28 September, 2010

Foxes in the Chicken Coop

Critical observers of U.S. higher education—of which there are far too few—have certainly seen it coming for years, perhaps decades. I think it might have finally sunk in for me when, within the space of but a few years, the ubiquitous “caf” was renamed the “dining facility,” dorm rooms that looked like what you’d get for third-class passage on a ship were replaced by suites, and the cavernous rubber-and-sweat-smelling gym was turned into a “fitness center,” often as well appointed as the local for-profit fitness club. Ironically, none of this coincided with an equally obvious renewed emphasis on teaching and learning. Those on the busy side of the podium at the front of the room might even have been able to discern, over this roughly 10-year revolution that swept American higher ed, an inverse relationship between enhanced non-academic facilities and students’ engagement.

The problem was, those who should have been keeping tabs on it all were the ones who stood to gain the most from it: the fitness club for students is open, usually free, to faculty; the house-beautiful dorm rooms are as much a badge of pride for bricks-and-mortar administrators as they are for the students who take up residence there; and, well, everyone has to eat, and adults no less than students prefer padded chairs to benches, small tables to row seating, and a nice cut of beef in the stroganoff to yesterday’s shepherd’s pie. Meanwhile, students and their parents paid more and more; the federal government released more and more funds in support of “higher education” in the form of grants and loans; and the institutions kept doing what institutions do best: engage in a Veblen-esque conspicuous grasp for the biggest piece of the pie they could get.

Which makes it, frankly, refreshing that someone, finally, has someone’s ear: the president’s. In an interview with college and university newspaper staffs from around the country yesterday, Mr. Obama shows that he: (a) is onto the federal gravy train that has allowed higher education costs to soar out of proportion; (b) understands the higher-ed “arms race” (if I may be permitted: in 1985, 25 years ago, the comprehensive annual cost of one, very nicely appointed private institution [VNAPI] which I was fortunate enough to attend was just less than a brand-new VW Golf—$8,750; today, while the equivalent 2010 Golf runs roughly $16K, the comprehensive cost of the same VNAPI is $47K); (c) rightly views spa-like accommodations on campus as having little to no bearing on the quality of education; and (d) wonders out loud whether “research” may have gotten in the way of teaching and learning. You can read more about Mr. Obama’s interview in the Around Washington column in today’s Inside Higher Ed.

What does this all mean? First, this may be the first time I’ve seen these issues addressed publicly by anyone in Washington, although, as I've mentioned, critical observers have long noted these matters privately and in smaller venues. Mr. Obama’s comments may bring some long-overdue and well-deserved attention to some of the real problems in higher education. Second, this portends a new era of what we’ve been arguing for here on RenMus, a leaner, meaner curriculum, the creation of a shared culture not based upon whether students have private bathrooms with Kohler fixtures but on what they read. Third and finally, perhaps the reign of the foxes is over in the chicken coop.

That said, the foxes will be foxes as long as they can—even if it means destroying the chicken coop. The higher education juggernaut will continue. But there is room—and it is widening—for a new way, for a return to a tightly managed curriculum taught by teachers to students who want to be...educated. And Lutheran higher education, with its unique Wittenberg intellectual apparatus, is poised like few others to deliver.

17 September, 2010

Education & Schools of Education

In The Chronicle of Higher Education this week, Richard Vedder wonders, "Should We Abolish Colleges of Education?" I encourage you to read the whole piece (it's very short). Among other recommendations Vedder has is this, that "State governments should consider defunding students in colleges of education, requiring future teachers to major in an academic subject, etc."

Advice easily transferrable to the colleges and universities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America. The rationale for teacher education, that is, for paedagogical education, is insufficient. How does it help to underprepare future teachers in academic subjects (mathematics, geography, literature, etc.?) in order to overprepare them for the moment when they first open their mouth in front of a class of first graders? Anecdotally, each and every year I have grown as a teacher--by experience. This is largely due to the fact that I entered the profession without a preconception about what a "good teacher" looked like, about what he or she did. And I quickly found out that teaching is like politics: the politician identifies what he or she wants, and gets there by any means possible. That's what teaching is like. It's a constant, tacit renegotiation on the part of the teacher with the students. The goal is always the same, but it's never met in the same way. It certainly fits nothing like a text-book version. But the point is this: nothing prepares you for life on Capitol Hill like, well, life on Capitol Hill. In the same way, nothing prepares you for teaching like teaching.

But nothing un-prepares you for teaching like having nothing to teach. An interesting study recently showed that students taught by novices (TAs) did, generally, as well as those taught by veterans (profs)--in the class in question. But the subsequent progress of the same group of students was tracked. Those taught by the profs went on to do better in courses later in the sequence than those taught by TAs. What does this mean? It means that content matters, and that a teacher's mastery of the content up and down the curriculum matters. What is salient in Calc I? What do students really need to be able to do and know in intermediate Greek to make it in advanced Greek? What bases must be built in in "Survey of American History" for subsequent courses in the Great Depression and the Civil War, etc.?

At the grade school level: what does a kid really need to know, really need to be able to do, to perform well later on in Geometry and Trig? The answer of the survey I mentioned above is that it requires, on the part of the teachers, depth of knowledge in academic subjects.

This, indeed, was and remains the Wittenberg way. Certainly the Reformers, both educational and theological, cared about pedagogy. But it was, for them, a guild craft, something gained in the shop (the school classroom), not in the classroom (the university classroom). The latter was for content.

What might Melanchthon's or Winsheim's or Dietrich's or...Luther's recommendation be today for the Evangelical Lutheran Church's parochial school teacher preparation? Perhaps we could tweak Vedder just a bit and say, "Synods and synodical colleges and parishes should consider defunding students in colleges of education, requiring future teachers to major in an academic subject, etc."


[Pictured above: Das Melanchthonhaus Wittenberg, where Melanchthon, in addition to his rigorous teaching schedule at the University and prolific publication activity, ran a school. Content mattered.]

13 September, 2010

Can the Lutherans Pull off an Ex Corde Renewal?

Ex corde ecclesiae, John Paul II's Apostolic constitution requesting (or requiring, depending upon your read of the document) greater faithfulness to Catholic teaching in Catholic colleges and universities, has just reached its milestone 20th anniversary. In "Catholic Colleges 20 Years after Ex Corde" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, David House marks the anniversary with a retrospective look at what the papal message has, or hasn't, achieved in Roman Catholic higher education in the United States. Among the positive results, he notes that:

[Roman Catholic] colleges are beginning to recognize that emulating secular institutions might be worthwhile in some instances, but not at the expense of what makes them truly Catholic and, therefore, distinctive.... The importance of theology and philosophy, undergraduate core curricula, and how graduates of Catholic colleges should be distinguishable from those of secular institutions has emerged because of Ex corde. [italics added]

House points out that in the U.S. context in which the Land O'Lakes Statement of 1967 was expressive of the going paradigm in the heady years of and after Vatican II, Ex corde faced some stiff opposition--a corrosive opposition to the Catholic way, a critical rather than a fostering stance.

Heirs of the Wittenberg Reformation might learn a thing or two from Ex corde's success. First, a retrenchment is possible. The Wittenberg way need not be a relic, a something that, à Hegel, has led to another, quite different something. Second, a broad consensus (by which I don't intend to say the creation of a big-umbrella consensus that means nothing) among Lutheran colleges about what is at the heart of Lutheran higher education, and a consistent application of that across the range institutional functions can, in the long run, show some positive gains. But this requires fearless leaders at all levels. Third, the founding of some centers or even entire institutions that can show the way has a leavening affect. Today, "Catholic higher education" is not defined by Georgetown, but by Ave Maria or Belmont Abbey College or Franciscan University of Steubenville. Such colleges and universities stand as a constant reminder to their accommodationist peers that faithfulness to Church teaching and intellectual responsibility not only are not at odds, but may even--and, in fact, must--work in tandem in pursuit of a unique vibrance of faith and learning.

Herman Preus is noted to have said once that the colleges of the Evangelical Lutheran Church won't be steered wrong unless the congregations want it that way. In other words, the health or sickness of the colleges is a symptom, not a cause, of the health or sickness of the congregations. Melanchthon made the opposite case: if you want to ruin the Church, ruin the institutions of higher education. The truth is probably more complicated than either man might have imagined. But it is clear that the two are interrelated--and that the Church of the Augsburg Confession, whether because it is healthy or because it wants to be healthy, requires a distinctively Lutheran higher education of the highest quality. The question is whether we have the will to do it.

[Pictured above: Lutherstadt Wittenberg, market square.]

This Just in from...Canada

More in the do ut des column: readers of RenMus, especially those directly involved in the delivery and management of higher education, may want to bookmark The Classroom Conservative, a blog by Craig Monk, faculty member and administrator at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. Oh, by the way, he's also apparently a reader of RenMus.

07 September, 2010

Lutheranism & the Classics Conference

CTS to Host Classics Conference in October

Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne is set to host next month’s Lutheranism & the Classics” conference on their campus Oct. 1-2.

The conference will strive to consider how the classical languages have influenced church, school, and home in the past, and how Greek and Latin are poised to enrich culture and civilization in both the present and the future.

The event is free of charge to Seminary students both at Fort Wayne and those in St. Louis, with the exception of the optional conference banquet Friday night. All wishing to attend the conference are asked to pre-register online at www.ctsfw.edu/classics.

Concordia Seminary President Dale Meyer will deliver one of the plenary papers at the conference entitled Ridentem dicere verum: Horatian Satire in Preaching the Law.”

My Greek and Latin teachers taught me to love the classics and to love that literature for its own sake, Meyer shared. Still, my younger years spent with the likes of Homer and Aristophanes, with Horace and Cicero and so many others have profoundly impacted my theological formation and service to the church. At this time of my life, I want to get back to a more active study of classics and welcome the conference as one way to do that.”

The conference will be presented in three separate tracks to specifically engage those in attendance. The tracks are broken up between an Academic track for Professional Lutheran classicists, a Classical Education track for educators, and a Concordia track for university faculty and students. Each of the tracks will be presented twice to give conference goers a broader depth of the material presented.

Throughout the conference, there will also be three worship opportunities, all of which will implement historical Latin in each of the services inside Kramer Chapel on the Fort Wayne campus.

According to the conference brochure produced by Rev. Dr. John Nordling, Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at CTS, The conference is intended for homeschoolers, pastors, classical’ educators (principals, teachers, parents), professional classicists, those who dont know the ancient languages yet (but are fascinated by them), high school Latin students and their teachers, and collegians.

During the two days of the conference, Nordling will also present his paper entitled Teaching Greek at the Seminary: What’s Involved and Why Greek Remains Essential for the Ministry.

Registration information, additional conference material, and suggested hotels can be found online at the conference website.

by Andrew Wilson; reproduced from the serial of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Around the Tower (Special edition, Sept. 2010, p. 4)

03 September, 2010

Wittenberg & the Sciences: An E-nterview

Steve Gehrke, our featured guest on RenMus the last several days, offers some further food for thought on this topic that we've taken up of late, the sciences and the Wittenberg way.

JB: Following are some of the questions that, at first blush, seem to be basic and preliminary to any further consideration: Has so much scientific water flowed under the bridge since the 16th century that it is impossible today to make the sciences at home in a Lutheran curriculum?

SG: This seems to presume that either science and theology are by nature hostile toward each other as disciplines, or else that scientists and theologians are. Since the Lutheran view would be that science and theology both are creations of God, I don’t think the former can be true. If the latter is true, then I think the two sides must be reconciled to each other and learn to communicate. If that occurred in 16th-century Wittenberg, why not among the heirs of that tradition?

JB: Is there such a thing as a Lutheran approach to science? And if so, how does it differ from, how does it complement other views? How might it be regarded as better or deficient?

SG: This I think is a most intriguing question. I have read it argued that science itself is a product of the Christian world view, because Christianity described the world as being purposefully designed for humanity, and this led to the idea that there were rules that underlay the universe that could be discovered and understood. It is empirically proven that great scientists and engineers need not be Lutheran nor even Christian. However, I don’t know how I would argue that Lutheranism would make better scientists (to answer that, one would have to define “better”). I have long thought that Lutheranism is especially compatible with engineering, a somewhat different question for another post.

JB: What need does the Church have of the sciences, if any? Put the other way around, what would be missing for the Church without the sciences? And are all sciences equal? Which are necessary, which are not?

SG: If science is understood as the discovery of the laws of nature as created by God, I think the church clearly would be missing something not to be interested in studying God’s handiwork. Exactly what would BE that missing something I’m not exactly sure. Would it be heretical to suggest that the Mind of God would be reflected in the workings of his creation? As noted above, the idea that It would be, informed the development of science in the Western world. The relationship between the Reformation and rise of modern science has been explored by scholars but I’m not well enough informed to try to describe it myself here.

I think the Church IS missing something by its general lack of involvement or appreciation of the sciences and technology. I can argue that the high view of science by modern society is less that people are impressed by esoteric scientific discoveries than they are by iPhones and medicines made possible by those discoveries. Because the Church is frequently reactive to technological developments rather than proactive it therefore does not have the influence on people that it could have, and in any case tends to promote the view that it is archaic and irrelevant (see my 2000 Logia essay on this point).[editor's note: Our friends at Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology assure us they'll be happy to send you a paper or electronic copy of this issue for a modest price.]

The usual hierarchy in the sciences is math>physics>chemistry>biology. I don’t know if any other science would be considered fundamental. Subjects like astronomy are simply a branch of physics, and geology of chemistry. Even biology can be viewed as a specialized subset of chemistry. But there are no distinct boundaries between any of the disciplines. For example, there are chemical physicists and physical chemists.

JB: What sort of philosophical or theological Weltanschauung is necessary to work under in order to have a healthy scientific community on a Lutheran campus?

SG: I think it understands that science is the study of God’s creation, but that this study and its application (technology) are clouded by sin.

JB: Will 16th-century guide-posts be helpful or harmful in this discussion? If helpful, how can they be enlisted?


I’ve read a little bit of the work of theologians of this era (mostly as presented by RD Preus in The Theology of Post-Reformation LutheranismVol. II God and His Creation) and find it very helpful. Lutherans and Calvinists were already developing theological differences in the area of theology and science. Quenstedt in 1683 in debating Calvinists found it necessary to assert “We must distinguish between the book of Scripture and the book of nature,” by way of asserting that we must let Scripture speak for itself (Preus p. 186). Doesn’t this sound familiar? But because these theological discussions occurred prior to Darwin, it provides different perspective on the relationship between God and His creation without getting trapped in the well-worn ruts of the creation-evolution debates. Maybe with this fresh perspective we can learn something new in considering post-Darwinian questions.

JB: Can a science-less curriculum offer a responsible Wittenberg education?

SG: This is the only question you’ve raised that is easily answered: No.

JB: Do the big quarrels, such as that between evolution and intelligent design, materialism and non-materialist views, matter? Do they drown out the healthy discussions, or do they create a context in which a healthy discussion may occur? Are they the only “going paradigms” that may be adopted?

SG: Yes, I think they unquestionably DO drown and HAVE drowned out healthy discussions. Otherwise, from does what your opening paragraph derive? (“Perhaps no more vexatious question, no question passed over in more silence, no question more [unpersuasively] pontificated upon, is that of the relationship between science and theology. The two don’t make easy bed-fellows.”) Part of the challenge of putting science into the Wittenberg curriculum is in fact figuring out how to keep this from happening. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of these debates, but this is far from the totality of science-theology interaction. Simply consider all of the bioethical questions raised by advances in modern medicine such as end-of-life issues. Simply look for anything written by Glibert Meilaender on the subject to see why every family must understand these issues, and why confessional Lutheranism may suggest different answers to those moral quandaries than the consensus of modern society (generally strictly utilitarian).

[Graphic above: The shields of arms of the Faculty of Law (left) and the Faculty of Medicine (right) of the University of Wittenberg; Melanchthonhaus, Bretten, Germany. The shield of the Faculty of Medicine depicts its patron saints Cosmas and Damian.]