouraged in pastoral ministry. As part of my MDiv requirements I was placed in a small group where we mutually discerned our calls and attempted to speak truth to one another. At the close of that group, after more than a year together, that group firmly and clearly affirmed my call to both pastoral ministry and the academy.

However, at graduation my PhD prospects were not clear at all. I had received a fairly devastating criticism in one of my last classes, and that criticism cast real doubt on the topic for study that I was then considering. In the meantime, I had been preaching on a monthly basis at a local Vietnamese church and greatly enjoying their fellowship and company. Once again, the cycle of discouragement and encouragement was in full swing, and when they asked me that summer to serve as their pastor, with no clear PhD prospects on the horizon, I said yes. I made it clear, however, that I didn’t know how long I would be able to stay with them. I ended up serving as their pastor for five years.

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We at Pho at a restaurant called Pho Tau Bay nearly every Sunday for all five years. It was amazing.

At the end of my service with them, I transitioned to a Chinese church, and I’ve been ministering to them for the past three years. Over the past eight years I have continue to nurse, in prayer, the call to a PhD. I’ve had a lingering sense that it was something I am still supposed to do, but I could imagine no way to accomplish it—whether logistically or financially. And so when I prayed about it I would always offer it to the Lord as a thing He could give me or take; the refrain of my prayers at this time was simply this, “Lord, give me no desires you don’t intend to fulfill Yourself.” I didn’t want to desire the PhD if God didn’t want me to have it. Occasionally I would discuss this sense of call with my Church members, and one time a smirking member told me that maybe the PhD God wanted me to get was my, “Preach Here, Dummy.” I laughed heartily at the joke, but also took it to heart. Maybe that door was closed.

In fact, I was very near to giving up on the dream altogether when, in December, I learned of a new program at St. Andrews. It would focus on Analytical and Exegetical Theology—that is, on philosophy and Bible—and everything about the program felt right up my alley. The subject was right, the instructors managing the program are some of the best in the world, and I had wanted a UK degree in part because they are shorter (three years) and focus chiefly on writing. For the first time in a long time I became excited about the possibility of further studies. I consulted with my wife and some key friends, and each counseled me to apply.

Over a two-week holiday in January I completed the application. Several professors with whom I had kept in touch encouraged me unreservedly (and wrote recommendations). My mentors in faith, Jerry and Lyle, were equally encouraging. And so with confidence I clicked submit and began to wait. I would wait a lot longer than I expected.

January passed, then February without news. This was not terribly surprising, but in March I was notified that I had been wait-listed. I still felt that this was manageable, but some uncertainty began to settle in. In many ways I felt that if this program didn’t work out, the PhD was not going to be a thing for me, and I was even then resigning myself to this possibility. In April I attended the Wheaton Theology Conference and, unsolicited, a large number of people (more than ten over a four day period) affirmed not only my writing but specifically encouraged me to pursue a PhD. When I shared that I had applied for a program, they expressed their excitement. I came back to Vancouver encouraged, but still waiting with bated breath. In May I spent a monthly retreat day at a Benedictine Monastery. While praying on a park bench for some encouragement from the Lord a couple walked up to the lookout. They began speaking in English accents, and I, wonderingly, asked the Lord, “Would you speak to me, Lord, through an accent?” Feeling uncertain, I continued my prayer, “You’ll have to give me more than that.” Moments later, another group walked up to the lookout, unrelated to the first—and would you know it, they also had English accents? Now my eyes and ears were open, but I’m not sure I was convinced. Ten or so minutes later one of the monks came to the bench and sat next to me. He was smoking a pipe and listening to music. On top of his pipe’s bowl was a curious metal contraption, and I interrupted him to ask what it was. Being hard of hearing, and misunderstanding me, he said, quite loudly, describing the pipe itself, “IT’S ENGLISH.” In my heart I said to God, “I will only be able to tell this story, Lord, if you send me to Scotland.”

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It was late June when I finally heard from the school—I was admitted to the program but without any offer of funding. One of the key prayers throughout the intervening months had been that if God wanted me to pursue this program, He would need to provide the funding. No funding, and I wouldn’t go. Acceptance from the school was then not enough to confirm my sense of call. My wife and I began to pray. She secured the word “miracle” on the wall of our home as a reminder of our prayers. And in two weeks’ time two things happened—first, the school offered me a 50% tuition scholarship, and second, I contacted a friend who offered significant support toward the program. In two weeks we had gone from no resources to more than 60% of the total cost of the program—living expenses and tuition. We felt that God had clearly showed us His intention to provide the rest, and so in faith we have agreed to go, and in prayer we are continuing to await the remainder of His provision. I have formally resigned from my church work, and in January we will sell many of our things and my family of five will change countries and spend the next three years at St. Andrews in Scotland. While we are there I will be writing about the Trinity, and Family Systems Theory, and the Incarnation, and Suffering. It promises to be an exciting set of years.

One friend asked me, “Did you choose Scotland, or did Scotland choose you?” The answer is “Yes.” But the overarching sense is that, indeed, Scotland has chosen us, and I can say that because the process of being led to this course of study has been of a piece with all of the previous ones. By God’s guidance I have applied to only one University (Wheaton), and only one Seminary (Regent), and now only one PhD Program (St. Andrews). He has been the one arranging my education, not me, and I am more than content to continue to submit to His guidance in these matters.

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Illinois forest preserves are pretty nice places.

When my wife and I were walking that Illinois forest preserve all those years ago and discussing seminary and doctoral studies, we certainly did not anticipate eight years of intervening pastoral ministry. And yet these years have been good. We have been enriched by our time in Vancouver, and we have made lifelong friends in the two churches in which I’ve served. I’ve been able to develop as a writer, and my pastoral call is a confirmed and entrenched reality. I remain called to serve the Church, and moreover I love the Church! I have wanted to stress to my members the fact that transitioning to PhD studies is in no way a departure from the Church. Rather, this is the completion and augmentation of my call. What career I pursue at the close of the next three years is yet to be seen, but we can await it with anticipation and not fear, because the One who is ordering our steps has ordered those events as well. We have only to keep our eyes open, and to obey when the time is right.

Thanks for Reading!

P. Jeremy Rios

Christian Education and the Bounded Set

Wheaton MottoI have been privileged to earn degrees from two institutions of Christian higher education. From Wheaton College in Illinois I have a degree in Ancient Languages, and I have a Master’s of Divinity from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Both are institutions committed to a form of liberal arts education. In other words, neither place is a doctrinal or denominational school; instead, both schools are committed to education from a Christian perspective. It is not so much a “Christian” education as it is an education provided by Christians and from a Christian worldview.

Both schools were (and are) places of conviction and faith, and I have positive memories of my experiences. However, my encounters with fellow former students often leave me mystified. In the teeth of the clearly expressed Christian convictions of professors, administration, and the institution, other graduates emerge with barely Christian beliefs. Some employ the tools for clear thinking in which they have been trained in order to think quite poorly. In turn, I am shocked at the number of vocal alumni who hold positions directly opposed to traditional Christian faith, and am further grieved by those alumni who have walked away from their faith entirely. But what might be most startling of all is when these alumni have the temerity to be shocked when the institution itself does not agree with them, apparently projecting back on the institution their own poor thinking. It is as if they didn’t really know what kind of institution they were attending in the first place.

Larycia Hawkins

Whatever the issues with Dr. Hawkins, the responses from Alumni were in many ways far more shocking.

This process was exhibited most vividly in the past months at Wheaton, where the drama surrounding Larycia Hawkins provided abundant opportunity for alumni to voice their opinions of the college. The idea that Wheaton, an historically orthodox Christian college, would discipline a professor who claimed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God—which as a statement is logically, factually, and historically untenable—was met with rank, ugly, and outright hateful displeasure. Alumnus disavowed the school, condemned the college’s commitment to narrow interpretations of Christianity, accused the administration of fundamentalism, readily labeled the situation as racist and oppressive, suggested that college trustees were simply protecting their financial interests, and any number of other unpleasant volleys as well. And while the recent situation with Dr. Hawkins clearly lays out this difficult situation, it is by no means the only exhibit of this dissonance between alumni and the commitments of these colleges. Many alumni actively wish to reshape these schools into an evangelicalism which reflects their own questionable convictions.

What is it that contributes to creating a situation like this? How is it possible for colleges with such expressly Christian commitments produce alumni with such flimsy Christian convictions? The answer, curiously enough, is perhaps found embedded in the goal of Christian higher education, and further in the unique restrictions which make attainment of that goal possible.

Idea of a Christian College

Terrible cover. Interesting book.

To begin, the goal of Christian higher education is the formation of a Christian mind. A Christian mind is not necessarily a mind filled with doctrine, and the purpose of a curriculum in such an institution is not to complete a kind of doctrinal download. Educated Christians are not people who think “Christian” thoughts, but people who have the capacity to think any thoughts, in any situation, and to bring the Christian perspective to bear on that position and evaluate it accordingly. Ultimately—and I draw here from Arthur Holmes’s thoughts in “The Idea of a Christian College”—the goal of a Christian College is to cultivate students who are hungry for the truth, know and understand that the ultimate truth of all things is found in God, and furthermore can recognize the truth when they encounter it in any subject.

But to make this kind of training possible requires some unique constraints. First, and of extreme importance, the faculty must confess a common orthodoxy. Second, and equally important, the students must have permission to explore any question at all. Together, these two create the necessary conditions for achieving the goal of forming a Christian mind. But they also create the conditions for the troubles outlined above.

The faculty in this scenario provide the bounded set for student exploration. Their confessed convictions become the walls against which aspiring students will cut the teeth of their thinking. This reality can be viewed from several different angles. In the first place, there is the old preacher’s phrase that “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pews.” If the preacher is slightly unclear about something, you can guarantee that the congregation is lost in the fog. Clarity of conviction about the essentials of the Christian faith is an essential for faculty because their clarity must provide the beacons through which students can navigate in their own educational fog. In this, the faculty represent lighthouses—lighthouses that illuminate, yes, but also immovably mark dangers. To extinguish or to relocate a lighthouse is not a mark of intellectual honesty, but rather of imminent criminality. If the faculty can adjust Christian orthodoxy, they will likely shipwreck the faith of the students.

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Another angle to consider this limitation is from the perspective of the student, whose free questioning must nevertheless be limited by the firm reality of Christian belief. Without those boundaries, student freedom is actually limited. This was illustrated in a number of psychological studies which set up two scenarios. In the first, children were given a task (for example, to find carrots) in a bounded environment. In the second, children were given the same task in an unbounded environment. The children with boundaries outperformed those without boundaries, and the implicit lesson is this: where there are boundaries for study, students are given permission to press against the reaches of those boundaries. Where there are no boundaries, the student flounders.

That these two conditions serve the goal of Christian education should be now be clear. The Christian mind is a mind formed within a kind of bounded set. We are sent out to explore the reaches of the world, yet while holding to our core convictions and measuring our data against those immovable anchor points of the faith. We are even granted permission to re-explore those anchor points, to query and examine them, precisely because we are convinced that their truth will hold. We are unafraid of questions because we believe the truth of our central witness. This process in turn reflects back onto the nature of faith itself. Each individual is free to accept or reject the Christian witness—we force no one into belief, preserving the central freedom that God has gifted each person in His image. Even the action of evangelism, then, is illuminated by this bounded set—I bring my firm and confessed convictions to any person, equipped to walk alongside them through any question that person might have, unafraid of the queries to my faith. Conviction held in the context of questions is precisely the attitude of the mature Christian mind, the formative goal of Christian higher education.

But if the faculty are bound in belief to a set of convictions, what does this mean for academic freedom? Arthur Holmes once again offers some illumination when he states that “Academic freedom is valuable only when there is a prior commitment to the truth.” In other words, we are free to the degree that our freedom is being utilized to explore, examine, and plumb the depths of the truth. He continues, suggesting that “Academic freedom may be defined, then, as freedom to explore the truth in a responsible fashion, to think, even to make mistakes and correct them” (The Idea of a Christian College, 69). Freedom, thus, cannot be separated from responsibility—responsibility to the pursuit of the Truth, to Christian conviction, to constituency, to the institution that provides the opportunity for these explorations, and also to the parents who have entrusted their children to you for instruction.Responsibility via Wikihow

But these commitments also produce two dangers that I will mention here. The first is that the college administration must enforce its doctrinal convictions without falling into dogmatic traps, that is to say, it must uphold both conditions above. In the complex world of intellectual exploration, and in the reverent world of our ideas of God, there are no truths that cannot be explored with more complexity, depth, and understanding. An administration must allow for this reverent study without stifling exploration. However, it must also be on guard, and here a confessional commitment ought to provide a bulwark against the allure of novelty, the popularity of conflict, and the “publish or perish” attitude that can drive a well-meaning academic into intellectual ignominy.

But the other danger is that the same freedom that makes intellectual inquiry valuable and profitable grants permission for graduates to think what they will. An education which provides the student not with thoughts, but with the opportunity to learn to think, also provides the opportunity for the student to misapply that thinking. Both are expressions of freedom—to think well expresses freedom in one way, to think poorly expresses it equally in another. And this, at last, brings me back to the beginning, where I lamented the attitudes of many of my fellow alumni. They return in their memories to these institutions and map back onto the school their own preferences, projecting their own heterodoxy onto the institution. But what they have neglected in this is the realization that their very ability to critique the college is predicated on the college’s provision of freedom to inquire within boundaries. To take one lesson—the freedom to ask questions—and apply it as a weapon against the other—the need for boundaries—is foundationally self-defeating. If they had their way they would not reform the college, but destroy it completely. God forbid that should happen.