My only taste of secular tertiary education was in 1962-3 at Wagga Teachers College. It was a vastly different era to the present time.
In 1962 there were eight Teachers Colleges in New South Wales. The nearest was Newcastle Teachers College, about 15km from where we lived. The most distant was Wagga Wagga Teachers College, about 600km from home. The good old NSW Department of Education, true to form as I would later find out, offered me a scholarship to Wagga to train as a primary school teacher.
At first blush this struck terror into my heart. At 17 years of age I’d seldom been further away from my parents and from home than Newcastle CBD, some 10k away, and most thinking and decision-making had been done for me by my over-protective (though well-meaning) parents. I knew nothing of the ways of the world, and almost all of my family members and mates were at best Christians or at least church people, so it was with much trepidation that I stepped out into the world and took the day-long train trip to Wagga.
However I was soon to discover that there was a strong Christian component among the staff and students. There were about 450 students, and of them, more than 100 of us used to meet each week at College Christian Fellowship. In addition, the Thomas More Society attracted about 80 Roman Catholics, and each of the major denominations each had its own club. There was a small prayer meeting most nights in some of the dormitories and on Sundays the local churches gladly welcomed large numbers of students, many of us being roped in as Sunday School teachers or Youth Fellowship leaders. After church on Sunday evenings, about 50 of us from the various churches would make our way to ‘Youngie’s Place’ for a hymn-sing, sharing of testimonies and a delicious supper provided by Mrs Young, which made up for the stuff that masqueraded as food in the college dining room.
Many members of staff had a church connection, and some were quite up-front in displaying their faith in Christ – none more so than Youngie. Leslie Gordon Young was head of the Social Science Department and Secretary of the local Baptist Church. He took a keen interest in the welfare and pastoral care of his students who in return divided about equally in loving or loathing him (largely depending on whether they were Christians or not). To me he was ‘Mr Valiant-For-Truth’, who never missed an opportunity to ‘speak just a word for Jesus’ and to encourage us to do the same. One hapless student decided to challenge him as to his faith, but got no further than saying, ‘Mr Young, you’re a fool.’ Always erect in bearing, he straightened himself up even further, squared his shoulders even more, and shot back: ‘I’m a fool for Christ. Who’s fool are you?’
Today, of course he would be hung, drawn and quartered by his accusers in the most hateful and disgraceful way for peddling ‘hate speech’. But if his Social Science lectures were a joy, his Religious Education lectures were a delight. Religious Education was an option which under Gordon provided yet another opportunity for Christians to get together in fellowship and faith. He was firmly in the Conservative Evangelical fold and more than anything else laid a strong foundation for students to hold onto against the assaults of both the libertines of the world without and the liberals who constitute the enemy within – and all of this while on the payroll and premises of the NSW Government’s Department of Education.
Well, the dream run of tolerance we enjoyed back then is now a fading and distant memory. Today there is a large and pressing need for the Church to help the lambs as they fast become sheep and step out into the spiritually barren desert of tertiary education, rather than letting them be led as lambs to the slaughter.
Sydney Missionary and Bible College is in the vanguard of providing a ‘Gap Year’ to prepare the young ones heading off to university by ‘building themselves up in (their) most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keeping (them)selves in God’s love as (they) wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring (them) to eternal life’ (Jude 20). Capernwray Missionary Fellowship in Moss Vale is at work along similar lines.
I’m earnestly praying that our own church will set up some faith and fellowship-building courses and activities, perhaps centred at our theological colleges. There’s no need for our earnest, hard-working front-line academics to surrender too much of their necessary recharging sessions. We have plenty of younger ministers with academic experience in a variety of fields of secular training before studying for the ministry, who someday soon will be queuing up to take over from our ageing front-line academics and for whom involvement in this activity would be helpful experience against that day – and plenty of ruling elders too, who know what it is to train for and then cope with working in some field of secular endeavour.
So what about it? How soon can we start? Who will step forward to lead the charge? Who will get behind a strong leader, undaunted by the Five Words Of Presbyterianism (‘We’ve never done that before’).
– Bob Thomas