Ken Elzinga has taught at the University of Virginia since 1967 and has won numerous teaching awards including the Templeton Honor Roll Award for Education in a Free Society. Elzinga has had 87 books and articles published including four fictional books in a series about a sleuth who solves crimes using economics. Elzinga incorporates the Socratic teaching method into his teaching, and his courses are some of the most popular at the University of Virginia.
Dr. Ken Elzinga was a guest speaker at the God and the Academy conference for Christian professors held in June and sponsored by Christian Leadership Ministries and Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. He spoke during a session on "Models of Impact" for which he received a standing ovation. The following is the text of his speech in which he describes how God has enabled him to be an influence for Christ at the University of Virginia:
Today, I want to talk about something that has occupied my thoughts for many years in my professional environment: how does one follow Jesus in an academic setting?
In evangelical lingo, what you may think I am going to talk about is integrating faith and learning.But I want to take a different slant on this subject, one that is, in my judgment, neglected by those who think and write about blending the Christian faith with life in the academy.
The conventional faith and learning integration agenda is: what does it mean to do biology, or philosophy, or art history, or French literature, or political science from a Christian perspective?Important work has been done at places like Calvin College on this kind of question.And this conference pertains to faith and learning in that sense.But that issue is not what stirs my cocoa, at least not for this talk.
I want to talk about what it might mean to be a biology or philosophy or art history or French literature or political science teacher--and want to teach like Jesus.My topic, in other words, is on modeling oneself after Jesus as teacher, or if you like, Rabbi.The particular connection that concerns me is not the Christian scholar and his or her discipline, but rather the Christian professor and his or her students.
My thinking on this was affected when faculty at the University of Virginia were asked to write out a teaching philosophy.At an institution where most of our paycheck is based on our research and less attention is focused on the quality of our teaching, this request caused quite a stir among some faculty--even though the exercise was voluntary.
But I sat down to write.And since I claimed to want Jesus to be Lord of my life, I wanted him to be Lord of my teaching philosophy.
Let me read the first two paragraphs of my Teaching Philosophy statement, and I am quoting from what is on my web page:
My colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies might contend that the most prominent image or picture of the Christian faith is the crucifix.For me, as a teacher, it is the picture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.The scene illustrates the upside-down and paradoxical biblical principle of leadership: the one who leads should be willing to serve; if you want to be first, you line up last.
I endeavor to apply that picture to my teaching: if I want best to lead a class of students, I should be willing to serve them.My authority as a teacher is linked to my willingness to serve my students.1
The development of a Christian teaching philosophy that focused not so much on the nexus between me and economics, but rather between me and my students, turned out to be an important event in my professional life.There are many times when I am about to short-change a student, or take an action that builds me up, or makes my life easier, and then I am convicted by the image in my mind of Jesus washing His disciples' feet.
Lately, a number of Christian students at my university can be seen wearing a bracelet with the letters WWJD and a question mark at the end.As you probably know, this stands for What Would Jesus Do? As in how would Jesus respond to some situation.The answer is not always blindingly clear.But I find in my world at work what Jesus would probably do is often clearer than I might wish.To me, one of the most profound and sobering teachings of the Christian faith is that, unable to serve Jesus my Lord directly, my students (among others) become the appointed agents authorized to receive what I owe my Master.
I would like my talk at this juncture to be exceedingly practical, pointing not to myself as an example but rather to the fact that I have now 33 years of practice, mixed with many mistakes and transgressions, from which to share.And I want to add, the precepts I shall suggest are not limited to teaching.Had I gone into full-time economic consulting, I would like to believe some of the same practices would mark my work towards those who would have been under my professional authority in the world of consulting.
Let me speak first about prayer.One of the most profound and remarkable requests the disciples made of Jesus was asking Him to teach them how to pray.Prayer now marks a part of my service to my students.I grieve that it took me more than 15 years into my career to become open to the idea of praying with my students, and modeling out for them this central component of what it means to teach like Jesus.
About half the students who come to my office have questions that are not narrowly concerned with course material.And often those who are in academic difficulty are not in trouble because they do not have the intellectual horsepower to do economics.Their underlying problem is with broken relationships or broken lives.Their problem is not with economic analysis; it is with the fall of Adam.
Often their problems are beyond my human ability to come up with solutions.When this is the case, I may simply tell them that within my faith perspective as a follower of Jesus, when I confront major problems, I pray about them, and then I ask them: would they mind if I prayed for them?Right then and there.No one has ever demurred.
Now let me be clear: in many cases, I do not know ex ante if these students are Christians.Many are not.I have had Jewish students for whom I have prayed return to my office and ask me to pray for them again; I have had Muslim students for whom I have prayed ask me to pray for them again.They don't know any older people at UVA willing to pray for them.
I am at the point where if I believe a student in my office is a Christian, I almost always pray for them before they leave.Korean-American students, many of whom are believers, in particular relish being prayed for.I have had students make up excuses about economics and come to my office in the hopes that I would pray for them.
Now for those of you who are assistant professors, I can imagine a hesitancy about praying with students--especially if you are at a state supported institution, and particularly one where the forces of political correctness are robust.Let me suggest to you that you ask God for wisdom about this.Ask the Lord to give you wisdom to discern when such prayer is appropriate.A student who wants to know when the next test is, or whether chapters six and seven are really required reading, is not one to pray with.Perhaps prayer is reserved for that particular student in an unusually difficult situation where your own counseling wisdom is constrained; or for the student you know to be a follower of Jesus for whom a prayer is an encouragement and an affirmation.
Now why do I pray for my students?Why might I pray for my employees if I had gone into investment banking?
Because Jesus taught His students how to pray--and His disciples often saw Him at prayer and were invited to be with Him when He prayed.I want my students to know that I pray.I want my students to see me broken before them as a man of prayer so that they know it is OK for them to petition God.I also believe in the efficacy of prayer, though often, to my shame, haltingly.And I pray because it reminds me that the world in which I live, and the time I have been given, even my office hours, are claimed by my Lord and this is one way that He has staked out this territory as His.
I cannot fully imagine the impact if faculty regularly prayed not only for, but with, their students.
Let me also mention the home.What does it mean, at least for me, to wash my students' feet with regard to where I live?For many professors, their home is their castle--the bridge is up and the moat is filled; students are not welcome there.
Jesus did not have a home, as we think of a "home."But we know that His students, His disciples, were with Him, and not only when He formally taught them as their Rabbi.For me, this aspect of Jesus' life has come to mean making my home a welcome place for students.
I learned this attitude from my first wife who, before she died of cancer, often opened our home to students.What further provoked the practice for me was the example of James Houston, then a professor at Oxford, whom I observed having students over to his home.I never forgot him telling me one time that he and his wife Rita did not believe that they owned their home, except in the formalistic sense; it was the Lord's--and theirs to share.
Many students, not all but many, like to be in a home, because they miss theirs, or, increasingly I find, because their own home life is a mess.
How do you open a home?Well, you let the word out.Students use rooms in our home for everything from Bible studies, scholarship interviews, seminars, discussion groups, to planning sessions.I often come home and am not certain which particular group of students is meeting in our living room, for my wife and I often are not at home when student groups are there.Christian fellowship groups from four different schools use our lake house for retreats.
My wife and I have found that having students over at 10:00 PM for a one-hour brownies-and-milk study break fits their schedules and ours and is a great way to show Christian hospitality.Last Thanksgiving, we had the opportunity to host students from Korea, India, Turkey, Cyprus, and some place called the USA.Thanksgiving is a great time to explain why we, as followers of Jesus, are thankful.
Now what does this mean in the long run?I hope that students themselves, if they become homeowners someday, will think about how Jesus might call them to use this particular asset for Kingdom purposes.But I must tell you, in addition to whatever value or convenience our home has been to others, opening our home in this way has taught my wife and me to keep a looser rein--a looser hold--on our possessions than we otherwise would, and in the process some of our selfishness has been beaten out of us.
How else might we serve our students--wash their feet as it were?Let me mention the office, the place where I am now apt to pray with my students.Let me in particular bring up office hours.At many colleges and universities, there are faculty members who can restrain their enthusiasm for office hours.You can recognize this immediately by the office door that reads, "Office hours by appointment only" or "Office Hours: 8:00-9:00 AM, Monday morning."
A few years ago, I began praying about my office hours: that I would see them not as a necessary evil but as an opportunity for foot washing.This remains one of the most difficult areas of connecting Jesus with my work.But I have found it helpful to pray, before office hours begin, that the Lord would bring to my office that day one student with whom I could share the gospel, either through specific evangelistic witness or through sharing something of what Jesus means to me.
It would be an exaggeration to say that this has led to hundreds of conversions.But it has led to many conversations, some of which have led to conversions.And in my own heart, when I let the Spirit lead, I discover a sense of anticipation about my office hours that was absent when I was a young pup on the UVA faculty.
What does it mean to connect the dots between Jesus and teaching in the classroom, where our students most frequently see us in our professional roles?
Since the University of Virginia hires me to teach economics and not to evangelize, to deserve my wages means I am supposed to know my field.I think Christian teachers should know their material cold--as though it were an affront to Jesus, the Master Teacher, to walk into class any other way.For me, class preparation has meant not scheduling substantive activities before my lectures so I can focus my attention on the material and its presentation; it might mean mining an entire book for one small nugget--a useful classroom illustration.
Have you ever wondered if Jesus would have a web site today?Think how many links there would have to be!At the end of the Gospel according to John, we are told that even back then "the world itself could not contain the books" if all that Jesus had said and done had been written down (John 21:25).I would encourage Christians to have websites that, in some way, identify them as followers of Jesus.
There is a link on my web page to a place where one can do daily devotions.Not long ago, a grad student in my department, an atheist at the time, questioned me about why I was a Christian.Unbeknownst to me, she had been visiting my web page.Using the link found there, she regularly read the Bible verse and lesson for the day.Unbeknownst to her--for she said later she did not even know the term--she was "having devotions" every day off my web page link--and she did this for about three months before the Holy Spirit broke into her life through this and other means and she placed her faith in Jesus Christ.(The link is www.gospelcom.net/rbc/odb).
You may not spend a lot of time visiting other people's web pages.But students impute a different cost-benefit calculus to this endeavor.If you are a teacher, or have some other position of leadership, don't hide your light under a bushel by concealing from others the very focus of your life if you see Jesus as your Rabbi or Master Teacher.
Let me mention one other matter about following Jesus and being a college teacher.It involves credentials.And what I am trying to say here is difficult for me to articulate.Let me start this way.The business world emphasizes credentials.The professions of law and medicine emphasize credentials.But in the academic world, we really emphasize credentials.We put them before our name, after our name; we calibrate and quantify performance; we rank people all the time; we look up to and look down on people according to performance-based credentials or titles.
Because I am trying to teach like Jesus, I am trying to learn to de-emphasize credentials.And even though economists are not good at introspection, I know that much of my propensity to emphasize academic and financial and institutional credentials comes from my own deep insecurities."Credentialing" can be a barrier between you and the undergrad who doesn't even have a BA yet.A tradition at the University of Virginia, which Mr. Jefferson (the school's founder) wanted for the (then) all male faculty, was to use only the title Mr. before one's name, rather than Doctor or Professor. The tradition today is often ignored.But I ask my students not to use my title.
For years I wrote a personal letter of congratulations to every student of mine who got an A+.I was proud of them.They made me look good too.I still do this, but now I write a letter to every student who fails my classes.Last fall I wrote 30 of these letters.
I suspect Jesus would have thought first to write the F students.The A+ students already get lots of strokes.It took me about twenty years to catch on to writing the young men and women who failed my class, and whom, perhaps, I had failed as their servant.
Let me say, as a footnote here, that letters to students can be a powerful avenue of service--in part because so few letters are written by faculty to students, at least at my institution.I make it a practice to write every student of mine when I am notified by the dean's office that one of them is ill or has had some sad event take place in his or her life.Often, mine is the only letter they receive from their school.
De-emphasizing credentials is a clear precept for a Christian in an academic culture.I am much taken by the Apostle Paul's example here.At one point, he struts out his academic credentials (Acts 22:3): he studied under Gamaliel which I gather would be the equivalent, in my field, to saying he was a student of Friedman or Samuelson or Tobin.
But how does Paul generally state his credentials?Right at the front of his epistles.Read the first verse of Romans, "Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus";Galatians 1:10, "If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ";Philippians 1:1, "Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus";Titus 1:1, "Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ";and 2 Corinthians 4:5 where Paul describes himself as a servant of Jesus Christ.Some translations say, a slave of Jesus Christ.
Let me say, my friends, that if I could fully capture, or as economists like to say, "internalize" Paul's insight about credentials, I would make another advance, another step forward, in teaching as foot washing.And so would some of you, I suspect.
I am drawing to the close of this talk.My speech teacher at Kalamazoo College told me it was always important to make it known when I was nearing the end of one of my talks.She said it would revive hope among my audience!
Dallas Willard recently wrote an article in the summer issue of the Christian Scholar's Review entitled "Jesus the Logician."In this article, Professor Willard, a philosopher at Southern Cal, argued that Jesus was a brilliant logician.I had never thought of that before.But Willard went beyond that.He wrote:
There is in our culture today an uneasy relation between Jesus and intelligence, and I have actually heard Christians respond to my statement that Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived by saying that it is an oxymoron.Today, we automatically position him away from (or even in opposition to) the intellect and intellectual life.Almost no one would consider him to be a thinker, addressing the same issues as, say, Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger or Wittgenstein, and with the same logical method.2
Further on in the article, Willard writes:
We should, I believe, understand that Jesus would be perfectly at home in any professional context where good work is being done today.He would, of course, be a constant rebuke to all the proud self-advancement and the contemptuous treatment of others that goes on in professional circles.In this as in other respects, our professions are aching for his presence.If we truly see him as the premier thinker of the human race and who else would be that? then we are also in position to honor him as the most knowledgeable person in our field, whatever that may be, and to ask his cooperation and assistance with everything we have to do.3
As someone who longs for Jesus Christ to claim what people of the Reformation have long held to be His rightful territory--not only the sanctuary and the prayer closet but the classroom and the library, I found myself wondering: have I ever really thought that Jesus would understand Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Marx's Capital, as well as the Coase Theorem and the Capital-Asset Pricing Model?
Well, yes, He would--thoroughly.The Scriptures tell us that the saying is true, and worthy of complete acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15).But the Scriptures also tell us that "in Him all things hold together." (Colossians 1:17).If that means what I think it means, then when Jesus multiplies the loaves and the fishes, He doesn't do it by magic; He does it because He so thoroughly understands the physical world that He can transform it in ways that seem miraculous to us.
If we allow ourselves be humbled by the fact that Jesus is so far above our abilities and our knowledge, we might be able to see our earthly hierarchies as less important.Perhaps those of us who are fond of hierarchies and credentials might suddenly chuckle at our place, realizing how immeasurably far below Jesus we are.
Then, even though we live in a world of hierarchies and credentials, we might be able to ask what it would mean for us if we--with our educations and our natural gifts--took our positions of influence and turned them upside down?What if Christians in the academy became servant-leaders the way Jesus did?Even foot washers of those putatively under us?
Would the elite take notice?Maybe, maybe not.Would our students take note?Would those we supervise take note?Lawyers have an expression that is fitting here: to ask the question is to answer it.
Sometimes my students ask me how long I have been teaching at the University of Virginia.When I tell them I joined the faculty right out of graduate school in the fall of 1967, some hardly know what to say.They are either thinking to themselves: "That's longer than I've been alive," or they are thinking, "Gosh, after all these years, you'd think he could have gotten a different job by now."
But after more than thirty years, when one might expect boredom to set in, or at least the economic law of diminishing marginal utility to take its toll, teaching continues to be fresh, challenging, scary, and rewarding.And that's because, by God's grace, I am accompanied by the Master Teacher.I have come to experience, haltingly and with many shortcomings, the paradox of the teacher who leads by serving.And for me, this has become a central theme of the connection between Jesus and the academy.
2. Willard, Dallas "Jesus the Logician," Christian Scholar's Review, 28, no 4 (1999), p. 605.
3. Ibid., p. 611.