The Myth of Potential

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.

Conclusion:

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,[1] 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.


[1] 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!

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About Mike Kibbe

I am a recent graduate of the PhD (NT) program at Wheaton College, having completed my dissertation on the Sinai theophanies in relation to their use in Hebrews 12. I have been married to Annie (Kerns) for 7 years, and we have one son, Sean, who was born February 2012. I currently teach undergraduate New Testament courses at Wheaton.
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7 Responses to The Myth of Potential

  1. Stephanie A. Lowery says:

    Mike – thanks for the dose of…wisdom? honesty? A mix of those and some other things. I have gotten nearly to the point of throwing out my own college alumni mag, due to frustration with only seeing the “success” stories – the ones who have made it big in regards to money, making headline news, or some such. And as someone who has meandered a bit in my own life path, I sometimes get that same overwhelming sense of, “Agh, I’m behind everyone else and thus a failure!” So thank you for a timely reminder (as I fall behind in my dissertation writing…)!

  2. Amy Hughes says:

    I actually had a student once ask me not to include a grade with a paper, only comments so that they could focus on learning how to think and not become obsessed with the final grade. The student noted how identifying success or failure with a number or a letter and not the experience of learning and growing in critical thinking skills would tip the scale toward a competitiveness and a performance mentality that was not healthy or desired.

    I thought this really quite wise. It made me realize that for undergrads especially the focus may not be enough on how they contribute to the world and to their formation just by the act of learning and working through an assignment or a paper. The world needs people who can think and effectively engage people and ideas…not who know how to get an A.

  3. Cindy Marsch says:

    It seems to me the job of a Christian college is to offer a degree in a chosen field (technical preparation) with a core of Christian worldview coursework in an atmosphere that promotes the full development of the students’ souls. The more exclusive schools accurately represent that the students admitted ARE privileged and talented, and they justly remind them of their God-given responsibilities that come with that privilege. The students, however, have to do their own part with what is offered to them. They will not all succeed, but they should all try. And for those who do not succeed, my own experience as the wife of a caring Grove City College professor attests, the college can (and often does) offer counsel about how to re-steer a major or consider another path in life. GCC does not publish a failure roster of those who have not met their potential.

    If a student decides not to compete in his college field after graduation, either because the rewards are too low or his ambition is, or because the jobs are too scarce or the alternatives more attractive, that is his business and his responsibility. It would be foolish for an alumni magazine to publish stories of “grads who ought not to have been here.”

    Granted, the rah-rah PR of any college may not match the actual results for all its graduates, but that does not make the college dishonest or suggest that it is not serving its students. At some point young people have to take responsibility for themselves, and if that starts with realizing they’ve risen to their own level of mediocrity, it takes Christian humility to come to that sober self-assessment. Perhaps the Christian college has offered opportunities for personal spiritual development that will bring glory to God as the students embrace the real world and find their own places in it.

  4. Mike says:

    Cindy,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. I hope, first of all, that I did not seem to be saying that all failures are institutional rather than individual. This is certainly not the case! My concern is with how we define “success” and “failure.” I do not think a Christian college should present “success” solely in numerical terms (paycheck, rank, # of readers, # of congregants, etc.). I also do not think we should brand as “failures” those who end up in full-time vocations other than that which is specified by their diploma.

    Second, you wrote that “It seems to me the job of a Christian college is to offer a degree in a chosen field (technical preparation) with a core of Christian worldview coursework in an atmosphere that promotes the full development of the students’ souls.” I have no fundamental disagreement with this model, but it is not the one practiced at many institutions. For marketing purposes, the model is usually far more profound: “we exist to enable students to change the world for the gospel.” But what does that mean? How does that look in post-college life? Most students like the idea, but find shortly after graduating that their lives will be far more ordinary than that, and so they deem themselves a failure. The tension between technical preparation (what a degree trains me to do) and identity (who a degree trains me to be) is a difficult one that all schools wrestle with. The problems I have identified seem to be more pronounced at schools emphasizing the latter, because so many students graduate and then think “wait, I thought this was going to prepare me for real life, and yet my philosophy/religion/literature/history/music/foreign languages degree has gotten me a job at Starbucks.”

    An institution, for marketing purposes, is certainly more likely to advertise those students who have remained in their chosen fields, because most of us choose a degree program with some sort of vocational end-game in mind, and we want to know that moving from point A (undergraduate studies) to point B (job) is at least possible. There is nothing wrong with this! The truth, however, is that a huge percentage of college graduates end up in long-term vocations that are only slightly or not at all related to their original bachelor’s degrees. This does not necessarily mean that these people chose the wrong programs the first time around, nor necessarily that the institution failed to prepare them.

    I am quite certain that no Christian college administrator would say “students who graduate and then can’t find a job in their field are failures and [Wheaton/Cedarville/Grove City/Bethel/Biola] is ashamed of them! I am also not advocating that we stop celebrating those who succeed according to academic and professional standards. I am simply saying that success is a complex notion that means one thing in academia and another in the Kingdom of God—and Christian colleges, in my opinion, need to do a better job of explaining that distinction.

  5. Cindy Marsch says:

    Great comments, Mike. I think you have more subtlety in those than in the original article, and I think it’s worth exploring in the future!

  6. Carmen Imes says:

    One thing I’ve realized over the past decade is that academic success bears little or no relation to ministry success. Some of best youth pastors I know barely squeaked by in Bible college. Others have been a model of faithfulness to their families, churches, and communities after a rather mediocre college career. Some of the “brightest and best” wind up disillusioned and even walk away from the faith altogether.

    I’d take faith-full-ness, humility, and genuine care for others over straight A’s any day. (Not to say that a straight A student can’t have those things … but if I was hiring for a ministry position and was forced to choose between them, it would be easy to decide.)

  7. College says:

    Well done Professor Kibbe. Our only measure of success in this world is in how obedient we are to the Holy Spirit. I pray often that you will be able to continue your work without being distracted by the temptation of competition. I am proud of you, not because of the grades and titles but because you are seeking after the truth in scripture and your desire is to serve Christ and his bride, the church.

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