Napoleon Dynamite and the Purpose of the University

Napoleon Dynamite, skills, Houston Baptist University, blue background


I didn’t really enjoy the movie Napoleon Dynamite the first time I saw it. My kids asked me to watch it with them after it came out a few years ago. I thought it was silly and didn’t have much point to it, though I did notice that it had a few funny lines. When I heard my kids quoting these lines back and forth to each other after we watched it, it started to grow on me just a little bit, and we watched it together a second time.

Napoleon has one funny line in particular that I want to take a look at here, because I think it’s a good illustration of the way Americans tend to think about the purpose of the University. I’ll get to that line in a moment—first, some background.

The American university, from the time of its beginnings, was deeply concerned with forming students’ character. That concern is stated in the mission statements of various universities, along with a commitment to ensuring that graduates would have, as Matthew Arnold observed, an exposure to the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience.

Virtually all universities have traditionally had two focal points: character formation and a broad exposure to the fields of knowledge and human experience. Christian universities are no different, except that we also emphasize the ways in which Christ’s Lordship shapes those goals.

The American university is in danger of losing these great aspirations. Most universities don’t think much anymore about the positive ways in which they can shape character. As they’ve moved away from this moral imperative, they’ve also moved away from their original ambition to provide broad exposure to all that the human experience provides.

These days, most students go to college because they want to get a good job after they graduate. They see the first two years of preparatory courses in the liberal arts as an obstacle that stands between them and their future earning potential.

I’m thankful for the blessings that our market economy gives, but behind every blessing lies a potential danger.

A market driven society can make it easy for us to allow second things to become first things. Jesus said that our daily needs—food, shelter, and clothing—will be provided if we are diligent in seeking his kingdom, but it’s easy for us to neglect to do that. Students neglect it when they concentrate solely on getting a good job and fail to take advantage of the many opportunities they have to cultivate wisdom as they spend time with great books and professors.

Students naturally want to know why they should study the liberal arts when they could take more practical courses in technology, or computer science, or business. Wouldn’t their earning potential be realized more quickly if they could skip those pesky general education classes?

This is where Napoleon Dynamite becomes important.

You see, Napoleon is just like those students because he’s concerned about having “skills.” He tells his friend Pedro that no one will go on a date with him “Because I don’t even have any good skills. You know, like nunchuck skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills. Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.”

This is a humorous example, but he’s right, certain skills are good. We understand that, and we work hard to make sure our students at Houston Baptist University learn what they need to provide for themselves and their families.

We also take it a step further.

Skills are important, but they’re not the most important thing when it comes to living a purposeful Christian life. They’re not even the most important part of a university education. Our mission is far more potent than simply enabling people to have the skills to earn a living. HBU professors are there to help give students the wisdom to live life appropriately, honorably, and in accordance with God’s will.

Don’t settle for just learning skills—not even Napoleon’s bow hunting skills! Seek first the kingdom of God. Take the time to learn wisdom. Put your energy into that, and you’ll find you can learn the rest along the way.

The previous was adapted from Dr. Sloan’s address at the opening Convocation at Houston Baptist University on September 6, 2007.

Image credit: Flickr

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