By Gordon Govier

Integrating Faith in the Academy

Ernie Balajthy teaches students how to be teachers. He is a professor of education at the State University of New York at Geneseo. But he also believes it’s important to help Christians to be “salt and light,” as Jesus instructed, in the field of public education.

“I have a long standing interest in looking at how Christians can interact with and benefit from—and be a benefit to—public education, both at the public school level and at the public university level,” he said. Ernie is the chair of the Education track at InterVarsity’s Following Christ 2008 (FC08) conference in Chicago, December 27-31.

FC08 Education Track Director
The Education track at FC08 will attract people with a wide perspective on education, from parents facing a decision on whether to send their young child to a public school or a private, Christian school, to teachers in elementary or secondary schools or graduate students preparing themselves for a career as a college professor. And Ernie plans to address this wide range of perspectives.

“On a day-to-day practical level, I want track participants to think through issues of the spiritual development of children,” he said. “I also want to deal with issues of how Christians can function in a liberal, pluralistic, multi-cultural school or university setting. On an academic level, relating to research and theory, I hope that people will come away with a better understanding of the role that scholarship can play in integrating faith in the academy and in the public and private schools.”

Ernie is excited about the perspectives that will be presented by his fellow track participants, Tom Baskin and Shanna Pargellis. Tom is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He will be describing the integration of faith with the academy by discussing his research into teaching forgiveness to reduce violence among urban youth. Shanna is a founder of The Mustard Seed School, an innovative, urban Christian school in Hoboken, New Jersey. She will discuss treatment of spiritual issues in education through arts and social awareness, as well as how educators can achieve their personal, Spirit-guided visions for professional growth.

Ernie himself will address practical issues pertaining to the Christian’s role in public education, based upon his experiences as a public school teacher and a professor at a public university. “My view of public schools is that it shares many of the same goals that we have as Christians,” he said. “We need to think through how we can function in a way that is seen as partnering with public schools and universities, as opposed to fighting them. It’s our responsibility as Christians to bring peace and grace to the public sphere.”

Faculty Adviser
The InterVarsity chapter at SUNY Geneseo has had Ernie as its faculty adviser for more than 20 years. It’s a role that he relishes, not only because of the interaction with students on spiritual matters, but also because of the voice that it gives him with fellow faculty members.

The recent appearance of Tony Campolo on campus, presenting a lecture sponsored by a local inter-faith ministry, stirred up a lot of talk among students about spiritual issues and the social implications of the Bible. The professors couldn’t help but notice and discuss the students’ interest.

“My association with students, as faculty adviser, gave me the ability to speak out more forcefully than if faculty perceived my ideas as simply being my own,” he said. “I would strongly advise any Christian faculty member who wants to have a say for Jesus in the public university to get involved with the Christian fellowship. College and university is not about us, it’s not about faculty members, it’s about students.”

InterVarsity Veteran
“My first day of undergraduate school at Rutgers in 1969, I went to my first InterVarsity prayer meeting, and I have been active in InterVarsity ever since,” Ernie said. After graduation he joined the Central New Jersey InterVarsity Alumni Association while he started his teaching career. As a graduate student he was active in a small group led by an InterVarsity staff member.

Then as a faculty adviser at Geneseo, he chaperoned some students attending a conference and found a new attraction to InterVarsity. “I brought a group of students to the Bible and Life weekend, which was in Buffalo; and that’s how I met my wife, Janet,” he said. Janet was the Bible teacher at the conference. She is currently serving as national field director for the Northeast.

The Christian faculty fellowship at Geneseo, which Ernie participates in, meets sporadically but keeps in close contact through email. The InterVarsity chapter at Geneseo has a stable group of about 125 students. Ernie meets regularly with staff member Scott Ashley. “That’s a key component of what I do,” he said.

Faculty and students understand that there are different social-cultural minority groups on campus. Ernie believes it’s important for Christians to have a voice like any other group. “To some extent we have to earn that voice,” he said. “We also have to overcome our own preconceptions that we can live in an isolated Christian subculture that has no important role to play in society.”

The Education Track at FC08 is designed to help participants consider their preconceptions about education and come away with a clear biblical vision that encourages and guides Christians to become leaders in the field of education.