Retaining the Legacy

Ernest L. Boyer, Sr.

Ernest L. Boyer, SrSince its founding in 1909 Messiah Bible School, now Messiah College, has been a very special place. It was a special place that first fall semester when twelve students enrolled, no tuition was charged, the room rate was 50 cents a week, and the weekly charge for meals was $2.75. Throughout its history this College has been a special place, not least because of all the faculty members and dedicated spouses who contributed without praise or recognition but who in their own way made the College possible and helped to shape the lives of its many students, my own included.

Four virtues have, in my judgment, shaped the quality and character of Messiah College. These are virtues which should be reflected in all academic venues, but have been especially true of this College. In each regard countless colleges and universities across America would be well served by following the model so effectively engaged on this campus.

First, as I read the history of Messiah College, and as I remember my four years at this institution, I am impressed that the College has sought to broaden education, not restrict it. In 1909, this newly minted institution was called a Bible school, and indeed it was. Bible penetrated the institution from top to bottom and yet the curriculum, that very first curriculum, included arithmetic, grammar, literature, history, science, and vocal music. These are subjects that we today would call the liberal arts.

I find it quite remarkable that in his 1915 baccalaureate address President S. R. Smith addressed the students of this college, Messiah Bible School, and asked them whether they had ever seen a painting the equal of Michelangelo's who painted the Sistine Chapel. President Smith also asked them whether it had been their privilege ever to gaze upon the face of a woman as beautiful as the statue of the Venus of Milo, the magnificent Greek sculpture that stands in the Louve in Paris.

It was 1915, and the first president was speaking. This was not easy for some of the brethren and perhaps sisters to take; this business of wandering from the Bible, or so they thought. One critic wrote caustically of this broader curriculum and he said, “I may be counted dense, if I fail to find connections between Bible subjects and trigonometry and geometry and Virgil and of all things the history of the United States.” But then Peter Wiebe, an advocate and a defender of the school, a brilliant early leader, countered, in my judgement, in a marvelously gentle but pointed way: he recalled Frances Davidson who had studied geometry at Messiah. When she went to Africa as a missionary, she was able to draw upon the breadth of her knowledge gained at this College to survey the first mission station at Matopa. I wonder, how many times since has a baccalaureate speaker at this College, at any college, cited Michelangelo and the Venus of Milo as an inspiration to the students?

Nearly forty years ago, a marvelous poet/philosopher, Mark Van Doren, said the connectedness of things is what educators contemplate to the limit of their capacity. He wrote, “No human capacity is great enough to permit a vision of the world as simple.” But he went on to say that if educators do not aim at the vision of connectedness, no one else will. And the consequences are dire when no one does. Van Doren concluded by saying that the student who can begin early in life to think of things as connected are those who will understand life and live it well. This too, is the vision of Messiah College. Unity, not fragmentation, must be the aim of education, and most especially what one calls Christian education. In the Christian world view the so-called secular and sacred are distinctions without meaning since all truth should ultimately be considered sacred.

The search for connections was a conviction at Messiah College from the very first. Why else would S. R. Smith seek to find connections between Michelangelo and King David? Their inspirations were, in some respects, the same.

Also from the very first Messiah College has been not just a campus but a community as well. In the early 1940s I traveled from Dayton, Ohio, an outpost to the west, to Grantham, Pennsylvania. Here faculty and students worked and played together. They were supportive of each other. We believed, somewhat naively to be sure, that the College had a special mission. A sense of community prevailed, a feeling that we were dependent on each other. The College was a small college, but I still recall those days in which people met not only with cordiality but occasionally with compassion. It was community at its best.

Now if you will, I'd like to contrast that picture with the mighty United States Office of Education in Washington, DC, with its 3000 employees and its 12 billion dollar budget. Here I’ve found people who have lost their zest for living, at least between the hours of nine to five. People, incidentally, who were not lazy or evil as the critics like to say, but people who lacked a larger vision. In fact, soon after I arrived in the Commissioner’s office, the head of the employees’ union walked in one day and asked if we could meet. I agreed, clearly expecting a confrontation, a debate over salaries and benefits and the like. I can tell you I was absolutely stunned when the first question I received was, “Mr. Commissioner, can you tell us why we’re here?” The employees of government had money and had security but they were searching for a larger purpose. If it has any failing, the failing of government is its incapacity to be inspired and to be driven by compassion.

This came home to me in quite a different way several weeks after I was there. I hired a young recruit from the State Department to work as my assistant. She said that the first day on the job in the State Department she was asked by an assistant secretary if she would draft his letters in response to the pile of mail that, like the sewers of Paris, keeps flowing in and in. And so she did. She took them home and worked conscientiously. She began one by saying, “We were delighted to receive your letter of September 23,” and then went on to work out the details of the response. The next day her boss called her in and very soberly announced, “I read over your drafts and I want you to know right at the beginning that the State Department is never delighted.”

There’s a point. The government’s organizations have an inclination to lose compassion. They carry on the tasks but the connections between the people all too frequently are snapped. I’m suggesting that if education is to exercise a moral force in society, the process must take place in a moral context. It must occur in communities that are held together not by pressure or coercion, not by the accident of history, but by shared purposes and goals, by simple acts of kindness, and by the respect group members have for one another. I believe a sense of community has been a hallmark of Messiah College, but the institution is not the walls. It’s the human spirit in this room. And this tradition and conviction will be maintained only as there is a continuing commitment to community here today.

Third, in reflecting on this institution, I realize that Messiah College has been a place where dedicated teachers are also good and trusted friends. About 18 months ago I walked unannounced into a sixth grade inner-city classroom in New Haven. About 30 students were clustered around the teacher’s desk, and as I moved closer I discovered they were completely absorbed in reading Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Every child in that room knew the good guys from the bad guys, and they were cheering little Oliver on as he was trying to survive in an urban jungle. Every student knew the story because each one lived it every day. I’ve concluded that in that classroom a miracle had occurred. The teacher had quite literally brought 19th century London to New Haven, and she had inspired students to reflect on a larger meaning in their lives.

Several years ago, I couldn’t go to sleep so instead of counting sheep I counted all the teachers I’d had. It’s an exercise I highly commend. There were a few nightmares in the bunch which I recalled, but then sanity drove me quickly to think about the great ones. I thought of my first-grade teacher, Miss Rice, who on the first day of school said, “Good morning, class, today we learn to read.” She inspired me to think that learning and language were connected, a conviction that I carry with me to this very day.

Teachers have a message to convey, and so they must communicate with care. But above all, good teachers become great teachers when they reveal themselves, when they are willing to be sensitive and self-revealing, and when they have the capacity not only to teach their subject but to teach themselves as well. They must be capable of laughing and crying and once in a while saying, “I don’t know” or, “I believe you’re smarter than I am on that point.”

During my first year as an undergraduate at Messiah College, President C. N. Hostetter, Jr., taught me Bible. That term he was also holding a three-week revival meeting away from campus, and in a burst of carelessness one day he asked if I would teach the class next Friday. It blew my mind, to say nothing of my fellow students. I don’t remember how I did; I’m afraid to ask. But I do know that that simple act of confidence, expressed perhaps almost unwittingly by a teacher, profoundly changed my life. The simple truth is that teachers do change a life forever if they teach not only what they know but how they live as well.

About three months ago I taped a television program in Los Angeles. The cameraman came bursting around as soon as the red light had gone off and he said, “I want to tell you about my first grade teacher.” I said, “All right, go ahead.” He began, “During Christmas recess she sent me a picture postcard. I don’t remember the picture on the card and I don’t remember the message that she wrote, but I’ll never forget that she addressed it to Mr. Andy Johnson.” This man’s eyes got glazed over; he is a 50-year-old duffer and he is still basking in the glow of a picture postcard sent to him by his first grade teacher. At first I worried, but then I realized that’s what education is all about. For 50 years this man has been drawing strength and inspiration from a teacher who said you are somebody. You’re a “Mr.” These comments, inadvertently conveyed in my judgement, mark the centrality of this institution, and I’m suggesting that throughout its history, Messiah College has been a place where dedicated teachers have profoundly shaped the lives of students.

Finally, as I think about this institution, I realize that Messiah College is something special because it has helped students seek connections between what they learn and how they live. John Gardner said on one occasion that the deepest threat to the integrity of any community is an incapacity on the part of its citizens to any worthy common purpose. And then Gardner went on to reflect on the barrenness of a life that encompasses nothing beyond itself.

One of the projects I directed at the Carnegie Foundation was a study of the American high school. For this project we visited high schools from coast to coast. We spent over 2000 hours talking with faculty and students, and with parents. I must confess that during that study I became deeply troubled by what can only be characterized as malaise among the students. I concluded that we not only have a school problem in this nation, we have a youth problem that’s perhaps more fundamental and more serious. I was troubled that it’s possible for teenagers to finish high school and yet never be asked to participate responsibly in life, never be encouraged to spend time with older people who are lonely, never help a child who hasn’t learned to read or even to help clean up litter on the street. One student told us during our interview that she had a job working at McDonald’s, and then she went on to say, “It’s not very exciting but at least I’m feeling useful.” I thought, it’s a sad comment on our culture that being useful means pushing Big Macs at McDonald’s.

In the report we suggest a Carnegie unit, a service term, for every student. We suggest that students do voluntary work in nursing homes, in public parks, in churches, in schools throughout the country. I’m suggesting that it is urgently important that students seek connections between the classroom and the needs of the people. I worry about the generation gap, in which the older and the younger somehow do not communicate with one another.

In the summer of 1922, two students of this College, C. N. Hostetter, Jr., and Albert Engle, went to Iron Springs, about 35 miles from the College. They walked the last 7 miles. They ate berries on the way. They preached in the local store. They prayed in the stone quarry close by, and they attracted the attention of the moonshiners and the bootleggers in the region. The revival that these teenage boys started ran for several weeks and the work continues to this day.

In 1967 Messiah College students formed what they called a “committee for the inner city.” The goal was to share Christ and His love to those who may be passed by on the other side. These students donated blood to two hemophiliacs for several years, they helped build houses for unsheltered people in Kentucky, they worked with ex-convicts at Yokecrest Half-Way House. This kind of work in Harrisburg continues today through Messiah College; some of it is linked to courses, some is focused on service-learning, some is expressed through Spring Break student service projects.

One of my favorite verse writers is Vachel Lindsay who wrote on one occasion that it is the world’s one crime for its babes to grow dull. Not that they sow but that they seldom reap. Not that they serve but that they have no God to serve, not that they die but that they die like sheep. The tragedy of life is not death, it is destined for us all. The tragedy of life is to die with convictions undeclared, and service unfulfilled.

It was in 1909 that a small band of church leaders had a large audacious vision. They would build a school, they said, which would, according to its charter, educate students for missions, provide a knowledge of the Bible, and give men and women the opportunity to prepare themselves for work. This vision has prevailed. Messiah College has sought to expand knowledge rather than restrict it. Messiah College has been not just a campus but a community as well. Messiah College has had teachers who were also warm and trusted friends. And Messiah College has been a Christian college in which students have clearly understood that to be truly human, one must serve. This has been the history of Messiah College.

It is our special challenge to see that we retain the trust and also leave a legacy for those who will come after.