The Vision Lives On
Ellen White and Adventist Education
By Humberto M. Rasi
The pioneers who officially launched Adventist education in 1872 would be truly amazed if they could see the international reach of that initiative some 138 years later. From a one-room school that met above the living quarters of the teacher in Battle Creek, Michigan, that tentative project has truly become a global enterprise.
What was originally conceived of as a sheltered setting to teach the basics to children of Adventist families soon became the first training center for future Adventist ministers. As time went on, other college programs were added to prepare teachers, health-care personnel, managers, and missionaries for the Adventist Church in North America and to become trailblazers abroad.
As the educational network expanded rapidly at all academic levels during subsequent decades, it became clear that denominational schools at mission outposts were an effective method of attracting students of other faiths to Adventist beliefs. More adjustments followed. By the second half of the twentieth century our colleges and universities began providing professional education to a growing number of Adventists who did not plan to be employed by the church, but intended to find work in various organizations or establish their own business.
Ellen White’s vision for Adventist education
From the very beginning of this global initiative, the leading voice in providing the conceptual foundation and projecting the vision of Adventist education was a woman who did not have extensive formal schooling but who was well read—Ellen Harmon White. In her 30-page essay “Proper Education” (1872-1873)—later expanded in her books Education (1903) and Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students (1913)—she outlined a visionary yet practical philosophy and mission for Adventist education that continues to guide and challenge our teachers, administrators, parents, and students.
What were the major features of her vision for this special type of education? Its key characteristics could be summarized as follows:
1. The Christian formation of children and youth is part of a cooperative process that involves home/parents, school/teachers, and church/religious leaders. Students learn that they belong to a special people with a history, a mission, and a glorious future, in which they can play an important role.
2. The Bible constitutes the basis and reference point of school endeavors. The entire curricular and cocurricular program reflects the worldview and principles revealed in the Scriptures. Teachers and students believe that the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible writers will guide those who approach it with a teachable attitude.
3. Jesus Christ’s life and His teachings are accorded a position of privilege on campus. Youth are encouraged to accept Him as Creator, Savior, Lord, and coming King, and to commit their lives to Him. Maintaining a friendly relationship with Him brings meaning, purpose, and hope to our lives.
4. Educators are assigned the task of fostering each student’s balanced development in every dimension of life—mind, body, spirit, and relationships. Students are encouraged to adopt a healthy lifestyle and to manage wisely their time and resources. Our ultimate goal is harmony with God, ourselves, others, and nature.
5. The main objective of Adventist education is to help students develop a solid Christian character, realize their individual worth as God’s children, embrace biblical values, and learn to make principled choices. This goal is best reached in a context of responsible freedom and redemptive discipline.
6. Teachers and students recognize that all truth is God’s truth, and that every field of study can broaden and deepen their understanding of truth as revealed in Jesus, the Bible, and nature. The curriculum favors interdisciplinary and practical learning. Creativity and scholarship are fostered.
7. Service to fellow human beings, motivated by Christ’s love and example, is the highest purpose of life. Priority is given to the qualities of honest work, active compassion, generosity, and justice. School outreach programs promote activities that alleviate human needs and communicate the good news of salvation.
8. Students are motivated toward informed, independent, and responsible thought. Instead of letting themselves be molded by the surrounding culture, they learn to approach it with critical discernment from God’s perspective, and to choose the true, the good, and the beautiful.
9. Youth learn by experience to take an active part in God’s plan of redemption. Acknowledging their roles as salt and leaven, regardless of their occupation or profession, they seek to bring this world into closer harmony with His ideal.
10. Students are encouraged to discover their talents and vocation, and prepare themselves for a useful life of self-directed learning. The ultimate objective is to help each of them become citizens of Christ’s kingdom, where their education will continue through eternity with God Himself.
The Vision Lives On
More than a century has passed since Ellen White communicated her inspired guidance for a different kind of education. Since then substantial changes have taken place in our society as we moved from agricultural to industrial to technological economic frameworks. Yet the essential principles and objectives she recommended maintain their value and continue to transform hundreds of thousands of lives.
Today, on an average weekday, 1.7 million children, youth, and young adults study with 85,000 teachers in 7,800 Adventist schools, colleges, and universities in 145 countries of the world.
The Adventist brand of education attracts increasing recognition by government authorities in many countries and the support of numerous families of other faiths. In fact, more than half of the students currently enrolled come from non-Adventist homes who highly value what we offer.
Unfortunately, the global ratio of baptized members to students in our schools continues to decline to the point that in 2008 there were only nine students per 100 members—an ominous trend in a growing, youthful church such as ours. Denominational leaders and members must address this challenge and reverse the stagnation or retrenchment so that more Adventist students can develop their God-given talents nurtured by dedicated Adventist teachers and mentors.
One thing is clear: Without Advent ist educational institutions and teachers committed to Ellen White’s vision, this world would not see a dynamic, unified, and mission-oriented church moving forward to prepare a people for Christ’s kingdom.
As long as we remain faithful to the educational principles she outlined and apply them in practice, our schools, academies, and universities will prepare leaders of character and conviction that will transform the world as part of God’s great plan.
Humberto M. Rasi, Ph.D., served as teacher, editor, and administrator, as well as director of the General Conference Department of Education (1990-2002). Now retired, he continues to lecture, write, and support educational projects.