Praxis in Higher Education: What a Little Adventist College Can Do


by Ernest J. Bursey, 1993 Distinguished Faculty Lecturer

About the Author

"Walla Walla College is a center of higher learning founded and supported by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The college is committed to quality Christian education in the Seventh-day Adventist tradition. The college's special task is to prepare students to participate in the church's unique mission to the world. Through fellowship as well as instruction, the faculty seek to develop in students the capacity to think independently, analytically and creatively; to participate independently within the church and other corporate bodies; to communicate their ideas clearly; to understand significant moral and social issues; to address these issues from the perspective of Christian values; and to live for the service of God and the betterment of humankind." (excerpts from the WWC Mission Statement.)

The last phrase of that last long sentence, linked with the opening lines of the WWC mission statement, reads, "Through fellowship as well as instruction the faculty seek to develop in students the capacity to live for the service of God and the betterment of humankind."

Although mission statements often stand as memorials to on-going debates, I recall no debates among faculty or trustees over the inclusion of the word "service" in this statement. It was included without controversy. What ought we to make of that? The impulse for service is alive among our student population. Each year a sizable number of students from Adventist colleges in North America fill task force and student missionary positions. The willingness of Adventist administrators and faculty to accept a salary far below their counterparts in public education, and even other church-related campuses, demonstrates a profound commitment to service. Surprisingly, however, a study of Adventist college bulletins reveals that most students are left on their own to figure out whether, or how, their college education connects to the life goal of service that is extolled in the mission statement. Student missionary and task force positions are available, but service and its academic counterpart, service learning, are largely ignored in the course descriptions in Adventist college bulletins. A study of course syllabi prepared by individual teachers might possibly reveal a different picture.


My interest in the place of service at WWC has been whetted by the recent surge of interest in community service by American institutions of higher education. Well-funded organizations such as Campus Compact, Partnership for Service-Learning, and the National Society for Experiential Education are committed to fostering service in higher education.

The WWC President's Commission on Service Learning operates with the following definition of service learning: Service learning is an expression of Walla Walla College's core Christian values blending academic study and community service. "Service learning occurs when we give something of value and learn from those we help. It involves supervised and interactive reflection along with the activity. According to the Commission on National and Community Service, service learning is 'a method under which students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs and that are coordinated in collaboration with the school and the community.' However, it is more than a method. Service learning helps us "to understand significant moral and social issues; to address these issues from the perspective of Christian values and to live for the service of God and the betterment of mankind."

Most departments on Adventist campuses could find an academic counterpart in American higher education that has made a determined effort to introduce service learning into their curriculum and school life. One example among many is Rutgers University, where students choose from two dozen service-learning courses that span 12 academic and professional disciplines, including art, English and political science. Rutgers also sponsors a residence center for 42 students of different backgrounds who share a commitment to community service and citizenship. Service-related courses are a highly recommended option at Rutgers, with one exception-service is a required part of the honors-program curriculum.

How should the relatively small system of Adventist colleges in North America relate to this current phenomenon linking community with college? Can Adventist institutions of higher education contribute to the development of service in this country and on what philosophical footing indigenous to the Adventist Christian tradition?

Proponents of the Western tradition have described the task of higher education as the enabling of the individual to participate in intellectual discourse. The student acquires a body of knowledge, particularly in the humanities, and develops the critical faculties necessary to participate in a democratic society. This responsibility to the wider society does not require a Christian or even a transcendent faith.

A variation of that approach can be found among Christian teachers who see their task as enabling students to examine their religious inheritance. The expectation, or hope, is that the next generation will intellectually embrace some reconstructed version of that inheritance and remain actively involved in the church.

Yet Christian leaders have often been wary of an education centered on critical inquiry or one that elevates the humanities. A student's critical acumen can deconstruct a religious belief without putting the pieces together again. The nurture of religious experience can be overlooked or privatized in an intellectual environment. Partly in reaction, the trustees of Christian colleges have been prone to describe the central task of higher Christian education as the fostering of personal commitment to the beliefs of the Christian faith. Education at a Christian college calls for teachers to be authority figures who make a case for the Christian world view while publicly modeling a life of worship and piety.

I believe a more satisfactory synthesis can be gained by seeing that the primary function of a Christian college is to assist young men and women for their vocation of service. The satisfaction of intellectual curiosity, the mastery of a body of knowledge, the development of the individual, the acquisition of marketplace skills, and even the retention of denominational loyalties, while valid as goals of higher education, must not take the central place of preparing for service. The core curriculum and the course work of each major must be developed in the light of this central goal. We have already seen, in the final phrase of the WWC mission statement, even with its penultimate embrace of critical inquiry, the humanities and the role of faith, an implicit support for this emphasis.

The basis for an emphasis on service lies deep in the resources of Christian faith. According to the New Testament concept of the priesthood of all believers, all stand gifted and mutually obligated to one another. In the words of Scripture: "Christ gave gifts to humankind. He appointed some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, others to be pastors and teachers. He did this to prepare all God's people for the work of CHRISTIAN SERVICE, in order to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12 TEV, emphasis supplied)."

The Biblical material is rich in support of service to the larger community beyond the edges of the church. The parables of Jesus about the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the directives of what the Lord requires (Micah 6:8), the description of the true fast of the Lord (Isaiah 58) all provide firm footing for compassion beyond the circle of believers.

There are several ways that including service experiences within our curriculum can help our students dispel certain misconceptions that hamper their intellectual and personal achievements.

First, service learning can help us, and our students, overcome misconceptions about power. College students feel incidental to the affairs of the country and the church that seem to be out of their hands. As a result, they have a diminished loyalty to both. It occurs to me that at least part of the blame for this detachment comes from the way we teach them.

College faculty members spend years preparing in a specific area of academic interest. We come across to our students as formidable in our grasp of what we teach. Imagine yourself a student attending one class after another being reminded over and over of how little you know and how much there is to learn. Try weighing a general biology or organic chemistry textbook that students carry to class today, compared to what I carried to class 30 years ago. Today, students know they are experts at little or nothing. I suspect that the brightest students are the most likely to feel overwhelmed by how much there is to read and know.

It is wrong to let our students see themselves as powerless. "Every human being created in the image of God is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator-individuality, power to think and to do." 1 While college students may not master the range of an academic field, they can acquire a sense of their own powers to contribute to the well-being of others. Through innovative projects of their own design they can experience the exhilaration of creative thought and action. Through community service they can sense the strength that comes from working together for a worthwhile cause. 2

Second, service learning can counter the wrong line that students are being fed about competition. Service learning presumes a cooperative mode of interaction. Of course we must "remain competitive." I would not deny the legitimate role of competition. But it is the secondary rhythm in the music of life, like the waves on the surface of the sea. In real life we are more prone to make communities of cooperation and assistance than we are to go to war. We are bound together by a system of governance that works only when we cooperate and dare to trust each other. What is true about this small human institution is true of our larger society.

Third, to be a Christian is to believe that we are intrinsically related to all of God's creation and bound together with other human beings by common needs, common hopes and common struggles. We humans have the power to connect, to network, to organize ourselves and to work together in a common task. Service-based learning provides one vital setting in which we discover these truths.

Years ago Ellen White proposed a study of history that went beyond a recital of battlefields and winning generals to giving "broad, comprehensive views of life" that help the student "to understand something of its relations and dependencies, how wonderfully we are bound together in the great brotherhood of society and nations, and to how great an extent the oppression or degradation of one member means loss to all." 3

Developing a sense of our inter-connectedness is not a task solely for the history department. Learning to care ought to be part of a college's curriculum. That includes knowing how to help people. Our students need less to learn how to compete and more on how to connect. There is much to struggle against in this world. But most of the struggles are not against other people, or at least they ought not to be.

There is only so much that our students can learn inside the classroom about service and compassion and connecting. The so-called under-educated and uneducated can teach us and our students. With the aid of the community around us, our students' education at WWC can be more effective.

From this point of view there is no place for patronizing, no attitude that speaks out, "I'm here to help you because I am rich or righteous or racially different from you." Plainly put, the college needs the community and especially the so-called "needy" in order to educate its students.

Service learning, to be educationally valid, must be more than just "doing good" for others. It is intellectually dishonest to grant academic credit to students for simply putting X number of hours in community service. If thinking is not enough, neither is doing. There must be action and analysis, analysis and action. Reflection by the individual and the larger group is essential. Not all service experiences offered through WWC must require analysis, but those that are granted academic credit surely ought to.

This is a lesson I have come to learn. Years ago I became convinced that to teach a course on the Sermon on the Mount, or one of the gospels, I must draw my students into a service project. But I was slow to see that I must help my students make the connection between their experience in service and the claims of the text. 4

This lesson is not popular with all college students interested in service. A generation suspicious of both academics and institutions might ask, "show us the soup kitchen." But we must insist that the concrete experiences be balanced by analysis, reflection and wider reading. It is not enough to have a warm feeling about those who show up at the soup kitchen. I need to understand what brings people to the soup kitchen. I ought to ask what can be done about making the soup kitchen obsolete.

Those monitoring the progress of service-based learning point out that the biggest impediment is the academic faculty. Every other entity in higher education warms up faster than the faculty. Yet no other group is as crucial to the service experience as the faculty-we have control over the curriculum. We are necessarily cautious about fads. We tend to be more reflective and analytical. But there are times for the turtle to stick his neck out and times to move the shell forward.

We who are Adventists have brought our own brands of resistance to an emphasis on serving the wider community. Skeptical about the prospects of this world getting any better, we look for the second coming. Some in our ranks wonder what does this attention to service have to do with the Three Angels' Messages? Is the "social gospel" making inroads in the church?

We cannot escape the wholeness of our own beliefs-we do not believe disembodied souls will be spirited away at the second coming. Nor does the Bible point to an eternal life away from this world-I refer you to Revelation 21-22. Nor is anyone likely to take seriously mere talk about a community of love in the presence of God at some later time-be it sooner or later-unless they see evidence of that community right now.

Adventists in higher education have tended to be embarrassed by the dysfunctional behavior of some of their apocalyptic family. Like other minority groups within American education they live in two worlds. The space between religious roots and intellectual associations has grown rather wide at times.

To intellectuals who may wonder if their Adventist roots are a liability, may I point out that the persons who most profoundly influenced the conscience of the world in the last 50 years have been rooted within religious and even sectarian minorities-Martin Luther King Jr., an African-American Baptist preacher from the deep South; Mother Teresa, an Albanian Catholic; Alexander Solzynitzyn, an exiled Russian Orthodox; and Elie Wiesel from a European Jewish ghetto. Who would have predicted the moral power of the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi? Each one of these individuals was able to transcend a narrow fundamentalism found in their communities of faith while at the same time finding within those same religious and sectarian communities a well of moral and spiritual resources. This, in spite of the fact that they did not know in advance just how their community of faith would supply them in their times of greatest service to the world.

What we do in the way of service and cooperation is done not out of a concern to distance ourselves from others or carve out a niche of denominational distinctiveness, but to be faithful to our own lights. Our sense of what is right and what is needed turns out to be often in common with other thoughtful Christians and non-Christians. This should not surprise us, given the fact that this is a universe through which the Spirit of one God is at work.

Service in general, and service learning in particular, are subjects of keen interest for the moment in American higher education. We look like small players in a big pond. So, in the end, what can a little Adventist college do? If it treats its neighbors and community with respect, if faculty and staff teach and act as if we and our students are called to lives of service, and if we don't care who gets the credit, a little Adventist college can do a lot, a whole lot. More than enough to justify the sacrifice any one of us makes to be part of this college. 

About the Author

Dr. Ernest J. Bursey received a bachelor of arts degree in religion and chemistry from Pacific Union College in 1964 and a master of divinity degree from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in 1971. He earned three degrees from Yale University, a master of arts in religious studies in 1978, a master of philosophy in 1980 and a doctorate in New Testament studies in 1992. Dr. Bursey is a professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla College. He formerly served as chair of the President's Commission on Service Learning at Walla Walla College.


1. Ellen G. White, Education 17.

2. I do not wish to downplay the complexities and intransigence of the social problems in America or the risks caregivers face in dealing with them. On the dangers of a success-based approach to service see Robert Coles, The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) and David Hilfiker, Not All of Us are Saints: A Doctor's Journey with the Poor (Hill and Wang, 1994).

3. White, 238.

4. Ernest J. Bursey, "Action in Higher Education: A Case Study from the Gospels," Journal of Adventist Education, Vol. 55, No. 2 (December 1992/January 1993) 28-32.