Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lesslie Newbigin on Education

My favorite theologian, Lesslie Newbigin, on education:

In any discussion on the nature of society and of our vision for it, education must have a central place. Societies exist, cohere and flourish in so far as they embody a reasonably coherent understanding of existence within which they can make sense of their personal lives. Education, the its broadest sense, is the initiation of new members of society into this tradition. In contemporary British society the tradition into which young people are initiated in school and college is the set of assumptions which have controlled Western society since the Enlightenment. In a minority of homes – Christian, Islamic, Jewish and others – children are initiated into other traditions. In so far as these are at odds with the tradition into which children are initiated in school and college, they obviously fight a losing battle. Even in homes where the parents are committed Christians, it is hard, to the point of impossibility, for children to sustain belief in the meta-narrative of the Bible over against that understanding of the meta-narrative – the picture of the origins and development of nature, of human society as a whole – which is being offered to them at school. It is possible to maintain the telling of the biblical story in the privacy of home and church, but in so far as this story contradicts the meta-narrative of the schools, young people are placed in an impossible situation. The question ‘which is the true story?’ must ultimately be faced.

For the sake of the well-being of civil society as a whole, I believe that Christians have a duty to share with those who hold other beliefs, whether religious or secular, to create a public educational system which will train future citizens to live in mutual respect and mutual responsibility while acknowledging their differences in fundamental belief…But this pluralism cannot be sustained if one of these belief systems, namely ‘secular humanism,’ uses its present hegemony to exclude from the curriculum of public education the belief system which is embodied in the Bible. It is only the gospel which enables us to affirm both that the Sovereign Lord of all has made his will and purpose known in Jesus Christ for the whole of our life, private and public, and yet at the same time, not in spite of this but because of this, to affirm that God has ordained a space in which disbelief can have the freedom to flourish.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Classics in Theological Education

The following short story is from a personal journal entry on November 29, 2007, half way through my seminary experience.

Imagine you are a recent college graduate on the hunt for the perfect seminary. One day you arrive on campus a starry-eyed prospective student to behold a community buzzing with activity. Students are madly rushing to class and engaging in furious theological debate. You ask your tour guide what all the commotion is about, and he simply says, “It must be the faculty.”

Your curiosity peaked, you open the double doors to the academic building and take a peak into one of the classrooms. Standing along the back you notice that the professor seems to be dressed oddly, and is using an interpreter. “Who is that teaching?” you inquire. “Augustine of Hippo. He heads our theology department. John Calvin was recently added to our faculty as well. The students just love them.” You shoot back a quizzical look at the tour guide and continue the tour, not knowing whether to check his pulse or your own.

The next classroom has a much different flavor. Two monkish looking teachers are sitting in the corner with a small he Brd of student around them. “And who is teaching this class?” you ask. “Catherine of Siena?” “No, she's actually on sabbatical. Our current professors of spiritual formation are Ignatius of Loyola and Benedict of Nursia.” You shake your head, blink your eyes, and pinch yourself to make sure you're not dreaming.

Fluttering with excitement, you nearly run down the hall to the next classroom. Within you see Blaise Pascal teaching apologetics, with C.S. Lewis on deck as a guest lecturer. Astonished you fly down the hall to see Martin Luther King Jr. teaching theological ethics, and next door you see Gregory the gey team teaching a course on leadership. “What kind of a seminary is this?” you wonder. You pull out the course schedule to see if all the teachers are of this caliber, and you discover that Martin Luther teaches Greek exegesis, Ben-Hadad the Hebrew Scriptures, Plato and Thomas Aquinas teaching philosophy, Eusebius teaching early church history, Will Durant medieval and reformation history, Mother Teresa lectures on urban ministry, and the Apostle Paul teaches intercultural ministry along with his assistant William Carey.

Overwhelmed you shove the list back into your book bag, get a glass of water, and plop down at chapel. Yet before you can ask your tour guide what's going on, dozens of oddly dressed Jews come singing and dancing into chapel. “You're going to love this,” your tour guide quips. As scores of bearded men, who you discover to be Levites, pile in, you behold King David himself leading worship. The harp and lyre, the melody and lyrics, the commotion of prayer lift your imagination to a height that border exhaustion. After worship, Barnabas (from the mentoring department) introduces the preacher, none other than John Chrysostom – golden mouth himself. Enraptured by the legendary rhetoric and passion of the prince of preachers you near the point of complete elation.

Marching out of the chapel, you pull your tour guide outside and fanatically inquire, “What kind of a place is this? How do you keep these guys under control?” “Oh, don't worry, our President has a way with words. Actually, many even call him the Word.”

“I have one last question. How do I get into this school?”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Private Schools for the Poor

One of the Millennium Development Goals is universal primary education. Despite a rise in attendance, 72m school-age children are still not in school, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southwest Asia. Governments strive to meet the challenge of a free education for all, but a recent article in The Economist points out “A free education is something that many parents will pay to avoid.”

For instance, in India between a quarter and a third of students attend private schools. In Mumbai, parents are itching to get their kids into Mary Immaculate Girl’s School, which charges $180 a year. Considering there are free options across the street, this has made many reconsider the proper path to universal education.

Throughout India, as state systems expanded, quality slipped. Many teachers failed to show or to correct basic errors in student work. Contrast this with private schools in Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda. Here parents are choosy customers – and they care more about the quality of teaching than the glamor of facilities.

Can fee-based schools ever serve the poorest? Perhaps not. Many non-profits are skeptical of private schools and prefer to reform public schools instead. Nevertheless, for those interested in caring for the educational needs of children across the world, involving local parents as a system of accountability (they vote with their dollars) seems to me like a better solution than more large grants to the state.

Friday, March 16, 2012

School Architecture

Buildings shape your soul.

That may be hard to believe, but I think Stratford Caldecott, in his excellent book Beauty for Truth’s Sake, has convincingly made the case that architecture is under girded by distinct understandings of the world. And in the modern world, due primarily to materialism and utilitarianism, beauty has been mostly lost in our buildings. And with this loss in beauty, “ugliness” has warped aspects of the human soul.

Again, that may seem extreme, but Caldecott is worth hearing on a few points. The first relationship that he explores is the vertical and the horizontal in architecture:

“One way of describing what happened to architecture is that the vertical dimension was devalued, or else that the link between the vertical and the horizontal had disintegrated…. These two dimensions are integrated in the human body, which, as the medievals rightly perceived forms a “microcosm,” a compact representation and sampler of the cosmos as a whole. We stand upright, and this very posture hints at our potential role as a mediator or high priest of creation.”

Human beings stand upright, and, unlike most animals that stand horizontal, the vertical dimension of humans makes us unique. Thus, because humans are taller than they are wide, tall buildings tend to strike us as beautiful. "Humane architecture" proportionally connects the vertical and the horizontal. Or as Caldecott puts it:

“In general, buildings that are flat tend to strike us as drab and ugly, awhile buildings with peaked roofs, with triangles and curves that connect the horizontal with the vertical, are felt to be more beautiful.”

This is fascinating to me. My last apartment was flat and had normal 8ft ceilings. In my current home, the ceilings are vaulted, and they come to a peak at more than 20ft in height. Immediately when people walk in, they comment that our home is “beautiful.” Caldecott argues that this is because it resembles a human body, the most beautiful of all created forms.

He goes on to describe which materials are perceived as the most beautiful:

“The materials of which we make our buildings are just as eloquent. Traditional materials such as wood, stone or clay speak an immediate connection with the earth. On the other hand, concrete and cement by their very nature represent the brutality of modernism—the reduction of the world to particles in order to force it into shapes of our own devising. The shaping of concrete is done from the outside, by the imposition of mechanical force, rather than from inside by growth or natural accretion.”

Again, I had never thought about this before. Materials that have a connection to the earth – stone, wood, clay – are always more “beautiful” than concrete and cement. They resemble the created order and not the harsh imposition of force by humanity on a building.

These changes in architecture have a deeply philosophical basis. At the Enlightenment, the influence of the divine on architecture (not only on churches, but on schools and public buildings as well) was diminished, and utilitarian and human ends became ultimate. Caldecott says:

“In modern times, with the rise of rationalism and materialism, the transcendent or vertical dimension was neglected as we concentrated on mastering the world around us…One these attitudes and assumptions had sufficiently penetrated the popular mentality, architects began to create buildings that reflected the modern understanding of man and the world; that is, machines for living in, spaces designed to facilitate efficient motion in a horizontal plane.”
“Spaces designed to facilitate efficient motion in a horizontal plane…” Does this not sound like nearly every school you’ve ever been in? Certainly all K-12 schools, and a good many colleges and graduate schools are seen as only spaced to put bodies for “getting things done.”

I think we’ve all had the experience of being in a majestic building and feeling in awe. Or we’ve been in a wood cabin and felt deeply “at home.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, we've all felt what it's like to be molded by our surroundings.

Schools and churches should prioritize beautiful buildings. “But they cost so much!” Yes, they do. So save up, and build them when you have the resources. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that space is neutral. It’s not. And neither are buildings.

The buildings we reside in form our souls.