Detail from The School of AthensToday’s education is a farce at best, and a tragedy at worst. Millions of students spend their hours, days, weeks, months, years, semesters, etc., reading, listening to lectures, writing papers and other tasks, all of which meet with hostility and resistance. Don’t believe me? Just look at the crazy phenomenon that teachers at every level of education get praised and complimented when they can actually get the attention of their students and really motivate them to do their work. Or just look at the current presidential administration’s mandate to improve education by presenting a system of rewards and demerits for teachers who can’t get their students to pass the three R’s. The huge majority of students think education is just a bunch of obligations to meet and tasks to do to just get on with life, or even just to start life. Our technocratic and plutocratic society has been enormously successful in killing the natural spontaneity of curiosity and discovery (what the Greeks called Eureka!) and in dulling the desire to know.

It bugs me that my students, who are basically adults, feel that they “owe” me a paper of at least X amount of pages. For example, I’ve had students in courses where I was trying to teach how various societies, cultures, and civilizations searched for meaning and significance in their existence and how the questions the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans asked are still the main questions of our own society. Instead of making an effort to understand the significance of this, my students were always more concerned with how much was “required.” Rather than spending their efforts reaching for the values implied in the course, or trying to express their own experiences in word or writing, students were constantly trying to “earn” both my approval and a quantitative/qualitative grade. Some were even willing to sacrifice their health and growth for it.

No wonder there’s resistance to learning. When students are constantly being told to “do better”, “get a higher grade”, etc and have a difficult time “measuring up” to arbitrary standards of demanding bosses, etc., there’s no room for teachers to act as guides in the student’s search for knowledge and understanding. This is why I tell my students that their grade doesn’t matter to me nearly as much as it may to them, and why every student could get an A in the course if they would just reach out and take it. I’m just a guide in their “quest for the grail,” not the holder of the grail itself.

I think another part of the problem is that education tries to offer solutions without posing questions first. The least used source of question formation and information gathering in the classroom is the experience of students themselves! While I can talk on and on about love, hate, fear, joy, hope, despair, life, death, etc., and how societies dealt with these life-experiences in history, my students are half-asleep in boredom or take notes that they’ll never look at again. Why? Because students today haven’t had the opportunity to make their own experiences of these emotions and values and life-responses available to themselves and allow real questions to be born from a personal source. And the reason for this, of course, is we live in a society that diminishes these responses to life-situations as an indication of weakness and hostility, and no one wants to take the risk to become vulnerable and make it known to himself, his colleagues, or his teacher that some of the most central questions of his or her life are still being left untouched.

The only way to somehow get to the point of allowing the student to become vulnerable enough to use his or her own life experiences as a source of questions that need answers is to have the teacher to create the space necessary to do this. The teacher needs to be the one to create space enough to forge a mutual trust between the teacher and the student as people who want to learn from each other, to become present to each other, not as opponents, but as those who have the same struggles and search for the same truth.

From a point of view of Christian spirituality, this means a commitment to provide the space for the student and the teacher where the questions can come to our consciousness and be responded to. Textbook answers won’t do. We need to provide real encouragement for students to enter them seriously and personally. This is why I love teaching history, especially western civilization; for the history teacher it is a joy to point to how others of incredible world renown, like Plato, Aristotle, Moses, Augustus Caesar, Jesus of Nazareth, St. Augustine, St. Benedict, Muhammad, St. Francis, Dante, Pascal, Martin Luther, the Puritans, Mozart, Beethoven, and a constellation of others felt the same struggles and asked the same questions.

The Christian teacher, then, whether or not he or she is “allowed” to teach Christianity or pray in school or whatever, should be the one who is best equipped to provide the space I’m thinking about. Because the Christian teacher knows that he or she doesn’t have all the answers, and because he or she believes that God created each of us unique and has the capability to deal with our own questions in real and creative ways, needs to reveal to today’s students these very facts and especially to reveal to their students that each one

of them has something to offer. Since most students have spent years on the receiving end of things in education and have the idea that there is still much to learn, students have lost confidence in themselves and can’t imagine that they actually have something unique to give, which can be received by those less educated, those who are their fellow students, and those who are their teachers and guides.

This is hard. We teachers like to feed our own egos by impressing students with a ton of books they haven’t read that have terms they don’t know, languages they don’t understand, or situations they are clueless about. It’s a lot harder to be a receiver who can help students separate the wheat from the chaff in their own lives and show the beauty of their own ideas and experiences that they carry with them every day. We won’t be able to give unless there is someone who is able to receive!

I don’t think that it’s necessarily any easier to take this approach in a Christian or religious educational environment, whether it’s a run-of-the-mill evangelical Christian college, like the one I came out of, or Catholic Universities, or “Christian” high schools or parochial elementary schools. In fact, even Evangelical Homeschooling has the same trouble. I think that many students don’t care about or respond to Christian or religious education for the same reasons as in secular education; their own live experiences are hardly touched. There are just as many ways to be a Christian as there are Christians. So it’s more important to offer the students a place where they can reveal their great human potential to love, to give, to create, to be than it is to force-feed doctrines, dogmas, pre-fabricated theologies, and “orthodox” Christian beliefs. They need to receive the affirmation from us to have courage to continue their questing without fear.

Along these lines, we realize that Jesus didn’t just speak. He didn’t just teach. He didn’t have a collection of books (at least, not that we know of). But he did reach out to us in our most personal needs. The Gospel isn’t just a collection of beliefs and ideas we should always remember, pay attention to, or accept without resignation to get to heaven. Neither should the Church force us to follow its rules or be a totalitarian environment with an exclusive control on “truth”. The church is a community. It’s a commonwealth of people inviting all of us who hunger and thirst to dine at its table. Doctrines are not teachable absolutes/facts that we must adhere to; they are the documentation of human experiences in history, and they are the record of generations past in their search for light in the darkness.

Teaching doesn’t mean telling the same old story over and over again, as many churches do and many places of learning do year in and year out. It is the offering of paths by which students and indeed all people can discover themselves, clarify their experiences, find the niches where the Word of God can take firm hold. And for church teaching, this is one reason why I feel that liturgy is so important and much more than cult or ritual. It becomes a true celebration when the liturgical leader is able to name the space where joy and sorrow come in contact with each other as the place where it is possible to celebrate both life an death in the glow of the Light of Men.

Let the teacher be a minister to that light, and let that minister be a healer to students of all needs.