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As I returned home after graduation this spring, I felt, as many recent graduates do, disoriented. A passage from C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe occupied my mind: The Pevensies, who have grown up in the royal titles and duties given them by Aslan, stumble upon “a tree of iron” while hunting in the Western Woods. Seeing the lamppost that brought them into Narnia, Edmund marvels: “I know not how it is, but this lamp on the post worketh upon me strangely. It runs in my mind that I have seen the like before; as it were in a dream, or in the dream of a dream.”

Edmund’s recollection of his other life in 1940s England as a “dream of a dream” echoes the experience of the student returning home and the recent graduate re-entering the workaday world. Our higher education climate and our culture at large render the world of our households, vocations, and communities remote from the world of dorms, reading quizzes, and library all-nighters. Modern mobility, of course, contributes to this: Students leave their hometowns, if not their home states, to attend college, and this uprooting phenomenon has only grown over the past thirty years. College communities dislocate students from the lives of their home communities.

But higher education today also renders home remote by forming students not for the rigorous, relational work of life but for the specialized work of a career. The relational work of everyday life defined the human world the Pevensies returned to. This is the work that most demands our blood, sweat, and tears: the work of sustaining a marriage, raising children, being a good neighbor, helping a community, articulating truth, and listening well—in other words, the work of tending God’s world as he commanded our first parents to do.

However, as I ended my schooling, family friends and potential employers alike did not want to know what I learned or how I grew in my undergraduate education. They did not inquire how my spiritual, relational, and intellectual growth in college furthered my faith. Rather, they wanted to know what I did at college and what I’ll be doing now (to earn money, that is). 

Likewise, that familiar moniker for the most important of my post-grad endeavors—the “M.R.S. Degree”—further reveals our culture’s success in equating education with career-preparation. The idea that a young woman might marry and settle down soon after (or, horror of horrors, during) her undergraduate education repels the leaders of the higher education world: All that reading and studying, and a woman will simply end up bearing babies and baking bread? What a terrible waste of time, money, and effort! What folly! 

In its treatment of women, the higher education world reveals its keenest disjunct from the truly human world and its work: Here, we see that the two worlds entertain radically disparate understandings of what humans are for. A teleology of self-advancement frames worth and wisdom in terms of success. A teleology of tending God’s world, conversely, frames worth and wisdom in terms of an altogether otherworldly sort of success—a success that will often look like simplicity and sacrifice, and that often looks different for men and women. Where the higher education world mocks those who desire to build homes before they get their MBAs or even work a typical nine-to-five, the truly human world recognizes the wisdom in such people. Proverbs says, “the wisest of women builds her house, but folly with her own hands tears it down.” 

What would it look like for a college—which will of necessity create, to some extent, its own world—to encourage men and women to, in their different ways, make life-giving homes amid their communities? As Wendell Berry writes, “A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.” 

Colleges may, if in tune with the concerns of the truly human world, create an educational world that enables such ordering and encourages students to return to their world of first importance, past the lamppost and through the wardrobe. Just as it is good for the Pevensies to adventure in Narnia, encounter Aslan, and develop the courage and faith they will need for modern life, it is good for students to adventure, for a time, in a college that will introduce them to the God they must know and the virtues they must practice to survive modern life. Currently, the modern higher education world does not introduce its students to any transcendent truth but emphasizes autonomy and self-expression, as the proliferation of LGBTQ ideology in the classroom attests. Modern higher education counsels students away from the hunt that might lead them to the lamppost and finally guide them back to the human world. 

The Christian liberal arts college, insofar as she remains faithful to her Christian identity, may become a sort of Narnia to her students. Scripture’s picture of the truly human world must provide our basis, but the Great Books also converse across the centuries about marriage’s place in the good life, from Homer’s Odyssey to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The community allowed by Christocentric liberal arts learning also carries student discussion about the truly human world outside of the classroom. As I myself grappled with questions about marriage and “success” at a Christian liberal arts college, professors and fellow students grounded in an understanding of the Church’s thinking across history encouraged me to seek the older, fuller, and altogether otherworldly worldview that may be nourished and sustained only by a strong, classically Christian culture.

In the Western Woods, Edmund asserts that he has “such desire to find the signification” of the lamppost that “I would not by my good will turn back for the richest jewel in all Narnia and all the islands.” He sees what is ultimately valuable—that is, his calling to the human world—and pursues it. The children must carry their lessons and lives from Narnia out of the wardrobe and into the war-ridden world they were born into. Whatever our experience with higher education, we ought to follow the example of the Pevensies, whether just departing from college or evaluating education for our children. “Then in the name of Aslan,” as Susan says, “if ye will all have it so, let us go on and take the adventures that shall fall to us.”  

Sarah Reardon writes from Philadelphia.

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