On Education

I’ve spent much of my working life in or around education. I worked for an education charity, I trained to teach and taught in secondary schools, I ran training courses and designed award-winning global graduate programmes, I was a pedagogic expert at a University and now manage quality assurance in a small corner of another. I understand the mechanics of running quality training, imparting knowledge and preparing young people for the workplace.

In the modern educational establishment, many would happily nod along as these are the cornerstones of a modern education: training, knowledge, jobs. The average academic would scoff a little and declare instead that we were missing something key; perhaps ‘critical thinking’ or ‘becoming citizens’. The average University manager would nod along while continuing an agenda of training and employability as these are the targets given by government.

Here’s the kicker. That’s not what I think education is supposed to be about. I stand in a tradition largely abandoned by mainstream education but fully in-line with our medieval forebears: education is about virtue.

Learning is supposed to have an end, a goal. That goal is character—or more properly, virtue. The goal is be a person who is kinder, more compassionate, nobler, more honourable, more courageous, and more just. We could do with significantly more of those. We could argue about how effective education can be in this quest, but let’s leave it that along with suffering, the church, and good friends, its part of the picture of living a good life; and, most importantly, that no one should be allowed to pursue intellectual pursuits without efforts to form their character as well. This is for their own good as well as ours.

We’ve shifted from this understanding over the last century for two reasons: pluralism, and technocracy.

We live in a pluralist society, for all the UK still has an established religion formally headed by our head of state, we are not a notably ‘Christian’ society. There is an increasing lack of agreement on what virtue is, and a growing view that there is no such thing.

We live in a technocratic society, where technical experts run the day. This leads to an increasing desire for metrics to determine the quality of outcomes. You cannot define a meaningful metric for virtue, especially not prior to death, so the need to measure other things has shifted education to delivering these measurable outputs.

On the face of it, all very reasonable, but everything has become smaller. There is little space for curiosity, or for wonder, and almost none for the development of virtue.

What does this mean for the Church?

So what? I’m not in a position to redesign higher education, and no one would like what I came up with. The interesting question for me is how this approach would affect theological education, and the degree to which we have secularised our approach to training pastors.

My tradition is fairly anti-seminary, I understand how they develop in denominational contexts and I think that’s reasonable enough, but still find the idea that you can train for a job in ‘ministry’ bizarre. I appreciate that it’s the majority model, but I can’t get my head around it: go to Bible college, get a degree, apply for a job become a pastor. From where I’m sitting this is backwards. Our norm would be do ministry, be appointed as a pastor, perhaps be offered a job, pursue some training.

One of our big weaknesses is the quality of that training then offered, but I would still contend that this is the right way around. Education for ministry belongs to churches.

Education for ministry belongs to churches

Theological education—and theology itself—belongs to churches and belongs in churches. However, if we get it right by training people ourselves before sending them off to brighter and wiser minds, and they do their training in the context of ministry, we can still get it wrong by thinking the purpose of theological education is knowledge. It’s still virtue.

For the average pastor this would include instilling a love of learning and cultivating a theological imagination. Knowledge is important, but wisdom wins. Knowledge is a path to virtue, but it isn’t the end in itself.

This means that we need to focus more on method and how to think than is normal in the contexts I’m aware of—it may well be that this is done brilliantly in contexts I’m not familiar with. This means that we need to focus more on preparing the individuals to be good pastors than on ensuring they have the right credentials. This means we need to focus more on preparing people to learn for themselves (and wanting to!) than imparting the right knowledge.

Training should give a foundation to access the books you need to read, and a disposition to find the mentors you need to grow. It cannot be expected to take more weight than that. Not to mention that the educational theories I’ve taught and worked with would suggest we’ve got our models backwards: we should learn primarily from experience.

I could lay out a model, but there’s not a lot of point until someone wants me to deliver it! All the pedagogic expertise I’ve spent years acquiring says we’re approaching it wrong. Any ‘course’ we’re on should consider the majority of its content to be done ‘on the job’ and be designed with that in mind; and any education should see its goal as virtue, as Christlikeness.

If we aim anywhere else we’ll miss.

If we aim there we’ll probably miss too, and know that we have, but a noble pursuit is a worthy endeavour even when it fails. Sometimes even because it does.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

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