The 95 Theses

I’m at Rutgers this morning, about to meet members of their adjunct (or in the local parlance, PTL for part-time lecturer) community as they embark on their contract negotiation. When I accepted the offer to visit, I told my host that I think of collective bargaining as the emergency room, helping people survive in the face of immediate trauma and injury. But my project is different than that.

Having grown up in the Lutheran Church, one of our talismanic objects was the 95 Theses, the arguments that Martin Luther “nailed to the door of All Saint’s Church,” which makes it sound a lot more confrontational than it was. He mailed it as a memo to church leaders, and then put it up on the seminary’s equivalent of their bulletin board. But leaving aside that kind of heroic imagery, the Theses were indeed a document of revolution. They were a direct challenge not merely to the Church’s custom of paying indulgences for souls in purgatory, but to the underlying theology of securing one’s seat in heaven through one’s own labors. No, he said, this is not how it works. The work of the faithful is to repent, and to accept the grace of forgiveness.

I’m put in mind of that today as I prepare to talk about my project to people engaged in a related but separate project. While I recognize the need (and the valor) of the struggle for economic safety, my work is fundamentally a challenge to the concept of college as we’ve come to know it. College is neither the provision nor the acquisition of credentials. College is neither the provision nor the acquisition of individual skill packets, separated into disciplinary categories. College—when we do it right—is the place where we learn that our life’s work is both finite and important. It’s where we learn that we can always know more, that we become committed to knowing more, where we learn that our understandings are always provisional and temporary and positioned, and that well-meaning people can disagree without anger. It’s where we learn that our work is not merely for ourselves, but always on behalf of.

A couple of years ago, I was part of a project held at Lincoln University, America’s first Black (originally all men’s) college. And in a break between sessions, I wandered through their meeting center and looked at photographs of their faculty and students from the first years of the 20th century. And as I looked at those men’s faces, the attitude that showed back at me was resolve. Resolve not merely that they might become engineers or chemists, but that they would be leaders in the larger, perpetual work of making society whole. That’s what college is, when we do it right.

So I don’t need to nail my work to some door somewhere. But my message is the same as Luther’s, six hundred years ago. No, this is not how it works. The work of college is resolve in the face of uncertainty, the willingness to admit that we can never know all that we hope to, but that we move forward nonetheless, always on behalf of.

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