Dordt College News

Soundings: A faculty reflection

August 21, 2012

What brings a Jersey boy to Northwest Iowa?

When you were a student, did you ever experience one of those “ah-ha” moments as you realized that what you learned in a psychology class fit together with what you learned in a biology class and what you learned in history class?

It’s at that point that you suddenly see how interconnected creation is. Those moments are what I strive for as a professor because it is at those points that students grow in wisdom as well as knowledge.

We often mistake knowledge for wisdom.  Even profound knowledge—be it a Ph.D. in biochemistry or in philosophy—often remains abstract and disconnected from wisdom. Many students arrive at college thinking that education is learning the skills that will help them get a job. Gaining knowledge and training for a job are very important, but they are not the primary purpose of a Dordt education. The term “serviceable insight,” from our Educational Framework document, helps us describe what developing biblically based wisdom in Christian higher education looks like. Serviceable insight, according to the Educational Task, “…is a contemporary expression of Scriptural references to wisdom and understanding.” Serviceable insight is rooted in Psalm 110:10, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.” 

It can be difficult to figure out how to cultivate such wisdom among often less-than-eager students who view general education courses as tedious and pointless. College students and parents increasingly demand immediate relevancy and targeted vocational skill sets. Yet, we know from many of our alumni that those who have developed a broad sense of “serviceable insight” often become leaders in their professional and personal communities.

Cultivating wisdom in Christian, college-level settings requires academic rigor. It includes being able to read, write, and often research at an advanced level. And to help students want to learn and engage with the material so they can gain wisdom, professors need to teach in a way that treats knowledge as more than something to be regurgitated on a test or in a discussion group.

In my history classes, I often use structured simulations and games, coupled with lectures and critical reading and writing, to create a laboratory where students can see the complexity of creation and the importance of worldview. I’ve used “staff rides” [see Voice article, Winter 2009] and “Reacting to the Past” games [Voice article Spring 2004] to do this. For the staff ride, students research a battle from the American Civil War from the perspective of a general or an officer in the battle. They examine not only what happened but why people made the decisions they did based on their worldview and experiences (e.g. an abolitionist might take an action that seems illogical but fits perfectly with their abolitionist radicalism). We then go to the actual battlefield where students engage each other passionately and authoritatively. My former students (many now alumni) report that they remember far more from this exercise than they do from other classroom activities.

This engagement is also what our interdiscipinary campus water project is trying to achieve this semester (see page 20). We want to show that solving water issues cannot be reduced to merely a “technical” engineering problem. Solutions require historical perspective, psychological insights, statistical clarity, and public education. We hope to create a space for wisdom to grow by requiring students to work in multidisciplinary teams to produce a multidisciplinary solution to the problem. We hope that the insight that students gain through this experience will have a lasting impact on how they approach the world, and we hope they will be able to apply insights gained throughout their lives. Developing this kind of insight is what makes a Dordt College education unique.

By fusing academically structured experiential learning and opportunities for developing critical thinking skills within a residential Christian community, Dordt can lead the way in developing an integral method of educating for wisdom.

Helping students develop serviceable insight is why "Jersy boy" Dr. Paul Fessler moved to northwest Iowa and loves teaching at Dordt College. He plans to lead a Civil War Staff Ride for interested alumni next May.

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