Sermons in Stones

What we take to be a given often turns out to be a human invention that’s been in place so long that we’ve forgotten how it came to be. Lots of examples rush to mind: the earth-centered cosmos, the assumption that women can’t do “men’s work,” or—this comes from my Pennsylvania upbringing—the grim certainty that the Pirates will always sink to the bottom of the National League. Now, the fact that something is artificial—meaning made up by one or more people—does not necessarily mean it’s bad: plays, gardens, and colleges are all in the root sense artificial.

But what is invented is not inevitable: it needs to be examined from time to time to see if it still makes sense. That need drives the plan for Concordia that will set our course for the next five years and beyond. The plan springs from our mission, accords with BREW, and focuses like a laser on the experience of students. Here’s a one-sentence summary: Concordia College will offer an education of the whole self, for the whole of life, for the sake of the whole world.

I want to concentrate now on the “whole life” element, which has to do with cultivating the mental agility and discipline to thrive in a work environment where the average person will change jobs ten or more times over the course of a professional career. That section of the plan begins by saying that we must call students to achieve a Concordia baccalaureate focused not on credit accumulation but on building competence, creativity and character through collaborative learning with college faculty and staff.

What does this mean?

It doesn’t mean that we will stop offering credits: credits are, for now at least, the currency of higher education. You earn them, you save them up, and when you have saved the right number, you present them to the registrar and say, “I’m ready to graduate.”  But two things are worth noting here: (1) credits are an invention, about 100 years old now, and (2) credits are calculated by “seat time”—the number of hours you spend in class for a course—and we all know that seat time does not always equal learning.

The point of this column is not that students don’t learn in three or four-hour courses—I have taught them all my life and know that great things can happen there. But once you discover that credits are an invention, you can begin to wonder whether they are the only frame in which to learn. Anyone who’s ever rehearsed for a concert, edited a newspaper, or done collaborative research knows that his/her learning was far greater than whatever credits were awarded for that activity. And anyone who has ever tackled what one of my colleagues calls a “muddy problem”—like how we should address chronic flooding in the Red River Valley—knows that learning often leads us from the neatness that the credit unit seems to offer.

So I end with two questions: First, how do you learn best within the community of Concordia?  In what experiences are you most challenged to think, to imagine, to risk?  Second, how do you think your learning experiences ought to change as you move from your first year to your senior?  I invite you to send your responses to me at


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