22 January, 2010

Where Do We Go from Here?

A reader of the last post, "Why (1) Will Never Work and Why (2) Might," wisely asks, "So now what? Where do we go from here?"

To get from here to there (or hence thither) the following steps are required: (1) assemble a team of like-minded scholars/teachers and like-minded and interested but non-academic Lutheran laymen of great influence; (2) design a curriculum, figure out initial staffing and physical plant needs, as well as costs to perpetuate the program; (3) raise money (at least enough to support at least 50% of the salaries and benefits the necessary initial faculty + anticipated library needs); (4) take hat in hand and approach the existing institutions with an offer to fund, staff, and run the program; (5) ensure accreditation through the AALE or TRACS for the program.

There's a lovely story about a couple, shabbily dressed, who approached the then president of Harvard University with an offer to make a donation. The president, sizing them up on the basis of their shabby appearance, turned down their offer as presumably too piddling. So instead of donating to Harvard, the Stanfords founded a brand-new institution. Apocryphal though the story may be, it's well known in educational circles today, and nary a president turns down even the smallest offer of support.

Why (1) Will Never Work and Why (2) Might

In an ongoing effort to think practically about how to instantiate the liberal arts in modern confessional Lutheran higher education, I return to two ideas I posted earlier in skeletal form: (1) reform of one or several existing institutions; and (2) establishment, within or connected to one or several of the existing institutions, of a separate unit, department, or school.

(1) It is an admission I make, quite frankly, with deep sadness that reforming one or several of the existing institutions within institutionalized confessional Lutheranism (LC-MS, WELS, ELS) is an impossible task. One sager than I some years ago kept reminding me that “you can’t change culture.” And, in fact, that’s what has grown up around the Lutheran colleges and universities: a culture that, like all cultures, perpetuates itself. I have described this culture in other posts. “Worth Reading” and “What?” of 21 November 2009 are perhaps the most extensive; “Gymnasium for Everyone” of 21 January 2010 gives some historical insight into how we got from there to here.

So I’ll spend no more time on the culture as it is, except to remark that it’s not only the case that the present culture cannot be re-formed along the lines of a model of education inspired by Wittenberg; it’s also the case that the “new” North American confessional Lutheran model of higher education has gathered a force and momentum of its own so that it is constantly in the process of becoming more like what it already is. Here, no arguments suffice, because Wittenberg education, a Renascentes musae education, has no traction. It’s a foreign language treated as a clanging cymbal. Many readers of this blog know whereof I speak.

(2) That said, while it may be impossible to re-cast an existing institution in the Wittenberg model, much like what swept across the German universities in the Northern European Renaissance, it may be possible to convince one or more of them to grow a new appendage: a radical (in the sense of fundamentally) liberal arts school, department, or college within an existing institution. Now, it is the case that many institutions presently either claim to be liberal arts colleges or have colleges of liberal arts and sciences. And yet none of them are radical liberal arts institutions (or even what you might call moderately liberal arts schools), but are the catch-all for everything from speech therapy to social work to theology to history to pre-physical therapy. (Put another way, today “liberal arts” frequently means the hotch-potch of disciplines that don’t “fit” elsewhere, hardly the intentionally and well formed curriculum that radical liberal education requires.) The budget for this institution-within-an-institution would be separately kept from that of the sponsoring institution and be made responsible for managing its own costs, faculty, and curriculum, funding itself, and charging its own tuition. Models for this approach exist in Christ College at Valparaiso and in the erstwhile Paracollege housed at St. Olaf College.

What speaks for this model are the following: (a) it does not require the acquisition of a new campus, just the hewing out of some moderate space on an existing campus; (b) like the “university of Christendom” model, it shares what can be shared; (c) it may attract to itself students who enroll in the sponsoring institution for other reasons or other curricula; (d) it may otherwise have a leavening effect on the host institution; and (e) accreditation can be eased by the sponsoring institution’s accreditation.

What stands in the way are the following: (a) it may, no matter what financial and institutional protections are in place, be forced to compete for scarce resources with other branches of the institution it finds itself in; (b) the positive impact of the student peer group is diluted; (c) it requires a change in present college culture significant enough to open space for itself; (d) it may itself, through institutional pressures, be brought into comformity with alien standards, curricula, etc.; (e) its accreditation will rely upon general accreditation agencies that cannot be expected to have adequate criteria.

No News Here

A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education delivers news that’s no news. The headline: “Business Curricula Need a Strong Dose of the Liberal Arts, Scholars Say.” The article goes on to point out what we have long known:

Undergraduate business programs should be more deeply infused with the virtues of a traditional liberal-arts education, two scholars said here on Thursday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

“Business programs are often quite effective, but also terribly narrow,” said William M. Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, during a panel discussion. Narrow preprofessional programs, he said, do not give students the depth they need to be morally engaged citizens and intellectually agile workers.

Lest we pat ourselves on the back too quickly, however, the study this article reports notes that instruction in business curricula is generally “more powerful” than that in liberal arts courses. This comes as no surprise in the modern university. There, the traditional humanities have, largely in response to pressures from the professional programs that are simultaneously their competitors and their “feeders,” evolved into mere cultural pass-times or dalliances for professional students. A business student doesn’t care about Shakespeare, but must take Shakespeare. An English department for its very survival, relies upon the business student. And the rigor of the course is, as a result, gutted. Of course, all of this has been helped along by the nihilistic fads in literary criticism that treat words as empty signifiers floating over an abyss of absent signifieds.

Which is why liberal arts colleges qua liberal arts colleges are utterly necessary, even for Lutherans. Or especially for Lutherans. Because the whole intellectual enterprise of Lutheranism is humanistic. Lutherans read Holy Writ like humanists: close readings, focused on the words themselves, their context, their argument, their rhetoric, because they, the Lutherans, think that when Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” [John 6.63] He meant it.

So what’s the lesson? Lutheran colleges: out with the professional training and in with the liberal arts!

21 January, 2010

Gymnasium for Everyone (Who Would Be Educated), Or How to Correct a Historical Accident

On its face, one of the most puzzling phenomena of the early years of confessional Lutheranism on our continent after the Old Lutheran migration to the states is the founding of a gymnasial education for pastors alone. The italicized words are important.

The Gymnasium, a type of education geared towards those who would be educated in Western high culture, is itself ultimately an inheritance of the Reformation and the Renaissance. The curriculum included The Greats, huge chunks of classical literature, and, of course, the ancient languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The system is still used today in Germanic Europe (by which I mean Germany and the Netherlands) for high-school-aged students as preparation for their university education in the faculty of the arts. From there, such students generally proceed onwards to teaching in the Gymnasia, to other professional studies such as medicine, law, theology, or to further education in the arts, such as an advanced degree in classics (klassische Philologie) or German literature (Germanistik), etc.

In the States and Canada, however, under pressures to provide the fledgling confessional Lutheran church here with a ministerium, and in a cultural context in which most of the Old Lutheran laity who migrated were tradesmen (my own ancestors who came in the first wave in 1838 were rope makers by trade from the Hansa-Stadt Stettin and environs, i.e., Kammin), it made sense, at least initially, to marshall the scarce resources of the Old Lutherans earmarked for education to educating their pastors (N.B.: it was frequently the case that school teachers were seminary graduates!). And so, using the old gymnasial system, itself an heir to Reformation and Renaissance educational reforms, coupled with a university system that complemented the gymnasial education (faculty of arts followed by theological faculty for advanced work), the Old Lutherans in North America built an educational system intended to serve the pastoral needs of the church.

Odd it was, indeed, given historical precedent in Germany, for such an education to be the domain solely of those preparing for the ministry. But even as leisure time became more available, resources more abundant, and the desire for an education beyond the primary grades more endemic among Old Lutherans in North America, a certain ossification set in, more of attitudes than anything else. Because only those preparing for the ministry had heretofore in North America taken the gymnasial-->faculty of arts-->theology/seminary route, therefore such a line was for pre-seminary/pre-ministerial purposes alone.

This turn of events has been unfortunate on many fronts. First, as the Old Lutherans were acclimated to life in North America, moving up the class-ladder and in so doing becoming educated, their education in secular institutions was nothing like that of the pastors. In other words, the opportunity to develop a profoundly shared culture between pastor and leading parishioners was lost. Second, the laity who sought to be educated were, in effect, robbed of the opportunity to know and understand how it is that pastors think about theology, much less keep up with them when they started “doing” theology. That might not sound as tragic to some as it actually is, especially since today we are heirs of that m.o. But consider: the professional laity, such as they were, that migrated to the States shared their education with their pastors from the earliest stages in the primary grades through the faculty of arts, and it was an education that, from Gymnasium through the B.A. included study certainly of Greek and Latin, and frequently also of Hebrew. Consider again: Philipp Melanchthon, the first Lutheran dogmatician and one of the most important early exegetes, was a layman his whole life long. The education that supported his work was the proto-gymnasial education of Renaissance and Reformation humanism through his M.A. in the faculty of arts.

This blunder in the early history of North American confessional Lutheranism has had several impacts that endure to today. First, the laity have grown increasingly suspicious of pastors and what they think of as a specialist education. Second, the gymnasial and arts education for pastors has grown increasingly attached to the goal of producing pastors, not well-educated Lutherans, whether they be lay or clergy. As John Henry Newman would be quick to point out, attaching liberal education to extraneous ends short-circuits liberal education, in fact, enslaves it. What remains in many cases is the form of a liberal education, but material handled illiberally or material hardly liberal at all. Third, because the laity have grown suspicious of this kind of educating, many of them labeling it, both explicitly and implicitly, as “useless,” we have witnessed across the whole North American Lutheran educational system a sort of acquiescence to the “practical.” Spanish has replaced Latin; psychology has replaced philosophy; an amorphous mass of courses, classical Hebrew; a term or two of Koine, classical Greek; and Rick Warren (yes!), De doctrina christiana—all this to the great impoverishment of the Lutheran mind. For everything you make room for in a curriculum, you are forced to exclude something else.

Reprising the Wittenberg ideal in liberal education, for lay and clergy alike, is the sole solution to this problem. The advancement and the continued prospering of confessional Lutheranism depends upon it. It is the case that even as I am writing this, forces are being brought to bear against a serious reckoning with our Confession by powerful stakeholders, men and women of influence and wealth, who frankly see no need for confessional faithfulness, much less for the kind of education needed to support it. In fact, they recognize something that we aren’t willing to: break the education and you’ve broken the “grip” of confessionalism. Or, to put it another way, educate differently for different results.

This is why, with stakes as high as the Confession of the Church of the Augsburg Confession, Renascentes musae education is imperative. The learnedness of the Confessions, for example, or of refined exegetical argumentation, is lost—and should we expect anything other than this?—on those who do not have the educational background to understand it, much less appreciate it. Certainly not everyone in a Lutheran parish has this capability. But those who set and drive the agenda for the church on earth generally do. And we do them a disservice by withholding the opportunity (officially, because such schools are closed to them or unofficially, because such an education simply is not available anywhere) to receive the kind of education that will enable them to foster the Confession of Christ and His Church, by which they, too, are saved.

And so there you have it. Gymnasial education for all, because that study lies at the root of the whole enterprise. In a dream world, this could be configured as in the past, with a classical high school (Gymnasium) followed by a strong liberal arts education (see below on “The Lock-Step Curriculum”). But not far from ideal, and perhaps more feasible, is simply a great liberal arts college with a curriculum uncontaminated by drivers extraneous to the purpose of, well, becoming really well educated.

12 January, 2010

The Purposes of Liberal Education and What We Read

Most students I talk to who become psychology majors in college do it to find an answer to the secrets of human motivation: Why do humans do what they do? This impulse to turn to a quasi-science like psychology is, in the end, rather sophomoric. The question posed is sophisticated enough and driven by real curiosity. But seeking the answer in psychology short-circuits the pursuit by excluding other real contenders that explain human life, human motives, human “wiring,” man’s location in the kosmos, and man’s location in society. In fact, one could argue that what emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the so-called “social sciences” are, in fact, narrow Enlightenment approaches to the questions and answers to the big questions that Western higher culture has concerned itself with from the inception. And those are the questions to which the higher liberal education, in part, directs itself. So from the perspective of liberal education, Thucydides matters because he is among the first to pose and attempt to answer the natty questions of human motivation, human nature, and the interaction of human agents. Vergil matters because he articulates in ways no modern civics book can the demands and complications of patriotism. The list goes on. Every profound modern attempt to drive at the nature of things, including that undertaken by liberal education, cannot do its work properly without first considering the ways of positing those questions and answering them offered heretofore.

Even if contemporary defenders of traditional liberal education are quick to retreat from admitting they’re thinking of, much less propounding, something we might call a “canon” (see, for example, the pusillanimity of Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath, and Bruce S. Thornton in The Bonfire of the Humanities), traditional liberal education in fact not only countenances but even recommends and revels in a something, in this case, a list of books, that “measures up” to the perennial human questions (“canon,” κανών/kanón, in its original conception is a “measuring reed;” the “list” we think of when we think of the term “canon” is a “canon” only by metonymy, by applying the term used for the measuring stick to the thing measured). Even our thinking about human nature, the nature of God, what truth, beauty, and justice look like, is traditionally formed. I am concerned about these questions because they have been handed down to me as a denizen of 21st century Western society. To approach these questions, it only makes sense to think about recognizably great answers to them by direct encounter with the texts that have broached them. This direct encounter with such texts not only whisks me quickly towards some profound answers, it also enables me to escape, if need be, the confines of the “traditional” answers: if I know, for example, that my intuitive sense that justice is simply whatever the one in power determines to be just has already been articulated—and refuted—by Plato in the Republic and the Gorgias, or at least for his own time, I am enabled to move past a pessimistic view of justice that really isn’t just and towards something that may, in fact, better grasp justice. If, however, I encounter “justice” in a term like “social justice” in a sociology class, I am stuck with, or rather mired in, its idiosyncratic definition, left to think that there’s only one way to answer what it is, and hence only one way to pursue it. Let me think about justice from the beginning, however, and I am much better prepared to understand what it is, its complications, and its promises.

That’s why theology, too, is a “traditional” discipline. It doesn’t make up answers to the nature of God or dream them up, it works in a triangle between the base text, Scripture, what great theologians have already thought about it, and the contemporary reader of both, who avails himself of the tools of the languages of Scripture, grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, to think it all through. Such an encounter shuts off blind alleys, or at least puts the reader on notice that one’s coming, opens avenues for understanding not immediately apparent, and, as above, whisks the student away quickly towards a more profound, if not also more complicated, answer. This is that credo ut intelligam et intelligo ut credam (“I believe in order to understand, and I understand to believe.”). Liberal education says that when faced with the question, “Why didn’t God choose to become an ass rather than a man to save mankind?” we’ve already got some pretty profound answers to the question (Anselm’s Cur deus homo? for example). It also says that Anselm’s answer can and should be read with critical appreciation and appreciative criticism, so that his answer can be accepted for what it is, refined, rejected, added to, or what have you. But Anselm’s answer, to continue with this example, keeps me from spinning my wheels or simply dismissing a question that begs for an answer.

So is there a canon? Yes, it’s one that corresponds to the profound and profoundly important perennial human questions by profoundly bringing the inquirer into direct contact with profound, if not always correct, answers.

Such was the shape of the Wittenberg curriculum in the faculty of the arts, made up as it was, of the artes humaniores, “the quite human arts.” At Wittenberg the answer to “What is man?” was enriched and complicated and challenged, inspiring further inquiry and thought, by Homer, Cicero, Horace, the Bible. It wasn’t good enough to think about the question using the Bible alone because, well, other humans had offered other profound answers to the question, answers that might or might not enrich, challenge, and complicate the biblical answer. Nor in Wittenberg was it good enough to answer the question using Homer, Cicero, or Horace alone, without the Bible, for the same reasons. The Bible might offer an excellent theological answer to anthropology; but it could not, perhaps, offer an answer to human political and social excellences, or at least in the same way that Homer, Cicero and Horace could. Notate bene, however, that what the Wittenberg Reformation rejected was the scholasticism of the late Medieval world that offered an attenuated encounter with these profound answers, if any at all. The scholasticism of the time provides an analogue to today’s hyper scholasticism manifested in the profusion of disciplines and subdisciplines, each more specialized than the next, that, in the end, only wind up short-circuiting the liberal educational impulse to have profound encounters with profound ideas through the...”canon.”

11 January, 2010

Lutheran Classical Education and the Lutheran College

Recent attempts at reviving Lutheran classical education have been afoot so long that there’s nary a Lutheran who doesn’t know of it today. The central clearinghouse for the movement, the Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education (CCLE), provides resources in helping parents and educators get Lutheran classical education off the ground at the grade school and high school levels. Readers of Renascentes Musae surely applaud the efforts of the CCLE in sponsoring fora for exploring classical education, workshops in curricular development, classical pedagogy, etc., and in providing an intellectual and spiritual rationale for the pursuit of classical education in the Lutheran parish and high school.

But we confessional Lutherans can and should close the circle. Presently there is not a single, known source from which parish- and high-school-level classical education endeavors can draw faculty, nor is there anywhere where a classical education well begun can be finished equally well.

That’s why a real, honest-to-goodness confessional Lutheran liberal arts college is of the utmost necessity in North America today. Such an institution can and would advance the cause of Lutheran parish-level and high school classical education by consisting of a collegium dedicated to precisely what the primary and secondary levels of classical education pursue (as mentioned, there is no such thing right now). Besides doing some of the intellectual heavy lifting for an entire system of classical education, the collegium would, in addition, produce graduates intellectually willing to and capable of supporting classical education at every turn, whether financially, morally or by direct service in the form of teaching. But at the present time, with the exception of the CCLE, which is a more or less “seasonal” center for classical liberal education, there is no perpetual and perennial locus that can, in the long run, sustain the primary and secondary level efforts in classical education.

Oh, to be sure, there are plenty of Lutheran colleges and universities devoted primarily or in good share to primary and secondary Lutheran education. But the vision of such programs is largely that handed it by state primary and secondary accreditation bodies and the “training” of teachers, not producing the kind of liberally educated people needed to support primary and secondary Lutheran classical education.

And therein lies the rub. Classical education at every level is fundamentally about content, not process. This does not mean that there’s not a pedagogy that matches it or that teaching in classical education is and should be boring. Quite the contrary. It just means that what is foregrounded throughout is not the how but the what, and the how is driven by the what. That is, the way something is taught is dictated by what is being taught, and not vice versa.

In a sense, Lutheran classical education must make the same critique of contemporary Lutheran education that the Platonists made of sophistry, the latter being, according the Platonist, the knack of speaking on any topic, the former representing the pursuit of knowledge (see, e.g., the Gorgias). Classical education does not need first those with the knack of teaching and second those who have mastered content (or maybe not); it needs first those who know something (not just facts and factoids, but ways of approach, etc.) and are so convinced of the good of knowing it that they work to bring it across, that is, to teach it. The content is always in the driver’s seat; the method follows along. That’s why liberal education at the higher level matters. Devoted to learning the Western tradition in the Wittenberg way, it is uniquely poised to shape and provide the content for primary and secondary Lutheran classical education.

How, then, is a teacher formed? If the confessional Lutheran liberal arts college student spends his or her whole education on content, where do teachers come from? In the Wittenberg model teacher formation is basically a sort of apprenticeship. Many a bachelor and magister artium, none of them with a teaching degree, left Wittenberg well educated and became tutors, teachers, and magistri (school masters). And degree already in hand, they learned to teach the best way possible: by recalling their own observations about things their teachers did well (and perhaps poorly, which contains its own kind of monitory lesson), by observing their colleagues, and by, well, doing it. Becoming a teacher is something like becoming an electrician: you can talk about being an electrician all you want, but you have no idea what you’re talking about until you have to install your first plug, pull your first circuit, wire your first building. In fact, so fundamentally important to being an electrician is the doing that the process for becoming one from beginning to end is in the doing, on the job where it actually matters, via apprenticeship. That’s how teachers become teachers the Wittenberg way. They just do it. Oh, there are burned fingers at first, to be sure, and circuits shorted, but those are only the bruises that come with the blessing.

As one of my own college teachers used to say as St. Olaf began its long and still unsettled tussle with “service learning,” a fad that has now become pandemic in higher education: “Yes, I agree with the college that your education is meant to prepare you for your vocation, thought of in a Lutheran way. But I understand that it does so through intellectual means. You have the rest of your life to do.” Therein lies the distinction between liberal education and professional education, or between the education of a Lutheran classical educator-to-be and an education devoted to credentialing someone to teach. And therein lies the importance of a confessional Lutheran liberal arts college to Lutheran classical education at every level.