Volume 12, Issue 3: Historia
Y1K vs. Y2K
Pink Floyd famously ranted that established education had become so impersonal, so disinterested in a student's well-being, that each student had become "just another brick in the wall." Indeed, so remarkable is common grace that even stadium rockers can stumble onto truth.
For years public educators denied Pink Floyd's charge, but in this brave new millennium some of them are coming out about it. Florida High School is one example. FHS is a cyber-school that offers a full curriculum online. This fall, students enroll in FHS courses without ever having to meet a classmate or a teacher. Not to be upstaged, Virginia Governor James Gilmore weighed in by announcing a statewide commitment to wire schools with "AOL@school."
This time last millennium, such developments would not have been called "education" at all. While new technology makes it possible to do what we couldn't before, this is no reason to go ahead and do it. There once was an era, centuries before Al Gore's invention, when it was seen as a good thing for students and teachers to interact in real time and in real space. It was an era when education did not pant after soulless, gee-whiz geekery.
A millennium ago, Goswin of Maintz described his idea of education, and his understanding was typical for his time. He wrote that a teacher forms students "by artist's hand from wet and malleable clay into vessels of glory on the wheel of discipline." Note his images. A student is clay that is molded by an artist. The "wheel of discipline", which is "curriculum" in today's jargon, is merely a tool of the artist. Curriculum does not teach; a teacher does. This point resonates in another remark, by Hugh of St. Victor, who likened the relationship between teacher and student to a seal that is impressed upon wax. What place does curriculum hold here? Surely curriculum is not absent, for something is impressed upon the student. But that which does the impressing, the teacher, is far more important than curriculum. In an important way, the person of the teacher is the curriculum; the teacher is what the student learns, and the teacher is what the student matures into. We see this notion in the words of a twelfth-century biographer who praised his subject, Thomas Becket, for being an excellent teacher: "Let us turn back the pages of our new exemplar and continue to read in it," referring here to Becket himself, and he explains, "For acts of virtue are certainly read more fruitfully in men themselves than books, just as deeds speak more effectively than words." In this age-old vision for education, the living presence of a teacher is both pedagogy and curriculum. A teacher did not merely thrust thought-data at his students; rather, he lived his life before them. This is the approach to education which our Lord modeled and taught: "A disciple is not above his teacher," he said, "but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher" (Luke 6:40 NKJV).
Contrast this personalized approach to our educational fads. In our information age, we want to stuff our kids' heads with facts, and lots of them. Our curriculum is not a way of living that we pass on from one generation to the next; it is a commodity. It is the brute transfer of data from one data port (mind?) to another. Why not go all the way and raise our children from infancy via the world wide web? The fact that we do not (yet?) do this suggests that, deep down, even we understand that our technology has serious limitations.
Biblically, education is a personal, communal and covenantal act of spiritual nurturing. When we separate facts and thoughts from real people, people who live in a real community, we impart a gnostic, bodyless education. The medievals were wiser than this, understanding the centrality of the body in education. A present, sensual, vocal, authoritative body is required to give expression to truth, goodness, and beauty before students.
Medievals believed that a teacher's personal virtue must enflesh the abstract virtue in the matter being studied. This is why they described their "curriculum" as manners and letters, and the two went together. C. Stephen Jaeger summarizes the medieval view well:
The relationship between person and text is basically agonal. They vie for each other's prerogatives; each wants what the other has. Texts are lasting and unchangeable; they lend permanence to persons, things, ideas. Real presence has life, vitality, and that force which inspires imitation. . . . Texts, knowing they can only imitate, want the condition of life, being dry and empty without it; the living being hopes to preserve its exemplarity by becoming a text. The historical dialectic at work in the move from person to text is evident in the life of the charismatic teacher.1
A computer can be a useful accessory in a good teacher's tool chest. But when a computer stands in a teacher's place, the beauty of education unravels. Computers cannot show a student how to encourage, or how to receive a compliment graciously. They can neither recite stories with animation nor compose poetry. We should have learned this in the sixties when we saw that classrooms did not need films. We should have learned this in the seventies when we saw that classrooms did not need cable T.V. tuned to educational programming. By now we should have learned that what classrooms need are wise teachers. They always have, and they still do.