I hold that education is a sacred moment. The process and dynamic of educating a person is far more than a mere act of transfer of information. Education happens at a nexus of light, in which the spirit of the educator moves past the boundaries of self-protection and self-interest (in both student and herself) to bring about an expansion of (a restoration of) humanity. Therefore, I believe that the classroom is a sort of sanctuary in which this “holy” activity takes place, whether it is educating for science, the arts, professions, or theology.
As one trained for pastoral ministry I most often approach the classroom with “shepherding” as a ruling motif in my philosophy of education. However, over the years of teaching (and preaching) I’ve come to recognize that the proclamation of the sermon is in an entirely different category from the work of the educator in the classroom. The difference between the two lies in the often-murky no-man’s-land of method, means, and the goals.
The method of instruction for a sermon employs, unapologetically, the monologue. The method of instruction for education is dialogue. Indeed, the Socratic method of teaching is that method I believe to be the superior form of teaching and, thus, that teaching model to which I aspire. The Socratic method is not merely asking questions of the student, but rather carefully, astutely, and respectfully, guiding the student to a place of self-revelation. This dialogue is a necessary component in the variables of the learning experience. The dynamic must not be construed as or limited to a mere verbal dialogue. It is a four-dimensional activity—person, place, text, and author—ricocheting off of professor and pupil, peers and pressures, all within the proximity of sacred space set aside for learning, i.e., the classroom (which may be a room in a building or may be under shade trees). This dialogue-drama happens formally and informally. The dialogue happens through the traditional classroom as well as through reflection and critical thinking over, e.g., assigned readings. It also happens as the student begins to “follow the footnote trail.” Nor does this dialogue happen within a relegated 15-minute time. The dialogue that leads to self-revelation happens across time; across known and unknown spans of time most often interrupted by life. The dynamic of learning cannot be restricted to a classroom but rather allowed (“allowed” by professor and pupil, not, e.g., by administration, which is immaterial to this particular exercise) to evolve as a maturing relationship between teacher and student. This relational method of teaching requires that the teacher gives respect to the student. As in adult learning models, the educator comes to the task of teaching recognizing that the student has a reservoir of learning, life experience, beliefs, and cultural influencers that have shaped the student. Therefore the nexus of learning is an extraordinarily deep and broad spatial plane. Each student comes to this sacred place with various and different learning deposits in the layers of knowledge formation. Likewise, the educator comes with biases, life experiences, beliefs, and, especially—hopefully—the singular concern for helping the student to reflect and to think.
It would be a mistake to assume that such a philosophy of teaching is thoroughly abstract. To the contrary, I firmly believe in standards of education. That is, I hold that there should be a rubric (I am not all-together happy with appropriating that word to its usage in modern education) that is clear and measurable. This is part of the respect that the educator has for both the student as well as the respect due to the sacred art and science of teaching. Order and spontaneity must play together.
The means of instruction for such an educational philosophy begins and ends with the most basic material: a dedicated, inspiring professor of knowledge, some kind of knowledge, who desires to lead students to not only acquire that knowledge but also in some way to experience that knowledge himself. Such an understanding of means requires a well-considered commitment, once again, to relationship. We can never dismiss nor minimize the incalculable existential benefits of trust and respect. These virtues are the rebarb in the concrete of the bridge that unites professor and pupil. That is what I mean when I speak continually about relationship. No means of teaching can exist apart from the needs of and the latent abilities of the student. This approach requires a commitment to respect the varied learning styles of students. And this in turn requires a commitment to practice, let us say, pedagogical flexibility. Only through such flexibility can a master reach the greatest number of pupils. To provide for a variety of teaching techniques to reach respective learners is not an inconvenience to the teacher. It is a necessity (if not just plain good manners). However, let us mark this danger: true learning cannot be so student-driven that imbalance becomes an occasion for sedition. Teaching can never be an isolated undertaking. Learning is rarely unilateral. It is neither all about the student or all about the professor. It is a dynamic in which professor and student are enfolded into a sacred place where deep learning is actuated.
Let me give a moment of thought on technology. Technology must always be the servant of the educator as well as a facilitator for the student. Nothing can replace the primary dynamic of the relationship. However, I’m not advocating a Luddite approach which diminishes, e.g., online learning or distance education. We must always recall, with humility, that St. Paul, the great teacher in an age of great teachers, fulfilled his most difficult educational missions through distance learning. Those ancient epistles to Christians in Rome, Corinth, or to Timothy at Ephesus, continue to bring together the soul and heart of the author with the learner. Modern technologies that connect students and teacher are but a variation on a theme. Schoology and the letters to learners in ancient cities are both instruments of education. Yet, the means of learning must be, first and always, a relational experience. This experience, however, can be enabled and enhanced through either modern technologies or through pen and parchment.
The goal of my teaching is to enter into the inner world of the learner so that the student not only receives knowledge, but is given the tools, resources, and processes of reflecting, thinking critically and applying this knowledge (in the greatest way for the common good). In this sense, I hope that the student is given a “love of learning.” The goal is not to learn for advantage in an intellectual competition but to learn to become more human, transcending the lower, selfish goals that can make knowledge a commodity. Moreover, the goal is to see that the student has mastered standards. Standards can be cold, detached, and artificial measurements that fail to truly measure the acquisition of and the unfolding of knowledge in the student. Alternatively, standards can become a compassionate and clear milestone —a road-sign offering helpful navigation to a common destination for both student and teacher. I am convicted that it is my goal to help the student to reach the standards inasmuch as the standards are, in their best use, indicators that knowledge has been received, reflected upon, and used for critical thinking.
In summary, I have advocated for a method of education that is committed to a deeply spiritual moment in which teacher and student meet at the intersection of common humanity. I believe the means is limited only by the imagination. The means for teaching must transcend technique and embrace the mutual respect and a reference for the unfolding of knowledge as a way of expanding our humanity. The goal of teaching is not merely the transmission of data but the shepherding of a protégé into a lifelong love of learning. I have intentionally avoided talk about the (important) “how to” of rubrics, tactile learning, abstract learning, pedagogical theory, and other very relevant subjects to be considered in teaching. I’ve not avoided these matters because I think them unimportant but rather that I think them to be secondary, or perhaps, better put, necessarily consequential to the sacred moment of the act of teaching. The act of teaching is transcendent but accessible. The craft of teaching is imminent but potentially inanimate.
In the end we must decide to begin: begin to learn how to learn. Only in humbling ourselves as learners can we discover the possibility of teaching. And in such humility before the enigmatic we come nearer to embracing the perspicuity of the simple. Thus, Augustine: crede, ut intelligas, “believe so that you may understand.”
I am a Christian. I believe in the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. I believe that Jesus is Lord. He is God. That being the most fundamental reality of my own existence, I cannot help but to pray that my teaching is always flowing from an authentic center where Jesus of Nazareth teaches me. For I am a learner in order to be a teacher.
“Divine love, sacred bond between the Father and the Son, and Almighty Spirit, faithful Comforter of the afflicted: penetrate the depths of my heart and fill it with the brightness of Thy light” (Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book).