Higher education involves a myriad of different types of people working together to further their intelligence. This includes everyone from physical education majors to engineering majors, from professors to residence directors. The most important people in education, however, rarely interact with students face-to-face. These people are authors. In his article “Go With God: An Open Letter to Young Christians On Their Way to College,” Steven Hauerwas differentiates between “real books” and textbooks, and establishes the advantages of real books. He does not diminish the role of textbooks in education: “Textbooks can play a legitimate role in some disciplines, but not in all, and never at all levels.” They supply factual information, but do not attach meaning to this information in the same way a book does. Textbooks fill the bottle of education, which is to prepare students for their intended careers. This is the vocational function of higher education, but the purpose of a liberal arts education teaches more than just how to be entrepreneurs, pastors, lawyers, or whatever profession one is seeking. Students must learn how to be learners. This is where real books come in; they kindle a fire. They ignite passion and instill in students a desire to think critically.
Real books are not only an essential asset to liberal arts education in general; books can make the difference between a mere course requirement and a fruitful Christian education. For example, reading biographies of missionaries in one’s field incorporates a Biblical worldview in an otherwise secular course, such as nursing or education. My roommate experienced this type of literary conjunction in her first class as a biochemistry major. Not only did she learn the mechanics of biology from her textbook, she took a step back and examined the gestalt of her desired field by reading The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins. In this case, her real book was not a novel, but a work of nonfiction. The difference was that her textbook answered her who, what, when, and where questions; the real book answered how and why.
It seems like a fallible argument; books are crucial to education. This is not commonly debated. The primary counterargument is time, or a lack thereof. How can a professor with important content to teach fit extra reading into a course of fifteen or fewer weeks? If it truly is impossible to incorporate a book into a curriculum, a professor can dedicate a portion of syllabus week to introducing a literary aspect of the field of study. For instance, a Spanish 101 class may not have the time to read a book in English nor the capability to read in Spanish. Spending a day reading the short story “Spanglish Con Mami” by Julia Alvarez not only fosters an appreciation for Hispanic culture and language, but could ignite a passion for Alvarez’s work. Hauerwas argues that one cannot become friends with an author in such a short snippet of text. While this may be true, the students are now familiar with a new writer, a new friend. They now have the option to continue reading her work, whether that includes fiction such as In The Name of Salomé or poetry books, like The Woman I Kept to Myself. This sparks not only a student’s hunger for knowledge, but serves as a catalyst for conversation between the student and teacher. According to Hauerwas, “our intellectual friendships are channeled through books….Books, moreover, are often the way in which our friendships with our fellow students and teachers begin and in which these friendships become cemented.” My English professor and academic advisor Dr. Samuel Smith said “scholarship is a conversation.” Books are the root of this conversation; a professor dedicated to teaching for the love of God plants the seed.
Don’t expect teachers to hand you a fully grown plant; each student must nurture his or her own education in order to develop as a passionate learner. This is why Hauerwas encourages students to “see which professors assign books—and I mean real books.” This information can be found online or at the bookstore. Communicate with upperclassmen about which courses incorporated literature into the syllabus. Of course, there will be times when the only required reading will be a textbook. That is when the student has the responsibility and privilege to seek out stories on his or her own. Ask professors to suggest recommended reading – not for credit, but for the joy of learning. Go to the library and research. Above all else, communicate with as many people involved in your education as possible, preferably those with different perspectives and worldviews. Challenge your mind. Relationships with professors and peers sprout from conversations, and conversations do not include small talk. Take advantage of these touchstones. Discuss the theological aspects of Dante. Challenge a professor’s view on Francis Schaeffer. Allow yourself to be introduced to authors you never would have read otherwise. From these sprouts of conversation, wisdom blossoms.