Return to Calvin College homepage   Return to  Spark Online homepage
      << Spark Online
  Calvin alum pushes for education in social interaction  
Willie Jennings
Willie Jennings '84 (r.) is a Duke University Professor.

Willie Jennings ’84 once overheard a group of Duke University undergraduates discussing religious life in India. White students in the group automatically turned to the Indian student in the group for input even though she was American-born.

“She had the double task of being a student and a teacher,” Jennings noted, while still trying to figure out who she was personally.

In academic communities, non-whites continue to be “objects of knowledge to be consumed even by those very people,” Jennings contended. That “colonialism” should be an embarrassment to these institutions of higher learning—particularly Christian ones.

Jennings, 39, was President of the Black Student Union while a Calvin student. He earned his master's degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. at Duke University. He now is the Associate Dean of Academic Programs at Duke University Divinity School and Assistant Research Professor of Systematic Theology and Black Church Studies. He’s also an ordained Baptist minister who grew up in the shadow of First Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids.

But his success in academia doesn’t keep him from criticizing it—or Christians within it.

“Christians are in danger of becoming irrelevant to the conversations of the academy,” he said during a February lecture at Calvin. “Our vision of intellectual life remains controlled by our desire for acceptance and assimilation” among the intellectual elite. Christian scholars, he believes, are more concerned about shaking off anti-religious bias than about redefining higher learning.

Universities pretend to be beyond racism because they narrow their view of what’s important to focus only on academic ability. But academic ability has for so long been linked to “whiteness” that the bias is sublimated. Jennings urged Christians to reform higher education so that the whole community—faculty, staff, students—learn to judge and value all facets of people.

“The academy continues to honor people who are masters at skills of the mind,” Jennings said, “but novices at the skills of the social body. The smartest people in America need education in the ABCs of social interaction, especially with people of other cultures. If the academy is going to be the place where diverse people come together in socially intricate patterns of life, then it needs teachers for the future.”

Jennings’ lecture, “The Color of the Mind: Race, Christian Discipleship, and the Intellectual Life,” was part of Calvin’s celebration of African American History Month and the school’s 125th anniversary lecture series.

Academic Multicultural Affairs

125th Anniversary
Celebrative events

Go To
Calvin's homepage
News and Events
Information about
About Calvin College
Contacting Calvin
Search for
People at Calvin
Departments at Calvin
Items on Calvin's website
Contact Spark