One of the challenges I face as a theologian working with educators in the public school system is helping teachers discover courage and hopefully a passion for engaging students in a life of the spirit as much as a life of the mind. This is no easy task. Teachers in elementary and secondary schools are under huge pressure to ‘teach for the test’ and constantly assessing students in ways that focus attention on skill acquisition without the time nor resources to adequately engender a reason and purpose for the life they are living.
One of my conversation partners is Parker Palmer who for years has sought to bridge the gap in educational theory with a deep concern for the spiritual in student’s development. Palmer’s background is notable: he has a PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley, has taught in both public schools and higher education, and is a Quaker which speaks to his framing his thoughts in a contemplative (‘consider the space of teaching’) rather than declaratory (‘here are five things to do in your classroom to make sure student succeed’) mode. He is currently heading up the Center for Courage & Renewal which works with organizations to align “our lives and our work with renewed passion, commitment, and integrity.” Because Palmer approaches these questions as a contemplative himself, this can be confounding to be sure and many of my students in the School of Education struggle with him – “does Palmer expect us to enact something here in the classroom? Where is the concrete amidst the abstract?” Much of this is based on his premise that we live in a tension between the contemplative life vs. an active life – two primary modes of living that are in tension in modern culture and not merely the classroom. As he explores in his book “To Know as We Are Known” and some other books such as “The Courage to Teach”, he holds that in earlier centuries contemplation was the preferred life, one followed by academic or religious scholars through the medieval period until the rise of the scholastic period. As Palmer would state, an “active life” was one of tedious toil where one did not have the time to reflect on a higher plane of existence. Over time that changed. An “active life” (he wrote a book entitled “The Active Life” which gets at this thesis) became more prominent as technology progressed and the power associated with it. A pendulum effect between the two – active vs. contemplative – has swung back again as limits to technology have not provided a solution and the lure of a contemplative life and its seclusion has taken hold. In short, this has resulted in the “why” questions have been replaced with the “how” questions especially in our classrooms. The demands of ‘teaching for the test’ have created a culture of busyness and frantic skills assessment with little to no time given to what these ‘skills’ are for in our society and how they fund what it means to be a human being. For some of my students, they are frustrated because Palmer is not forwarding his point based on the strict adherence to social scientific method which holds that which is to be considered ‘true’ as correlating with quantitative methods that can be measured via statistical analysis. No, Palmer is speaking from a more qualitative stream of reflection which does go back to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and continues on through humanities and the arts: a more existential reflection on the human condition and (for the sake of his books) and exploration of the spiritual as a vital part to deep education. He is inviting us to essentially go inward – the contemplative life – and sit in the space of quiet with our students and creates spaces for contemplation on the reasons to life in addition to the skills and tasks of living. As those sitting in his books and lectures, the dominant challenge for what is means to be human in our 21st century age is take seriously our vocation – our calling – and live the life we were always meant to live and to live this full life in front of our students in a holistic manner. Teachers have been forced into becoming information Pez dispensers – spitting out facts and figures and methods without context nor purpose to test and therefore ‘assess’ with reliability that students are learning.
Do you think that he has a point?
Have we lost something in the education of our children in the elevation of the ‘active’ life over the ‘contemplative’ life?
In a series of articles published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas Benton (aka William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, a small Christian Reformed college in Holland, Michigan) has been raising a veritable army of angry adjuncts and underemployed PhDs through his revealing what he sees as “the Big Lie” of the academy – that universities are not telling the truth about employment prospects for those graduating with PhDs in the Humanities and ‘trapping’ vulnerable graduate students into believing that ‘the life of the mind’ is the only calling worth pursuing and that other career options could be as if not more fulfilling. If you follow the comment threads to Benton/Pannapacker’s postings, you will hear the anger, outrage and disappointment of many graduate students who concur with him. In spite of the irony of the author writing under a pen name and publishing an article on the ‘Big Lie’ (why not publish under your birth name if truth is such a value?), there is a deep concern brewing about re-evaluating what a university is for and ultimately what a faculty member is charged with.
Last week I received the call that many academics wait for – the notice that the Board of Trustees at the University had voted to extend me tenure. I went on this journey once before during my time on faculty at the University of Glasgow so to go through it again was tiring to say the least. It is a long process of evaluation through many vantage points in closed rooms – students focus groups, peer teaching evaluations, guild endorsements, reviews of published scholarship, administrative interviews, and meeting with the President. In many ways, tenure is an ancient rite of passage more than a means of securing employment or (as many people think) the so-called ‘freedom’ to do and say whatever I want when I want (this was the number one thing that people said to me after the announcement – “so… are you going to just spout off and do crazy things?!”) No, tenure is not a freedom to be self serving nor should it be seen as a means of subverting the very institution that has embraced me. It is truly a statement of covenant in the oldest sense of the word – a commitment to a mission beyond the confines of contracts and student evaluations. In many ways, tenure is the ultimate act of faith extended by a body to an educator and scholar – a promise to support, nurture, and give space to voice the mission of the institution not as a mere employee – but as a physical embodiment of the institution itself. In short, tenure is a burden of grace and trust not to be taken lightly. It does sadden me to see other faculty who see tenure as a licence to ‘do their own thing’ – pull back on working with students in co-curricular ways, starting side businesses that take most of their attention away from campus life, stop sticking their necks out through submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals and seeking book contracts, and basically coasting through the remainder of their career in utter silence as the ultimate ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. These are few, but represent why the public views tenured faculty with such scorn. For the public that Benton/Pannapacker speaks to and now has a substantive following, these are the faces of the voodoo dolls newly minted PhDs are sticking pins into with relish (which to layer irony upon irony Benton/Pannapacker is possibly another candidate if he is merely stirring up dissent and not courageously using his tenure status to make the changes he himself desires – I would love to know how his letters of petition to the Board of Trustees at Hope College have been going as well as his offer to cut his own salary to enable a younger faculty member to find employment. As a scholar of Walt Whitman, he might find some courage in Leaves of Grass or as a faculty member at a Reformed school being one of the Elect…)
The challenge I want to lift up as a tenured faculty member is basically this – is the role of tenure a freedom ‘from’ the institutional restraint we perceive holding us back or is it a freedom ‘for’ living into the very mission of the institution that has chosen to embrace us? Is perhaps the gift of tenure a gift of stewardship – learning how to be truthful about the difficulties of the profession and prospects of employment as Benton/Pannapacker frames so well in his article and also honestly take stock of how tenure means embodiment of the institutional legacy rather than merely licence to be left alone?
What do you think?
In a recent article by Tom Matlack in the Huffington Post entitled “Tiger Woods and the State of Modern Manhood”, Matlack zeros in on this latest account of fallen sports icons as an accounting for what he sees as the demise of manhood in America. As he surmises in the article:
Guys we are at a crossroads. You can go back into the cave if you want to but it isn’t going to do you, or your family, any good. The guys I know, from investment bankers to Marines, are asking themselves how they can possibly be good fathers, sons, husbands, and workers at the same time. In a way its what women have struggled with for decades but us guys are just facing into as the challenge of a “he-cession” at work and increased expectations at home have us reeling.
Does Matlack have a point worth considering? Is he just a whiner who needs to ‘man up’, get to work, and stop watching Dr. Phil? As the author spins his story of overindulgence in the consumer ideals of the so-called American dream that lead to his marriage falling apart and his identity collapsing around him, you do feel a level of sorrow and wonder what is indeed happening to our culture as it concerns men. The question interests me as well as a teacher who works with young adults in their college years – what developmental theorist Erik Erickson calls the “moratorium from adulthood” and a period of life Cat Stevens mused as being “on the road to find out.” I work alongside young men in their early 20s who continue to choose essentially two paths:
(1) entwine themselves with charismatic 21st century Robert Bly/Iron John/’Wild at Heart’ types who spin tales of manhood as a thing forged in the Black Forest amidst the terror of hordes of Orcs, framed in the flickering light of epic battles of yore, and promise mentorship in exchange of unswerving allegiance. In short, many of the neo-Calvinist church plants catering to middle class America who see manhood as certainty of strength through force of will rather than faith, hope and love and as the mark and virtue of a true man fall into this camp.
(2) The disenfranchised/misunderstood/maligned socially aware social justice artist who sees the role of manhood framed as the critic par excellence. These young men fall into the hippie cum grunge cum slacker cum ‘have-hoodie-and-iPod-will-travel’ aesthetic that dance on the edge of things often journaling in the coffee shop while the world burns around them. This is the underachiever who is the overly idealistic and tells all who listen what is wrong and how things should be yet won’t step out to change things beyond the sphere of their shaker snow globe of well-meaning egalitarianism.
Is there another model? Is there some option beyond these polar extremes?
One of the things I enjoy about summer is the opportunity to move theological discussions into the realm of other disciplines. For the last two years I have taught in both the MBA program in the School of Business and the MA program in the School of Education. Both of these groups represent populations that don’t typically get framed as ‘theological disciplines’ in the purest sense of the word, yet consistantly offer some of the most insightful glimpses into the ways people ‘hear’ what a theological life looks and feels like.
Last night in my MBA class we discussed the Jubliee mandate of Leviticus 25 and the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5 -7 as well as the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. These represent some of the most compelling ethical mandates in all of scripture. As we walked through the scripture and discussed some of the implications, it was interesting to get a resounding “yeah…so…?” from the class. Our discussion article for the night was Jonathan Rowe’s testimony delivered March 12 before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Interstate Commerce. The article of the transcript is published in Harper’s Magazine June 2008 entitled “Our Phony Economy”. In the article, Rowe challenges the presuposition that the GDP is a metric worth maintaining as a measure of a healthy economy. What is telling is that this comes prior to the Presidential election and just months before the economy started its downhill slide. In the article, Rowe notes that if our metric for a healthy economy is based on consumer spending, then having a home garden rather than shopping at Whole Foods, staying home with our children rather than hiring a nanny, and going running with neighbors rather than getting a fitness membership at a local club is simply a bad thing. In a pure GDP model, getting divorced, buying rather than making, using up rather than recycling and renewing are more ‘responsible’.
Most, if not all, felt that while the teachings of Jesus to care for the poor and marginalized is interesting, the pragmatism of our current state of economics, in particular the current ‘whatever it takes to get out of the recession’ mentality, leaves little to no room for strategic let alone imaginative visions for business let alone society. “Jubilee is purely utopian” was one comment. “Jesus is arguing for only those called to serve in ministry – not those called to make a profit to fund these ministries” was another. “How could a city like New York ever survive under a Jubliee mandate?” was yet another. Over and over the repose was a blank stare, checking the balckberry for texts, and the glint of solitare backlit in the glasses from the laptop upon which ‘notes’ were being taken.
I am still licking my wounds from the class session and trying to figure out a better way to approach this…