Review of “Our Calling in Education”

[1] In February, President Bush announced the “American Competitiveness Initiative.” The Initiative includes efforts to “strengthen education” so that American students and workers can “compete with the best and brightest around the world.” Our President is not alone in casting education as the handmaiden of competition. Competitiveness permeates education. It starts early and continues throughout the educational system. Parents compete to get their toddlers in the best pre-schools; colleges compete to get the best students. And all along, students compete with one another for grades and recognition. For some, competition becomes paramount. When I had occasion to conduct a class for sixth grade Talented and Gifted students and asked them to consider a knotty problem, rather than discuss their ideas and insights with others, the students all worked furtively and furiously to be the first to finish. These students had learned to play the game and play it well. At the same time, more students than ever are refusing to play the game and dropping out of school.

[2] Thus, I found it refreshing to read the draft of Our Calling in Education, in which the gifts and marvels of Creation propel education, grounded not in competition, but in commitment and communality. Commitment springs from a deep sense of vocation which leads us to equip ourselves whatever our life’s purpose; communality expresses itself in the cooperative tending of Creation for the welfare of all.

[3] As the title suggests, Our Calling emphasizes vocation: we are called to educate for vocation-we become educated to carry out our calling. But also, at various times in our life and particularly in our “formative years”, as pointed out on page 16 of the draft, becoming educated is our calling. In that regard, and assuming that this document is also addressed to young people, I would add “school” in addition to “family, work, society and Church” in the list on page 9 of “places of responsibility” and “equip ourselves,” or some such phrase, in the list of things we are called to do. I suspect that when young people are told that being a student is a “way to serve God and others” (page 16), whether that’s the intention or not, they will think in terms of the future and not the present: we go to school now so that later we can serve God and others.

[4] This is symptomatic of what children are told in school. Students are continually told, for example, that they need to study mathematics because they will need it sometime. As a mathematician and mathematics educator, I know that this is often a lie. Most students will never encounter the division of fractions in their adult lives. But more than that, stressing the future denigrates the present-it impugns the value of the moment at hand.

[5] That’s not to say that learning mathematics, or any other subject, has no future utility, But, for me, this future utility is not the focus of school. As a mathematics educator, I believe my role is to educe-to draw out, nurture and cultivate- the nascent mathematician that is part of every human being’s endowment. I have no idea what mathematics my students will need in the future-indeed, much of it may not be invented yet. What I want for them is, at present, to experience success and satisfaction in their studies and, in the future, to have the capacity and confidence to learn it if they don’t know it already.

[6] I would take a similar stance when it comes to vocation. In our programs for youth, I would urge young people to focus on their present call while remaining open to whatever they are called to do in the future-I, for one, as a youth had no idea of the twists and turns my vocation would take. As I see it, calling not only entails serving others but also the care and nurturing of one’s self, in spirit, body and mind. Viewed in that light, students should be encouraged to develop all the capacities with which they have been endowed without questioning the future utility of doing so. Above all, students should not feel guilty in pursuing a discipline that beckons them because fail to see a utilitarian purpose for doing so.

[7] On page 18, I would add a question to those which are asked concerning children and youth ministries, namely: Do we honor the perceptions and insights of our children and youth? One of the distressing things that occurs in mathematics education is that the innate or acquired mathematical perceptions of children are discounted. A well-meaning teacher will tell a child who has drawn a perfectly legible numeral or correctly computes a sum by some method that makes sense to them only to be told by the teacher that that’s not how it’s done. The result can be unfortunate; the child may lose faith in their ability or decide that mathematics is an esoteric subject governed by arcane rules, and the seeds of another case of math anxiety or avoidance have been sown. Of course, a child can have misperceptions, but these can still be honored and dealt with in a manner that doesn’t discount their thinking.

[8] Questioning can also be a means of discounting children. Evidenced, among other things, by the children’s sermons I’ve heard, the notion persists that asking a question is a way of engaging children. What often happens, though, is that the child is told-not directly, perhaps, but by implication-that their response is incorrect or inadequate, or a guessing game ensues as the child vainly hopes to hit on the expected answer. The response of the child is brushed aside and the child is rebuked rather than accepted, or, in Biblical language, forbidden rather than suffered. In many instances, making a statement is far more instructive than asking a question.

[9] In discussing schooling, I find it useful to distinguish between education and training, as distinguished by the root meanings of these words. “Educate” means to educe or draw out; “train” means to drag or draw behind (hence “railroad train” or “bridal train”). I believe schooling should first and foremost be an education in which the latent capabilities with which the Creator has endowed every human being are elicited and nourished. Training, in which one learns prescribed processes and procedures, is secondary. Stakeholders in schooling should recognize that it is much easier to train an educated person then educate a trained person.

[10] The document is silent on the merits of the current administration’s well meaning but, in my view, misguided efforts to improve education. These efforts ask us to put our trust in the efficacy of high-stake tests rather than the judgment and expertise of teachers. They also assume that the required tests are a true measure of educational attainment, an assumption I find difficult to accept. When it comes to mathematics, I suspect they are more a measure of test-taking ability than mathematical insight and understanding. Developing test-taking ability and developing understanding are not the same and with the penalties currently attached to poor test performance, the former becomes of paramount importance. The result is that, instead of developing mathematical adepts, we develop mathematical swindlers, a phrase borrowed from Carl Jung. In his autobiography, Dreams, Memories and Reflections, Jung acknowledges he had no comprehension of what was going on his algebra class but managed, by memory and rote learning, to get good marks and thereby “swindle his way through mathematics.” I suppose it takes a swindler to know one. During my student career, which ultimately led to a Ph. D. degree in mathematics, I confess, to the detriment of my education, I swindled my way through many an examination.

[11] Our current national education mandates have placed uncommon stress on public school educators. Their profession is being challenged and many find themselves forced into practices that run counter to their knowledge of appropriate and effective instruction. I would encourage parishes to be mindful of the educators in their midst and seek their expertise and judgments concerning the current attempts at educational reform.

[12] On page 24 of the draft, the statement is made that “the natural and physical sciences have tested methods to describe and explain the natural world.” The question whether or not these descriptions constitute “truth” in some ultimate sense is a sticky one. Many of these descriptions are given in mathematical terms. When a mathematician says a certain result is “true,” they mean that the result is true assuming that the premises it is based upon are true and the argument used to arrive at it is logically correct. Theoretical mathematicians aren’t particularly concerned with the truth of their premises. Applied mathematicians hope their premises are an accurate enough description of the physical situation they are studying so that there results are usable to achieve some desired end. That doesn’t mean their results are ultimate truth; it only means that they are good enough to get the job done. The situation is further complicated by the existence of “incomplete” mathematical systems-systems in which it cannot be determined by deductive means whether or not every statement formulated in the system is the logical consequent of the system’s premises; roughly speaking, systems in which you can’t prove everything. I think theologians should be aware of the inadequacies of deductive systems, especially those literalists and other fundamentalists who treat the Bible as a set of axioms from which all truth is to be deduced. God and the universe are larger than language and logic.

[13] For me, one of the most poignant sentence in the draft is this one from page 42: “Lack of financial support threatens campus ministries in many places.” The Lutheran Campus Council of Portland, with which I have been associated in one way or another for over 20 years, has recently been informed that it will receive no national funding after June 1, and it appears that support from Region 1 synods will be severely curtailed, if not discontinued. The Lutheran Campus Ministry at Portland State University is both broke and broken. How, when, and if it gets fixed is unclear. My hope is that we can muster the resources and energy to reestablish a provocative ministry in this place where church and culture confront and converse with one another.

[14] The draft of Our Calling in Education calls for “creative action to support our campus ministry” and suggest several actions, none of which I thing will have much effect. To conduct effective campus ministries in today’s society, I think a complete restructuring of campus ministry in ELCA is in order. In today’s world, college and university campuses are ubiquitous. Oregon, which is sparsely populated as states go, has some 30 colleges and universities, 17 community colleges, many with multiple campuses, plus a variety of technical and vocational schools. Every community of any size has a post-secondary institution or a branch campus of one, but ELCA supports two campus ministries in the entire state of Oregon, involving three institutions. I suggest that operating campus ministry out of a national office with regional coordinators stretched too thin to be effective is no longer feasible. The jurisdiction of campus ministries should be a local matter. Post-secondary education has become woven into the fabric of society; ministry to those involved in it should be woven into the fabric of every congregation and synod.

[15] I urge members of ELCA to participate in a discussion of the draft in one or more of the ways listed in the preface to the document. My experience in responding to a churchwide invitation to react to an earlier version indicates that all comments will be taken seriously. As it now stands, Our Calling in Education is a worthy document. Your participation will provide the finishing touches in producing a significant and stimulating social statement.