May 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Education can seem ceaselessly mysterious, simultaneously one thing and its opposite, impossibly complex until it becomes quite simple. Accordingly, no aspect of the process goes unexamined. Reformers study things with quantum specificity. Educators puzzle over curriculum, learning styles, and how much, and what kind, of homework to give. We worry that we exaggerate the importance of standardized tests until SAT time, and then we realize we haven’t emphasized them enough. In the course of pondering lesson plans and new buildings, we consult architects, psychologists, and design theorists. Schools offer Yoga. I’d bet that someone has written a PhD examining the ideal location of a teacher’s desk, perhaps titled something like: “Authority Communicated Through Structural Placement: On the Pedagogy of Classroom Furniture,” and I’m sure it would include the latest research on the brain and, in particular, the pre-frontal cortex, which would still not be developed enough.
A lot of this thinking and wrestling is very healthy — and fun. I love these conversations and I’m in education, in part, because of its mix of tradition, innovation, and imagination. At the center of everything is a deeply philosophical, non-formulaic pursuit to draw the best out of the human being. Education is multidimensional and paradoxical; it requires an eye on the past and and an eye on the future. It is an intersection of specialties, a bridge between the changing and unchanging.
But as another academic year comes to end, and as I reflect upon my year and the latest trends in education reform, I find that there is one thing that is not mysterious. Amidst the voices calling for new this and different that, I see once more that there is no curriculum, there is no lesson plan, there is no piece of technology that can replace or supersede a supportive, loving home environment. Sometimes this might be a traditional two-parent home, and sometimes not. Regardless of the particular makeup, when a child comes from a stable and attentive family, everything else is secondary. Students find ways to overcome obstacles. They find ways to succeed. They learn how to take charge of their own academic life. They navigate temptations and, even if they occasionally succumb to them, they don’t fall away.
When a student doesn’t have a loving home, all the technology in the world, all the latest methods or theories in education reform, can become meaningless. The students who struggle most are those whose parents are not involved in their lives. These are parents who don’t know their children’s friends, who don’t monitor Twitter or Facebook accounts, and who don’t know who their child is becoming. They are the parental equivalent of the “watchmaker God”: they bring new life into the world, and then recede, failing to intervene when it’s most crucial, making far too many assumptions about the capacity of their children to direct their own lives.
In education, then, the most revolutionary reform is not the technology of the iPad. It is the technology of the dinner table. It is a place where children arrive knowing that they will be loved unconditionally, a place where kids are asked about their day, and about their friends, and about the vast range of observations and influences that roam through their mind, trying to take root in their soul. It is a place where students are constantly called back to the best version of themselves, to dignity, to virtue, and to the larger arc of life’s purpose.
Posted by Matt Emerson.
May 16, 2013 § 2 Comments
My senior synthesis classes are just a week away from ending. I’ve taught the class the last two years. As the name suggests, the class is for seniors. It’s the last required theology course that our students take, our last chance to get them on the road to Skylar. Most people are initially puzzled by the name, and I could offer thousands of words discussing what it’s about.
But I’ll spare you that soliloquy to give you the short version: the Synthesis class requires students to write a paper explaining what they believe and why. The paper is guided (each section is methodically and slowly completed) and it’s broken into four chapters. In chapter 1, students discuss their formative experiences; in chapter 2, students research and present answers to the philosophical or theological questions that chapter 1 raises; in chapter 3, students respond to their chapter 2 and provide their own statement of belief; and in chapter 4, students answer the question, “What now?” That is, in light of the insights achieved in ch. 1-3, what will they do and who will they become?
In addition to the paper, there is a second half to the course. The second half is a kind of general introduction to faith and to some of the main teachings of Catholic Christianity. In the materials I assign, I try to answer the question: How does someone move from unbelief to belief, especially from a total denial of the divine to a daily profession of hope in the God of Jesus Christ? Given those questions, and given the age of the students, the class allows us to delve into some heavy stuff. And as we read and discuss, my perceptive students go right to the material that matters. They ask questions about the nature of God, His relationship with humans, the response to suffering, free will, the reason for existence and many more. Class conversations soar into fundamental questions of philosophy and theology.
In the course of these conversations, I’ve realized why it can be so difficult for students to embrace organized religion.
Students in high school are starting to sense the thrilling adventure that is education. High school, in some measure, is the dawning of the academic mind. On the threshold of adulthood, high school students confront varying theories and historical figures; they are reading about wars, conquerors, belief systems, gods, physical laws, inequalities, theorems, proofs, characters, motivations, plots . . . and doing so while navigating the often brutal terrain of teenage social life. It is fragmenting and distracting, often overwhelming — like being dropped into the middle of a foreign city.
Students, I have seen, want to wrestle with what they are learning, and they want to do so freely and without the belief that their speculations are meaningful only if they resemble a preconceived framework imposed by a teacher or textbook. They are explorers, and things they had never heard of, nor thought of, are visible. It all entices, it all beckons, it all calls to be experienced and explored. To commit to one particular religion is, for them, to give up the journey. It is to accept a restriction that seems arbitrary in light of the number of other belief systems that look so tantalizingly authentic.
For public schools, this open-endedness does not pose much of a problem. Public schools do not rest on any preordained theories about the way the world is. Public schools are institutionally committed to the idea that truth is what you make of it. But consider the position of a Catholic school and more particularly a Catholic religion teacher facing young men and women at this point in their lives. A Catholic school presupposes a certain account of humans and history as the truth of all truths. A Catholic institution proceeds upon the conviction that certain issues, or certain potential points of confusion, have already been decided. A Catholic school cannot be indifferent to the question of God and to the nature and moral responsibilities of the human person. A Catholic school cannot say to students, “Believe in whatever you want; it’s all up for grabs.”
This, then, creates a challenge. We have to sympathize with our students’ context; we have to value their beliefs and appreciate their excursions into the world of ideas. Students don’t want to be told they are wrong; they don’t like thinking their worldviews are incorrect. Students often find claims to religious exclusivity to be insensitive, sometimes even an attack on other people or cultures — or themselves. So a Catholic school has an especially fine-tuned task: to persuade students of the paradox that what to them appears exclusive or arbitrary is actually the very ground of their freedom, to show that committing to the truths of revelation does not limit their intellectual exploration, but enriches it. To show that what might seem provisional and limiting is actually universal in scope — or, shall we say, catholic.
Posted by Matt Emerson.
May 13, 2013 § 3 Comments
Over the last few days I’ve been pretty busy with matters at the school and with a few other writing projects. The interlude in posting has offered a chance to step back and think through some things without feeling compelled to wrap my winding deliberations into artful prose.
I’ve concluded — and this may be a surprise — that I am still adjusting to blogging, to the tension between wanting to write and the concern that, given the need to update unceasingly, I might not be doing it memorably well. Usually, when I write, I like to spend hours honing. I like to examine every word, every piece of punctuation, the entire landscape of syntax, sentence, and paragraph. In my most ambitious moments, I want to think like Socrates and write like Ian McEwan. But blogs, of course, are just not suited for that obsessive particularity. You have to send off your words with the occasional untucked shirt.
Over the last few days, moreover, I think I have realized that I’m going to have to change up my writing time. Right now, given my day job, I usually write at night. Once I start writing, it’s very difficult to stop, and a captivating subject can easily compel me to remain unsleeping long into infomercial time, into those hours of the darkness when the silence of the world drowns out all superfluous thoughts. This, as you can imagine, makes rising early an extraordinary feat, one that requires enough coffee to fill a UPS truck.
The writing shall continue, as it must, as it has to, as it will always. I have a few posts that are lining up in my head, impatient from remaining unwritten. I will be back tomorrow with fresh material. Until then, good night.
May 8, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My parents live on a golf course connected to a gigantic Marriott. It’s one of those resorts that is more like a tiny, opulent city than a hotel. It has two golf courses, actually, and on weekends, music from the resort roams its way a few hundred yards to my parents’ back porch.
Across from the resort is a shopping complex known as “Desert Ridge Marketplace.” It has everything that you’d come to expect from a modern American super-sized strip mall: TGI Friday’s, Staples, Target, JoAnn’s, Barnes & Noble, movie theaters, Verizon, and probably a few dozen places to get a burger or burrito. The complex probably draws thousands of people a day and earn millions of dollars.
My parents moved to that neighborhood when I was a junior in high school. When they arrived, the area now filled by the resort and the marketplace were vacant. They were flat, dusty tracts that attracted no attention, an afterthought on the margins of Phoenix. There was only an isolated golf course. When I first saw my parents’ new home, it seemed too remote, too far from action and fun. Between my junior year of high school and the end of college, however, developers transformed the land into a nerve center of commerce. In fact, in addition to the shopping venues, the Desert Ridge center now includes a number of healthcare facilities, an apartment complex, and homes.
As I think about this, and as I think about similar projects, it occurs to me that real estate development, or land development, has paralles with teaching. The average person looks at vacant land and sees emptiness. Developers look at land and see possibility — perhaps a hotel, a restaurant, or maybe a gorgeous worship space or a theater. Where I live, magnificent golf courses are woven into the mountainous desert lanscape, a feat not only of engineering but of imagination.
And developers know it’s hard work. They know the land might need improvements, a few stray buildings might have to be torn down or the area rezoned. They know that construction will require thousands of hours of negotiation, the drafting of contracts, haggling with lawyers and city officials and the provision of millions of dollars. Delays will ensue. Costs will increase. Conflicts will rise.
But they do it anyway. They believe. They dream of what could be, and then, one day, it’s done.
The connection with teaching hit me the other day as I spoke with a colleague about education. Students come to us in various stages of development. They arrive with a diversity of capacities, talents and liabilities. They might be great at math but bad at writing. They might hate art or be bored by religion. They might love sports but not physics; they might run for student government or decide to pursue piano. But no matter what they’re like, teachers have to see students for what they could be, not only for what they are. If I have a student who is maybe a bit surly and reserved, I cannot assume that’s how he or she will always be. I have to teach to other versions of that student, to someone who one day might lead a company or run a school. I cannot see my students as one-dimensional or anchor their identity in first impressions. I, all teachers, have to see students like a developer sees the natural environment — as filled with possibility, as ripe for transformation. And teachers have to commit to this knowing there will be struggle, resistance, and a few false starts.
To be a teacher is to imagine a future on another’s behalf. To be a teacher is to believe that a student can reach the best version of himself even when he might say, “No, the work is too hard. Let me remain as I arrived.” A teacher co-imagines a new reality, a new self, into being.
May 6, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Today, Dave Gregory returns to The Ignatian Educator with a meditation on one of the central experiences of Jesuit education, the Kairos retreat.
The Kairos Sacrament
May 6, 2013
By David Gregory
In the spring of 2004, I traversed the wilds of Staten Island with two dozen of my sophomore classmates to make the famous “Quest” retreat, better known in other Jesuit schools as “Kairos.” I didn’t know what to expect, although I certainly was a bit jealous of the cultish attitude surrounding the retreat’s alumni and those “waffle” crosses they so proudly bore around their necks. (I would learn years later that these are in fact Jerusalem crosses, distributed to the solid majority of Kairos alumni from Jesuit schools all over.)
The particulars of my retreat escape my memory, and I can’t remember my leaders or the talks they gave. However, I do remember this much: at some point during one of the central exercises, I thought to myself, “If this is what Jesuit education is all about, I want to be involved with it in some way, shape, or form for the rest of my life.” That singular thought has defined the following decade of my existence. It has sent ripples — and occasionally shockwaves — rambling through my life, and has led me down a road my teenage self could not predict. Teenage Dave would have been amused and shocked, maybe even a tad horrified, if he knew what was to come.
Nowadays I view Kairos as the peak of Jesuit secondary education, the experience toward which the lives of students flow and the experience in whose light these lives will forever remain. I’ve spoken with dozens of alumni from Jesuit high schools, and it seems that just as the Spiritual Exercises unite Jesuits, Kairos binds Jesuit schools’ alumni. Just as the Exercises set the Society of Jesus apart from other religious orders, Kairos sets twenty-first century Jesuit institutions apart from any other mode of secondary education.
I can’t speak about the particular details of Kairos, lest an unsuspecting student stumble upon this writing in an attempt to unveil the retreat’s clandestine happenings, but I can say this much: Kairos provides a window into who we are and who we’re meant to become, both as individuals and as a community. Ryan Maher, S.J., one of my professors in college, had a list of what he liked to call “Catholic axioms,” or principles upon which the Catholic imagination rests. My favorite of these is this: “Faith is not so much about the constancy of the gaze as it is about the intensity of the glimpse.”
Everything in Catholicism bends toward these glimpses, thus bringing us into moments of (in the Greek) ekstasis – ecstasy – in which we find ourselves drawn out of ourselves. In engaging the Sacraments, we celebrate milestones of life worthy of being lifted up and named: initiation, community, vocation, and illness, moments which are linked to the life, death and resurrection of the Christ. In grasping “sacramentals” (religiously charged items such as rosaries, crucifixes, and holy water), and in beholding religious artwork and iconography, Catholics experience a world that is not entirely our own, a world that will be the culmination of all finite existence. Glimpses serve as a reminder that nothing we now know is perfect, that we are in the world, but not of it.
These things fill our hearts with yearning for preternatural life; they hold us in a non-sexual ecstasy, and though they belong to the immanent, they point toward the eternal. This holy longing remains central to the Catholic imagination and compels us toward a reality that lies outside of space and time. As Catholics, we dream of this, we hold it dearly and live it. We try to communicate its meaning, but this task proves impossible.
Kairos presents the culture of Jesuit secondary education with a profound little “s” sacrament, in which the difference between chronos (the temporal) and kairos (the eternal) is fuzzy at best. It shatters the quotidian high school world, and students leave feeling shaken and transformed. Is there a more powerful sign of the agency of grace than the awareness that things are — somehow — different? I remain unconvinced that there is.
Dave Gregory graduated from Manhattan’s Regis High School in 2006 and from Georgetown University in 2010 with a double major in philosophy and theology. Prior to coming to Xavier, Gregory was in the Jesuit novitiate in the Maryland province of the Society of Jesus. Gregory’s interests include Ignatian spirituality and the practical implications of the Spiritual Exercises for secondary education. He can be reached at email@example.com.
May 5, 2013 § 1 Comment
The New York Times today, in an article titled, “The Apprentices Of a Digital Age,” continues the general trend of education articles by emphasizing non-traditional forums of learning, or, rather, forums of learning that are quite traditional but which, by today’s standards, seem non-traditional.
The article highlights a two-year program called Enstitute, which “teaches skills in fields like information technology, computer programming and app building via on-the-job experience.” The program is an alternative to the classic track of studies that leads to a four-year degree. It is meant to meet students who want to shun the outlandish tuition payments and loan amounts, and who would otherwise have to slog through courses that are unchallenging or unhelpful.
The article touched on a number of themes that I have blogged about here (and even quotes Tony Wagner, author of the book Creating Innovators, which I’ve written about on a number of occasions). I think I was most struck by this quote by one of the founders, talking about the program’s students: “They are not debating Chaucer; they are debating product features.”
While that seems to suggest the Enstitute ignores the humanities, the Enstitute seems conflicted, afraid to deviate too far from a standard curriculum that does include more liberal arts subjects. After a lengthy overview of how the Enstitute is supposedly very different, we learn that it offers a
semiformal curriculum, requiring eight hours a week on topics like finance branding, computer programming and graphic design, as well as English, sociology, and history, the content of which comes largely from online courses. The fellows also receive writing assignments every six weeks; outside academics and experts edit and review the work for writing style and grammar. Many fellows choose a less technical track for their course work and study subjects like Japanese culture or the poetry of Keats.
I don’t know precisely what that means; how, for example, you “apprentice” in Japanese culture or Keats. But if you can focus on the poetry of Keats, what is the larger aim of the Enstitute? And how is the study of Keats integrated with the study of products and apps? How are all the different programs unified? Are students being asked to reflect meaningfully on the nature of their apprenticeship, on the implications for society and the human person? These are key questions that I see unanswered. It seems most of these new programs, whether at the Enstitute or others, derive from a cost-benefit analysis almost exclusively related to getting a job and minimizing borrowing costs. I get it; those are important matters. But they do not exhaust the goals or meaning of human life.
There are questions about human life, about meaning, about the search for happiness and authenticity that have to be addressed. A student might be able to build an app or create a new software program, but, for example, can they answer the questions, “Who am I? What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of education?” Unless students have made some meaningful effort to work through those kind of non-formulaic questions, and have done so through the lens of literature, faith, ethics, and the rest of the humanities, we will have a society only half-prepared to meet the demands of existence.
May 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The Jesuit magazine America has published a companion piece to my September 2012 article “Help Their Unbelief.” My new article is titled “Preambles for Faith” and reflects upon ways to nurture belief among skeptical students. The theme for this week’s issue is Jesuit education.
For this week’s piece, see here.
For the September 2012 piece, see here.
As always, feedback welcomed!