Higher education and the common good

As part of writing a literature review recently, I was hunting around for some kind of definition of the common good, within the Anglican educational context. The vision for education that they published in 2016 has the title Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good. It is a title that is both ambitious and contentious, marked out neither by any particular humility nor, once I had read it, by any particular understanding of the common good. It discusses human flourishing to an extent, but mainly as an individual, educational good.

The common good has long been the demesne of Catholic thinking, since the advent of Catholic social teaching and even before. The wonderful charity Together for the Common Good (T4CG), which very much has a Catholic root (both the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity are Catholic social teaching concerns), is streets ahead of Anglican thinking on this matter, and is for me the go-to place on the subject. Its regular newsletters positively heave with insight and clarity on the need for and strategies to engender the common good. Their initiative Common Good Schools is a wonderful start for lower secondary age children to consider how to enact the common good in their communities.

But there is one really interesting Church of England publication that came out in February 2020, and which goes further and more fully into a missional understanding of education than the Vision for Education, and which both defines and apples the concept of the common good in education, and that is the publication Faith in Higher Education, written under the auspices of Tim Dakin, the Bishop of Winchester. Once again it is unfortunately billed as a “vision” – with all the problems that that causes (Whose vision? Whose eyes? – more here) – but it has re-thought the emphases of higher education in terms of four principal lenses – wisdom, community, virtue and the common good.

And these, truly, are treasures. To see virtue and the common good as headings is a delight, never mind what follows! The bibliography is thorough (though I could have done with seeing more of Tom Wright and some Parker Palmer, Alistair McIntyre and Luke Bretherton in there) and gives confidence in the theological and philosophical basis on which the report sits. The report also takes seriously the role of theology in the quest for understanding, and makes a strong argument for its importance and inclusion as a tool for the research of other disciplines. It also roots strongly for the place of religion and belief as identities, guiding principles and foundations for many of today’s universities.

In the appendix, it discusses the status and particular contributions of Anglican universities in the cathedral group of universities in a way that completely resonates with my experience at York St John. As someone who is finding their professional feet and their Christian identity in a pluralist HE institution like UEL, it is a very helpful document.

Wisdom, Community, Virtue and the Common Good

Starting with the perception that HE needs re-humanising, that universities are places that are deeply humane – or should be – the authors write that people in HE, whether academics, administrators, support staff or students are ’embodied souls with physical and spiritual needs.’ The vision of such embodiment becomes real wherever:

communities form in order to seek wisdom, grow in virtue and seek the common good. That is both what higher education is for, and what it truly is.

Wisdom: from the basis that the generation and transmission of knowledge can never be enough, and never separated from its social dimension of learning, the report argues that wisdom is a better word to describe what university education is for: since we have to grow in wisdom (being born unwise), we need the constraints of wisdom literature (including the scriptures) and traditions to enable us to avoid simplistic reductionism and to be ‘comfortable with, and celebrate, thick, multi-layered and complementary descriptions of reality.’

As a result, an approach to learning that was congruent with wisdom would be interdisciplinary, in order to savour many insights; it would reject economic instrumentalism; it would serve aesthetic, environmental and political ends, not simply economic ones; it would be contemplative of the works of God; and it should ensure that impact is measured in terms of the whole of a person’s experience.

Knowledge is to be treasured, says wisdom, and the post-modern ‘competing perspectives on inaccessible realities’ needs to be challenged because of the goodness and kindness of God. We can still

hope to make progress because scholarship presupposes a God who is there. Far from being oppressive, this optimistic theocentricism means that higher education should value contestation between and within disciplines, since there is something worth arguing about.

Community: exploring the theological roots of community as lying within the Godhead, the report riffs off the ‘new community’ of Jesus’ resurrection people to argue for a flourishing community that needs shaping, working at, and defining. It means that there is a physicality to being together, eating together, learning together, as well as a growing communal sense of what it means to belong to an alma mater. There are implications for administration here (I am thinking of one of my lovely group of PGCE student teachers who has yet to visit UEL this academic year) in terms of continuity of relationship within a campus. The personal confidence that arises from this continuous relationship is ‘a precondition for intellectual challenge and robust debate.’

In practical terms, this requires the identification of multiple strands of identity and interest, overlapping socially both within class and beyond. Developing such ‘strong, multifaceted relationships is demanding, since

it takes time and requires people to cross all sorts of boundaries. The personal vulnerability this requires is the basis for demonstrating trustworthiness to each other. This is important because developing trust is essential for community…

The practical implication is ensuring that all who teach also pastor – not hiving off pastoral support to a separate team. The other implication is that parity of esteem can be fostered within an academic community even where there are inevitable disparities in age, experience and learning: ‘each is engaged in essentially the same endeavour and has something valuable to contribute.’ This in turn has implications for pay, conditions and decision-making.

Virtue: starting from the point that education is the intentional transformation of persons, the report argues that growth in virtue, especially the ‘personal and institutional virtues [of] self-discipline, honesty, humility, respect for evidence and for the understanding of others’ are the keys to making wisdom possible.

And this wisdom grows from very practical virtues – technical ones of accuracy and clarity, intellectual ones of humility and perseverance, and moral ones of honesty, patience, friendliness and courage. Virtue, the authors argue, does not come from ‘hitting the target’ or ‘erring.’ It derives from the central command to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and body and our neighbours as ourselves. All we do that enables that – the professional virtues that surround study, assessment and lecturing included – are critical to the life of a virtuous university.

This virtue derives from ‘careful perception’ being trained in ways to become more attentive to the world. As Parker Palmer, in another context, observes, ‘education would not be necessary if things were as they seem’ (To know as we are known, p. 19). We become open to judgment, acquiring the skills of honest scholarship, rather than simply training for the economy and its monetary rewards. This growth in virtue also reinforces a humble approach to academic freedom, caring for the whole person. Freedom does not then become freedom to do or say what we think, a freedom from accountability: rather it becomes freedom within a community of virtue, to ‘be

a unique exemplar of a life spent in pursuit of what is true, just and useful. Academic freedom is what enables scholars to make a distinctive contribution to collective wisdom.

The Common Good: The fourth of the pillars of this report concerns the common good, which is defined this way:

the common good is more than a banner to encourage social solidarity. It has deep philosophical and religious roots which give it three distinct senses. First, the common good is an aim, the good common to a community, whether that be a nation state, sports club or university. Second, the common good is a practice, that is, collective activity for a common purpose. Third, the common good refers to the conditions necessary for everyone to fulfil their individual objectives, for example, a society that values free speech is one favourable to intellectual enquiry. This rich and multifaceted conception of the common good clearly shows that it is not a utopian ideal to be imposed by one group on another.

This is a peculiarly rich definition both for the culture in which a university sits, but also for the university itself. Because it is an aim, it offers context to wisdom and virtue. Because it is a practice, it gives scope and boundaries to the university as a community. And because it offers conditions necessary for the flourishing of individual objectives, it imposes demands on leadership.

In Perry Glanzer’s and Nathan Alleman’s The Outrageous Idea of Christian Teaching, they make the point that pluralist universities generally have very thin moral traditions. Quoting an article by Chad Wellmon in the Chronicle of Higher Education, they argue:

The university has moral limitations. Universities cannot impart comprehensive visions of the good. They cannot provide ultimate moral ends. Their goods are proximate. Faculty members….need to acknowledge that most university leaders lack the language and moral imagination to confront evils such as white supremacy. They lack those things….because of what the modern research university has become….We have goods to offer, but they are not ultimate goods

(quoted on p. 128 of Glanzer & Alleman, 2019).

This is interesting on a number of fronts.

As a Christian in HE, it means that I can take the four-fold vision from the Church of England for HE and use it as a strengthening of my own understanding of the role of the university. I can seek and push for more than perhaps the university imagines it can offer – or if not more, then different.

Secondly, in pursuing the common good, unanimity of thought gives way to diversity of thought and experience both within and between universities. Alistair McIntyre argues for a diversity of university types in a “mixed economy” of HE, and both the US and the UK have that, to their benefit. Further, he argues for a ‘postliberal’ university, a place of “‘constrained disagreement, of imposed participation in conflict, in which a central responsibility of higher education would be to initiate students into conflict.’

This would lead to lecturers teaching from their own identity perspectives whilst representing their opponents fairly and engaging rival viewpoints in a debate. The pretension to neutral knowledge would be laughed out of the lecture theatre, and the university would encourage and engage the thick moral traditions of students and faculty in institutionalised forums in order to maximise the learning from such conflicts. (Glanzer & Alleman, p. 163).

Thirdly, it opens up the possibilities of what a university might become within its culture, not as responder to an economic instrumentalism but as teacher and initiator of a better way of being human. The early universities, that had these sorts of goals, were for the rich, the male and the privileged. Today, with widening participation, the opportunity and urgency to teach is correspondingly wider.

The common good must include the ability ‘to assess competing claims,’ which in turn requires a level of free speech, which is ‘more than allowing everyone to say what they want, however objectionable. The imperative for higher education institutions is to protect a free speech which encourages civilised communication and debate, and hence engagement in the pursuit of a higher (common) good.’

A moment’s reflection around this last condition will expose very quickly the need for great wisdom and carefully learned virtue in the university community.

Pentecost and Church of England schools

This is going to be a bit speculative as a blog post, but having given over three years’ thought to what the prophetic ministry of a church school might be, I have been thinking this week, following Pentecost, what the implications of the gift of the Holy Spirit might be for Church of England (CE) schools.

Because there has to be an implication, one at least of which being that without Pentecost and the events that followed, there would be no church, and thus no CE schools – or any Christian religious educational enterprises.

CE schools in their current form owe their foundation to Joshua Watson and the National Society in 1811, but prior to that they exist directly due to the willingness of YHWH, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, to entrust a bunch of not-terribly-well-educated Jewish artisans and their womenfolk with the gift of His own presence in the form of the Holy Spirit.

And whilst we are keen to honour the “Christian foundation” of CE schools in such documents as the trust deed and the founding articles of the National Society, the real foundation and identity has to be here, in Jerusalem in 29 or 30 AD, where the full implications and equipping of the church were made manifest following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah.

Hence, CE schools, like the church itself, have to sit under Peter’s preaching on that day, as recorded in Acts 2, and allow it to form us and challenge us. This is some of what he said:

Let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say…..this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him:

I saw the Lord always before me.
    Because he is at my right hand,
    I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest in hope,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    you will not let your holy one see decay.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence.

Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

The Lord said to my Lord:
    Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.

Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah

It is always worth reading this speech of Peter’s not just because of what it says, but also because of what it does not say. Right here at the start of the life of the church, there is little doctrine, nothing of the theological material that would later become a commonplace in the work of Paul.

Instead we get a narrative, linked deeply to Jewish experience and expectations, explaining the significance of three things: firstly the crazy events of that morning, secondly the death of Jesus Christ (note there is nothing here about Jesus “dying for us” or being “a personal saviour”) as a political and communal act at the heart of civic Jewish life, followed by the public resurrection of Jesus by YHWH before his ascension to YHWH. Essentially it is an explanatory news report: this is what you have seen today, this is what you will recall from the recent events in Jerusalem, this is what it means, and here’s the documentation to prove it. Laura Kuennsberg could not have done it better.

Evaluating it as narrative (rather than as doctrine or direction) is helpful. Certain things stand out as a result:

  1. It is rooted in public historical events, that bore certain significance both to the speakers (the apostles) and to the hearers (the community of Jewish believers gathered for the feast). As one of the key historical documents of the early church, this speech is well-attested, and cannot be “spiritualised” or robbed of its historic significance.
  2. The speech is situated in the narrative of the Jewish people: it is therefore both particular to the time, and through the impact on those who heard Peter and subsequently converted, it reaches out to those who need to remember the events it described. It has the same purpose and impact as, say, the Gettysburg Address had for the postbellum USA: something to refer back to as historical and real, yet an inspiration for an imagination of a greater future.
  3. It situates the event within a prophetic narrative that derived from the 8th century prophets and David’s own prophetic gift, 1000 years earlier. There is no reason to think that this narrative is coming to an end.
  4. It establishes Jesus as the Jewish Messiah unequivocally, and with it, the authority that God anointed the Messiah with: to rule over the enemies of God, and to be exalted to the right hand of God, His Father. That this political and kingly role is one of the very first attributes to be publicly spoken about Jesus after his ascension is significant. The first thing we know about Jesus in Acts is that he is Lord and King. Salvation, which follows immediately after Peter’s speech, in v.37-39, is driven in part by an awareness of the guilt in killing the Messiah and his subsequent resurrection and calling his people to account.
  5. The gift of the Holy Spirit, given spectacularly to the apostles in the morning of that day, is promised to all who follow, thus sustaining the narrative. It thus becomes a narrative of the Holy Spirit, from the act of Creation and the guiding of the life of Israel through kings and prophets, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, to this amazing Pentecost outpouring, and on into the future where this gift will have even more impact.

The thing about seeing this as narrative is that it is inclusive. A modernist evangelical approach, such as that of RA Torrey, author of What the Bible Teaches, situates truth as propositional. The structure of his work, and of those like him, is to use biblical quotations to erect and then defend a series of propositions. This can be helpful when asserting and defending doctrine, but as some recent struggles of church leaders have shown us, a doctrinal approach does not necessarily lead to a life of love and goodness, and ultimately it leaves us, as humans, outside of the story, clutching a clipboard or a concordance. The longing of God, in the story of Scripture, is to show us that we can be in this story too.

And this points to the kind of gospel narrative that church schools might usefully live out as a reflection of the prophetic yearning of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

To see themselves as part of an invitation to life, an invitation to their communities to learn about and to take their place in following Jesus as Messiah, seems to me merely a natural stance for Church of England schools. This invitation is to a discipleship, a following, of the resurrected Jesus Christ. It can’t be less than this, and might be more.

Howard Worsley writes of the liminal and narthical idea of CofE schools, that they form a sort of porchway into the church. This idea has been taken up by Ann Casson in her Faith in the Nexus report that came out in November last year. I quite like the architectural analogy, though I don’t think it fully sustains the sense of mission flowing into their community that churches mostly seek to own.

The Holy Spirit, being an outdoor type in the Scriptures (on the basis of quite a lot of New Testament evidence), might be expected to have a rich impact well beyond the door of the church. Either CofE schools are mission bearers on behalf of the church of God, or they are legitimate foci for the mission of the church. Either way the Holy Spirit will have a deep interest in what happens there, and we as Christians working in and around CofE schools, will have an expectation in faith that we might see the work of God made manifest, by the Holy Spirit, in ways both natural and supernatural.

This too has implications, of prayer, faith and expectation, of facilitating, explanation and articulation, and of publicising and teaching that the Holy Spirit is at work in and through us in our schools. And of watching and discerning together what it is that He is doing.

Marking time

Thirty years ago today, my family and I embarked on the MS Achille Lauro, a 50-year old liner that was taking us back to the UK after a 10 year sojourn in South Africa. The ship had sailed from Sydney, then Fremantle, before calling at Durban (in atrocious weather, which persisted till Cape Town) and collecting us, and several other families, at the docks in Cape Town. Two newlyweds who had embarked at Durban spent most of the voyage to Cape Town throwing up over the side, we were informed with glee by some of the older Australian couples making the month-long trip to Britain.

Wonderful friends of ours, the Sherries (unofficial parents while we were in South Africa), and Angus and Gillian Wilson, an older couple, among a handful of others, came to see us off at some ridiculous time of the evening. There was an excitement about it, and a deep pain (which I can still feel as I write), and huge uncertainty. It marks an early family adventure for our children – or the three of them that have memories of it.

What the Americans call the “first Gulf War” – the liberation of Kuwait – had just finished, and with it the brief tradition of liners from around the world calling into Cape Town harbour to avoid the Suez Canal. As a consequence, four months earlier, in January 1991, we had all got up early one morning into our beaten-up VW Passat and headed for the docks because the SS Canberra was sailing in. The sun was low and bright as the Canberra entered the harbour, and was then completely blocked out, as the ship, enormous, white-hulled, humming with people, was tied up dockside. A man several decks up was taking photos of Table Mountain, which was bathed in early morning sunlight, when his camera dropped from his hands and shot into the water in the metre-wide gap between hull and quay, where I imagine it still remains. He reached into a bag, pulled out another camera, and carried on taking photos. The things we remember.

Back to the Achille Lauro: the original schedule was to include St Helena and Ascension, but the vessel had been delayed by storms off Port Elizabeth and the South Atlantic weather was not good, so we headed directly for Las Palmas in the Canaries, and thence to Funchal, before arriving in Southampton around the 11th June. It was a fantastically memorable voyage, in a 6-berth cabin below the water line and not far from the ship’s laundry, judging by the smell in the corridor immediately outside. There was Italian food (progressively less fresh as time went on), deck games and sea pools and activities for the children and all the sort of things that older liners had when they were a quarter (or less) of the size of the monstrosities cruising these days around the Caribbean and Med. At 11 a.m. every day there was bouillon served in the lounges, and at least twice we had evacuation drills. When my dad and his sailing buddy Geoff came to collect us at Southampton Docks, I just remember them saying – “it’s made with rivets, look! Rivets! Actual rivets!”

The ship had a distinct history. Submerged during the Second World War shortly after construction to prevent it being bombed, it was sold to an Italian company as a liner after the war. We had been in South Africa during the Achille Lauro’s hijack by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, and had only been back in the UK for a month when we saw the film made about it on the TV, and then three years after we returned to the UK, we watched the news film as the ship caught fire and sank off the Comoros.

But our two weeks onboard were definitely a voyage, not a cruise. There was a destination, and we were moving countries more cheaply than we would have been able to do by air. We were visiting ports not for tourist reasons but for replenishment, refuelling and fresh food. We were able to visit the volcanic islands we put into, of course, but this was travel, not tourism.

Ten years ago last month I began at Christ the Sower, also in its way a voyage (definitely NOT a cruise!), whilst later this summer it will be forty years since I graduated from Oxford and set off on the adventure to South Africa.

These things matter. They are markers in time that allow us space and thought and encourage us to attach a rich significance to our joys and griefs. They become identity-markers and definitive stepping stones in our lives, often (in retrospect more than at the time) deposits of God’s faithfulness to us.

This post has little to contribute to either faith or education, except that recently, in reading some of the amazing personal statements that our students are writing as part of their applications for their first teaching posts, I am conscious of the strength of writing when one of them includes their family motivation and history – or migration to a better life – and relates it to their choice (or change) of career.

This might be the true purpose of “marking time” this way: to allow the significance of the past to inform the decisions and purposes for the future, to make our view of others kindlier and less judgmental, as we explore those memorials without mythologising them, and remembering both the beauty but also the ordinariness of our actions.

Teaching and being (3)

Intersectionality is the term used in the social sciences to describe the multiple identities, narratives and situations that people are born into, accrue, choose, adopt, grow into or (in some cases) are forced into. This diagram is a particularly unhelpful way of demonstrating intersectionality, but at least it makes a good stab at describing the range of factors that impact on people’s identities. But it says more than it means, I think. Religion, stuck at the bottom left hand of the diagram, is often relegated to a part of our lives. And whereas as a Christian I would hope that it dominated my identity, I know that other factors – education, upbringing, occupation – can outweigh the Lordship of Jesus Christ in my life, at any given point, as much as I see myself as a trying-to-be-faithful disciple.

Many of these identities are inherited, some are predetermined or made more likely by factors such as class, ethnicity, location and family wealth (or lack thereof). Some are chosen and pursued. Some are felt and not acted upon. Some fade away with time. Others grow. Some assume more importance when one is out of the milieu of others with the same identity. Since the postmodern turn in the last third of the 20th century, the ability to choose one’s own identity and the autonomy of the individual in so doing, has assumed greater importance.

The issue of choice is important, in everything from sexuality (how and whether we act upon what we desire) to political affiliation, to marital status, to religion and faith, and (even) to nationality. However, we have to be warned in making choices, because the things that we have a choice in are the things we must take responsibility for. We can’t both hold the luxury of choice and the freedom from responsibility for that choice. Similarly, those things we have no choice in are things for which we cannot bear responsibility and for which we cannot be blamed (which of course won’t stop people blaming us for things!).

Sometimes a whole person’s range of identities is so curious and unexpected that people don’t know how to pigeonhole them. We expect certain identities and narratives to go together in a person, but they can mismatch. The Labour Party, for instance, has misread the shift of significant identities in those who traditionally voted for it. Political and class identities are shifting to regional, economic, ethnic and national ones. A lot of people on the left spend a lot of time thinking about this. Those on the right, making assumptions of power already held, and thus seeing less need to consider identity concerns, often spend less time on it.

When I became a Christian, I was aware that my identity did not fundamentally shift at one level, but my destiny and purpose did, and what was previously unimportant became more vital. The relationship with God, through his son Jesus Christ, governed more of my identity. That I was beloved of the creator of the universe was something that took a long time to get used to, but now I cannot perceive of myself as not so loved. The supernatural narrative of God’s intervention in my life and in that of our family is testimony to that being loved.

So, when I approach my role as teacher educator, or tutor, or teacher, or academic – and these roles overlap – I am conscious of my primary identity as Christian. What separates this out as an identity from many of the others are three things:

  • firstly, I am rescued and brought into a new kingdom (Colossians 1);
  • secondly, I was chosen by God and not the other way around (John 15) and
  • thirdly, this identity has eternal consequences (I Peter 1).

Of course every day I have to set my heart and mind to make this discipleship match my calling (see the start of Ephesians 4): that is the Christian life, but in that I am empowered by the Holy Spirit and loved by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And although I was taught as a young Christian, and many Christians still believe, that this primary identity has principally a future, heavenly, dimension, I am now convinced that the work of the Holy Spirit within me is principally in the present-future establishment of the new creation (what Tom Wright calls the inaugurated eschatology) of Jesus the Messiah here on earth, and to portray my discipleship of Jesus as King and God within my life, marriage, research, work and relationships.

That makes the lecture theatre a potentially very interesting place indeed.

It is this commitment to the primary identity as Christian that Parker Palmer argues for in The Courage to Teach and which serves as one of the two poles within which Perry Glanzer and Nathan Alleman argue in their book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Teaching.

In the previous post in this little series on Teaching and Being, I described Glanzer and Alleman’s argument in addressing their central question: when, where and to what extent should Christian teachers in HE draw upon their nonprofessional identities in their professional practice?

Here I want to explore the range of practices and virtues necessary to me, and to other Christian lecturers and academics who have their home within the pluralist university. Glanzer and Alleman start with the civic virtues of ancient Greece – courage, honesty, self-control and justice. Their start point is this quote:

“If we want teachers to have honest and productive conversations with students about the tournament of identities and narratives, they need to demonstrate these virtues in combination with the practices of confession and modelling.”

Glanzer & Alleman, 2019: 154

From this point, the authors maintain, we need not only to be conscious about the influence of our primary identities, but also we need to be honest about the ones we prioritise in our lives and our teaching. “This ordering” they argue, “will affect how they educate their students and their overarching pedagogical goals, curriculum and methods”

To do this requires the intellectual courage and honesty to confess how this “prioritisation might influence the class and their view of knowledge” and “conscious and honest about how their identities and accompanying stories influence their approach to classroom objectives, curricular construction and pedagogy” (p. 155).

The answer, according to Glanzer and Alleman, is for Christian teachers – in fact all teachers of all persuasions in all pluralist settings, and especially in the humanities and social sciences – to begin their courses with a confession of how their primary identity influences their teaching. This is simply analogous to the positionality that qualitative researchers must adopt as an essential part in their enquiry. Why should our students not know the background from which we are teaching? But, the authors warn that

“…this confessional practice, even when made from a religious identity, is not only the expression of academic honesty. It is also an expression of humility and courage. Sharing one’s story is something we do with those we trust…”

(p. 156)

The danger with this approach is that once students know a teacher’s primary identity, they start using it as a lens to interpret, judge, find reason not to listen to, over-exaggerate the importance of, what the teacher is teaching. The hermeneutic of suspicion comes into play. This is why the authors insist that all lecturers in the social sciences and humanities have the courage to do this confessional work. Everyone comes from an identity and that identity influences teaching – even those who try hard to remain detached from their content are coming from a “detached” perspective, which like every other perspective, being emotionally unengaged, is less than the fullness of truth.

The answer, then lies in the different ways that justice is deployed in order to bring fairness to a wide range of views. Justice is a better yardstick than objectivity. Using a student comment on the way that the bible is taught in a particular classroom, the authors argue that indwelling a person’s position fully – in this case demonstrating how the bible shapes worship and discipleship rather than just being treated as a historical record to be studied at arm’s length – offers far better learning to a student, and treats the subject matter far more justly, than simply trying to be objective about it. Exploring the different approaches to the use of the bible, even those – and especially those – with which the teacher disagrees, gives a far better understanding of the text than standing outside it OR treating it only from the lecturer’s own position.

In the case of the bible, or in that of any significant moral text, to insist on readings that are simply objective and analytical, away from any religious implications, “demonstrates a different kind of ideal that excludes particular types of readings of the bible.” Excluding these readings of the scriptures because of a teacher’s faith commitment to it might seem “objective” – but what about the atheist lecturer’s exclusion of the same readings? Are they also objective? Ought she not to expound those readings that involve a faith or life commitment? Or are we back to the old, discredited Enlightenment ideal of objectivity where any faith or life commitment – or emotional investment – is seen as illegitimate?

So, argue Glanzer and Alleman, justice is the yardstick. And for that, you have to indwell the work, getting to know it by becoming more attached to it and investing more loving care in the knowledge. We don’t do justice to a building only by looking at its exterior. In fact

“…the best form of liberal education seeks to help students understand the broad variety of disciplines, intellectual traditions, and cultures by teaching learners how to examine them empathetically from the inside”

(p. 161)

Without embracing the heart of an intellectual position, we will only look at it from our own preconceptions, and thus have no real critical understanding of our own position. Like Parker Palmer, we need not just to know what we are learning, but be examined and known by it, otherwise the cycle of learning is not complete.

The sense of justice that teachers cultivate is all the more important if they have a strong primary identity, whether religious or otherwise. The modern pluralist university is not always known for this self-examination of the link between identity and just treatment of alternative convictions (and they are convictions, not just opinions!). The current struggles to get somebody like Jordan Peterson a fair hearing has been a case in point. In fact even just mentioning his name in this post might seem provocative to some, as if he is not just a bloke with some strong ideas that need to be debated justly.

How does this sense of justice in the classroom play out?

Glanzer and Alleman describe practices that might give home to the virtues of courage, honesty, humility, self-control and justice, in the curriculum (its sense-making, construction and content) and in pedagogical practices.

A curriculum is never neutral. It always “reflects biases and always privileges some voices over others” (witness the debate over black perspectives in British history – the latter dominated in schools more by the “who won” Whig version of history). Being just in making curricular choices governs whether we teach identity-focused (e.g. feminist, Muslim) courses (in which case courses ought not to be compulsory), whether we emphasise ethics and virtues over identity (in which case we recognise that others apart from our own position share the ethical standards and concerns), or whether we add specifically Christian (or other identity-driven) content in order to address an imbalance, especially where a subject has no widely-accepted consensus, or where the prevailing secular view functions in a religious manner (such as commonly seen in universities today).

In pedagogical practices, (and these are dealt with thoroughly in David Smith’s On Christian Teaching), the authors see justice as playing out in ways that take the best of Christian thought – that derived from its humility and precision, that derived from its commitment to honesty and hospitality, that derived from its respectfulness, grace and forgiveness – within specific imaginative pedagogical practices: slow reading is an example (as described in Parker Palmer’s To Know as we are Known or in David Smith’s discussion of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together); keeping a time of silence at the start of each lecture or lesson is another; service learning or interdependent communal learning are others. And there are many others. Such pedagogical practices derive from a theological understanding underpinning Christianity, but do not break the “no conversion” rules that Glanzer and Alleman see as central to the scholarly effort.

Finally, these pedagogical practices do not stand alone but live within the context of a teacher’s own discipleship towards becoming more like Jesus. This discipleship too should be a gift and blessing to those we teach:

“The pluralistic university should be quite pleased if a teacher demonstrates virtues such as honesty, respect, justice, grace, mercy, love, care, humility, forgiveness, patience, hospitality, wisdom, courage and service, among all the other virtues teachers mentioned”


Summarising this discussion, the authors urge Christian teachers who want to incorporate this justice ethic in their classrooms to do three things:

  1. Recognise, reflect on and admit the influences of their personal guiding narratives on their teaching.
  2. Connect their personal identity and narratives to a vision of moral and intellectual virtue that applies to the classroom in the pluralistic setting, knowing that this moral vision may well be widely shared.
  3. Learn how to practice the intellectual and moral virtues necessary to hold discussions about these connections.

There is much more in the book, particularly about the strengths of having diverse teaching contexts, but these three visits to it have been the heart of what it is teaching me, setting the scene as I think hard about the work I do in the coming year, and providing a well-reasoned and holistic approach to my educating of teachers. I am very grateful for the work that Perry Glanzer and Nathan Alleman put into this book and the study that underlay it. Being a Christian and being a teacher are a gift of God and a blessing to those that listen and are taught. This book shows how that might become a reality.

A digital, Australian, interlude (1)

Not being that used to giving talks in the digital sphere, last week I was invited to speak to a conference of Christian teachers and others, under the auspices of the wonderful St. Andrews Cathedral School (SACS) in central Sydney, led for many years by the redoubtable John Collier. The conference was entitled Research Conversations: Christian Education Conference 2021, and I hope it is the first of many conferences that SACS hold on this theme. An earlier event was held last October, and also featured a presentation from a school colleague in Milton Keynes. Schools are the ideal setting for getting teachers talking and researching, and for schools to host their own events has become a lot more possible in the digital age. The fact that my presentation started at ten to midnight is just a function of the fact that the earth is round and we live on the other side of it from Sydney.

My presentation built on the short paper I wrote for Impact last year on the intentional, community-building use of restorative practice, and a PDF of the talk can be downloaded below.

Fundamentally, I have been trying, with colleagues from Christ the Sower who taught alongside me, to figure out what it was that had such a huge impact on the class of children originally in Pumpkin Class in 2015, then who became Red and White Clover in Year 3, then Rosehip class in Year 4, when I left the school.

This paper was for an Australian audience who had no great experience of restorative practice, and despite John Fisher’s work in and beyond Australia, not a broad grasp of his approach to a metric for assessing spiritual health, of which one aspect is communal health.

So the broad argument was that through the intentional application of the community-building aspects of restorative practice (chiefly twice-daily circles) through a lens of a Christian understanding of relationship, the self and forgiveness (both the teachers from 2015 to 2020 were Christians), we were able to see substantial changes in the way the children grew in relational competence, trust, ability to forgive and self-awareness.

The pattern of learning was that, in response to a given need (the class was particularly needy), teachers implemented restorative practice as a way of working in the class, and that, supported by the school’s commitment to restorative practice as a governing approach to relationships, this was sustained by adult and class practices that led to the children and adults having opportunities to grow in communal and spiritual health.

The key pieces of learning are shown in the “what we discovered” blocks shown here. The quotes are where the real learning is, and the biggest problem with the research was that the current leadership and governance of Christ the Sower did not allow me to come and interview any serving teachers or any children. This means that we really don’t have the children’s voices in the research that I would have loved to have had speaking through the enquiry. This remains a fundamental difficulty in the work. In the end, from the relatively attenuated amount of data I was able to compile, I felt that I was justified in drawing four conclusions as the impact of this intentional application of restorative practice in the field of communal health:

  1. It was shown in children’s growing ability to forgive and receive forgiveness.
  2. It was shown in the growth of trust as a function of deepening relationship
  3. It was shown in children’s growing self-awareness and their identity-in-community
  4. It was shown in the creation and development of an increasingly affectionate community.

Intriguingly, we don’t really know, except by hearsay, what happened when both teachers that I interviewed had left the school. The new teacher of the children was very much in the mould of “this is my class” rather than the pre-existing approach which was rooted in a much humbler stance: “I belong to these children, I am theirs.”

Teaching and being (2)

I have never thought about identity in quite the way that I have had to over the last 3 years.

  • Firstly, as an ex-headteacher I acquired a new, unemployed identity (Who am I now? What am I for? What just happened?) that took a while to process, and the sting of which has only recently gone away.
  • Secondly, I tentatively adopted the mantle of doctoral researcher (lots of identity issues come to the fore in learning to be a qualitative social science researcher – things I never considered when researching in the natural sciences, for instance) and these continue to inform my research, my politics and my stance towards the knowledge bases that people use when making judgments and developing arguments.
  • Now I am training myself (along with the help and support of a great course from the University of Cumbria) to learn and enact my identity as a teacher educator. The key issues for new teacher educators seem to be a) learning to rebuild teaching ability within a new paradigm of what it means to teach well, and b) the whole re-assumption of a scholarly identity, hinted at in my Ed.D. work but not fully realised. The literature suggests that it can take two to three years to adopt this new identity and “live in it” – many people in university ITE reach a particular moment when they get past imposter syndrome and begin to see themselves as “scholarly” or “academic.”

These are not trivial issues, though it does not stop some trivialising them. People with a more utilitarian approach to the economy or employment might never consider them, and can easily come out with the sort of phrase you hear – well, it’s just a new job, isn’t it? Those taking this utilitarian approach often work for the money and live for the gaps between. They major on issues like work-life balance, as though their work is not fully part of their life. But if you approach a new post with the heart of a servant, as I have very much tried to do, then identity becomes critical. A servant looks to others, those they serve, for affirmation of their identity and they model themselves on those who affirm them and who are obviously a long way ahead of them in the role. This has been particularly hard to do online, but it is the antithesis of our “choosing our own identity” – rather it is the adoption of a role with given constraints and attitudes of heart. The adopted identity becomes part of my discipleship. It governs how I plan and live each day. It sets parameters and priorities for action.

Another identity to consider is that of novice practitioner, learning specific skills around modelling, articulating and leadership to enable the teachers of tomorrow to grow in wisdom and a strong, research-informed, practical professionalism. Being a novice has a long and honourable tradition in monastic life, apprenticeships and in the trade guilds that for so many years governed Europe’s craftspeople, but it is not easy to assume when you have been a leader in another field. I have used the image of Winslow Homer’s beautiful painting A Veteran in a New Field (1865) as a metaphor for identity work before, but at a time when I am neither aware of the scope of the new field nor of my suitability to it, it seems particularly apposite. The veteran is using a cradle scythe, patented in the 1820s and only in widespread use just before the Civil War, from which this fellow has recently returned. Like him, I have had to get used to new technologies!

Added to that, and both underpinning and extending from these competing identities is that of being Christian in a world that is mostly not, of being somebody imbued with a Christian moral understanding of life and work in a pluralistic university whose moral vision is circumscribed by the modern requirements for diversity, sustainability and ethical management systems. The pluralistic university’s moral understanding is thin, at best. That is not to criticise them, simply to state that they do not, unlike their mediaeval predecessors, perceive of themselves as moral teachers.

Another area that needs exposing or exploring is what impact that Christian identity, whether as novice or as experienced teacher, has on the teaching choices we use. An excellent summary of the problems around teaching choices and the impact of pedagogical and didactic approaches can be seen in this interview with David I Smith from Calvin University. In it he makes the case (explored more fully in his books On Christian Teaching, [2018] Teaching and Christian Practices [co-edited with Jamie KA Smith, 2011] and Digital Life Together [co-written with three other authors, 2020]) that it is the actual decisions we make about how children or students access the learning we are making available to them, that lead to their formation. They will inherit the attitudes and the relative importance of a subject that is given to it by the way we teach the material. Thus my identity as a Christian teacher in the HE environment covers not only the material I choose to teach (and the decisions that govern that) but the pedagogies I choose to convey that new learning.

Writing over 5 years ago, Gert Biesta, Mark Priestley and Sarah Robinson, found this, from a survey of teacher agency and beliefs in Scotland:

While the research suggests that beliefs play an important role in teachers’ work, an apparent mismatch between teachers’ individual beliefs and values and wider institutional discourses and cultures, and a relative lack of a clear and robust professional vision of the purposes of education indicate that the promotion of teacher agency does not just rely on the beliefs that individual teachers bring to their practice, but also requires collective development and consideration.

Gert Biesta, Mark Priestley & Sarah Robinson (2015) The role of beliefs in teacher agency, Teachers and Teaching, 21:6, 624-640

This has its reflection in the recurring mismatch I see among my students, in teachers in schools I have led and in others who take comfort from there being a “national curriculum,” in which the line between purpose and teacher agency can be distorted. How many teachers have wondered to themselves: why on earth am I teaching this stuff?

These issues are dealt with brilliantly in Perry Glanzer’s and Nathan Alleman’s book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Teaching (OUP, 2018) which I referred to in my previous post on academic identity. I have returned to the book because finding exactly how to position myself with regard to my Christian identity is not only something that I need to reach a place of contentedness with, but the principles that guide that search will be of substantial use as I support pre-service teachers come to terms with the cognitive dissonance that lies between their own identity and the “idea of a teacher” that will be imposed by their school, the DfE and its legislation, the Chartered College, the literature that they read on their degree or postgraduate courses, or by their own faith.

The central construct within Glanzer and Alleman’s book is the debate between Stanley Fish’s argument in Save the World on your own Time – that the commitment to democracy and social justice is all very well, but has no part in the role of a lecturer seeking to impart large bodies of knowledge to paying students in a secular university; and Parker Palmer’s argument, developed in To Know as we are Known and The Courage to Teach – that the moral identity of the teacher must come first and foremost and influence the content and manner of the teacher. This debate sets the scene for a number of chapters, and is brought to bear in their excellent discussion on the role of the Christian teacher in the pluralist university.

The key question governing the discussion is when, where and to what extent should Christian teachers in HE draw upon their nonprofessional identities in their professional practice. Their hope, which runs through the last three chapters of the book, is that the combination of a Christian tradition of learning and witness, and “the liberal moral tradition of the contemporary pluralistic university” overlap in “enough of a thin consensus to make our case in ways that show integrity to both of our identities as Christians and professors” (p. 130).

Glanzer and Alleman look to the examples of the Christian colleges and universities that they research in the first half of the book, for the reason that many pluralistic universities are not quite as pluralistic as they seem – that in fact, many perspectives, academic and otherwise, are either not respected or not given space to be aired. Both the impossibility of not drawing on their nonprofessional identities, and the possible benefits of doing so, are key features of identity-specific academies such as Christian colleges. This leads them to consider that in seeking to be “objective, scientific teachers” they end up compromising the identity and ends of the pluralistic university, which must needs make space for all identities to make a contribution (p.134).

Their answer is to propose a “no unwanted identity conversion rule,” in which, for instance, students are not “made Christian” but are presented with an authentic Christian challenge to the thinking of the academy:

In the pluralistic university, the faculty’s job is not to try to make students agnostics, Christians, atheists, Muslims, Hindus or even Marxists or feminists…their job is to expose students to the arguments and practices relevant to their subjects within their discipline and to help students gain the moral imagination to place themselves in another religious or nonreligious person’s shoes…

even if engaging in the associated practices is undesirable and unhelpful. Mike Higton (in A Theology of Higher Education) argues that this multi-perspectival work is important as universities seek to become “communities of training in virtuous perception, and in the judgment that springs from it.”

In dealing with ethical stances that spring from a Christian identity, the authors argue, from Stanley Fish’s work, for a “no contested ethical conversion rule” – that is, that a Christian lecturer should not seek to impose their own (probably contested!) moral view as representing the authority of the institution. They see a danger in Parker Palmer’s insistence that we teach from our “undivided self” – we could end up “using the classroom as an opportunity to pressure students to adhere to [our] own contested moral views.” In this, the thin consensus between a Christian’s moral attitude and the moral purpose of the university may grow substantially thicker:

It would not be problematic for a Christian teacher to focus on what we call “redemptive virtues”… such as forgiveness, humility, servant leadership, love for one’s enemies, and non-violence, in a pluralistic context. While some of these virtues…may be emphasised more within the Christian tradition, it does not mean that they are not emphasised in other traditions, or even in academic fields such as positive psychology and secular forms of ethics.

Flowing from these arguments, Glanzer and Alleman argue for five “teaching ends” in the pluralistic academy, the first three of which are widely understood as the basis of a liberal education:

1. Transmit culturally agreed-upon views on truth, goodness and beauty in various fields of knowledge.

2. Initiate students into a set of common academic and professional practices associated with academic identities that help them create, discover, care for truth, goodness and beauty.

3. Educate students about the similarities and differences between various identities and traditions and the implications for for views of truth, goodness and beauty, as well as academic and professional practices.

Glanzer and Alleman argue strongly for the inclusion of goodness and beauty to truth, necessary contributors to the “tournament of identities and narratives” of point 3 above. Because students need to hear the best arguments, “not only from scholars who share a common professional identity, but also from those with a wide range of identity commitments, including religious identity commitments” (p.149)

Thus their final two “teaching ends” concern identity and the exercise of virtue:

4. Teachers’ own identities, beyond that of being a teacher, can be used to strengthen, amplify, or add to the three previous listed purposes. To strike the proper balance, teachers need to learn how to show fairness to the various traditions represented in the classroom.

5. Teacher must model this commitment to pluralistic education in their teaching. To do so, they will need to exercise certain virtues, such as intellectual awareness and humility, and engage in certain practices, such as confession about the identity or identities that may influence their approach to teaching a particular class.

I have found this a helpful guide to my own thinking about my own practice. “Teaching ends” 4 and 5 raise more questions than they perhaps answer, and the authors follow them up with a guide to the virtues and practices that are required when teaching from a identity within the pluralistic university. Among them are courage, intellectual honesty and confession: where the Christian teacher states their own identity and explains how that identity influences his or her teaching. I am going to finish here, before getting into that, but a part 3 to this series based on Glanzer and Alleman’s wonderful book is likely to follow soon.

Not quite worship?

An article in the Times today treads briefly and inaccurately onto the topic of collective worship in Church of England schools. The title of the article is Don’t sing hymns that are too preachy, Church of England schools told. This aroused my interest not just as a committed worship leader in churches, but also as a worship leader and spiritual leader in those Church of England schools that I have had the privilege of teaching or leading in, over 20 years.

I was glad to see that the article is, as so often with the Times, hopelessly inaccurate in its portrayal of what Church of England (CE) schools are being told. Just doing a quick search of the new CE document finds not a single instance of the words “hymns” or “preachy” (though wouldn’t it be great if the word preachy could appear in a CE document!), and the word “sing” appears just once in 5 pages. (Even the word Jesus appears twice, which is pretty refreshing for a church document.) The Times article avers:

In a move that may upset traditionalists, however, the Church of England has suggested that schools avoid hymns with strongly confessional lyrics that may make pupils or teachers feel uncomfortable.

The document being referred to was published yesterday by the CofE education office and contains nothing that could be interpreted in the way that the Times manages to conjure out of thin air in the above quote. Instead, the document outlines the entitlement and expectations of collective worship in Church of England (CE) schools. The tagline is that collective worship should be inclusive, invitational and inspiring, and these are, I think, laudable aims, providing that we define them carefully.

The word invitational is particularly interesting as it (or its cognates) is conspicuous by its absence from the Church of England Vision for Education, as I noted nearly five years ago. Are we being asked to make our collective worship invitational whilst the broader vision for our church school education is not? Certainly this current document, whilst having “bite” in terms of a SIAMS compliance agenda attached to it, does not seem to be the child of the CE Vision for Education: the words hope, dignity or wisdom nowhere appear, though the favourite scripture of the Vision, John 10:10 (I have come that they may have life, and life in all its fullness) does make an appearance. However, the invitation in this document is very much a warm, hospitable welcome to a firm understanding of the historic Christian faith:

Parents, pupils and adults can expect to encounter worship that is consistently invitational. There should be no compulsion to ‘do anything’. Rather, worship should provide the opportunity to engage whilst allowing the freedom of those of different faiths and those who profess no religious faith to be present and to engage with integrity. The metaphor of ‘warm fires and open doors’ captures this idea. The warmth of the fire derives from the clarity and authenticity of the Christian message at its heart. There is no value to an encounter with a watered down, lowest common denominator version of faith. Importantly the door is open, all are welcome to come in and sit as near or as far away from the fire as they feel comfortable. Pupils and adults should always only be invited to pray if they wish to do so and should be invited to pray in their own way. Prayer should always be accompanied by the option to reflect.

I like, and fully agree with, the insistence on the integrity and reality of the Christian message that this statement conveys. I also find helpful the idea that children and adults can sit as close to or as far from the warmth of the fire as they choose. This is not only helpful imagery, but it also has immediate practical implications within a school, that effective leaders can find ways of making clear. What is challenging here is that the statement does not allow in any way for relativism of Christian truth claims. Here, CE schools are encouraged to say, we acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ and invite you to draw near to learn from him and offer him praise. This, above all, is what we are being invited to. The one quote in the collective worship document from the CE Vision highlights the expectation of an encounter with Jesus Christ and with Christian faith and practice in a way that enhances their lives. Collective worship, as invitational as it is, must have the expectation of an encounter with Jesus. For many schools, that is very challenging, especially as there is no guarantee that Christian people (or even sympathisers) are leading Christian worship.

The concept of inclusion covers the hospitality we extend to all (…should be truly welcoming, inclusive and exemplifying the principles of Christian hospitality….an approach that seeks to meet the needs of all, wherever they may be on their journey of faith and belief) and the acknowledgement that many taking part are at different stages on a faith journey or belong to different faiths, or have none, and that care with practice and language should ensue (…it is an expectation that care will be taken to ensure that the language used by those facilitating worship avoids assuming faith in all those participating, listening and watching). This inclusion includes an affirmation of local faith communities, of children’s leadership, and is truly collective, a place where all have a voice, whether of consent or dissent. It is in this context that the Times article manages to make such a royal hash of both the intent and the actual words.

Some words are surprisingly, or maybe predictably, absent. There is no explicit mention of mission here, of impacting the lives of children and adults through the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ through our adoration of him. In fact, the concept of “worship” in this document is closer to the collection of things you might get in a “worship service” than it is to adoration. There is nothing here about discipleship, about the requirement of the Christian gospel that all people repent and turn and follow after Jesus Christ. The only compliance here is to the SIAMS document, not to a call to obedience, not to the dare. Words like love, peace or relationship are absent. Nothing is mentioned about sacrifice, repentance or obedience. Collective worship, instead, it is hoped, will “develop virtues such as resilience, determination and creativity that develop character and contribute to academic progress.” Good to see that academic progress is an outcome of collective worship!

(There is a reference in the document to the “Growing Faith” initiative, a link between church, school and home, and which is missional in intent. This has, in lockdown, and in some schools, been a wonderful way of bringing the Christian faith into homes, and of inviting parents to join in collective worship in school. This is certainly a way in which godly collective worship might contribute to parents’ knowledge of God and worship of him.)

I welcome this document, but at heart, I find it difficult because despite a strong statement on not watering down the content of the gospel, neither is there an expectation that Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, wants to meet us in the schools that bear his name. It is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by the will and power of the Father, through the Holy Spirit, that lie fundamentally at the root of historic Christianity. That has to be reflected in collective worship, which, as the document rightly points out, is the rhythm and heartbeat of a CE school’s life.

Maybe we are not meant to get “preachy,” as the Times article so annoyingly puts it, but without acknowledging the reality of this aspect of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, we are barely Christian, it seems to me.

God in conversation with…(again)

The casual hospitality suggested by this beautifully placed table and chairs, that I saw in Woburn at the end of April, is something I have often thought about, but not often done. I can imagine leaving a plate of pastries and a coffee pot on this table and just watching what happens. It is akin to the common sight (around here, last summer, anyway) of people putting out surplus garden vegetables (legumes, mostly) in baskets and asking people just to take them. We are not used to such open generosity in our culture, because we have been taught that everything has a price. And anyway, this May’s weather and the generally cold spring might put a stop to the over-productivity that feeds such local generosity.

A friend of mine, studying at agricultural college and finding lodgings on a diverse family farm, tells me that something survives in that community of work-swopping and barter between families as a reflection of a local economy. We put a price on things partly because we want no obligation to be left outstanding, because that obligation infers a time commitment and we are generally too impatient for that. Barter confers a value that is related to work, and to the value of work – it tells of a history, of a sense of place, of true value within an economy that sets its own rules. Children understand this well, swapping cards, marbles (in my day), sweets – creating as they go a money-less local economy that might not always be just – children can exploit each other as efficiently as their elders – but which can be determined through negotiation.

Trying to barter with a Tunisian silversmith in Sousse in 2009 (in French) for some seriously overpriced jewellery showed me how out-of-practice I was in working with, effectively, a non-monetary variable exchange system, in which both sides were trying to find out exactly how much a silver ring was worth to me, rather than what it cost. Vendor persistence doesn’t come close to describing the experience….

I don’t know whether it still happens, but in parts of rural Denmark it used to be a common habit to leave produce outside the house and a tin for money or table for goods exchanged in kind. And of course, subsistence farming, much maligned by modern economists as somehow a primitive way of doing economics, depends on this exchange of goods – milk, eggs, garden produce – and having usable surpluses for each other and for those beyond their immediate community.

What this practice does is move value from a monetary system, somehow deemed more “just” by economists, to a system where “worth-to-me” is taken into account.

This is the basis of hospitality, and many cultures understand this, and the values behind it (even if frequently codified), far more than we do in a monetised system. Hospitality depends for its power and its beauty on openness and generosity. It depends upon and references a set of values and virtues embedded both in the individuals that practise it as well as the cultures and communities to which those individuals refer (culturally, communally – or often, out of religious conviction and practice). When we talk about the “hospitality industry,” by the way, we have to wrestle with an oxymoron: much of the learned commercial behaviour of those working in that industry supports an activity which is fully engaged in a monetised economy in which personal generosity is limited by the commercial bottom line. The occasional “welcome drink” or “free coffee” at Pret a Manger, welcome or not, is carefully factored into that bottom line. That bottom line governs, and trumps, any consideration of the needs of a local community.

The feeling that true hospitality generates is often one of wonder, frequently of sacrifice, and to those to whom such hospitality is offered, it requires a practised grace and humility to be able to receive extravagance from those often “poorer” than ourselves.

For the past two days, I have been overwhelmed by a kind of hospitality I had not expected – an academic hospitality set in the context of an online conference. OK, I had to pay a sum to attend the conference, to cover costs and to support a vibrant network of teacher educators. And had I not been online, would have had to pay for hotels and food. All that is a given, a necessary precursor to effective conferencing. I have been to plenty of online conferences, amongst them those operated by the Church of England, but never, before yesterday, was I as conscious of the hospitable heart as the basis of knowledge-sharing as I was yesterday. This was far from a bunch of academics trying to outdo each other in general cleverness. It was, instead, full of both the urgency of an important socially just and difficult enterprise (educating teachers for the future), and the confident delight that those we are educating have much to teach us in turn. It was a conference entirely marked out by the longing to serve one another and by the contribution, through research, to a deeper collective and highly collegiate understanding of the work we are all engaged in.

As professional development it has sharpened and focused me more than anything I have experienced in the last 4 months, but that could have happened without the sense of hospitality. What made it hospitable?

Firstly, and whether it was recognised by them or not, these were people fully in tune with God’s longing for justice, equity, ecological healing and affection in our society. There was an entirely godly utopianism that drove and sustained the debate, the questioning, the enormous commitment to knowledge and understanding not just of the task, but of the people engaged in that task.

Secondly, there was a rich sense of open service toward one another that flowed entirely from the confident, mature and affectionate relationships of a large body of men and women who oversaw the TEAN network and who had turned their desire for a network of teacher educators into products that were both hospitable and of high quality. It betrayed a virtuous research relationship that came from much-repeated practices.

Thirdly, and this is something that has yet to be fully understood by many online conferences and meetings, it was highly inclusive, welcoming and productive in its inclusion: that flowed from those chairing the sessions and the clarity of explanation offered in each session. Each chair genuinely did create an environment of hospitality. They capitalised upon what is the one great advantage of online conferencing – the ability to share thoughts in the chat whilst at the same time being able to see the presentation, screenshot it if needed, respond to the argument live, and see the faces of many of those who are also attending. You can remain outside of that circle of welcome should you choose, but it is very hard to cold-shoulder somebody in an online conference. You can always contribute in the chat. These are now commonplaces, of course, but they have to be done well, and here they were. Those who already knew each other welcomed each other and made space, through chat responses and likes, to those of us relatively new.

These reflections don’t make a case, I am sure, for the conference to be anything else than it intended to be, but for me, as a learner, a veteran of one field now working in another, it was a reminder of the strong hospitality of God toward me, of his finding a place for me to flourish. It was God in conversation with teacher education.

Whether the direction of travel, and the definitions and values of teacher educating espoused here can be critiqued from a Christian perspective, is another matter, for another post perhaps. It will take a while to distil the learning I have taken from such a communal outpouring of academic hospitality, before I can start enfolding this learning into a reasoned perspective. Such is the impact of true hospitality.

Words informing actions

This weekend a school in Hackney got into some bother in the press over its discipline policy which was apparently needed because the young people were misbehaving in ways that the adults thought was best tackled with a stern discipline policy. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that were, the children in detention were referred to as detainees: a word that is at once linguistically precise and politically bone-headed. Calling children detainees pulls the mind towards detention centres along the Rio Grande. The word, and maybe the policy that gave rise to the word, was swiftly withdrawn by the school leadership.

Flash back a week ago to a conversation during the excellent Becoming a Teacher Educator course run by the University of Cumbria about exactly what it is we call people who are attending a course where they are learning to be teachers. The word trainees is reminiscent of what you do to a dog or horse to get it to behave, and yet it is deeply embedded in the way we think about the education of teachers. Teacher training, as a phrase, slips off the tongue easily. We have used it for years and years. Teacher education, a term much preferred, is a really useful and distinctive phrase for the process of teaching teachers, but it leaves the problem of what to call those we are educating. Student teachers? They are doing far more than studying. Pre-service teachers? But they are already serving in schools. Learner teachers (like learner drivers)? But we never stop learning as teachers. Novice teachers? Apprentice teachers? These last two seem to have something in them, harking back to the monastic novitiate that represented the first serious effort in western Europe at teacher education. Richard Daugherty, at Aberystwyth when I was studying for a PGCE about a million years ago, told us that we were teachers from the day we started the course. Not trainees, but teachers. As yet unqualified, with lots to learn, but teachers nonetheless. And when did teaching practice (a nicely nuanced word that implies both the learning-to-be and the being) become school-based training? Situated apprenticeship is perhaps a better word, if we don’t like teaching practice.

Flash back a week before that, and I am interviewing candidates for next year’s PGCE course, candidates who seem unerringly to choose the word students for children in the primary classroom. I was sorely tempted to ask one candidate at what stage a child became a student? And how would you know? And are they still a pupil? And what makes them a learner? The persistent refrain – I want to have an impact on students – makes me think of a frustrated adult with a mallet. They have much to learn.

This is not just semantics. The words we use colour our attitudes and inform our actions. If apprentice teachers are students, or trainees, different expectations of both their role and ours come into play. There is an element of training that takes place in all human endeavour, of repeated intentional practice that is required as we work towards some aspects of our work becoming automatic, of acquiring indwelt knowledge, as Michael Polanyi would put it. If PGCE candidates are coming into the profession thinking of children as students, then they have already taken the first step in disengagement.

Of all of these distinctions, it is the deadly impact of not seeing children as children that is having the greatest effect on our schools, and seeing them as students is institutionalising them in ways that, to my mind, wrongly imbalances the education that they receive from home and school. Calling them students, in our culture, immediately disenfranchises the role of the home. In the teacher education literature, there is a distinction made between scholarly, evidence-informed learning and practical wisdom. Both are needed, and both inform the other. In our schools, it seems to me, “students” are there to learn from the curriculum as defined by state and school. Nothing of home is valued in the becoming an effective student, although, of course, home is referred to constantly as a resource of experience for school-based activities, such as writing.

As I have written elsewhere, on the topic of school uniform, the words adults use place deliberate restrictions upon the identity of children, in order to diminish them and make them more malleable. A child in a uniform is “pupilled” into a new form of human, one that “belongs” to the school. It is less about the child’s identity than it is about the institution’s ownership. Education, in our western tradition, actively encourages this restriction. Benjamin Bloom put it this way:

..a student attains ‘higher order thinking’ when he no longer believes in right or wrong…a large part of what we call good teaching is a teacher’s ability to obtain affective objectives by challenging the student’s fixed beliefs. …a large part of what we call teaching is that the teacher should be able to use education to reorganize a child’s thoughts, attitudes, and feelings.

In the ongoing war of the state against families and their affections, Bloom’s thinking places education firmly as a weapon of the state. Children will become students, learners, pupils. Schools will talk about “independent minds” but the curriculum devised will be rigid and constraining. William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, maintained that the tool to build the modern American society was psychological alienation. He wanted to alienate children from themselves so that they could no longer turn inwardly for strength. The purpose was to alienate them from their families, from their traditions, from their cultures and above all from their religions, so that, Harris maintained, the state could lead and guide them. He wrote this:

Ninety nine out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual…. The great purpose of school (that is, self-alienation) can be realised better in dark, airless, ugly places….it is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.

This is an educational philosophy that is drawn from Hegel and his exaltation of the state. The same exaltation has lain at the foundation of English education, and it is no surprise that those recently schooled as students should see those they are going to teach also as students.

I am reading the beautiful To know as we are known by Parker Palmer at the moment. Not only is it a helpful and insightful explanation of everything that I have been trying to cram into my methodology chapter for my Ed.D., but it is full of a rich understanding of educational purpose, where the goal is truth, and truth is found in relationship, in community, in the act of knowing with enough love that we in turn are known by that which we study. The emphasis throughout is on healing and upon integration of our selves and our understanding.

Warning against an education that either turns out people “who force their inner distortions on the world, or it produces people who have succumbed to the world’s distortion of themselves,” Palmer argues for love – of community, of the world, of self – as the integrating force that underpins true education.

Transformed by love, we do not arrogantly impose our powers on the world around us, or allow the world to overcome us….we use our minds to recall and recreate the community in which we were created, to know the world in the same spirit in which we are known (p.16)

There is a lot more to say about this, about teacher education, about Palmer’s thinking, about the philosophy that underpins the modern university’s efforts in educating teachers, and about the motivations for learning. But this will do for now.

God in conversation with…

One of the interesting things about the theories of knowledge I am thinking and writing about at the moment is that they open up the possibility of God speaking into space between knower and known. If that sounds a bit abstruse, it is perhaps envisaged as the way that we engage with learning, in whatever form, and in that opening up to new knowledge, we provide space for God to speak. The reformed theologian James Loder went further, and insisted that we can only know because God himself is present in the knowing act – he called it the transforming moment – and that actually the reason we are transformed by our understanding is an act of grace mediated by the Holy Spirit.

A parabolic view of this is offered by the arrival of Jesus on the Emmaus Road, recorded in Luke 24. There the gospel account says that “as they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him” (vv. 15-16). This does not predict, ensure or explain, but points to the possibility of Jesus, unknown to us until he chooses to reveal himself, being within the conversation of those who know or love him, whether that is conversation between two actual breathing humans, or between one breathing human and the learning she is seeking to gain from texts, experience, people or some form of documented information. Jesus. by the Holy Spirit, is present to us as we learn, full of the all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, as Paul says in his letter to the Colossians.

This has become a feature of my work because I am becoming slowly convinced of the need for prayer and revelation to be situated at the heart of what it means to know. There are plenty who have walked this way before – notably Parker Palmer, John Macmurray and Esther Meek – and my study of it is not new, though it is not common. To help me on my way I am attending a one day course at Roehampton University given by the Theological Action Research Network.

As part of the course we have been asked to contribute a text or motif that has influenced us in the concept of conversation (and conversation lies at the heart of theological action research) and I immediately thought of the poem that Wendell Berry wrote as a letter to Ernest Gaines, author of (amongst other books) the wonderful A gathering of old men. The context for the conversation is the tradition of porch sitting that is (or was) a part of southern US culture. Gaines himself spoke of this tradition in both his books and interviews:

I know that the old ones, the ones that are dead—I often sit on my back porch at night and think about how wonderful it would be if they were there sitting with me in rocking chairs and drinking coffee and talking. It’s the sort of thing I think about often, because this is where they were, right here, my grandparents’ grandparents. This is what makes me proud of the place. If Auntie could sit here with me, or my stepfather who took me away from here, or my Uncle George, who used to take me to those old beat-up bars in Baton Rouge—if I could, I’d just buy him a good glass of Gentleman Jack, and we could sit here and talk. Oh, I wish I could do that.


Berry wrote about meeting Gaines in an essay in the book What are people for? entitled Wallace Stegner and the Great Community (1985), but it is in this 2010 poem where you get the sense of what it meant and why Berry and Gaines became friends:

This sense of conversation with the past as well as in the present is a constant theme in Berry’s writings, and one of the most deeply attractive to me, as somebody whose Christian faith has been schooled to live in the present – or even in the future. The possibility of heaven being present to us in conversation with one another is something no evangelical sermon has ever addressed in my hearing, and yet you only have to stop for a little while and think about it, to see that it must be true, or at least, the possibility must be entertained. Even more heretical for my evangelical brethren, and yet common to the experience of hundreds of traditional human cultures, is the idea of the dead being present to us in our lives. That these people, dead to the earth yet alive to us in our conversation, are innately part of our humanity and our three – or more – dimensional lives, is again, when you stop to think of it, obvious.

Yes, we mourn, and grieve, and after a fixed time, move on. But we refer back to those who have died all the time, imagining what they might say to us, taking the encouragement of the cloud of witnesses, extending our community to include those who have died and are at rest.

Whatever it is that God speaks into and through our conversation has rich relevance for the present, and adds to our knowledge, beautifully. But it also brings forth the possibility of an eternity that sits beyond time, allowing us to learn from the past as if it were today, and be blessed in that learning.