An Appreciation: Aubrey Gearner, Jr., Elton Trueblood, And The Hardin-Simmons Family
The greatest benefit of my compiling the weekly Light Standard was the privilege of getting to know the faculty on a more personal basis and to be inspired by your love of Hardin-Simmons and your commitment to your students, your joy in the classroom (meaning the entire forty acres). Trying to impart wisdom, sharing what it means to be human, a scholar curious and creative, to make choices and accept the consequences, to think, is often a cross to bear, but it’s a cross you willingly take up. Thank you! And my thanks is not just for the faculty but includes our Hardin-Simmons staff and also the administration. We really are a family. I can say that thanks to your having suffered me as a member of the family. My poet friend Andrew Hudgins has a wonderful, paradoxical pronouncement in his poem “Saints and Strangers”: “One glory of a family is / you’d never choose your kin” (82). The joyful word is glory. Again, thanks.
Last Thursday, Trina and I drove to Dallas for the graveside and memorial services for my cousin Aubrey Gearner, Jr. Aubrey was more like an older brother, thirteen years older, than a first cousin. He was always kind to, and patient with, his kid cousin. He spent time with me—the midway rides at Fair Park, home-plate seats at the Dallas Rangers’ double and triple-A baseball games at Burnett Field. When, in the fall of 1968, I came to Dallas to take my Marine officer candidate school pre-induction physical, Aubrey drove over to his parents’ house where I was spending the night to talk about my decision, and to listen. Aubrey had served as an Air Force navigator. Soon after I returned from Vietnam, Trina and I were married. Aubrey and his family drove to Abilene for the wedding. When his parents and my mom and my dad were in a serious car wreck in 1980, Aubrey joined Trina and me in my mom’s hospital room as the physician disconnected the life supports. Fighting, and losing, his battle with leukemia, Aubrey wrote me to say he had read, cover to cover, my collection of literary nonfiction essays Twilight Innings: A West Texan on Grace and Survival. I thought of Annie Dillard’s insistence that writers approach seriously everything they write. She rhetorically asks in The Writing Life (Harper, 1989):
“What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” (68). As always, Aubrey was generous with his encouragement. The Northway Christian Church where Aubrey was an active member for fifty-four years, was filled with people Aubrey had blessed. He was president or chairman of numerous organizations and a Deacon, Elder, and Elder Emeritus at Northway Christian. His accomplishments filled an 8½ x 11-inch page.
I must have needed to tell you about this good man who influenced a troublesome kid more than Aubrey could have ever known. I should have told him. I started out to say I learned at the memorial service that Aubrey especially admired, and once had the opportunity to meet, Dr. D. Elton Trueblood. The minister at the memorial service said Aubrey modeled his family, his church, his business, and his civic commitments after Dr. Trueblood’s insistence on a life of Christian responsible service “strengthening spiritual values within the broader society.” Aubrey, the minister said, “was personally, powerfully and permanently shaped by the ministry and vision of Dr. Trueblood.”
I’m sure you have read many of Elton Trueblood’s books. I have not. These are not the kind of books I typically read. I had heard of Dr. Trueblood and thought of him as some preacher, but if he was important to Aubrey, then I wanted to know why. I searched the internet and then went to Amazon.com. What most interested me was that Dr. Trueblood was a college professor, a small-college professor. In 1945, he relinquished his tenured full professorship at Stanford University to become a professor of philosophy at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, a small Quaker liberal arts college. Before he was at Stanford, Dr. Trueblood taught at Harvard. You can imagine how surprised his Stanford colleagues must have been when he left for Earlham. In the September, 1956, Reader’s Digest, pages 38-42, Dr. Trueblood gives his reasons for choosing Earlham. You can read this article in the bound volumes of the Reader’s Digest on the third floor of our Richardson Library. Dr. Trueblood says he decided to “leave the security and prestige of a great university and to spend the rest of my life in a smaller school” (39) because of the small college’s “affectionate, abiding concern for the individual” (40), the “character-developing influence” (41).
At Amazon.com, I discovered that among Elton Trueblood’s multitudinous publications is a 200-page book entitled The Idea of a College (Harper, 1959). The book is available in our library (LB 2321.T75). I checked it out last Saturday, and I have to return it Thursday, so I will not have time this week to read all of the book, but this past weekend I did read about half of it and skimmed other chapters. (I have ordered my own copy from Amazon. The book is only available in “used” condition.) I was surprised at how similar 1956 was to 2012 on the campus of a small, liberal arts college. I used up an entire stack of yellow Post-It Notes marking important passages. I found myself saying, “Amen, Brother Youngblood” on almost every page. I think you will, too. What he has to say about faculty, students, administrators, and even trustees is especially pertinent to Hardin- Simmons. Dr. Trueblood speaks with the voice of one who has been in the trenches and has fought the good fight. His treatment of small-liberal-arts-college life is objective, truthful, and encouraging even when his voice seems that of a Jeremiah, a tough-love Jeremiah. My close reading focused on the chapters preaching to the teacher, the student, the administration. Often I felt like that high school kid who, on the Sundays he showed up in church, discovered the preacher’s sermon topic was once again Why Robert Adon Fink Must Change His Wicked Ways! I paid attention to Dr. Trueblood.
Maybe the chapter titles will inspire you to check out, or purchase, The Idea of a College:
The College in America
The Concept of a Christian College
Liberal and Vocational Education
The Education of Men and Women
The College as a Community
The College in the Community
The Achievement of Academic Integrity
The Vision of Excellence
I’m tempted to quote half the book, because I’m convinced Dr. Trueblood appreciates the struggle and celebrates the potential of the small liberal arts college, and he even suggests possible solutions to the common problems we all confront. The following selected quotations may suggest I have selected everything in the book. Since I did the selecting and the arranging of the sequence, it may appear that I’m orchestrating my points, my agenda. Maybe I am. You know I am. If you have read this far, you might as well keep going. I hope the following selections will encourage you to read the entire book. I know I’m looking forward to Post-It-Noting the second half.
The Idea of a College was published in 1959, so Dr. Trueblood follows the practice of that era in his use of the masculine pronouns he, him, his, as well as the nouns man and men to reference women as well.
Selected Quotations From Dr. D. Elton Trueblood’s The Idea of a College
“The only reasonable way to judge a college is not by the size of its campus or by the abundance of its financial resources or by the number of books in its library or even by the publications of its professors. The college is to be judged by the quality of its human product. The test of a successful college education is not to be found in the amount of knowledge which the graduates take away with them, most of which will be forgotten in any case, but rather by the appetite to know, by the determination to continue the educational process, and by the ability to think and act maturely. The purpose of a college is the production of persons who are both more civilized and more civilizing” (62).
“One of the reasons why the small college represents our best ideal is that it can produce a higher degree of unity than can any alternative academic organization with which we are acquainted” (11).
“One of the greatest dangers in modern college life is that of an extreme division of labor, especially when it creates too great a distinction between the teaching staff and the administrative staff. It is common on a campus to hear references to students, to faculty, and to administration, sometimes with the implied suggestion that these are essentially antagonistic groups, with different interests. Professors are particularly prone to refer to ‘the administration’ as though referring to a different breed. Thus, sometimes, bitter antagonisms arise, and when there is a publicly recognized split along these lines, it does harm so great that it cannot be overcome in many years. The usual complaint of the teaching members against the administrative members of the academic community is that the latter are interested only in money or that scholarly integrity is being sacrificed in order to pacify certain elements of the outside community. Sometimes there is a little justification for this complaint, but more often the professor is curiously blind to his own interest and that of his teaching colleagues. Instead of resenting the effort to get money, he ought to be gratified; the effort makes a great difference in his own standard of living and that of his family.
“As we understand the idea of a college better, we shall do all that we can to bridge any chasm which exists between administration and teachers and to avoid, if possible its development. The chief way to do this is by the clear recognition that what we are producing is a team. Accordingly, the analogy with business, as it is usually understood, is a false analogy. At the present stage of industry it may be inevitable to have conference tables with labor representatives sitting on one side and management sitting on the other, but we want nothing remotely similar to this in a college. Nothing can be worse, academically, than the idea of a teachers’ union, in which professors have the mentality of employees, with the notion that the owners and managers are their natural enemies.
. . .
“All are engaged in one enterprise and all have the responsibility to help each other” (68-69).
The Christian College
“The Christian character of a college is attested, not by what goes on at the fringes and not even by the existence of scholarly courses in Biblical studies or the history of religion. The Christian character is attested by the mood and conviction of the major teaching of the institution. . . . There is reason to believe that a man is a better [professor] if he is also a committed Christian. This is not because piety can ever dispense with technique, nor character substitute for scholarship, but because the Christian operates from a broader base than can those who are limited by adherence to contemporary and passing secular fashions” (25).
“What we need is a recovery of essential human dignity, and this is more likely to come through a theocentric humanism than it is through one which is merely anthropocentric. Man, as a finite creature, here for a little while before the blow falls, is not impressive and certainly he is not always lovely. But man, of any color or nationality, who is made in the image of the Living God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, is something radically different. He is worthy of respect, not because of what he is, but of what he represents, and what, under God, he may become. A Christian philosophy has more chance of developing a reasonable theory of responsibility than has any of its competitors. Human dignity comes not from “man the measure,” but from “God the Measure.” In and of himself alone a man is a poor, weak thing at best; but as a child of God, as revealed in Christ, he, though erring and foolish, is a creature of infinite possibility and ultimate worth” (30).
“What the college hopes to produce in those under its care is not merely a knowledge of facts, which may be evanescent, or even illusory, but the ability to judge. The aim is the kind of mind that can judge which ones, among apparent facts, are really facts, and that, moreover, can do this in a great variety of fields. Especially we hope to develop acute and accurate judgment of men and movements and faiths. The end of education, said William James, is ‘knowing a good man when you see him’ (William James, Memories and Studies, 309). In an equally memorable phrase a contemporary writer has said, ‘The most important science of all is the science of choice’ (Tunis Romein, Education and Responsibility. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1955, 61). Because man is free, in the sense that his actions are not wholly determined by forces outside his own mind and character, nothing is more important than the development of character in such a way that better and better choices are made. This cannot be accomplished in any easy or simple way. That is why the educational process is inevitably a long one, and a difficult one, if it is to be worth anything” (13-14).
“He [Timothy Dwight, President of Yale] knew that the real assets of a college are not buildings or systems, but men. He knew that the teacher is an enkindler and that the test of his success lies in the kind of fire he lights. The greatness of any college is directly proportional to the number of its teachers who are truly effective in this sacred function” (47).
“The teacher is a person who illustrates, to a marked degree, Aristotle’s famous point about happiness arising in the course of creation. To create anything may bring a certain joy, but creation in the realm of the personal is obviously higher in value than is creation in the realm of the merely material or mechanical. The teacher who understands his calling is made happy every day by the chance to participate, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, in the making of differences in human lives” (35-36).
“The good teacher must know his subject and he must know his students and he must know both at once. The scholar’s concern for the subject under inquiry is more fruitful if always the needs of the students are in the back of his mind, and his personal interest in young people is more valuable if it involves some truth which he is burning to impart” (37-38).
The good teacher “will often encourage the students to ask questions of him, but his ideal will be to help them to answer their own questions and thus be participators in the intellectual quest rather than parasites” (42).
“Though the good teacher cannot know everything, even about a small area of knowledge, he can be so filled with the glory of his subject that the student who is reasonably open to such influences may be deeply moved by his teacher’s reverence for truth. Thus the good teacher is not the kind of actor who draws attention to himself and his own peculiarities, but one who is so in love with his subject that he practically becomes anonymous in its presence. The good teacher is humble, not in the sense that he depreciates himself, but in the far more profound sense that he forgets himself. Real humility is not thinking badly of oneself; real humility is not thinking of oneself at all. The first-class speaker is so lost in his subject, and in the response of his hearers, that he never stops to ask himself how he is progressing. This kind of self-forgetfulness is something which the good student will always respect, even though he may not analyze it consciously” (39).
“We must likewise be careful, in our effort to maintain good teaching, to see to it that instructors are not too greatly burdened with work on committees. Committees may be necessary elements in any democratic procedure, but everyone recognizes them as wasters of time and energy. The solution is to have fewer and better committees, with many decisions made administratively by people who are not trying to teach and who enjoy administrative work. Probably each professor should serve on one committee, so as to keep in touch with the ongoing events of the academic community, but more than this entails danger to the very enterprise which the committees exist to foster. We cannot expect great teaching if we also make our professors into chore boys, with so many duties that no energy is left for the creative thinking without which the art of teaching cannot be perfected” (45).
“The college which understands both its meaning and its potential greatness will not only be bold in its search for men who can teach; it will also insist that the good teacher be adequately rewarded” (48).
“What a joy it might be to teach in college if the students, when they come, could be assumed already to know elementary algebra, English grammar, and geography, and could really use some language other than their own” (85).
“The notion of education as an unending process can help the student to know what he has a right to expect from college. He will expect to receive some information, but he will understand that this is of minor importance in comparison to other possible gains. What the student must watch for, and what he has a right to expect, is the development of a habit of inquiry. This habit is most valuable if it includes a method by which any problem can be approached. The student who gets what college has to give learns to face a problem with analysis into its parts and with a calm appraisal of all possible hypotheses. He learns to move from the simple to the complex and he learns also to verify his conclusions insofar as they are verifiable. The point is that such a habit of method can be retained, long after the specific information is forgotten, precisely because it is put into continuous use. It thus becomes a means by which old information may be recovered or new information obtained” (61).
“The purpose of a course is not to teach everybody everything, but to give students such a start and such incentive that they can go forward for themselves. We practice too much the holding the student’s hand instead of allowing him as he advances to become responsible for his own life” (93).
“We are not likely to get far, however fine our facilities, if the desire to learn is absent. Knowledge is something which men and women are able to resist if they will.
“The solution to this problem will have to come by a variety of approaches, but the most important method is that of a more careful selection of applicants. . . . The sober truth is that a great many who are now in college ought not to be there at all, and many who make application for admission ought to be steered elsewhere, into pursuits more congenial to them or more suitable to their needs. . . .
“When the wrong people go to college, harm is done in several specific ways. In the first place, the student himself is harmed because he often develops habits of laziness and superficiality which may remain with him a long time. In the second place, the whole college is harmed because each malcontent influences others. In the third place, harm is done to some potential student who might have been accepted if the quota had not already been filled by the addition of some who do not belong in college life at all. . . . If a young person in college is not interested and if there is something else he would rather do, his parents and advisers would be wise to urge him to go do it. Anything is better than a life devoid of interest and incentive” (52-53).
“A sad feature of our present college life is that in some cases the professors do almost all of the work. Indeed students often think of their major or sole responsibility as that of attending classes, forgetting that in the class hour it is the professor and not the student who is expending energy. Often the student is only a passive receiver of what the professor has prepared with arduous care and has delivered with brilliance. The main work of the student must be done elsewhere, and the lecture, however brilliantly delivered, has little permanent value unless this student work is done” (55).
“In most classes a student gets a great deal more out of the presentation or discussion if he takes notes constantly. The reason for this is that reception is even better when there is action. Usually there is no genuine impression unless there is expression, and writing is a good form of expression. The chief value of taking notes is that the student thereby ceases to be merely passive. The best notes are not stenographic accounts of all that is said, but rather a continual digest, in which each paragraph of the lecturer is reduced to two or three sentences in the student’s book, but all is made consecutive, orderly, and smooth. This kind of note-taking is a great art and can produce something of considerable importance for later years. . . . Of all educational paradoxes the strangest lies in the fact that people are continually willing to pay for education and then do their best not to get value received. Not satisfied with being cheated, students deliberately arrange to cheat themselves” (56).
“The basic trouble is that in our social system we have allowed higher education to become a right rather than a privilege. It is no longer something which young people desire so deeply that they gladly work hard to save in order to attend and work to earn while studying. In many ways college life was more valued when it was harder to get” (51).
“Those who conduct admissions offices need to have almost superhuman judgment. Since it is obvious that the decisions about admission cannot be made by a machine or by some formula, there is always an element of risk and there will, consequently, be some failures. In the nature of things, some who are admitted will fail to profit by what the college has to give or to add to the worth of the community. All that we have a right to demand of admission officers is a reasonably high record of success in choosing persons. But we must make the director of admissions know how important his work is” (53-54).
“What the officers of admissions must look for is, first, a real desire for an education, and, second, some promise of leadership in the enterprise. It would be a shame, when there are not enough academic opportunities to go around, to waste any on those who do not care or who demonstrate no real promise of achievement. The students admitted will not be perfect and they will not already be fully developed in their powers, for the college exists to aid in this development, but what we need is the work of wise men who . . . will know a student of promise when they see him. In judgment of this kind, ability to judge attitude is central. We must watch for a willingness to learn, a willingness to be taught, and the conviction that college life is a great privilege” (54).
“The problem of motivation is largely solved if students come to think of themselves as part of an ongoing tradition. The student at Davidson can be helped by realizing that Woodrow Wilson once studied where he now studies. When this sense of membership in a continuing heritage becomes part of a student’s conscious experience, great things may happen. He not only moves over from the supposition that attendance at college is his right to the consciousness of sharing in a high privilege; he goes farther and begins to share a sense of responsibility for the continuation and augmentation of an already valuable heritage. A college at its best thus becomes not merely a society, but a responsible society” (55).
“The administration of a college is a necessity. . . . A president and his various administrative assistants, such as business managers, deans, directors of admissions, and secretaries of many kinds, are valuable. . . . They are successful, not when they draw attention to themselves, but when, by efficient operation and by wise decision, they make possible that which is intrinsically valuable. They exist to provide the means without which the ends will not be accomplished or accomplished so well.
“Once our educational philosophy is centered upon the importance of the good teacher we understand more easily the function of a president and his helpers. If there are to be good teachers, there must be someone to choose them; to support them in their struggles, especially when they espouse unpopular causes; and to see to it that they are, to some degree, liberated from the economic struggle so that they can give their time to their sacred undertaking with undivided attention” (63-64).
The College as a Community
“The glory of the college consists largely in the degree in which it deals with the entire life of those who are its members. The fact that a college has members, and not merely attenders, tells us a great deal about its intrinsic character. The idea of a college is, as the name implies, the idea of a special kind of community. It is concerned not merely with listening to lectures on history or performing experiments in a biological laboratory but also with hours in libraries and dining rooms and places of worship and field houses and snack bars and dormitories. It is not merely a place in which knowledge is conveyed.
“The college exists to produce the atmosphere which will be most conducive to the total growth of its members and this requires the construction of a society which is intended to bring order into the various phases of both living and learning. What goes on in classes must, as we have insisted, be of the highest possible quality, but the time spent there is, in any case, only a small fraction of the total time. What we have learned is that the cultivation of the intellectual virtues, which is our primary purpose, goes on in many other ways and, for good or for ill, goes on continuously in our waking hours. There is a sense in which nothing that we do in a college is extracurricular. All of it counts . . . ” (131-32).
Trina will tell you I did not plan on coming to Hardin-Simmons. I did not expect to stay beyond the first year. That was forty years ago. If Stanford had called, I probably would have gone. Thank God they didn’t.
Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. Harper, 1989.
Fink, Robert A. Twilight Innings: A West Texan on Grace and Survival. Texas Tech UP, 2006.
Hudgins, Andrew. “Saints and Strangers.” Saints and Strangers, by Hudgins, Houghton Mifflin, 1985, pp. 81-82.
Trueblood, Elton. The Idea of a College. Harper, 1959.