Back to College—45 Years Later

LeRoy Lawson started his college teaching career at Milligan College, and later served as president of Hope International University. Now retired from education and ministry, he returned to Milligan last fall to teach freshmen for a semester.

By LeRoy Lawson

When Pat Magness was a Milligan College student in the late 1960s, she was Patty Phillips and I was her professor. Now Dr. Magness is the head of the area of humane learning. She is my boss.

Which goes to show you that it pays to be nice, even to freshmen. You never know . . .

My rank indicates my place on the academic totem pole. One step lower and I’d be in the dirt. I’m a visiting substitute adjunct professor of freshman humanities. This just may be my all-time favorite title.

Dr. Magness extended the invitation to wear it because of an offhand comment. “Sometimes I think it’d be fun to teach humanities again,” I carelessly remarked. I didn’t realize the woman’s power. Just a few months later, after Pat had pulled the necessary strings, my wife, Joy, and I were driving across the continent so I could rejoin the Milligan faculty. The usual professor was taking a leave, so Pat asked me to replace him for one semester—but just one, in case I didn’t work out! (As I write this, I have only a couple of classes to meet and then it’s over. No invitation has come for me to teach next semester. Silence sometimes speaks volumes!)

I was a little surprised when Joy so readily agreed to the experiment. I shouldn’t have been. We both always think of our eight years in Tennessee with gladness. Even though I worked hard then (I was just one night ahead of my students), I was home with the family most nights and weekends, something we gave up when we returned to the pastorate.

And among our most cherished friendships are the ones we made during those years. We looked forward to being with them again; we have not been disappointed.

In many ways Milligan symbolizes what has happened to several of the colleges in our church fellowship. It has kept on getting better. The faculty as a whole is more highly qualified, the opportunities for the students more diverse, the campus more beautiful than ever.

I returned to teaching with some trepidation. I remembered the papers, the grading, and the long hours. But I was overdue for a refresher course, and there’s no better way to learn than to teach. In addition to looking forward to immersing myself once more in ancient Mesopotamia and Greece and Rome and the rise of early Christianity and the Middle Ages (assignments for the first semester), I wanted a closer look at today’s young people. The last time I taught freshmen was in 1967. Would they be the same or, as most of my contemporaries think, wildly different?

These are my impressions, as the semester winds down.

They’re really young. Most major events of my lifetime struck them as ancient history. When they learned that Joy and I have been celebrating our 50th anniversary all year, they were astounded. How could anyone so old still be upright?

It was near the end of the semester that I finally gained perspective on the age gap between us. September 11, 2001, is one of the most important dates in American history.

My students turned 9 that year.

My world is totally strange to them. That’s OK. So is theirs to me. They have been struggling to understand the history of Western civilization; I’ve been trying equally hard to comprehend their world.

I should have known. For several years now our children and grandchildren have helped us explore the Internet. They keep trying to introduce us to the real world as experienced by teenagers. They insisted I join Facebook. I did. Then, to maintain my sanity, I cancelled it. I was picking up more “friends” than I could answer.

Don’t even mention Twitter.

They don’t know very much. That is, very much of what we academic types consider vital. Their public school education has, for most of them, not been rigorous. Some of my D students came to college with GPAs of 3.7 and 3.8 (on a scale of 4.0) in high school, yet they haven’t developed study skills, don’t write well, and are overwhelmed by the demands of a program like humanities. A student complained that she had spent 45 minutes to prepare for today’s quiz and she still flunked it. Forty-five minutes!

It’s not that they are dumb. They aren’t. It’s just that they live in the “now” and aren’t much devoted to their future or interested in the past. They are up to date on who’s who among sports or entertainment celebrities. Unfortunately, they don’t know who is in charge of America.

If I were still in management, though, I would hire several of them in a heartbeat. They are fast learners.

They still don’t like the food. When I was here before, we felt that if the students were complaining about nothing more than the food, we were having a good year. This one you can’t solve. You can fix most of the other problems, but you can do nothing to make cafeteria food as good as Mom’s (and Milligan’s food is excellent).

They are human: they complain. I’m afraid this is a vice they may never get over. Like us adults.

They don’t get enough sleep. My first class met at 8:00 am Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. As the semester began, most students were in their seats before 8:00, ready for the day. By the end of the semester, they dragged themselves in, rubbing their eyes, yawning. And there were too many illnesses.

They haven’t learned the importance of a good night’s rest and a regular routine (I know, I know, this is old folks’ talk). I was as ready for fall break to come as they were. They wanted to see their families. I wanted them to sleep!

They are as interested in sex as my generation was. As all generations are. You can’t throw several hundred young males and females together on a campus and expect them to ignore each other. They are at “that age.”

Exploring the field happens, romances develop, marriages are planned. And, not infrequently, hearts are broken. But life is about relationships, isn’t it?

They are curious about God. This is, after all, a Christian college. They could have gone to a secular school. They could have chosen a public university and paid a lot less. Milligan is not cheap. It is not a party school. It is openly, happily committed to Christian education. Since it’s education and not propaganda they receive, they are being challenged “to grow up in every way into Christ.”

They face some financial challenges we escaped. My father went broke the year I left home for college. He had promised to help me, but when the time came, he couldn’t. He never got over his embarrassment, yet I have always felt that having to work my way through was a good thing. My loving home church, knowing my family’s plight, also assisted with a scholarship that made Bible college possible. When I graduated, I had accumulated only about $700 of debt. Manageable.

For most of today’s grads the story is different. Federal Student Aid became a reality with the Higher Education Act of 1965. Now generous loans are available. That’s the good news. The bad news is that today’s seniors walk across the stage, receive their diplomas—and a bill for tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid loans, a debt that will hang over them for years to come.

They’re respectful, at least by comparison.

I taught here last time from 1965 to 1973. Recognize those dates? The ’60s and ’70s: President Kennedy, assassinated (1963); Martin Luther King, assassinated (1968); Robert Kennedy, assassinated (1968); Kent State shootings (1970); war in Vietnam and university protests, including fires and sit-ins (throughout this period); Watergate and Nixon’s departure in disgrace (1974). There was more, much more. Even on Milligan’s relatively calm campus, some of our sharpest students did their best to foment unrest if not outright rebellion.

I remember in my last year as vice president, standing with Dean Robert Wetzel as the trustees drove away from their semiannual board meeting, sighing to the dean, “Well, there go the trustees. Now we can get off the defensive with them and resume our usual defensive position with the faculty and students.” They were tense days, and everybody had staked out a position.

Not so now, at least at this college. Oh, the faculty members are still passionately debating about curricular changes and occasionally grumbling about parking. (During that earlier period, Clark Kerr, president of the University of California system, defined the typical university: “I have sometimes thought of it as a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”) Grumbling by students and faculty defines the corporate educational experience. I have been pleased this semester to note that these disagreements generally take place in an atmosphere more congenial, more mutually respectful, than I remember from that earlier, more turbulent time.

They are delightful. If I haven’t made myself clear, let me state it without equivocation. Since this old guy returned to college, I have been having a great time. I am eager for the semester to come to an end—I want school to be over before my energy runs out—but I’ll miss these students. I’ll miss my colleagues. I’ll miss the academic atmosphere.

But I won’t miss the alarm clock calling me to my eight o’clock. There is something to be said for retirement!

LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.

You Might Also Like


  1. Pat Abram Ault
    March 10, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    As a college student at Milligan in the early 70s, I was privileged to have Dr. Lawson for freshman Humanities. In this article he summarizes college life and that era perfectly, but he always was both well-spoken and full of humor! The era was volatile, with its undertones steeped in Kent State and the Viet Nam war and young people’s questioning the values of generations. But Milligan was a place apart, a Christian liberal arts college, well tucked into the Tennessee/ Appalachian hillside, Milligan and its professors in the early 70s made a deep and lasting impact on their students, one that often affected our lives decades later and even for eternity. Unlike many colleges and universities, now or then, we were frequently invited to professors’ homes for evening gatherings, meeting their families and witnessing the private aspects of their lives including their spiritual walk. That in part is why those years at Milligan College were some of the most treasured years of my life. I still count the friends I made there as some of my best friends, the lessons among the most valuable that could have been taught anywhere. As we alumnae followed Dr. Lawson’s career path through the decades and celebrated his moves and successes, we were also assured that he touched so many more peoples’ minds and souls in a profound and lasting way. Thank you, Dr Lawson, for once again blessing the Milligan family with your talents (including your wonderful sense of humor.) We are all so much the richer for having known you!

  2. Carol (Hockenberry) Duff
    March 10, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Dear Dr. Lawson,

    Think back to the fall of 1971. I remember your comparing your carpet to Dr. Wetzel’s. You had the shag carpeting. That made you more important. You were my friend Pat Abram’s discussion leader in Humanities, and Dr. Wetzel was my discussion leader. Pat and I still keep in touch. If I were not still teaching, we would have signed up to be in your course this past fall. We would have loved it. Your article was entertaining as always. Enjoy your retirement, although you cannot possibly be old enough.

    Take care.

    Carol Hockenberry Duff
    Lock Haven, PA

  3. Melodie and Scott McClarren
    March 10, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    Such a great article and what memories it evoked! I am a high school principal and so “resemble” your sentiments! Life presents us with such wonderful people who cross our paths…and so it was with you as our Humanities professor! We consider ourselves lucky…as are those who have had you this semester. Best of luck in your continued retirement, God Bless!
    Melodie (Rupert) McClarren

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for Free!

Subscribe to gain free access to all of our digital content,
including our new digital magazine,
and we'll let you know when new digital issues are ready to view!