The College on the hill.
That clichéd phrase illustrates the perceived cultural and experiential gulf between academia and the work-a-day-world below, implying that higher education is removed from and has little real impact on the reality around it.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Colleges and universities in America have historically been driven by a mission to improve society through education and training. Christian colleges in particular have an obligation to place, given biblical mandates to serve the local community and the common good.
That duty is more imperative in light of the ongoing crisis in rural America. Plagued for decades by declining population, lost jobs and dwindling opportunities, many parts of the country have been bypassed by prosperity and are in danger of losing all hope in the future and the American dream.
The situation became a national focus after the 2016 election, when those looking to explain the result focused on the small towns and farm communities that voted overwhelmingly for the president. Journalists and pundits offered up snapshots of varying depth and quality from the beat, such as J.D. Vance’s bestselling Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, which provided a sympathetic but brutal case study of rural pathology: joblessness, poverty, addiction, destroyed families, and loss of faith. In place of the idyllic vision of collective memory, it seems much of the heartland is composed of communities under siege.
Yet, rural America’s condition may not be as terminal as it seems. A potential solution may be found in the country’s Christian colleges and universities, according to an academic journal article authored by Grove City College professors Jennifer (Scott ’99) Mobley (Communication and Visual Arts), Paul C. Kemeny (Biblical and Religious Studies), and H. Collin Messer (English) with Assistant Provost P. Jesse Rine ’01.
In Leading Through Placemaking and Boundary Spanning: Rural Christian Higher Education and the Common Good, the scholars cast a vision for Christian colleges to restore and revitalize the communities in which they are located and “embrace their roles as stewards and anchors of place.”
"I view the idea of place as central to the mission of a Christian liberal arts education,” Mobley, the paper’s lead author, said. “Who is our neighbor here? What are the unique assets and needs of our community? How can we use our gifts to serve this particular place?”
"Christian higher education institutions produce profound positive economic and societal benefits, particularly in the rural communities in which they reside,” she said. “However, the voices of rural Christian colleges and their communities have been largely absent from the research, and we wanted to address this gap by illuminating the unique opportunities and challenges that Christian higher education faces in the rural context.”
“Given the increasing polarization of the urban/rural divide in our country and the heightened scrutiny of the value of higher education, documenting these contributions is timely and important," Mobley noted.
The authors state that evangelical colleges and universities are “uniquely equipped to bridge … cultural, economic, and political divides by renewing their commitment to place. For these institutions, the tasks of renewal and reinvention are deeply enriched by the missional and philosophical aspects of the Christian tradition, within which once may discover the robust lineaments of the common good itself.”
The effort can “expand the vision of Christian higher education institutions,” which already provide a crucial bridge in rural areas. Though not cited directly in the article, Grove City College models this effort in the excellent town-gown relationship, the sharing of spaces like Broad Street businesses, local churches, parks and schools, the presence of faculty and administrators in local government and community groups, and significant contributions to the local economy through jobs and purchased services.
Christian colleges that take on the responsibility of placemaking and boundary spanning must approach it carefully, the authors say, to avoid the perception that academic communities believe they have all the answers and are imposing solutions on the locals: “Educating for the common good is a process that requires universities and their individual representatives to cultivate a sense of humility by viewing themselves as members of a community and participating in building this shared vision.”
The challenge going forward, they write, is to build on “foundational efforts by moving community engagement from partial and peripheral to deep and developmental. The flourishing of small towns and rural places that give Christian higher education its shape and sinews is of vital importance, such that pursuing the common good for and with rural neighbors will be essential to the future of Christian higher education.”
Service learning and community service are among the most direct ways that Grove City College strengthens the bonds of place. Mobley, who serves as assistant dean of service learning, says collaboration on these projects promotes a mutually beneficial relationships between the College, the community, and students, who make meaningful connections inside and outside the classroom.
“This community-based learning helps students understand that vocation is not just about doing but about being,” Mobley said. “To know in truth requires us to understand what it means to be known. This awareness of self in relationship to others is central to a view of holistic education, the kind of education that truly prepares students for lives of integrity and service."
(This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of The GēDUNK, Grove City College’s alumni magazine. Read it online here.)