Baylor > Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education > Message for New Students

Message for New Students

Welcome to Baylor. Whether you are a first-semester freshman, a transfer student, or a prospective student surfing the web, let me welcome you to this site and thank you for spending time with an institution I hold dear.

Many colleges and universities speak of excellence today. At Baylor, we emphasize excellence as well, but we do so in a way that I believe is richer and deeper than most if not all other colleges and universities. We recognize that excellence can and should take a variety of forms. We are interested in shaping students not just toward intellectual excellence or spiritual excellence in isolation, but in all of the ways that matter to us as human beings.

During your time at Baylor, you will become stronger in intellectual, social, moral, physical, and spiritual ways. All of these aspects of your character matter to us. We can find universities that emphasize intellectual excellence or spiritual excellence by themselves, but at Baylor we balance all of these toward the end of achieving our mission “to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service within a caring community”. This mission, combined with Baylor’s aspiration to become a top-tier research university, is unique to higher education. You are entering into an exciting and challenging conversation, and we need your help to achieve our aims.

I have been at Baylor since 2001. Prior to coming here, all of my education took place within state schools. I had no connection to Baylor except that my Dad played football for former Baylor Coach Grant Teaff before Coach Teaff came to Baylor. When I came to Baylor to interview after completing my Ph.D. degree, I had three interviews lined up in addition to Baylor, but I visited Baylor first. Well, after spending two days on Baylor’s campus, I fell in love with the place and cancelled all of my other trips. Fortunately Baylor offered me the position, and I have been here ever since. The idea that I could be the same person seven days a week was exhilarating to me. The idea that I didn’t have to bracket out my life of faith from my research and teaching was incredibly exciting, not to mention quite a challenge. I had an excellent education at public universities, but none of them offered me the opportunity to do what I can do here. Serious engagement with the life of the mind combined with deep reflection on the religious dimension of human experience are one and the same activity to us at Baylor. I invite you to enter into this exciting conversation.

There are three points worth considering as you transition to life as a Baylor student or consider making Baylor your home. First, you should prepare yourself to be transformed. Second, I want you to realize that teaching is a cooperative art and not a productive one. Third, I want you to recognize that character is the most important and enduring gift that you will take with you from Baylor.

Regarding the first point—you being transformed while at Baylor—professors change students’ lives every day on our campus. Whether it takes place in a chemistry lab or in a seminar room or in a lecture hall, students are transformed by what they experience and learn in college. The more you open yourself up to transformational experiences, the more likely they are to happen. This is your chance to explore and pursue a wide array of topics and subjects. You will never have this opportunity again. To use a metaphor, you are standing in front of a huge smorgasbord of knowledge and experience. Eat widely, eat broadly, and reflect deeply on what you experience. Embrace this time, savor it, and expect yourself to be transformed by the people you meet and the lessons you learn.

Your professors cannot educate you alone, which brings me to my second point. Teaching is a cooperative art and not a productive one. One of the most powerful writers on education, the ancient Greek author Plato, compared teachers to midwives. To Plato, teachers are here to encourage, inspire, and admonish us, but students are ultimately responsible for learning. Teachers do not produce. They teach. Students do the real work of learning, just like mothers do the real work of giving birth. True learning takes place only through the activity of the learner’s own mind. Only you know when your mind is truly engaged in a book or on a lesson or in a lab.

Another metaphor, one that comes from a book called Plato’s Republic, compares education to the process of escaping from a cave. Plato contends that uneducated people are like prisoners on the floor of a cave, prisoners who have been staring at shadows their entire lives. Somehow, though, at least one of these prisoners has managed to turn away from a life of shadows and has begun to climb out of the cave toward the light that is cascading down, ever so slightly, into the cave. Teachers have had the opportunity to escape from the cave and look directly at the source of the light (the sun), but these teachers now realize that they have the responsibility to return into the cave and help students make the climb for themselves.

What I like about this metaphor is the image of students and teachers climbing together out of the cave. Both working. Both struggling. And both having the same goal in mind: To escape from a life of darkness and misunderstanding. This kind of cooperative relationship is at the heart of the academic community we uphold at Baylor.

At this point you may be thinking that I am somewhat lost in the clouds when I talk about Plato and about escaping from caves, but let me say that employers want people who can think critically and adapt to the rapidly changing economic world that surrounds us. Your academic courses will prepare you for this kind of work. We want to prepare you for a career, and we want you to help our economy to thrive. But we are not here just to help you get a job. If that is all we achieve, we have failed at our mission. We are here to shape you into a human being in all of the richness that being a human being entails. We are here to surround you with the opportunities, the experiences, and the people you need to shape yourself into the person God expects you to become. Regardless of the field—think about medicine or law or teaching—the problems we face are interdisciplinary. They are also moral and social. We will not resolve the problems we face with purely technical knowledge. The professionals we need have technical knowledge, but they also have much more, which leads me to my third and final point about character.

The way your mind is shaped during your time in college is what truly matters. Specific pieces of knowledge from whatever field—be it history or mathematics—matter in many ways, but the way in which your mind is shaped by processing this knowledge is what matters most. I cannot tell you a single piece of information that Coach Lee Johnson, my 8th grade biology teacher, taught me, but I do remember with incredible clarity the kind of person he was. I remember how he treated me. He introduced me to the world of fly fishing by spending two or three of his Saturdays every month for a year teaching me how to cast a fly rod. He didn’t have to do that, but he wanted to. He wanted to shape me. He cared about me. I think he taught us about the Krebs cycle in his biology class, but I don’t remember much at all about it. I do, however, know that Coach Johnson’s character continues to shape me every day.

A famous French educational philosopher once wrote “education is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything you ever learned”. I want to repeat that. Education is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything you ever learned. I think he was onto something with that.

And since I mentioned fly fishing, let me close with a short story that I hope illustrates the point that character is what you should take with you from Baylor. I’m originally from New Mexico. I grew up in a place called Artesia, a small town in the southeastern part of the state that’s about halfway between the UFOs in Roswell and the caverns in Carlsbad. New Mexico has beautiful mountains, and one of my favorite Saturday activities during high school was to drive the hour or so that it took to get to a small stream that I loved to fish in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Fly-fishing is a great sport. It requires tying flies to emulate what trout are eating. This is fascinating stuff. It’s very different from the bass fishing that people do around here, where they use worms or spoons or dynamite or something. Just about every Saturday, I would get up at 4:00 in the morning, drive into the mountains, and walk about a mile or so along the river so that I could arrive as the sun came up. Arriving early is crucial so that you can “match the hatch”—as they call it—and fool the trout into eating your fly instead of the live ones. Along the river, there were several small lakes that I loved to sneak up to as I was making my way to my favorite spot on the river.

Now I don’t know about you, but there is something about a crystal clear Rocky Mountain lake early on a cool June morning that can’t be beat. On many of these mornings, I would quietly make my way over to one of these ponds and peak my head over the reeds to see what I could find. I would often see fifty or even a hundred ducks quietly paddling their way around and foraging for food. Sooner or later, one duck would see me and start quacking, then another, and then another. I liked to catch trout, but I also liked to watch these ducks. Now sooner or later once these ducks have spent some time swimming and quacking, you all know what happens next. One of them decides to stop quacking and fly. When that happens, the moment is magical. Words cannot describe how beautiful a morning like that can be.

Now fast forward to just a few weeks ago. I was reading an essay by a British political philosopher named Michael Oakeshott. In the essay, Oakeshott writes, “It’s not the cry, but the rising of the wild duck that inspires flight”.* Allow me to repeat that: It’s not the cry, but the rising of the wild duck that inspires flight. In a sentence, I hope that’s what Baylor does for you. I hope we inspire you to think. I hope we inspire you to work. I hope we inspire you to pray. And I hope we inspire you to fly. And, as Baylor students, I hope you learn to fly with a certain kind of character, a character befitting a Baylor student. And be sure to keep in mind that the flight we teach at Baylor has a destination beyond this life.

I want to welcome you once again to Baylor. May we put a path before you that transforms you, that inspires you, and that shapes you into the kind of person God wants you to become.

Wesley Null
May 2011

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*Michael Oakeshott, “Learning and Teaching,” in The Voice of Liberal Leaning: Michael Oakeshott on Education, Timothy Fuller, ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 62.