Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Faithfully Present Teacher

A year ago, during my student teaching semester, I was also completing the second of my two senior seminar requirements (I had completed the music seminar in the fall of my senior year; the spring was given to the education seminar). Our major piece of assigned reading was James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

This book was easily the best assigned reading I had in my entire undergraduate curriculum – and I read plenty of insightful, thought provoking, challenging articles and books while at Wheaton. I will quote from the preface to summarize Hunter’s objective for the book:

The questions that animate this book are both broadly academic and deeply personal. The basic academic question is simply, how is religious faith possible in the late modern world? … The more personal question is a variant of the academic one; simply, how do believers live out their faith under the conditions of the late modern world? (Hunter ix)

These two questions (or two variants on the same question, if you prefer) were very important to me in the final months of my undergraduate studies and remain so a year later. I began reading the book with eager anticipation when it was first assigned, and just a few weeks ago turned back to it with the view of applying Hunter’s answers to my current context, public education. Let me first briefly outline Hunter’s answers, and then I will proceed to my main task.

Synopsis of To Change the World

The book is in three parts, which Hunter calls essays. The first essay, “Christianity and World Changing,” is a comprehensive discussion of the nature and evolution of culture (Hunter is LaBrosse-Levinson Distringuished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, so I’m inclined to trust his thoughts on the subject). The core of his thesis in Essay I is that cultures change via their most powerful and influential institutions, not through individuals persuading individuals in a grassroots fashion. Hunter concludes Essay I by demonstrating that American Christians are largely absent from our nation’s most powerful and influential institutions (e.g., law schools, university presses), hence our collective influence on culture is negligible.

Essay II, “Rethinking Power,” examines the major ways people of faith have sought to influence American culture through the political system – literally, through the use of power. The three main paradigms of cultural interaction, which each align with a different political ideology, are “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from.” Hunter elaborates at length on underlying theology, the prominent actions, and the shortcomings of each. He concludes Essay II by demonstrating that a purely political approach to cultural change is wholly ineffective – indeed, it is ironic and tragic in its effects – and suggesting that American Christians rethink how to use their power. There are two steps to doing this: first, American Christians must find their own identity separate from American society in general, and second, separate the public from the political.

In Essay III, “Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence,” Hunter elaborates on his proposal for a more effective paradigm of cultural engagement: “faithful presence within.” A few quotations from the text will explain:

[F]aithful presence is a theology of commitment and promise. The commitment is “covenantal.” It is a binding obligation manifested in the relationships we have, in the work we do, and in the social worlds we inhabit, and it is all oriented toward the flourishing of the world around us. (Hunter 261)

In all, the practice of faithful presence generates relationships and institutions that are covenantal. These create space that foster meaning, purpose, and belonging and by doing so, these relationships and institutions resist an instrumentalization endemic to the modern world that tends to reduce the value of people and the worth of creation to mere utility… such commitment cannot be justified on economic or political grounds for it cannot measure up to contemporary standards… Yet to provide for the physical, aesthetic, intellectual, and social health of the community is a good in its own right and it is part and parcel of the covenant that believers have with the people that God has placed in their lives and the social and physical world in which God has placed them. (Hunter 266)

If you are interested in a more expansive synopsis, I have linked the author’s name and book title in the first paragraph to Hunter’s website, where you can read summaries of each chapter within each essay.

The Faithfully Present Teacher

Now to my main task: how a public school educator can exhibit faithful presence within his or her professional sphere of influence. Hunter briefly notes how faithful presence would look in academia in general:

[T]he challenge begins by creating resources and space for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding that are protected from the enormous pressure of partisan politics…and commercial interest… This creates a context in which genuine inquiry is possible and thus truths about the world we live in are possible. (Hunter 265-66)

From the above, I derive my first application: in the classroom, the teacher must guide his or her students in the pursuit of knowledge, rather than just information, and understanding, rather than memorization. Put another way, it is the teacher’s burden to show the students that the information in a given content area is valuable because it helps us make sense of and flourish in an often forbidding and confusing world – yet one in which we all have to live. This objective will in turn give meaning and purpose to the learning process, which may have the useful side effect of protecting the teachers themselves from the far too frequent condition of “burning out.”

A second application is in the teacher-student relationship. Hunter also gives brief mention to how faithful presence might manifest itself in the business-customer relationship, and I think some of those principles are applicable here. Hunter writes, “customers have a greater intrinsic value than their tangible contribution as economic actors” (Hunter 265). Students, then, are more than just a teacher’s “customers.” They come to us, vulnerable and impressionable, and educators have a mandate to treat them with utmost respect and invest all appropriate energy and resources into their development. Educators need to demonstrate that youth and lack of grand accomplishments are irrelevant – students have just as much dignity and worth as adults. As many have said, teaching cannot and should not be just “a job,” but rather a solemn trust.

I firmly believe, also, that students’ parents are more than just “customers.” A more accurate description would be “constituent” and a still more accurate description would be “partner.” A good educator should not only build relationships with his or her students but with the students’ parents.

Third, I believe there is an application for the relationship with fellow teachers, as well as the school’s other personnel. A teacher should firstly seek to build positive, edifying relationships with the other faculty in his or her department. And I do not mean just communicating about matters of curriculum or classroom materials. Teachers should ask after their colleagues’ health, families, and weekend activities – and demonstrate that they care about the answers to those inquiries.

After one’s own department, the next step is to build relationships with faculty in other departments. The school where I work is structured in academic departments, yet we have a culture of interdepartmental collegiality that I really enjoy. And then there are the administrators and support staff – and again, interactions should not just be limited to communicating technical information. A teacher should take the time while returning from the mail room to say hello to the secretary, greet the custodians on the way into the building in the morning, and wish the principal a good night on the way out in the evening. In all, the goal is to build a community amongst one’s colleagues.

A Work in Progress

My three applications are by know means exhaustive, and in fact, I hope to add to them as my career progresses. I would be curious for the thoughts of my readers who are themselves educators – particularly those who have read Hunter’s book, or who have the time to read the chapter summaries (though I do highly recommend the book!). Of course, I encourage readers in other professions to think through how Hunter’s paradigm of “faithful presence within” might apply in those spheres, and your thoughts are also welcome. Please comment below.

This is Rubio, over and out.

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