I can only speak of my personal experiences at several Christian institutions (Cedarville University, Dallas Theological Seminary, Shasta Bible College, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Wheaton College), but I suspect that what I have seen and felt holds true at most colleges and universities around the world. What I have felt for myself and seen in others is that we have become captive to the myth of potential. What is this myth? It is the idea that acceptance into (and/or graduation from) a school or program is indicative of what I am capable of (and therefore responsible for) accomplishing with my life.
The myth of potential is communicated in numerous ways. It begins with freshmen being told how special they must be to have been accepted into such a prestigious institution. It continues with upperclassmen being shown lists and charts of how their successors in the program are faring in business, medicine, politics, law, education, engineering, or theology. It ends with a ceremony in which some hugely successful graduate stands before the nervous seniors and proclaims “you have the potential to be like me.” [And as a doctoral student, I should say that this cycle begins anew and with even more intensity at the graduate level.]
What is wrong with all of this? What could be so bad about encouraging students to aim high, work hard, set goals, dream dreams, and unlock their potential? First, it creates an atmosphere of competition and comparison that is utterly foreign to the biblical way of thinking. To speak personally: I appear more successful than most, because I have completed a Master’s degree and obtained admission into a relatively high-profile PhD program. Of course, I was rejected by 5 of the 6 doctoral programs to which I applied, so I am not as successful as some. And within my own institution, I have made more progress on my dissertation than some, but less so than others. I have not yet had an essay accepted for publication by a major journal in my field, but I do have a couple of submissions out there. And on and on it goes.
Second, it sets an absurd standard for success to which no follower of Christ should be held accountable. It teaches us not only that we are capable of doing great things, but that we are responsible for doing great things, because anything less would be a misuse of our prodigious talents. At the undergraduate level, it brands a failure every diploma-wielding 22-year old who does not have a full-time position in their field shortly after graduation. How could a young man who graduates and goes off to seminary but shortly thereafter drops out and spends the next couple of years as a construction grunt be successful by this way of thinking? How could a young woman who obtains a degree in secondary education (and graduates with honors) but ten years later has never been a full-time teacher and is currently stocking clothes at a college bookstore be fulfilling her potential?
Third, it is too easy to be jealous of those who have stayed on the fast track. Allow me to speak of graduate work in bible and theology. Those who are independently wealthy can devote much more time to their studies rather than working part-time on the side. Those who grew up attending classical schools have a serious advantage when it comes to primary and secondary languages. Those whose parents are professors have connections to programs and jobs of which the rest of us can only dream. When these topics arise in casual conversation among MA or PhD students, the inevitable reaction is jealousy. I am not happy for the guy whose dad is a big-time prof at a big-time school; I am jealous that he has an advantage over me. I do not rejoice with the girl who learned Greek and Latin in junior high and can read all of her primary sources without the aid of a dictionary; I fall immediately into wishing that my childhood had been more like hers. Need I say that these reactions are anything but Christian? But when a group of diverse individuals is presented with a single standard for success and told “each one of you is capable of this,” these reactions are inevitable.
Fourth, it implies an incredible arrogance on the part of the institution. It says this: “in large part due to the skill with which we have trained you over the past 3–4 years, you are now capable of being successful. If you don’t fulfill your potential, therefore, it won’t be our fault.” How, I wonder, has any school gained the right to make this claim? Even if we grant this skewed view of success, is it never the case that the school has failed the student rather than vice versa? I am not suggesting that students never fail! I am merely pointing out that we too quickly assume that inability to function in life after college is the fault of the student rather than the college.
What is the solution? Moving in chronological order …
Stop telling freshmen how wonderful they are. Seek out those students who need to be encouraged, who have been beaten down and told they are insufficient and valueless, and speak truth to them. Most freshmen at prominent evangelical colleges and universities are accustomed to being told how great they are and how much is expected from them—this deceived majority needs to be told of the inevitability of failure and that sometimes it will be their inabilities, not their abilities, that will showcase power of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Then, remind students that success by God’s standards is not measured by degrees, paychecks, rankings, or any statistically-quantifiable measure. Tell them that “potential” is a function of God’s gifts to them as individuals, and that their openness to being used by God in whatever field he places them is far more important than measuring up to the unattainable heights of worldly greatness. I am not saying “it doesn’t matter how hard you work; God will love you anyways” (though this is in some sense true). I am saying “let the goal of your hard work be something other than your attaining to a measure of success that has no bearing on a citizen of the Kingdom of God.”
Finally, let your graduation speaker be a housewife, a mailman, a truck driver, a drop-out, a tradesman. Not because these roles are perversely more important than the big-time pastor, the president of the corporation, or the author of the NY Times bestseller. But because students, both undergraduate and graduate, need to be reminded that potential is a myth, and that answering the call of God often does not correspond to success by any standard that we are used to hearing.
 A few years ago, at my brother-in-law’s graduation from Chico State University (California), an honorary doctorate was presented to the founder of Sierra Nevada Brewery. While the import of the presentation was in the fact that he had spent the past twenty or so years pouring his resources into a variety of philanthropic projects in the Chico area, it was also mentioned that he had started the brewery shortly after dropping out of Chico State. [Of course, anyone familiar with Chico State is aware of the inordinate (even for a state university campus) role alcohol plays in the life of the campus.] Needless to say, this isn’t quite what I am suggesting be done at Christian universities!