How Can You Serve Your Neighbor As a Student?

This is the second post of a three-part essay on the vocation of a student.

How can a student serve her neighbor? You might immediately jump to the idea of service projects or mission trips. True, these are ways to love others while being a student. But a person can do those quite apart from being a student. So the question still remains: how can a student love others through her calling as a student?

It might be shocking to the system to say this, but the first way to love others as a student is . . . to study. Leland Ryken, president emeritus of Wheaton College, emphasized this point in a sermon to students when he said, “Learning, in whatever form, is the student’s calling.” This statement would seem self-evident since the noun “student” comes from the Latin verb studeō, which means “to be devoted to, lay stress on, study.” This might not only seem obvious etymological, but a bit bland. Love, after all, is a verb, a transitive, active verb. Studying is not much of an activity that impacts others, or so it seems.

One might say that studying, learning all that one can and gaining all the wisdom possible, will one day result in a loving activity. For instance, studying will lead to a degree, which will lead to a job, which will lead to money, which will allow a person to care for his family and give to others. This is true, but all vocations have a “here and now” vitality, not just a “there and then” eventuality. This means that the calling of student must also have a present activity of love and service for others.

This present activity is expressed well by theologian and historian Korey Maas in his essay on “The Vocation of a Student” in the book The Idea and Practice of a Christian University.

Maas talks about the three Ps students serve in studying: parents, peers, and professors.

By studying well, students serve their parents’ desire—and God-given calling (Deuteronomy 6:4–9; Proverbs 1:8–9)—that their children become well-educated for the betterment of themselves, their family, and society. In studying diligently, students lovingly fulfill an obligation to honor their parents for the financial sacrifices their parents have made for their education.

Students also love their peers when they study. College is a not just a place, but a community of colleagues, a collegium where one student’s questions and ideas challenge, shape, and sharpen another student. Every student, Maas says, has a “duty to aid in the enlightenment of one’s fellow students.” This is not a new idea about the vocation of a student. It was seen centuries ago in the Renaissance pedagogue Juan Luis Vives’ rhetorical question about college: “[W]hat greater or closer union can we find than that of the mind of one man who is helped by another man’s mind?” It is seen today with concepts like Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco’s “lateral learning,” where “students have something important to learn from one another.”

Such enlightenment does not simply happen by bringing pre-existing knowledge and perspectives to bear in collegial dialogue. It occurs by doing what the Reformation pedagogue Philip Melanchthon charged his students to do:

“I tell you, it is your task to seek the truth.”

To accomplish this, students must perform two tasks: one, individually pursue knowledge, truth, wisdom, virtue, and goodness and, two, bring the trials and fruits of their labors to their fellow students in and out of class. In this way, studying serves one’s peers by edifying their minds, which not only helps them learn more and do better in college, but helps them better understand how best to serve their neighbors.

The third P is professors. Students also serve and love their professors when they study. College is not principally about competition, but, as Maas says, “intellectual cooperation.” This holds not just for students working together—sharpening each other’s minds instead of dulling them through sloth, cheating, and ignorance—but for students working with their professors.

Students love their professors when they jointly share knowledge. Students should not think that they fulfill their vocation simply by attending class, listening to the lecture, reading the assigned text, handing the paper in on time, and the like. Rather, as the nineteenth-century pedagogue John Henry Cardinal Newman said in The Idea of a University, students should treat college as a “conversation between your lecturer and you.” Today, we see this in lively seminar discussions, invigorating tutorials, and engaging undergraduate research. A student bringing his best questions, ideas, and research to class, the lab, the library, and office hours not only fulfills the obligation to serve his fellow students, but fulfills the joint venture to pursue what is true, good, and beautiful to love and serve his neighbors—and nature—with his professors now.

The three Ps of parents, peers, and professors do not exhaust the people a student can love and serve now by studying. To this list we can add four more Ps: public, past, progeny, and the student’s own person.

By learning deeply, students lovingly honor their obligation to the general public, which, like parents, frequently funds their education through state and federal grants. In investigating the world, its questions and problems, and researching ways to solve them for the benefit of the public, students love society. Indeed a student is a public servant when, as Benjamin Franklin said, he uses his mind “to serve Mankind.”

Another P a student can love is the past. Much education is spent learning the wisdom, folly, ideals, issues, questions, concepts, experiments, discoveries, failures, quandaries, and resolutions of past people. We investigate the past because it helps us better understand our present and where we might go in the future. Students can love their intellectual ancestors by listening carefully to them in order to understand them fully, instead of dismissing, neglecting, misinterpreting, and misusing them.

To love their intellectual predecessors, students need to read virtuously. As English professor Alan Jacobs says in his essay on “How to Read a Book,” students need to apply the Golden Rule of loving your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37–40) to texts in this way: the “book we are reading is, for the duration of the reading experience, our neighbor.” In other words, in a paraphrase of literary critic Wayne Booth,

“Read as you would have others read you; listen as you would have others listen to you.”

Such charity moves students to pay careful attention to people in the past, offer fair and honest appraisals of them, and give due credit to their ideas and achievements. By studying this way, students not only love and serve the past, they give themselves practice in how to listen charitably to their current neighbors.

Progeny—something that comes from something else—are also loved by students in the act of studying. This can be understood in the simple manner that deeply engaging in education now will put a student in a better position to gain a good profession, which will adequately provide for her children. But progeny can also be extended metaphorically to communal descendants, all those later influenced and affected by a person.

Students undoubtedly do not know how their studies and research will impact others in the future, but they can be assured that their education will. All of us work in the dark when it comes to our future influence. One thing is clear though: the more a student studies now, the more knowledge she gains, and the more she learn how to do, the more she fulfills her vocation of student and the more God can use her learning to benefit others later. This is illustrated easily, for instance, with science where the basic research scientists do in the lab is later found to have profoundly beneficial applications in life.

Finally, a student loves his own person when he dives deeply into his studies. While vocations are directed toward loving and serving others, we should not miss how God’s Golden Rule presumes that we do—and ought—to love ourselves too. Loving and serving the self only becomes a problem when it turns into selfishness, placing the self above God and neighbor, serving oneself at their expense. But implicit in the Golden Rule is the idea that we do love ourselves and that it is God pleasing.

So how does a student love himself by learning?

Many students find much personal joy in intellectual adventure and discovery; they love learning itself and how it affects the quality of their lives. Take, for instance, one alumnus of Columbia College’s core curriculum reported by Delbanco in his book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. When discussing the value and impact of Columbia’s core at an alumni gathering, several attendees noted how this liberal arts curriculum educated them for citizenship. One alumnus, though, hastened to add that his education “taught [him] how to enjoy life.”

Such sentiments are not novel; they are deeply rooted in the tradition of a liberal arts university education. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, for instance, often commented how personal happiness is encountered in rationally contemplating reality. We see the pleasure of studying expressed earlier in the Old Testament too, with the personal joy and benefit of studying the wisdom of God in His word and world (1 Kings 3:3–13, 4:29–34; Psalm 1:1–3).

How can a student juggle fulfilling these Ps in his vocation as a student while attending to all of his other callings in life? That difficult and dexterous feat is the topic for the last installment.

Scott A. Ashmon is Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Education and  Scott L. Keith is the former Associate Dean of Residential Education and Housing Services at Concordia University Irvine