William Sloane Coffin (on education and perspective)

I was never an American, and I was at the dimly echoing end of the Baby Boom generation, so I didn’t catch Reverend Coffin — now there’s a foreboding name for a man of the cloth — the first time around. He was an ordained pastor, the chaplain of Yale University from the late ’50s to the ’70s and later the voice of New York’s Riverside Church. In both places, he was a strong and fearless champion of peace, disarmament, social justice and a progressivist orientation for people of faith. (He was called, by some, the “true heir” to the mantle of Martin Luther King after King’s assassination in 1968.)

William Sloane Coffin, calling on the faithful, calling out everybody.

William Sloane Coffin, calling on the faithful, calling out everybody.

Lewis Lapham‘s 2006 eulogy to Coffin, in the July edition of Harper’s Magazine, was a beautiful and resonating thing which, however, has still not led to my more attentive reading of WSC’s works, such as The Heart is a Little to the LeftLetters to a Young Doubter, and Once to Every Man: A Memoir.  I read Lapham’s praise of Coffin again a few days ago, in the course of pruning my too-bountiful files of things to think about and teach. Not everything old is news, but this felt fresher than the latest poll numbers for Rob Ford, fergawdsake.

I do, however, pay attention to the bits and pieces I know, and my current favourite Coffinism is the following. After five years of teaching students in China, many of whom don’t have any conception of or belief in God and most of whom frantically disobey WSC’s pithy prime educational directive, I find the statement below rings all the stronger. We need young people, ANY people, who get educated and use what they’ve gained for the betterment of the world. (Just Say NO to MBAs and marketing majors! Okay, I descend from my own pulpit, and give you Reverend Coffin instead.)

“The Lord forbids our using our education merely to buy our way into middle-class security.”

William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006) said this at Yale University in 1959. I’m still listening, still trying to amplify the echoes.

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