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.

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