Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Economic Development and the Liberal Arts

The key to sustainable development is a liberal arts education. At least that’s what Patrick Awuah, founder of Ashesi University College in Ghana, believes.

I learned about Awuah through a presentation he did in 2007 for TED. He recounts his story growing up in Ghana. Once he had a particularly close call with the military whereby he narrowly escaped with his life. He eventually attended Swarthmore College, a top liberal arts institution, and worked as a program manager for Microsoft for over a decade. Seeing, however, the turmoil in his homeland, he became uncomfortable with the comfort of Seattle, and knew he needed to return to Ghana. What did he do? He founded a liberal arts college.

His reasoning for doing this is straightforward. What, says Awuah, does Africa need the most? Based on his experiences growing up in Ghana, he knew that what Africa needs the most is leaders. But not just any kind of leader. Africa needs leaders who are both ethical and are critical thinkers.

One of the central problems of development, as almost any experienced foreign aid worker will tell you, is corruption. Money is poured in to, for instance, Haiti, and it is usually just as quickly poured into the pockets of corrupt officials. Second, development needs critical thinking. Sustainable development needs idea generators who can think broadly about the complexities of society and find solutions to vexing problems. My good friend David Befus, who has worked for decades in job creation and development economics in the two-thirds world, has said (I paraphrase), “Poor people don’t need more loans. What they need are good business ideas. This is the rare commodity in the developing world.”

Awuah believes these are the very things that a liberal arts education provides. In contrast to a technical education, which provides job training only for a specific job, the study of literature, science, history, math, and philosophy provides the core for both a broad consideration of the world and the pursuit of “the good life.” As Ashesi University College, this core of studies is the foundation then for the specific application of these disciplines, whether it be in business administration or computer science.

Now, I’ve tried for several weeks to get Awuah’s university out of my head, but I can’t. How counterintuitive: there are poor people starving and without shelter, and the best solution to this problem is to take the to 15% of a society and send them to a liberal arts college. Yet it is brilliant…and revolutionary. And this is why.

First, sustainable development needs ethical leaders. All the aid programs in the world don’t work without ethical leaders who actually care about the good of their people. The liberal arts college trains students over time how the great thinkers have grappled with questions of truth, goodness and beauty. At a residential liberal arts college, students are taken out of their context for a period of time (up to 4 years), and are brought into a context that considers goodness, not only job-specific tasks. A liberal arts college can immerse students in a transformative context that has the potential shape hearts and minds.

Second, a liberal arts college connects ethical ideals to specific disciplines. Contrast what most missionaries have done in the developing world. They plant churches (as they should) and Bible colleges for training pastors . Although Bible colleges and seminaries are good, they don’t connect the truth of God with fields like mathematics, science, literature, or history. A Christian liberal arts college can do this, and bring the gospel to bear on broad swaths of human experience. Ethical practice in business, politics, and education, for example, find their source in theology, which is studied in the same context. Although Awuah’s university isn’t specifically Christian, it is making the attempt to connect goodness with professional preparation.

Third, sustainable development needs competent and creative indigenous leaders. The leaders must come from the country itself – yet many of them will have to go a transformation process. This process is what a liberal arts education provides. It’s a process of teaching leaders to think. We in the West should be the first to admit that there are no obvious answers to issues like global poverty or climate change. What is desperately needed is a class of ethical, critical thinkers who engage the interdisciplinary nature of social issues and find solutions that are not readily present. Making connections between disciplines is what the liberal arts graduate does.

Awuah has made me think twice about the nature of Christian mission in the two-thirds world. Perhaps a solid investment in a Christian liberal arts college would be a better use of development dollars than World Vision or Compassion International. Perhaps not. But Awuah has to make us think: what are we doing to form the next generation of ethical, creative leaders? The answer to this question ought to form the foundation of an international development strategy.

Finally, what about the graduates of Ashesi University College? Awuah reports that they have a higher job placement rate than any of their technically-trained counterparts. Broadly-educated means broadly capable of the highest levels of leadership.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Reason for History

It is a subtle wonder to me that more people do not enjoy history. “Boring, irrelevant, just a bunch of dates.” People that say this must either have had terrible history teachers, or never really read a good work of history. Not including the most commonly cited reason for learning history (so we don’t repeat the past), I can think of at least five good reasons why everybody should read history.

First, history is the great idea-tester. Flummoxed by problems in our families or jobs, many of us have had bright ideas sure to change our fortunes. Yet very few of us think, “Perhaps somebody in the past 4000 years of recorded history has had a similar problem. Maybe I should consult them first.” From social and political movements to inventions or even our school systems, the most logical place to look to investigate the validity of our ideas ought to be the past. As the Teacher of Ecclesiastes has said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.” Yesterday is not nearly so different from today as we often think.

Second, history provides us with vision for tomorrow. What safer foundation could anyone lay for the future of an organization than one that has learned from both the virtues and vices of yesterday? It’s no coincidence that many of the great leaders of history have been amateur historians themselves. John Adams and Abraham Lincoln loved history, as have many of their latter-day disciples. It seems to me that if we are serious about changing tomorrow, whether it be a university or a construction company, we would be wise to examine the past in order to track where we went wrong. If we can isolate that point, perhaps we can redirect history to more fruitful ends today.

Third, I believe there to be few powers greater than that of a story. It’s no coincidence that the Bible is a story. People love stories because they can find themselves in the struggles and triumphs of other human beings. In a story, we both think and emote, which is a powerful combination. Many times I’ve noticed that whoever can tell the most compelling story tends to win over a crowd. The story of “where we come from” is probably the most important force in forming the identity of a community. If you have studied history, and can accurately and convincingly “tell us our story”, then you will have a powerful leadership tool.

Fourth, truth is interdisciplinary. The problem with so much higher study (doctoral studies, etc) today is that most professors know everything there is to know about their miniscule slice of the universe, whether it be the Hebrew jussive case or robotic arms. And most professors then expect that everybody else think that their slice of the universe is really the whole universe! The nature of doctoral study, in many ways, pushes against seeing solutions to our world’s most vexing problems as the interplay between many disciplines. Although historians are certainly subject to this malady, history is inherently interdisciplinary. History involves philosophy, science, math, politics, education, psychology, social movements, leadership, and a host of other disciplines. The best historians can see connections between various fields, and thus are often some of the most insightful social commentators.

Finally, Americans don’t like thinking about the past. Our society is always looking to the future. Now, I’m not one to pooh-pooh visionaries. On the contrary, we have an obligation to form a more just and redemptive future. But in America (in contrast to Europe), we have an historical amnesia that is especially debilitating in much of our public discourse. Without a hearty and accessible knowledge of the past, America can’t expect to truly form a more just and robust republic. And more importantly, if Christians don’t understand the past, they are liable to miss the God of history who is moving all things toward his redemptive purposes.

So, next time you’re channel surfing, pause for a few minutes on the history channel. Or better yet, shut off the TV, find a book of history, and embrace the legacy of human civilization.

Affection for Learning

The problem with most schools is that so few students graduate wanting to learn more.

The other night at The Scholar’s Table, we discussed Michel de Montaigne’s On the Education of Children. The French essayist concluded, “To return to my subject, there is nothing like alluring the appetite and affections; otherwise you make nothing but so many asses laden with books.” The problem, says Montaigne, with most education is that through punishment (whether it be the lash of his day, or the “F” of ours), teachers force learning on students. The result? Donkeys laden with books. The real goal of learning must instead be to “allure the appetite and affections.”

Montaigne shares his own experience as a child. When young, he was taught be a tutor who spoke to him in Latin. Because his tutor spoke German, and he French, as a first language, Latin was the common language. Montaigne shares that it wasn’t until school that he learned that Latin was a subject – and a frighteningly boring subject at that, burdened with declensions and vocabulary lists. Montaigne had to re-learn an affection for learning in his adult years.

Montaigne has hit on a central problem in education. How do you get students to love to learn?

My friends at The Scholar’s Table shared their experiences. Christian told us a story. When he was a child his father would play him jazz music. So, naturally, he asked for a saxophone for his fourth birthday. Instead, his father bought him “a cheap recorder.” Devastated, he protested until he got a saxophone. When he eventually got his saxophone, the band teacher told him not to touch it until the next day. He still needed to learn how to use it. Christian said, “That night, I stared at my saxophone case wide-eyed, until I couldn’t take it anymore. I tore open the case, and taught myself the scale that week…That was the beginning of twenty years of saxophone for me.”

My friend Chris similarly told the story of when he became a Christian. Otherwise apathetic to learning, when he became a Christian, he had a deep and intense desire to read the Bible. His desire catapulted him into voracious reading – and even to seminary. However, much of seminary felt like the process of becoming “a donkey laden with books.” His early affection theological learning has now been significantly tempered by formal education.

Peter told the story of his mentor’s son. When in high school, he told his parents (both highly educated), “I’m not going to college. It’s not for me. I’m going to work for Disney.” A bit dismayed, his parents gave way and let him follow his dream. And work for Disney is just what he did. As he advanced in the company, however, he realized there were many leadership issues he needed further advice on. And so he read. He now is a constant learner of leadership principles, principles in which he applies each day.

The key to learning in each of these cases was affection. They had the desire to learn. Without this desire, learning is burdensome, and makes them see future learning as a chore, and not a joy.

This issue is really centrally important for a single reason: we don’t teach students all they need to know in school. This may seem rather obvious, but students leave school with rather spotty knowledge, and much of it will soon be forgotten. (I can’t recall more than 3 classes I took all of high school…and I was an “A” student.) Yet upon graduation and entry into the workforce, they will surely come upon problems they can’t solve on their own. And most of these problems will probably be in “subjects” they’ve never studied. (I’ve never taken a course in marketing, yet that is what I find myself needing to know today as an Admissions Director.) All that will be left will be a problem, and either a student with an attitude that says, “I hope somebody figures that out,” or one that says, “I love learning. I will seek out a solution. It will be a joy.”

All the tests and state standards on the planet can’t make somebody love learning. Nor can a teacher, as much as we’d all like to. So what can we do?

A proposal was thrown around the Scholar’s Table. Wouldn’t it be ideal if we could get to know each individual student well enough that his or her natural affinities would be known, and we could then pour resources and encouragement on that student? For instance, if a student loves saxophone, what if we could adjust his schedule to make half his day a saxophone lesson, and thus bringing joy and love to the learning process? But somebody would say, “No, what kind of a one-sided education would that be? Where would he be in math, English, or science?” A good point. However, as each of us shared our stories, it was some deep passion for a single subject that acted as a gateway to all kinds of learning. For me it was Christian theology, and because I loved learning the things of God, I eventually developed a love for learning about God’s world (the liberal arts).

It seems to me that we must seek each individual child’s gateway to learning. Whether it be saxophone, art, or science experiments, let his or her experience of learning be an enduring joy. And as it stays a joy, make it be a door to all kinds of learning, thus producing the rarely educated individual – one who learns out of sheer pleasure.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Philosophy of Education

My philosophy of education is built on three pillars: the gospel of grace, the liberal arts tradition, and global service.

The Gospel of Grace
The gospel of God’s grace is the heart of Christian education. Schools of Christian learning recognize the need to shape a student’s character as a fundamental goal. Yet most fall short when they only teach values and good morals, even if they’re based on Bible verses. Character formation comes not primarily from teaching good morals, but through the declaration of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When students hear the story of the gospel, the Spirit transforms hearts. When they realize their own need for redemption and God’s grace given at the cross, hearts are softened, and good character begins to be formed.

Discipleship flows from the gospel. The imitation of Christ, which includes the classic spiritual disciplines (the means of grace) such as prayer, Bible Study, solitude, service, and corporate worship, must be common practices for administrators and teachers in a Christian school. As students are taught and mentored by Christ-like teachers, they begin to take on the character of Christ as well.

I understand the Christian school as a gospel-telling community. It is the center point of what we learn in class, how we treat others, and even how we feel (joy is a natural result of the gospel). The ability to freely talk about the gospel is also the fundamental reason for a Christian school over a state school. The contrast between a community of learning that acknowledges no God and one that acknowledges the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is indeed vast. The gospel of grace is why we gather to teach and learn in a Christian school.

The Liberal Arts Tradition
Education is inherently about transferring the wisdom of the past to the next generation. For nearly 2,000 years Christians have studied both God’s word and his world. It was only in the last century that education became inundated with secular humanism , forgetting the rich tradition that formed nearly all of history’s great thinkers and leaders. This tradition is the Liberal Arts Tradition.

The liberal arts include minimally literature, language, philosophy, history, mathematics,and science. They are meant not primarily to train for a specific job, but to give students the knowledge-base and capacity to learn for themselves. The love of learning sets the tone for the school, and the classroom is a place of eager discovery as the mysteries of God’s world are revealed. A liberal arts education is not meant for only undergraduates, but for children and adolescents as well.

A Christian liberal arts school acknowledges the importance of learning, and denies any false dichotomy between being good and being smart. It embraces the truth, goodness, and beauty inherent in God’s world, and prepares students for a wide-array of career paths in service of the Kingdom of God. As we partner with like-minded parents, a quality liberal arts education is our best tool to equip students to impact the world for Christ.

Global Service
Education also looks to the future, to the type of graduate we want to produce. My fundamental paradigm for thinking about results revolves around service. Because Jesus was himself a servant who gave his life for others, so must we form servants who will go into the world and use their careers working for the good of others. The paradigm of service goes beyond service projects,and instead must be a foundational way of understanding one’s work and one’s role in the world.

A basic goal to any educational program must be graduates who serve God and others with their life. Within a school's curriculum, service must be a central component. Within the school, service must be a way we treat other teachers, administrators and even students. Institutionally, schools must become other-centered and work for the common good of the community.

Finally, in today’s globalized world, deeply interconnected by technology, economics, and transportation, students must think globally about their service to others. Cross-cultural preparation for our "flat world" must be a core value in today’s educational systems. Global concern, for both justice and mission, must be the heartbeat of Christian schools, for it is the heartbeat of God himself.