Structure and Theological Education

Before I followed Maggi’s link to Rachelle’s blog, I’d have thought that I was opposed to over-structuring theological education — but some of Rachelle’s commentors leave me in the dust.

Margaret and I have home-schooled the three kids we raised, partly on the basis of our commitment to their very distinct patterns of learning and interest, partly out of frustrating experiences in our own educational history, and partly from the conviction that they would learn well on their own terms, at their own time, what they really wanted to learn (and wouldn’t learn well what we tried to induce them to learn on our terms, at a time we chose). Our experience as learners, and our experience as home-school parents (“un-school” parents, to be more exact), places me squarely on the un-structured side of the discussion with Maggi and Rachelle and others. I wish there were some way I could choose to home-school the seminarians at Seabury.

If one were not going to junk the whole notion of “classes” and “degrees” (and I’m not unsympathetic with the temptation to dispence with them), I’d probably suggest that each area of the curriculum, or each professor, schedule one series of lectures to introduce the areas for which she or he is responsible. After that, students would have the responsibility of pursuing such independent studies and organizing such seminars in consultation with the relevant faculty as would prepare the students for their various ministries.

Seabury’s reviewing and revising its curriculum in conjunction with our upcoming shift to semesters; I’ll be pushing gently for as few requirements as possible, and as many electives as possible. Maybe one way to administer such a program, given Seabury’s student population and the size of the faculty, would be to allot each full-time faculty member one required course, two elective courses, and one advanced seminar each year. That would entail radically re-envisioning some areas of the curriculum (that operate with a fairly rigid sequence of required courses), but a more open curriculum would facilitate our cooperation with other seminaries (students often transfer into Seabury with credits that don’t match our curriculum at all), would benefit students by treating them as real adult learners, and would offer faculty the opportunity to teach students who’ve chosen to learn in a given area.

In most respects, I’m with Doc on education: The more formalized the process, the less education is happening, and the more we’re selling short our birthright of curiosity and ingenuity in order to cash in the mess of pottage of quantifiable outcomes. (Sorry for the brutally mixed metaphor.)

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Should I take it that you disagree with Hauerwas’ comparison he often makes between the divinity student who doesn’t want to study christology and the med student who doesn’t want to study anatomy?

  2. Paul, my point is not that people preparing for ministry should be free to ignore essential topics — rather, I’m arguing that they won’t really learn (in a deep, lasting sense) about christology or virtue or “biblical theology as a signifying practice” or whatever until they’re learning it because that’s what they want to know.

    If they think they don’t want to know about christology, then it’s my role as the midwife of their ministry to help them see the desirability of learning about the nature and work of Christ. It’s harder to make that seem a winsome prospect, though, when it constitutes a one-week designated topic in the forced march through dogmatic theology (or church history).

  3. OK, I was just goading you a bit. I am a bit uneasy, though, with the idea of students choosing their own paths in general.

    Robertson Davies in one of his essays wrote about the importance of memorizing poetry when young. He said that youth is the best time to get things into your memory, but that good poems aren’t likely to make sense to the young. But once learned, they come back again and again as one matures. Thus one tiny case for a more teacher guided curriculum.

    I think one other point to think about is the culture that young folks bring to education these days. With the growth of technology in learning (from calculators to the internet), students often seem to think that learning should be “easy”. While this is appealing to them, it is demonstrably not true.

    In my brief visits to Ukraine (teaching English), I noticed a vast difference in attitude there regarding teaching authority. They had tremendous (undeserved, I’ll add) respect for me as a teacher, because their system and culture had a very high view of respect for authority. When I work with young folks here, they don’t want to do anything unless they feel like it. Is this somehow better?

    I remember specifically in my advanced English class last year going over a reading assignment about an alternative, student directed, school movement in Britain. My students were shocked and amazed by it. They were split on whether it was a good idea or not, but it was certainly miles from their experience.

    I hate get too long on this, but on the other side, my Ukrainian students all said that their education did a poor job at preparing them for life after school. That may have as much to do with the problems in their political/economic situation as with anything else. That being said, their high view of authority did seem tied to a lower capacity for initiative and entrepreneurship. There’s a general attitude in the post-Soviet world that if something doesn’t work, there’s probably some reason it should be that way and should just be left alone. Very disturbing to us americans.

    I find this an interesting topic, obviously.

  4. After that, students would have the responsibility of pursuing such independent studies and organizing such seminars in consultation with the relevant faculty as would prepare the students for their various ministries.

    My first thought on reading this was how similar this would be to medieval universities.

    I think that Paul’s concerns could be addressed not only by teacher-midwives, but also by something like the degree examinations of British universities. Allow the students a fairly free-form period of some years during which they seek out “relevant faculty” and pursue their studies, be those in the form of lectures, independent readings, tutorials, etc. Then, administer written and oral examinations in the chosen course of study as the necessary step to conferring a degree. The examinations would include such topics as were considered necessary by the relevant faculty, and in the case of theology should include such topics as bishops and other church leaders consider necessary. Obviously christology (to cite Paul’s example) would be among the topics on which the degree candidate would be examined.

    For the purposes of The Episcopal Church, these oral and written examinations could serve as GOEs as well.

    As part of the overhaul, make the system more responsive to the Church and less responsive to the academic guild, who’ve held theology mostly to hostage for the past century and a half at least (whether or not any particular teacher within the guild has done so).

    Seems a much better system to me, particularly on the seminary level.

  5. Todd, you’ve hit my exact dream; I’d have compared it to the British educational model myself, but I’m aware that things don’t work that way any more, and it didn’t occur to me to stipulate “the historic model.”

    I think it would be great, but part of Paul’s critique justly points out that the U.S. doesn’t sustain a culture of inquiry and learning that would underwrite such an experiment.

    And I’ll overlook that dig at “the academic guild” rather than try to justify the aspects of academia that I still hold precious and admirable (not all of them, by a long chalk).

  6. This is an interesting topic for me, as a senior attending General Theological Seminary, which has a rather rigid core curriculum itself. In the first four semesters, I think there are no more than five possible elective courses – all others are required. There’s more flexibility in the third year.

    In reflecting on a British-like free-inquiry model, or the Harvard Divinity model (I’m told that there are few if any requirements; I have not checked this , but it would be worth following up;), I admit to finding it very attractive. I’d love to explore christology or exegesis or source theories of John all while I’m learning Greek or reading about the Council of Nicea. Some thoughts that come to mind, however: 1) When I entered seminary, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and requirements were good for that. Perhaps my advisor would become more important in a free-inquiry system to countereact that, and certainly the Seven Topics of ther GOEs hanging over one’s head would or should serve as a good motivator, at least for those on an ordination track. 2) Free-inquiry is dangerous to community, possibly. As a very strong MBTI “I,” I would have no problem with free inquiry, but I also would not be very involved with my classmates, who are to become my colleagues after graduation. Conversely, I can see free inquiry as being very frustrating for “Es,” who would want to immediately form study groups, etc., which in a way runs counter to the idea of free inquiry. Seminary is more than the degree, it’s about vocational formation. So the question for me is, how does one maintain community and formation while encouraging free inquiry on the academic side?

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