Methodist Education Cannot Forget Legacy of Accessibility

October 18, 2012

By Vicki Brown*

Methodist education cannot afford to forget its legacy and heritage of making education accessible and available for the poor and underprivileged, the Rev. Dr. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan told the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry's Board of Directors during the Oct. 10-12 fall meeting in Nashville, Tenn.
"In our attempts to prepare leaders for global challenges, we need to ensure that this population is not left out and left behind. Are we willing to make available an educational opportunity to them that they otherwise will not have? Are we willing to honor the social covenant required of our church-related institutions?" asked Kuan, dean of The Theological School, Drew University. Kuan delivered the Willson Lecture on Friday.
The Willson Lectures are designed to contribute to the spiritual and intellectual enrichment of people associated with the boards and agencies of The United Methodist Church. The lectures also present the scholarly contributions of distinguished leaders in higher education and educational philanthropy to the Nashville community.
He reminded the group that first and foremost, education for Methodists has always been about ministry, about formation of the total person, while two other distinctive features of a Methodist education are service and inclusiveness – encouraging students to see themselves as stewards of a community who should use what they have received in their education to give back to the community and the world.
"In living out Methodist legacy and heritage, there is an important role our institutions can play in making our world-class education available to the poor and underprivileged. Even in the twenty-first century, there are still a lot of people for whom they will be the first generation in their family to pursue a college education," Kuan said.
Kuan asked the directors to consider what it would mean if United Methodist higher education takes on the challenge of rethinking education not only in terms of individual formation but also of communal formation.
"I have no idea what that would look like, but I have a hunch that it will at the minimum move us and our students away from competition to collaboration, and help repair the increasing fragmentation of our societies. Such an education will create a balance between individual freedom and equality and communal principles and values of respect and compassion for the elders, the poor, the underprivileged. It has the potential to help our universities to produce more compassionate and caring citizens for the world," he said.
It was the vision of making higher education accessible to all that led Methodists to found many of the historically Black colleges and universities, as well as Africa University, and many other schools all over the world, he said.
The shifting realities of the increasingly diverse and racial-ethnic population in the U.S., the decline among those in the U.S. who identify themselves as Christians while the number of Christians in Africa and Asia grows, and the mergers and closing of theological schools require shifts in theological education, too, he said.
"Additionally, theological education must be attentive to the multiplicity of voices, particularly those from racial-ethnic and minority communities, and engage in critical dialogue with other religious traditions. In a global community, theological education should engage in conversation and seek partnership with theological institutions in other parts of the world," he said.
"A monolithic Euro-American centered theological education will not suffice to meet the commitments to racial-ethnic churches. Is there a way to develop a curriculum that has multiple centers?. . . In reality, decentering Euro-American theological education serves not only the racial-ethnic students and churches, but also the white students who will be going into communities that are increasingly ethnically heterogeneous," Kuan said
"A theological education that is attentive to the shifting realities must also pay attention to the changing religious landscape in the United States. If our societies and communities are no longer religiously homogeneous, but increasingly pluralistic, should we not be preparing religious leaders that have knowledge of and are conversant with other religious traditions?" he asked.
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.