Christ & Culture Series: Academia

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This is a continuation of a current series

In this post I interview my dad, Robert Oleck, about the academic world. Growing up my dad was always my ‘go-to person’ for theology and apologetics questions. I credit him for influencing me, at a young age, in my love for Bible Doctrine and Reformed Theology. 

His academic background includes a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Rutgers University, an M.S. in Architectural Engineering from Penn State, and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Syracuse University, where he also was an adjunct Professor of various engineering courses from 1983-1990. 

In 1973 (before attending Syracuse University in 1977) my dad came to know Christ, and in 1997 he also received an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary in the Central Florida area. He is currently retired and doing consulting and freelance engineering work, while serving as an Elder at Grace Church in his hometown of Winter Garden, FL.


 

Did your Christian beliefs have an effect on your years as a professor? If so, how and why?

Yes, my Christianity gave me a new view of the physical laws we engineers use to design structures, aerospace vehicles, cars, etc. These physical laws are extremely precise and if not adhered to will cause failure and collapse. Somehow I wanted to try and get this point of view across as I taught Engineering Mechanics to undergraduates, a couple of graduate courses in Earthquake Engineering, and courses in Advanced Reinforced Concrete design. We engineers are the practioners of the physical laws of the universe that God has put in place in order for the universe not to be in chaos. In subtle ways I would mention this point of view when possible.

Compare your student years as a Christian and non-Christian. What were the differences and similarities?

As a non-Christian, at Rutgers and later Penn State, my ambition was to get a good job so I didn’t have to work manual labor. My motivation was also to get a better salary as well as enjoy myself as much as possible. As a Christian at Syracuse University I still wanted to better my education but now more to help my family have a better life and to glorify God through what I could learn. As a non-Christian my ambition was self-centered, but as a Christian I became more God and family oriented.

Does God’s Word have any bearing on the academic world? If so, how and why?

Yes it should because the academic world should teach us how to think. God’s Word answers some of the questions about our world and ourselves that in a growing number of educational institutions are not being asked, such as: Where did we come from? What is our purpose? Are we basically good or evil? How do we arrive at our knowledge of what is good and evil? What happens after we die?

As an undergraduate at Rutgers University, we engineers had to take one course in philosophy, and the professor said that most philosophies come down to assuming man is either basically good or basically evil. As an engineer I was trained in only the physical sciences. I learned all the equations and formulas, but not to think critically in any way.

How do you think our culture views the academic world?

Based on discussions I’ve had with professors and students from various universities, our current American culture has become very one-sided in its view of God, man, and right/wrong. The educational institutions are the factories that reproduce this cultural bias into the next generations. However, I think our culture believes they are right about this approach to education and resists anyone or anything that tries to offer an alternative view. The surprising thing about this attitude is that it contradicts the post-modern philosophy that advocates relative truth and acceptance of multi-cultural beliefs. A current book confirming this hypocrisy is The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech, by Kirsten Powers.

In addition, even the Greek philosophers were interested in comparing ideas. Plato expressed this view as follows, “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Sec. 38 of Plato’s Apology.)

How should Christians view the academic world differently?

God has provided various sources of general or normal means besides the Bible (General Revelation) about Himself, His ideas, His view of right and wrong, etc.,  Though there are some good things we can learn from the academic world, Christians should also see education as an opportunity to learn many points of view about the questions I mentioned above as a way to reach out to other cultures, beliefs, and different peoples with the gospel.

Example: Paul at Mars Hill (Acts 17:16-34) had learned the Greek philosophers. In Paul’s presentation of the gospel he quotes a Greek poet and philosopher to indicate that there is an “unknown” Greek god that he would inform the audience of at the Areopagus (a philosophical discussion group) near Athens. This approach enabled Paul to introduce a “bridge” between the Greek culture and the gospel.

What is also interesting about the group at the Areopagus was that they were interested in hearing what Paul had to say, which is better than what occurs at our academic institutions where any ideas that are contrary to the current philosophy are prohibited.

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