The offices for the NC Council of Churches sit half a block from Hillsborough Street—the street that automatically conjures up images of NC State, as well it should since the campus looms large along Hillsborough for about 10 blocks. These weeks, as the media have consistently reminded us, are the days of orientation and the start of a new school year for colleges around the Triangle. But for the first time in nearly twenty years, my life is not marked by these events, except for the need to deliver my own second born to college for her sophomore year. Still, because of all that time on several different campuses (Duke University, Furman University, Converse College), the beginning of a new school year and the rhythm of campus life resonate in my bones. I know about the excitement for first-year students, the joy of renewing friendships for upper-class students, and the anxiety for seniors who suddenly realize this is the final year of college.
While in college we expect students will be challenged by new ideas, stretched by new knowledge, and become more informed about their bourgeoning responsibility as citizens in our communities. I certainly matured in these ways while in college and blithely assumed all students do. Turns out they don’t. Turns out, according to the sociologists who measure and report such things, most students graduate from college with the same political, social, and even theological views they had when they entered. Students are simply trying to manage life: laundry, meals, classes, homework, maybe some entertainment. Many of these tasks were managed for them before they became college students and suddenly having the freedom and the responsibility for three – or more – meals a day takes a bit more planning than they imagined, even if it’s only planning whom to meet for dinner and where. Then there is the course work, larger chunks of material coming far quicker than it ever did in high school. Never mind the plethora of music, art, lectures, and sporting events available on most campuses. How does one choose between an art exhibit and physics homework or between a basketball game and the Ash Wednesday worship service? Where in all these choices and obligations do students have time to think critically about the issues facing our society? They’re just trying to find clean socks.
The courses I remember best from college were not the ones with answers to memorize and record in an exam book at that end of the semester. They were the courses that required me to ask questions and through my questions to think more deeply about the simple answers I had always been given. At the North Carolina Council of Churches, we major in asking questions, with the goal of thinking more critically about the issues facing our society. We offer our critical thinking through the lens of faith. Refracting our questions through the lens of faith usually renders a different spectrum for decision making. It does not provide simple answers we can memorize for the final exam. As our students return to classrooms across the state of North Carolina and the country, my hope is the laundry will be handled efficiently, the meals consumed gratefully, the homework completed correctly, and time will be afforded to complicate the answers we all thought we knew because now we are asking different questions.