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?
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…
I just finished teaching a 10 day intensive for Fuller Seminary on Christian Ethics. As an exercise in community, intensives have always felt like a parody in many ways – akin to the ‘new car smell’ that car companies spray into the seats of cars before they roll off the assembly line… smells real but is far from it. Granted, I know that teaching flexible format courses – online, distance learning, intensives – is just a reality of the current situations that most students find themselves in as they attempt to balance classes, working to pay for classes, and families and friends and ministries they are enmeshed in. That said – as a faculty member teaching these classes – I find the experience terribly draining spiritually and psychologically as I try to get through difficult material in a timely manner yet still allow space for the engagement of deep and abiding learning in light of ministry. I am a teacher (like many teachers) who desires to know my students and teach to the space in which they find themselves called to. Spending 10 days with them focused on plowing through ethically challenging questions doesn’t give much room for that. Many of the challenges we had together as a class would have been alleviated if we had simply spent time getting to know each other at some level, learned to trust one another, and then entered into these complex questions of poverty, just war theory, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, etc. True, we may have emerged with the same disagreements and unanswered questions as we did this week. But as opposed to seeing the questions as unaswered, the depth of relationship would have framed them as open questions to continue journeying through.
I pray that the students find some community to wrestle with these difficult questions and wish I could continue to the journey with them, but the week is done and so is our context.
Go with God, my friends. Journey well…