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Interview by Todd C. Ream


Leadership for Christ and His Kingdom

A conversation with Philip Graham Ryken.

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One thing we've gained over time at Wheaton is a deeper understanding that experiential learning is a particular type of learning that doesn't just happen on its own but requires preparation, oversight, and reflection. It's becoming increasingly recognized, for example, that simply sending students overseas doesn't mean that they have a transformational experience or gain any cross-cultural competency. You have to have an educational program that is really designed to teach cross-cultural skills in order to achieve that goal. All those other things that go on beyond the classroom are complementary in developing a whole person in Christ. That wholeness implies not just intellectual training but also spiritual, physical, and emotional learning—the whole person is shaped through those beyond-the-classroom experiences.

Do you find that faculty understand that?

Faculty understand that to varying degrees. Some of our faculty are very involved in experiential learning at Honeyrock; we have faculty members who go up every year with small groups of six to eight students and traipse through the woods. We have faculty who make a connection with one or another sports team or are plugged in to other programs outside the classroom. As a president, I see how committed people in some of these other areas of campus life are to the academic enterprise. They aren't, for example, providing leadership for Christian ministry through service by saying it's "spiritual" and thus takes priority over academics. Quite to the contrary: they understand that Wheaton College is an academic institution. Our coaches are very strong on the academic mission of Wheaton College. Of course some students get so caught up in other activities that they give less attention to the life of the mind, and our faculty then are wanting to insist on academic learning as the center of gravity for us. I'm fully supportive of that and emphasize it in my own work at the college.

From your vantage, what role do the visual and performing arts play here at the college?

I see the visual and performing arts—and the arts in general—as the leading edge of culture. If you want to know where culture is heading, look at its leading artworks. They're not just responding to and reflecting on what's already there, they're showing you what is to come. One of the reasons why the evangelical community perhaps has not had as much influence culturally as it might have had is that it has not been at the forefront of the arts. I am someone who appreciates the arts without being strongly gifted in the arts. One way, I think, that God prepared me well for my current role was the experience of serving a congregation in center-city Philadelphia that included many professionals in the arts, particularly in music but also in the visual arts. And being very close to a couple of leading art schools, and having students who were seeking discipleship from those schools as part of our congregational life. To say nothing of the home in which I was raised, which put a high value not just on literature but on the arts generally. And the very stimulating conversations around our family dinner table with visiting scholars who were interested in the arts. I am thrilled that we are seeing increasing numbers of majors in the visual arts at Wheaton College. I am thrilled by the work that's being done at our conservatory of music. I think it's healthy for the Christian community at large for Christians to be thriving in those areas—and certainly healthy for our campus.

What comes next in terms of a master plan for the school?

In a couple of weeks I'm going to be introducing to the campus what I'm calling the president's green paper on the mission, context, and direction of Wheaton College. I'm calling it a green paper rather than a white paper because with a white paper, properly understood, you pretty much have your policy set in place and you're announcing an agenda. A green paper is not quite as far along in the process; it's a more collaborative document, and it says we are inviting discussion. It's very welcome for you to say, "Wait a second, you've left out something very important," or "I like this goal, but I'm not sure you're framing it in the way that you should," or "If you really want to achieve that goal you have to do something about this." And we'll have that kind of discussion with students, faculty, staff, and leadership groups of the college, including our alumni council.

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