Do trains lead somewhere?

I was recently watching the movie Polar Express with my family and several friends.  As you likely know, this movie is a digitally animated 3D production that stars Tom Hanks as the conductor of a train (the Polar Express) on a magical Christmas Eve journey to the North Pole.  As the locomotive chugs its way over mountains, through valleys and over the frozen tundra its young passengers must decide if they “believe” in Christmas.  One boy in particular has his doubts.  The train ride represents his struggle. Is Christmas real?  Is it a fantasy or is it a fact?

At the end of the movie, as the Polar Express is quietly returning each of the children to their respective homes, this specific little boy is trying desperately to determine what to think of the adventure he has just experienced.  What should he believe?  What is true and what is false? What is good and what is bad? What is real? With all this as context, the train, scattering snow to the left and the right, groans to a stop in from of the little boys house on Christmas morning. The conductor (Tom Hanks) then ushers the little boy down the steps, stops and turns to him and quietly says, you know … “the one thing about trains: It doesn’t matter where you are going.  What matters is deciding to get on.”

As I watched this movie, I thought of the debate raging in our own town square.  More specifically, I thought of the dominance of the paradigm held by so many of today’s leaders who proudly fancy themselves as “ liberal progressives” – a worldview that asserts that reality is merely something we construct and beliefs are nothing more the sum total of what we make of them. This model is called constructivism and its adherents declare that truth is simply determined by individuals in dialogue with one another. 

It really doesn’t matter what worldview you choose for all are equal. Constructivists (at least those who are ideologically consistent) hold that there is no Truth with a capital “T” but only personal “truths” that are created uniquely by each individual as the culminating synthesis of tolerance, inclusion and diversity.  For these folks, it is the journey that matters, not the destination.  The goal is to build a personal belief system not to seek and discover immutable facts.  Constructivism asserts that there is no such thing as a final answer.  To travel is better than to arrive. It doesn’t matter where you are going.  What does matter is that you just get in line with the masses and get on a train – any train, (i.e. any religion and/or any personal moral construct) and enjoy the ride!

At Oklahoma Wesleyan University we believe there is a better way to pursue knowledge and learning and to find out what is right and true.  No, let me restate this: We believe there is a right way.   Yes, education does involve dialogue and a discussion and, of course, we do build upon our experiences with nature, with each other, with the teacher and with the coach as we come to conclusions.  But a classical liberal arts education – one that is validated by nearly 1,500 years of history – is more than just the process of choosing from a smorgasbord of personal values and various worldviews. A truly liberal education is one that indeed liberates.  It liberates mankind from the consequences of those things that are wrong and frees us to live within the beauty of those things that are right.  Education that is grounded in the pursuit of Truth as opposed to the constructions of man will ultimately free you and me from the selfishness of sin and the oppression of lies. 

Education at its best serves as a light to those who are in the dark.  It is a map to those who are lost.  It is a law to those who want order.  It gives answers (not just opinions) to those who have questions. Education that is built on the rock of God’s revelation is not afraid to put all ideas on the table because it has confidence that in the end we can embrace what is true and right and discard what is false and wrong.  Confident in the existence of Truth we recognize that we should find the right “train” and follow the right “path” for it does in fact matter which direction we are going. For some trains may indeed crash and some paths may lead us over a cliff.  

In the 1990s there was another movie: A historical drama and it also featured a train ride.  This train, however, was not leading to the magical snow filled skies of the North Pole but, instead, to the mysterious and ash laden winter of places such as Auschwitz and Dachau.  The movie was Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and in this film we see it does, indeed, matter which train one chooses to get on.  The obvious fallacy of post-modern constructivism comes alive before our eyes and hearts.  Who can watch fellow human beings herded as cattle into boxcars bound for the furnaces of the Nazi prison camps and argue that it doesn’t matter where the train is going?  Who would dare tell the Jews that the joy is in the journey and that the destination doesn’t matter?  It is apparent that some “trains” lead to good and some “trains” lead to evil.  It is painfully obvious that we all want to avoid getting on the wrong trains.  Hopefully our hearts cry out with Oskar Schindler to rescue those who have been forced to get on the wrong train headed to the wrong place.

As an educator I am passionate about learning and I am passionate about ideas.  Our ideas have tremendous potential and power.  Ideas are like trains and paths.  They are always directional:  They always have consequences and a predictable end.  Education, thus, is not stagnant and it definitely does represent a journey that will take us somewhere.  With our ideas we are going in one of two directions: Either toward the forgiveness and freedom that only God’s revelation can offer or toward the bondage that always and inevitably results from man’s “constructions.”  In this context, education represents the path and train we have chosen for eternity.

Thousands of years ago a Jewish Psalmist sang out, “Teaching me your ways O Lord and I will learn . . . to walk in your Truth!”  Later, Jesus Christ himself proclaimed,  “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Perhaps there is some wisdom in these ancient words.  Perhaps we would do well to remember that God’s path always lead to liberation and freedom and man’s path always leads to bondage and slavery with the crowd silencing the dissenting voice as the emperor proudly march wearing no clothes.

Maybe, just maybe, the blessings of Christmas – of peace on earth and good will toward men – can only be had by choosing the right train and the right path after all? 

Editor’s Note:

Dr. Everett Piper, President, Oklahoma Wesleyan University is the university’s fifth President.  He holds a
B.A. in Psychology from Spring Arbor University, an M.A. in College
Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University, and a Ph.D. in
Higher Education from Michigan State University. 

Oklahoma Wesleyan University is the premier sponsor of the upcoming Tulsa Christmas Parade December 10, 2011 at the Tulsa Hills shopping center and Dr. Piper will serve as the Parade Grand Marshal. 

More on Dr. Piper’s views may be found online.  Click on the following links for entries on Christmas and Holiday.

Tulsa Today stories on the Tulsa Christmas Parade are linked below:

Tulsa Christmas Parade Announced

Christmas Parade Update 11/21

Why Parade for Christmas: A personal view