Engaging the Postmodern Student

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All people, including our students, look at life through a window. The particular window we choose to look through says a lot about who we are and how we behave. Sometimes it’s hard to engage our students because we think everyone looks at life through the same window we do.  Not so. The view we see through our windows is produced by a multitude of cultural themes. Academia, media, literature, music, religion, and technology are just of few of those themes.

This is what world view means. It’s the way we view the world.  The German word is Weltanschauung. It basically means our perception of the world. It’s critical to look through the right window in order to do life right.

Years ago when my two kids were 3 and 5, I was keynoting a conference in Houston. At that time, I tried to take my family with me wherever I traveled. If I wanted to be with them, that’s the way we had to do it.  We stayed at a nice Holiday Inn in one of the suburbs. I got up early that morning and prepared for my daily jog. Both kids wanted to go. Have you ever tried to do some serious jogging with a three and five-year-old in tow? So I told the kids that every time I ran around the hotel, I would come up and bang on the window and sing a song. They were to keep track of the songs and if they got them all right, I would reward them with something.

This Holiday Inn was the kind of hotel that all the rooms opened into a corridor and no room had an exterior door opening to the parking lot. In addition, all windows were heavily tented so the occupants could see out from the room but those on the outside couldn’t see in to the room. But we were on the ground floor and I figured out which room was ours and off I went for my morning run. My first song was the theme song from Rocky. I pounded on the window, beat my chest in Tarzan fashion, raised both arms and with clinched fists and belted out the music to Rocky in TaDaDa, TaDaDas.  My second song was I’m a little Teapot, Short and Stout, complete with perfect choreography and proper facial expressions. As I was approaching my third cameo, my wife rushed out the side door in her house coat with a very panicked look on her face. “Terry, Stop! You’re banging on the WRONG WINDOW.”

It’s true, and the occupants were VERY upset. It didn’t help that they were young, newlyweds and this was their first morning after the wedding the night before. There was a complaint to the front desk and the police had been summoned. My wife was doing her best to apologize for me. The young bride, trying to calm her new husband down, said, “Well, maybe he’s …” (and I hate this word and know that it’s not PC but I’m quoting here, “maybe he’s retarded.” I’m still conflicted over the fact that my wife let it pass and didn’t stand up for me but at least charges weren’t filed and I promised to be good the rest of my stay there. And, the fact that both my kids were crying when the police showed up probably helped a lot too. Here’s the point, it makes a lot of difference which window you look through because that’s where you get your world view.

There are only three windows from which people get their world view and though those windows come in many different colors and frames, still, there are only three. 1) Physicalism. This is the view that everything in the universe is physical and nothing in the universe is nonphysical.  2) Metaphysicalism. This is the view that there is both physical and nonphysical entities at work in the world. Christians fall into this category but so do a lot of other strange folks so we don’t generally like to use the term, metaphysical. 3) Idealism. This is the view that there is nothing in the world that is physical. All things we think we see in the universe are actually only products of our sensory input. Only minds exist. If you’ve watched The Matrix, you know what I’m talking about.

The Western worldview for most of the 19th and 20th centuries was physicalistic. Science was the standard and anything that smacked of faith was a fraud. If it was not physical, it was not real. The only thing that matters is matter and if it isn’t matter it doesn’t matter.

Some contemporary students of culture like to use this illustration. The premodern world was symbolized by the telescope (think Galileo). The modern world is symbolized by the microscope (think Louis Pasteur). But the postmodern world might find a Kaleidoscope a more fitting symbol. Life is a hodge-podge of confusion, sometimes beautiful but always chaotic.

Personally, I don’t like the term postmodern. It’s too early to really define our age. It’s hard to imagine a farmer in 1416 saying, “Well, I’m glad we’re entering the Renaissance because those Dark Ages were really the pits.” About all we know right now is that whatever we are now, it’s not what we were 30 years ago. I do know the college students I teach now are different from the college students I taught 30 years ago. And so it is that most of our faculty were born into and trained in the Old World. We certainly are in a new world now. So, how do we learn the language of these New Worldlings? How do we engage?

Let’s take a look through their windows and catch a glimpse of their world view.

1) Many students today are Curious but Cautious. The view they see through their window causes them to be keenly aware of the fact that the promises of science have not come to pass. The promised Utopia has been aborted and the American Dream is broken. They worked hard, bought their homes, had their 2 ½ kids, barbequed in the backyard every Saturday, and still there’s something lacking. In their souls they ask “Why aren’t we happy yet?” “Is there something out there we’re missing?”

Faculty Response: The optimism of faith in Christ is the missing component.  As university faculty members, we need to be careful about making promises we can’t keep. If we’re real with them about our own struggles to find answers, they can identify with that. Our students are used to broken promises, from everyone, parents, professors, pastors, politicians and more.  Now is not the time for us to cave in to depression or despair. We can remind them that these times we live in can be very exciting indeed. The poverty of relationships in our culture may well be the prelude to good things to come, if we can “catch” the moment. One of the driving forces that gave birth to the Renaissance was the horrible corruption in the Catholic papacy. We may be on the verge of a new Renaissance. We don’t want to miss it. We don’t want to be like Rip Van Winkle who went to sleep under the rule of King George and woke up under the administration of President George (Washington).  This new Renaissance may not be the whole culture but it can be my whole world, the world of me, the world I live in.

2)  Many Students today are both Skeptical and Sensitive.  The world view they hold to is a world on a collision course.  “I want to believe, I want to care, but it never works.” The Mass Marketing that overwhelms us on a daily basis promises us that if we buy their product, life will be worth living. We bought the products and still there’s an emptiness. We thought we could seminar our way into authentic marriage and relationship, but we’ve tried the 6 steps to a good marriage, and our marriages are still falling apart. We fulfilled the 10 commandments of parenting our kids and they’re still doing drugs.  The health and wealth gospel also let us down. Postmodern students want to believe but are fearful of being hurt yet again.

Faculty Response: Authentic Relationships are developed in unconditional love.  OKWU faculty can share with them the dream of true relationships that go beyond the bright lights of Hollywood.  As people awake to the fact that the promises of physicalism were always empty, our faith offers new opportunity for redemptive, healing relationships. Many of our students come from very broken places and generally speaking, there’s no 12 step program to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Our relationships with our students will often be more beneficial to them then the subjects we teach. Not every instructor can relate to every student but every student should be able to find a faculty member who can relate to him or her. The catastrophic breakdown of important relationships in this generation has left many wounded. Every faculty member needs to be on the lookout for the walking wounded.

3)  Many students today are connected but not rooted.  Their world view is mainly viewed through a computer screen, often on a program called, WindowsToday’s student engages in a kind of time travel at the speed of the internet. They click their way through the twitterverse and are more connected than ever and yet lack a sense of settledness.   There’s even a new word for this  Polychronic.  That sense of homelessness has been with us ever since the Garden of Eden and in our collective unconscious minds there is a shadow figure that reminds us of the One we once walked with and with Whom we had fellowship.  Separated from Him who gave us life we try to make up for it by connecting to artificial life, a new lifestyle, a new gender, a new partner. Our new gods are the celebrities who walk among us deceiving us into thinking that since they appear to be happy, we can find that same happiness. There has never been a time in history when more artificial forms of meaning have been available to trick us into a false sense of that “at home” feeling. In the end, there is only disappointment and despair.

Faculty Response: Show them Jesus.  Facult at OKWU have the answer and it’s not in a product, it’s in a person. His name is Jesus. Oddly enough, the faculty with the most potential of sharing that answer are those who are not in the Theology and Ministry departments. It is expected that those faculty members have the Answer. The surprise comes from that Economics or that English professor who shares simple faith and unconditional love.

Life is all about windows, because everyone has a world view. The issue has more to do with illusion than reality because most people tend to attach their lives to an illusion.  So one more metaphor please. Light and dark. You don’t have to turn on the dark. It’s natural. You do have to turn on the light. As faculty members of this great university, let’s turn the lights on in our students.

“The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16, NIV).





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