During the last six weeks of this summer, I had the chance to participate in a study abroad program at Cambridge University. I was enriched and invigorated by rigorous lectures, stimulating conversations with scholars and academics, new friendships with students from universities across the world, and the beauty of Cambridge’s college grounds and countryside.
While completing some reading for one of my courses, I came across a passage from Virginia Woolf’s novel, Jacob’s Room, where Woolf drifts into a reflection and description of Cambridge University’s sublime, even spiritual characteristics. She writes:
“They say the sky is the same everywhere. Travellers, the shipwrecked, exiles, and the dying draw comfort from the thought, and no doubt if you are of a mystical tendency, consolation, and even explanation, shower down from the unbroken surface. But above Cambridge—anyhow above the roof of King’s College Chapel—there is a difference. Out at sea a great city will cast a brightness into the night. Is it fanciful to suppose the sky, washed into the crevices of King’s College Chapel, lighter, thinner, more sparkling than the sky elsewhere? Does Cambridge burn not only into the night, but into the day?”[i]
Though my initial response to this passage was to meander into my own reminiscences on the beauty of the chapel I walked past each morning, I became intrigued by Woolf’s transformation of Cambridge from an ordinary place into a kind of waystation, the meeting-point between heaven and earth. Woolf describes the sky, air, and oxygen of Cambridge as if from the peak of a tall mountain: “lighter, thinner” and more “sparkling” than any other place on earth. Yet the high elevation of Cambridge is of a “mystical” or phenomenological nature rather than literal, granting the university power to provide not only knowledge, but heavenly “consolation” or “explanation” for the difficulties experienced during the travels, journeys, and exiles of life. Though common in religious practice or belief, receiving consolation or explanation regarding the ultimate is an overlooked, even unexpected, fruit of education.
For me, the passage reveals a key difference between the access to transcendent knowledge provided by the normal “skies” of life and the uniquely transcendent access that a university can offer. However, if the sky of Cambridge grants a uniquely spiritual access to knowledge, what do we gain from BYU’s sky?
A recent report in the Wall Street Journal ranks BYU, along with the U.S. Naval Academy, as the #1 university in the nation for being “worth the expense.”[ii] The usage of the word “worth” in the report is significant, for it indicates that the study did not operate wholly based on today’s prevailing definition of educational worth, i.e. a net-positive return on tuition costs thanks to high salaries, standards of living, or annual earnings of graduates. Rather, using the word “worth” indicates the report’s consideration of subjective, individualized responses of the polled students. I do not believe BYU achieved this ranking thanks to the economic benefits of Church-subsidized tuition alone. For me, BYU’s elite educational worth, as indicated by the usage of a word like “worth,” is equally bound up in subjective, intimate, and deeply personal experiences with the transcendent nature of education, much like Woolf’s sublime experience with Cambridge
This poll, combined with Woolf’s words in Jacob’s Room, demonstrate the way in which seeking and receiving divine consolation and explanation are foundational facets of BYU’s academic and educational worthwhileness. Spencer Fluhman, executive director of the Maxwell Institute and associate professor of history, spoke of this unique spiritual environment in a recent campus devotional, explaining that at BYU “there is no secularizing retreat . . . that permits any discipline or field to imagine itself apart from questions of human flourishing or morality or even holiness.”[iii] Fluhman later quotes Elder Jeffery R. Holland’s remarks to Maxwell Institute Scholars, stating that to fulfill the aims of a BYU education requires that one’s soul “be one—integrated, intact, and whole.”
Wholeness is an especially apt descriptor for a divine education. While the etymology of the English word “education” comes from the Latin word educatus, meaning “to bring up, rear, or train,” the Russian word for education, “образование” (obrazovaniye), comes from the root “образ” (obraz), meaning “shape” or “form.”[iv] This linguistic comparison illuminates both the technical, humanist, and sacred aspects of a whole education, or the formation one’s whole being, including knowledge, abilities, feelings, values, and spirituality.
I experience this whole, fully formative education through my study of the humanities, specifically Russian and English, at BYU. Whether researching print culture in early American literature, wrestling with theories on literary form in the Anthropocene, or feeling profound empathy for spiritual journeys of Leo Tolstoy and his characters, I feel myself being continually shaped and formed into someone better; not just a more knowledgeable or skilled student, but a more vulnerable, sensitive, and wholesome human. Ultimately, what this school and our discipline are “worth” today cannot and should not be bound up in the gathering of marketable or deliverable skills alone. Like Woolf’s Cambridge, BYU and the humanities will continue to “burn not only into the night, but into the day,” providing us access to divine consolation and explanation and facilitating the continued convergence of the divine and the secular, of knowledge, beauty, and humanity.
This post was written by Sam Jacob, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.
[i] Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room, London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.
[ii] McGee, Charlie. “U.S. College Rankings (A Special Report) – is Your College Worth the Cost? here’s what Students Say.” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 5, 2019.
[iii] Fluhman, Spencer. “The University and the Kingdom of God.” BYU Devotional Address, 30 July 2019.
[iv] See “Education,” etymonline.com and Тихонов А. Н. “образование,” Морфемно-орфографический словарь. Школа-Пресс, 1996.