Following John Milton, we propose that education is the pursuit of the knowledge of God through special and general revelation, divinely given, so that we might know our Creator, and thus know ourselves. Such knowledge directs our inquiries and clarifies our cosmic, terrestrial, and metaphysical experiences.
The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.— John Milton (1608-1674), Of Education, 1644
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”Proverbs 1:7
One Sacred Moment
Education is a sacred moment that unlocks and unleashes the heart and mind for the glory of God and the blessing of humanity.
The process and dynamic of educating a person are far more than a mere act of transfer of information. Education is a nexus in which the spirit of the educator moves past the boundaries of self-protection and self-interest to bring about an expansion of the student’s 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, the professions, or theology.
As one trained for the pastoral ministry, I often approached the classroom with a philosophy of education that centered on the lecture. This reflected a theology of the centrality of preaching. However, over the years of teaching, I’ve come to recognize that the proclamation of the sermon is in an entirely different category from the educator in the classroom. The difference between the two lies in the method, the means, and the goals.
A Dialogical Method
The method of instruction for a sermon is, unapologetically, a monologue. The medium of instruction for education is dialogue. Indeed, the Socratic method is one that I hold to be the superior form of teaching 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 that must not be construed or limited to a verbal exchange within the proximity of space set aside for learning, i.e., the classroom. The dialogue happens formally and informally, but always intentionally.
Jesus of Nazareth is the Great Teacher. Our Lord engaged the Samaritan woman at the well, the rich young ruler, and the rabbi of Israel by building a human highway. This highway revealed unworthy side-roads, pretentious masquerading, while compassionately guiding the respective person to see herself in relation to God. Only when the true self, created by God, is redeemed from the toxic and corrosive comparisons with others, can the isolated person find healing. Often, the last word in the teaching moment of Jesus was a question. The student was left with applying Jesus’ teaching. Or not.
The dialogical method occurs through the traditional classroom as well as reflection and critical thinking over assigned readings. It also occurs as the student begins to “follow the footnote trail.” Nor does this dialogue happen hurriedly. The interchange that leads to self-revelation happens across a plain of time. Fruitful dialogue that leads to learning cannot be restricted to a classroom but rather to the growing relationship between teacher and student—wherever that relationship is best cultivated.
A relational method of teaching requires that the teacher gives respect to the student. As in adult learning models, so in all types of learning communities: the educator comes to the task of teaching recognizing (admitting) that the student undoubtedly has a reservoir of learning, life experiences, personal beliefs, and cultural insights that have shaped the student. Therefore the nexus of education is an extraordinarily deep and broad spatial field. Each student comes to this sacred place with different degrees and kinds of deposits in their own reservoir. Likewise, the educator comes with biases, life experience, and beliefs. But all of these and other proclivities are expressed through the singular concern for helping the student growth and understand.
I firmly believe in standards of education available to the student. That is, I hold that there should be a rubric that is clear and measurable. Codified expectations are necessary parts of the educator’s authentic respect for both the student as well as the sacred art and science of teaching.
The Incarnate Means
The means of instruction for such an educational philosophy begins and ends with the most essential material: a dedicated, inspiring professor of knowledge who desires to lead students to not only acquire that knowledge but in some way to experience that knowledge themselves. Such an understanding of means requires a commitment to the relationship. In this sense, teaching and learning must be incarnational.
Incarnational teaching requires a simple approach to respecting, e.g., the learning styles of students, and, therefore, providing a variety of teaching techniques to reach the respective learners. Teaching can never be an isolated undertaking. It is neither all about the student nor all about the professor. Teaching-learning is a living dynamic in which professor and student are folded into a sacred place where deep learning is actuated.
The Golden Goal
Deep learning is, thus, the golden goal of such a relational dynamic of teaching and learning. I believe that deep learning happens when the student is awakened to the new pathways for living (thinking, being) available from self-directed research into the given subject. When the experiential model of teaching leads to deeper learning, there is a spark ignited that cannot be extinguished. This is the golden dream of education.
A Thought on Technology as a Servant to the Goal
Let me give the word 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. I’m not advocating a Luddite approach which diminishes, for example, online learning (AKA “distance” education, a term, at first glance, is in conflict with experiential relationship teaching-learning). I always recall, with humility, that St. Paul, one of the great teachers of the ages, fulfilled his educational mission through distance learning. In those ancient epistles continue to bring together the soul and heart of the author with the learner. Modern technologies are but a different expression of learning through the epistle.
Yet, the means of learning is primarily a relational one that can be enhanced, enabled, and even perfected through modern technologies or through a pen and parchment.
The goal of my teaching is to enter into the inner world of the student so that the student not only receives knowledge, but is given the tools, resources, and processes of reflecting, critically thinking and applying this knowledge (for the common good). In this sense, I hope that the student is given a love of learning. The gift is not to learn for advantage in competition but to learn to become more human, transcending the lower, selfish goal that causes knowledge to become a commodity.
A Thought on Standards to Support the Goal
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, norms can become a compassionate and clear milestone or road-sign, offering 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 since the considered criteria 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 philosophy of education that is devoted to a deeply spiritual moment in which teacher and student meet at the intersection of common humanity. I believe the means are limited only by the imagination. The methods for teaching must transcend technique and embrace mutual respect and a reference for the unfolding of knowledge as a way of expanding our humanity. The goal of instruction is not merely the transmission of data but the shepherding of a protégé into a lifelong love of learning.
I have intentionally avoided a discussion of rubrics, tactile learning, and abstract learning, pedagogical theory, and other very important items to be considered in teaching. I’ve not avoided these matters because I think them unimportant but instead because these resources deserve their own consideration. The resources are critical supporting actors that must serve the master: a dedicated philosophy of incarnational teaching.
I am a Christian. I believe in the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. I believe that Jesus is Lord. Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah of the Old Covenant and the Mediator of the New Covenant. Christ is God. That being the most fundamental reality of my own existence, I cannot help but pray that my teaching is always flowing from an authentic center where Jesus of Nazareth teaches me. I am a learner in order to be a teacher.
I am a learner by necessity in order to be a teacher by privilege.
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.