President’s speech: “On Becoming a Passionate Learner”

Goshen College President James E. Brenneman spoke during the opening convocation on Wednesday, Sept. 5.
Photo by Jodi H. Beyeler.

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Fall Opening Convocation message, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College, on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, in the Goshen College Church-Chapel (as prepared for delivery)

Little Merle Jacobs was absolutely passionate about canaries. He loved all birds really.  For example, he loved chickens, even hypnotizing one once. He built his own telescope, not so much to watch stars, but to watch birds. And there were plenty bird species to watch in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Pennsylvania, where he was born into a family of 11 children.

Merle loved birds, but was obsessed with yellow canaries. His aunt gave him a male and a female canary once and it wasn’t long until he had 67 canaries – all living in their house. Yep. His mom and dad aided and abetted his passion, giving up a closed in back porch that opened into his bedroom. The canaries were free to fly in and out of his bedroom at leisure. He also kept mice in the room as the scavengers cleaning up the fallen seeds, which the canaries dropped. I wonder who cleaned up what the mice dropped? (See his autobiography, Mr. Darwin Misread Miss Peacock’s Mind).

Some 50 years later, I had the privilege of having Professor Merle Jacobs as my genetics professor here at Goshen College. Professor Jacobs was still obsessed with canaries and other birds, but he had branched out making quite a name for himself studying the genetics of aging in fruit flies. He loved his fruit flies almost as much as his canaries and almost as much as current Assistant Professor of Biology Andy Ammons, loves his honeybees.

If any of you haven’t yet stood in the midst of thousands of honey bees swarming all around you, while Dr. Ammons gives a lecture on the sex lives of honey bees, you haven’t yet lived on the edge of learning. Let me just say, if humans were more like honey bees, look out men. And long live women, especially the queen bee. Professor Jacobs embodied, as Assistant Professor Ammons still embodies, the core value of passionate learning.

In our last convocation at the end of the last school year, I announced that the core value we would focus on together this school year was Christ-centered passionate learning. I can almost guarantee, that when you go to your first post-graduation job interview, one of the top questions you will be asked is this: “What are you passionate about?” If asked that question today, would you have answer?

In his best-selling book, Corner Office, Adam Bryant interviewed over 700 leading CEOs in America and asked them: “What qualities do you see most often in those who succeed?” Their overwhelming response was: “passionate curiosity.”

So, what are you passionate about? I won’t ask you to respond to that question today, but I would recommend that by the end of this year, and certainly by the time you go for your first job interview, you might have a ready response.

Let me tell you how revolutionary the core value of passionate learning truly is! In the Western philosophical tradition, the juxtaposition of passion with learning was damnable. The word passion or pathos was associated at one extreme with intense suffering, as in “the passion of Christ.” Indeed, for nearly 2,400 years or so in learning circles, the idea of passion or pathos was considered a counterpoint to thinking or learning (a-pathos/ without passion), like two magnetic learning poles repelling each other.

Literally, since the time of Plato in 400 BC, on through Philo, Aristotle, the Stoics, Maimonides, Aquinas, Descarte, and Kant, the standard story of learning in the whole Western tradition idealized thinking and belittled feeling. It was thought that ideas were best accessed only through reason, whereas passions were dangerous and misleading and operated on the lower level of human nature. God, by contrast, was considered “Pure Thought” whose divine essence was thinking. God was above joy and sorrow and passion. God was the Unmoved Mover. Apathy –  not sympathy or empathy – was said by Maimonides (Spinoza/Kant) to be the supreme core value. Impassionate learning and the capacity for impersonal objectivity became the norm for learning, especially in the sciences.

So it was that for nearly 2,000 years, Christian and Jewish theologians were embarrassed by the God portrayed in Scripture – a God full of passion; sometimes angry, sometimes elated, sometimes jealous, sometimes forgiving, at times weeping, showing compassion, intimate, personal, sympathetic was a crudity. Even more intolerable to such a world-view, was a God who came into this world of passions in human form: God-in-Christ. Given the standard philosophical assumptions of what by then had become the whole scientific world view, and given the bad insertions of theology into science from time to time, it became pretty easy to separate such a pathetic (pathos-filled) God from the rational enterprise of learning.

So when Goshen College goes on record saying a core value of ours is passionate learning, it is a wonderful, amazing confession that goes “against the grain” of the old story of Western learning tradition and reclaims a missing piece (supported by Scripture) of a truly comprehensive liberal arts education. Fortunately, over the past 50-60 years, a new story is being told of amazing new learning styles and methods that include the whole range of human experience.

If we would have asked Albert Einstein what his passions were, he probably would have answered, sailing, playing his violin, smoking his pipe and building houses of cards (he once built a house of cards fourteen stories high). All of these experiences, he said, sparked his creative imagination. Einstein once told the great music educator, Shinichi Suzuki, that the theory of relativity came to him by intuition and only because his parents had him play the violin since he was 6. It was his musical perception, Einstein said, that provided the venue and the creative force behind his greatest insight, theory of relativity.

Since music has both a spatial dimension (hearing in space) and a time dimension (meter), it may have been this relative connection between time/space that would aid him in creating his famous time/space equation – after the fact as it were. Einstein once claimed that language (including the mathematical equations he came up with) were only secondary explanations (second order learning) of what he intuited or subconsciously felt or discovered to be true.

I find it rather ironic, then, that in our quest these days to strengthen science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs in our schools, we are more and more inclined to cut budgets for the arts and music somehow imagining that those programs should be extracurricular and play second fiddle to the hard sciences. So to our shame and to the long-term learning deficit at the highest levels of learning, students are getting more math without music, more science without images, more engineering without poetry, more technology without intuition and knowledge without imagination (something Einstein said was an oxymoron). Let me underscore why then, here at Goshen College, we celebrate the core value of passionate learning as the best form of learning available to us. (See, “Imagine That! Einstein on Creative Thinking” by Michelle and Robert Root-Berstein, Psychology Today, 03.31.10).

I marvel at the fact that Goshen College Professor of Physics John Buschert is so very passionate about the connection between the physics of sound and shapes of bells. I love that Chad Coleman, our director of residence life, also known as ‘iChad,’ is so passionate about technology that he can make luddites like me and you get goose bumps when he talks about the amazing gift technology is to the world of learning.

I stand in awe at how Rocio Diaz, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Center for Intercultural and International Education (CIIE), embodies passionate learning viscerally.  Her enthusiasm and dogged determination to pursue her very own B.A. at Goshen College is truly amazing and against all odds. Here is a Latina first generation immigrant to the United States, a mother who her first helped put her own two daughters through college, and then, while working full-time, taking classes in her second language, has managed to go to GC and keep her GPA up to 3.7. Wow! That’s a passion for learning!

I am deeply moved by Assistant Professor of Art Kristi Glick’s passion for beauty in the particular enables her to connect with others and to God in amazingly profound ways as a maker and creator; or Professor of Bible, Religion & Philosophy Jo Ann Brandt, whose love of drama and movies led her to an amazing new way of reading St. John’s gospel impressing the scholarly world.

And then there is Professor of Chemistry Dan Smith, the “Bird Man,” a Chemist excited by homing pigeons, who, in the process of his pursuing his passion for the color of pigeons (not a chemical quest), discovered a gene for blindness in homing pigeons with possible historic implications for blindness more generally. Of course, the list of passionate professors and administrators and students could go on endlessly as it should be here at Goshen College.

So, what are you passionate about? What is it that invites your whole self to get all your senses involved in the joy of learning? In his book, Teaching that Transforms, Professor of History John D. Roth rightly argues that the outcomes of a good Christ-centered education must involve all our senses: sight or perception, touch or embodiment, taste or discernment, hearing or listening, finding one’s voice or vocation, and smell or attending the unseen presence around us. Such embodied learning must never be simply about student learning outcomes, but also must ring true to the way of learning and teaching all along the way.

When Jesus claimed that all of Scripture could be summed up in two phrases, the first of the two, pretty much defines, theologically, the meaning of being passionate: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your might.”

Jesus uses the word love and adds intensity to it. Love combines with passion to multiply endurance, discipline, and self-sacrifice – all the ingredients you need to succeed over time. The passion hormone, dopamine, isn’t enough to sustain such a rigorous commitment to learning. The love hormone oxytocin, sometimes called the trust hormone, the empathy hormone, the sympathy hormone, helps us truly learn during those times the passion ebbs and flows, as it must.

So Jesus says, love (desire) with all your senses; love with every ounce of your mental powers; love with every tensile of every muscle; love passionately, love intensely, love with all you got.

As you enter Goshen College for the first time or as you get ready to graduate this year or if you are anywhere in between, I implore you, while you are here, catch the contagion of passionate learning. Become the passionate lovers of learning that God invites each of us to be. If you do, you will never be the same for the rest of your days.”