President’s speech: “Until My Dying Breath: A Passion for Learning”


Fall Opening Convocation message, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College, on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, in the Goshen College Church-Chapel (as prepared for delivery)




View photos from the convocation and applause tunnel following President Brenneman’s speech


As many of you know, each year we focus on one core value for the year. Our faculty and staff just returned last week from beginning the year as we do each year at a retreat at GC’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. Fourteen years ago, Merry Lea was the birthplace of our five core values: Christ-centeredness, passionate learning, servant leadership, compassionate peacemaking and global citizenship. Together, we reflected on the core value, passionate learning, which we will do campus-wide for the rest of this year. And if you haven’t yet memorized those five core values, now’s a good time to start!

This morning, I simply wish to share three descriptions of what I think it means to be a passionate learner.

A passionate learner is the most excited learner in the room.

Several weeks ago, I was in a meeting of educators, when a former first grade teacher, without knowing it, defined for me “passionate learning” in such a succinct and powerful way. She said that it was her duty as a teacher (first grade, third grade, seventh grade, college prof, or now in business) to be “the most excited learner in the room.” Perfect definition. A passionate learner is “the most excited learner in the room.”

To get a sense of such excitement, check out any YouTube link of little kids discovering things for the first time.

There’s one of a little girl experiencing rain for the first time. She’s totally astonished, hands raised, squealing with delight. Another one shows a little boy seeing popcorn pop for the first time. He goes bananas with excitement. And the best one of all, is that of a little boy being held by his mom, when he realizes the engineer of the passing train honking the horn is his very own daddy. The kid is flabbergasted to tears. Overwhelmed. His excitement is priceless. Kids discovering things for the first time are often the most excited learners in the room. And their excitement is contagious.

I was a natural science, biology and bible interdisciplinary major. I spent most of my college life in the science building. Dr. Frank Bishop, my biology prof and advisor, was one of the most contagiously inquisitive human beings I have ever met. He told us that being a scientist was one of the most exciting professions ever because, “you never really have to grow up.” At the heart of every great scientist, he said, is simply that child who never stops asking “why?”

Every parent or teacher of little ones knows how true that is. I remember how it was when my son Quinn was little. It went something like this:

Me: “We can’t go to the park today, Quinn.”
Quinn: “Why?”
“It’s raining.”
“Because the clouds are full of moisture?”
[scientific facts] “Well, there’s this thing called the water-cycle where evaporation pulls the water from the rivers and oceans into the sky and then it rains.”
“Uh, I don’t really remember?”
[moralize] “Maybe, because I wasn’t paying attention in class like I should have been when we went over that part.”
“I don’t know.”
[humility] “Because believe it or not, Daddy doesn’t know everything.”
[theologize] “Because only God knows everything.”
[give up] “I don’t know, go ask your Mom.”

American poet, activist and best-selling novelist, Marge Percy, in her recent memoir, Sleeping with Cats, argues that any writer, especially a novelist, worth their craft must relentlessly ask the whys, the whos, the what fors and hows. “In fiction,” she says, “I exercise my nosiness. I am as curious as my cats and that has led me to trouble often enough that I used up several of my nine lives already.” Ultimately, learning is about asking questions, even at cost of one of your several lives.

A passionate learner, first of all, never stops asking “why,” and is the most excited, most curious, nosiest person in the room.

A passionate learner is a fervent listener of others.

Speech pathologist, Susan Truesdale coined the term, “whole body listening” to underscore what it means to be a fervent listener. “Whole body listening” is what she calls “total-person-involvement in listening to others.” Such listening is the key to deep learning.

This year’s campus ministries team has produced another wonderful prayer booklet entitled “Learning Through Stories.” I particularly like how self-described “strong introvert” junior music education major and Bible minor Monica Miller turns story-telling on its head and calls us to be “story-listeners.” She says, we need “a practiced ear” that “will take in words that may or may not be pleasing to it, and will let the words soak in. Then, the words and the ear will mutually transform each other.” I love that. Story-listening, fervent listening is about mutual transformation.

Recently, I heard an interview of vice-president Joe Biden in which he lamented that Democratic and Republican house and senate leaders and representatives do very little “story-listening” anymore. There was a time even as political adversaries, he said, “we knew each other’s families, ate together in the Senate-mess hall, visited each other’s homes, knew whose spouse had cancer, or whose child had a drug problem.”

Amazingly, as he became even more progressive in his political commitments, his friendships remained strong such that the dying request of Republican Senator Jesse Helms, the old segregationist, anti-civil rights Senator from North Carolina (his political adversary whose positions also moderated a bit) asked then-Senator Biden to deliver his eulogy. At the funeral, Senator Helms’ widow told Senator Biden that her whole family had voted for him for V.P. and had signs in their yards in support of him. Fervent listening can be transformative.

I love that peace, justice and conflict studies professor Carolyn Schrock-Shenk and Ecological Stewardship Czar and Instructor Glenn Gilbert have befriended our local Sheriff Brad Rogers. Even though, I’m guessing, they may strongly disagree on many things ideologically, they found common ground around the power of Christ-centered restorative justice principles. This has led to our very popular Inside-Out class in the local jail and to some amazing transformative experiences by all the students who participate.

I share these stories because they illustrate the power and humanity of fervent listening. In polarizing times such as these (especially in this political season), we need to listen to each other more, not less. And I would recommend that those of us in whatever majority: in the white-privilege or straight tribe in society, or the progressive Mennonite tribe (on campus), or the educated elite tribe (that’s most everyone here since only six percent of the world have a college education!) — those of us in whatever majority must be the most willing fervent story-listeners of all.

This year, we will continue the structured 3D conversations (Difficult Discussions about Difference) that we began last year. It’s one of many opportunities to fervently listen to each other to passionately learn from each other about our common fears, hopes, values and, yes, our very real differences.

Let us each ask ourselves, “Is my circle of friends pretty much made up of theological, political, cultural and ideological clones of me? I challenge every one of us, if it’s not already the case, make a friend, a real friend, this year, of someone with whom you have major ideological, religious, cultural or political differences.

I think it is safe to say that I have never not learned something from someone, no matter how different than me, when I have truly and fervently listened to them. Often, I’ve learned more from the differing other than the echo chamber of my own circle. Liberal arts graduates of the 21st century worth their degree must learn from differing others. It’s called epistemological humility.

So, if you’re passionate about Bernie, find someone who’s passionate about Trump. Or, vice versa. Through fervent listening, through story-listening, you just may be surprised that you find at base — beneath the fears, anxieties, and misunderstanding — a kindred spirit, a deeper level of learning, of knowledge, of truth impossible to have known otherwise. Passionate learners are fervent listeners.

Passionate Learners are lifers.

Finally, passionate learners are lifers. Passionate learners are those who pursue understanding, mastery, knowledge and wisdom in all its many shapes and forms, inside and outside the structured classroom until their dying breath.

I could tell a thousand stories to illustrate this description of being a lifelong passionate learner. I could name as examples most every Goshen College professor that I have had or you have had or will have. By definition, we might expect to draw from those in the “educated tribe” the best examples of lifelong passionate learners.

That is why, Instead, I have deliberately chosen as my final example of this core value, someone I know who turns 90 next month, someone who has had no formal education as we know it beyond the 8th grade, and yet is one of the most inquisitive, curious, fervent, passionate learners I have ever known.

His name is Irwin Plank. You see, Irv started out in life a little Amish kid, who, by religious conviction, was not allowed to go beyond the 8th grade in school. Did that shut-down his curiosity, his passion for learning? Not in the least.

Sometime after leaving home at age 16 and on his own, he became interested in designing and building commercial heating, plumbing and air-conditioning systems. He studied, took classes, learned by trial and error and the school of hardknocks, competed against many of his engineering peers to build a successful company and career from scratch.

But that was not enough for him. He loved the idea of flying. So, he took classes, read, studied hard, learned to fly, got his instrument rating, bought a plane, built a paved runway and hangar in a field with a friend, and by golly, flew “the friendly” and sometimes “not so friendly” skies for well over 50 years. I was with him once on a flight from D.C., in the middle of an ice storm, low on fuel, needing to land, could not see a blasted thing except ice on the wings, being vectored in from as far away as Toledo and Ft. Wayne onto a tiny little runway in the middle of nowhere Ohio. Did I mention, I was in the co-pilot seat? Yet, like the master-pilot he had become, Irv brought the plane down safely.

Soon after I met Irv, over 35 years ago, he was already at that time building his own computers, piece by piece, from scratch, taking them apart, fixing and updating them — and this before most people half his age even knew what Linux meant.

Somewhere along the line, Irv decided to become a tax-accountant and start a payroll business on top of his other work and hobbies. So he took classes, read books, studied hard, passed all the licensing exams and has been doing that for forty-plus years. Every year he still has to keep up with all the latest tax requirements and computer programming that boggles far more youthful minds than his. He finally cut back this past year to a mere 150 tax clients from 360 the years before.

And then, as if that’s not enough learning, just recently he up and figured out how to become an Uber driver using the Uber app, when most people his age haven’t even mastered their email accounts. (Apparently, as long as you keep getting a five star rating, Uber cares more about the age of the automobile than the driver driving). Irv is a lifer. He has a passion for learning and will do so right up until his dying breath. (And he’s my father-n-law!)

A prayer to become passionate learners

In just a few minutes the ensemble Parables will come and sing of ultimate longing, of lifelong learning, bequeathed to us by grace. They sing of our dear fathers and mothers, our ancestors, praying. Calling on the wisdom of the ages from the morning stars above, through the valleys below, beyond the heavens to the unknown future beyond the grave — calling for the dawning of daybreak in our souls.

It’s a prayer for all of us in this room, all of us who have come to study, work, or teach at Goshen College: be curious and inquisitive, be the most excited learner in the room; be a fervent listener to the stories of others, especially of those with whom you differ, and above all, never, ever, stop learning, even up to and including your dying breath.

“Day is a Breaking” Sung by Parables

Bright morning stars are rising (3x)
Day is a’breaking, In my soul

Oh where are our dear mothers? (2x)
They are down in the valley a’prayin’
Day is a’breaking, In my soul

Oh where are our dear fathers? (2x)
They have gone to heaven a’shoutin
Day is a’breaking, In my soul

Someone here together praying (3x)
Day is a’ breaking, In my soul

Oh where is our future? (3x)
Day is a’breaking, In my soul.