A True Community of Learners

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As we all filed out from the University Assembly onto the Green to view the solar eclipse, I was inspired and energized by the excitement I felt around me at the wonders of God’s creation. I truly felt that we were a “Community of Learners” as we shared our gadgets, glasses and enthusiasm. I’d like to reflect a bit more on what that phrase, one of the three main parts of the Fresno Pacific Idea, means for us as we look forward to a new semester under a new president.

We professors often find we learn as much (if not more) from our students than they do from us. After all, we are in the enviable position of re-reading great books, re-visiting significant ideas and reflecting anew on the nature of education with every new group of students. But in a world that increasingly values quick facts and superficial conversations over deep reflection and true engagement, we must ask ourselves what it means to truly be a “Community of Learners.”

Learning happens in the presence of others. It is not an isolated experience. If learning were nothing more than the solitary acquisition of facts, our students would be better served by staying home, saving their money and binge-reading Wikipedia. But good learning is, and must be, collaborative, interactive, relational. It requires not only the expression of well-reasoned ideas, but the respectful reception of the ideas of others—especially when we do not agree with them. Participation in a group that does not think in lock-step challenges us to be open to experiences that are new, unfamiliar and sometimes downright scary. When Ken Friesen brings his students to Vietnam, one of the first culture clashes they experience is in the simple (or not-so-simple) act of crossing the street, which requires a leap of faith that the motorbikes (and the occasional car) will indeed steer around them as they walk into the midst of the speeding traffic. Exiting from the familiar gloom of Plato’s Cave (perhaps the original “Safe Space”?) propels us into a painfully bright world of Truth, of the Good. And in that famous analogy, we are led out by those who have learned the Truth before us. That’s what the word “educate” literally means: to lead forth, to draw out.

So faculty learn from students (and each other) while students learn from faculty (and each other). But there is another key relationship in this community of learners. Like the famous three-legged stool, without the contributions of staff and administration this community would topple and fall. Students learn from the staff and administration what it means to lead, to find creative solutions, to be disciplined. They learn patience under stress and grace under fire when things don’t go as planned. The entire community learned a valuable lesson in self-sacrifice from the servant-leadership of Richard Kriegbaum, a former president who returned to the role for a season when his university needed him. All of us learned from the consistent excellence of someone doing his job well without fanfare and daily acclaim—and never was I more firmly convinced of the lessons to be learned than when Theron Esau addressed us at the Faculty/Staff Appreciation Luncheon last spring. In his words and example he gave us a vivid picture of service intertwined with wisdom and faith. Both literally and figuratively, in his work in facilities he has been a light to this campus.

As we start this new semester, what if part of participating in this community of learners could be learning more about each other, and our daily experiences? What if we take the time to learn, and care more deeply about, those who work around us as fellow laborers (the literal meaning of “collaborate”) in God’s vineyard? And what if we take that knowledge and put it to good use in deepening our shared sense of community? As Madeleine L’Engle put it, “Our story is never written in isolation. We do not act in a one-man play. We can do nothing that does not affect other people, no matter how loudly we say, ‘It’s my own business.’” Let us, as a community of learners, seek the goal of genuine collaboration this year.