Christian Virtue in Education

I have recently been engaged in several different conversations that seem to emanate from the same core question: what does it mean to engage with students in the online setting, and what are the (potentially) distinctive features of Christian online education.

Parker Palmer (2010) accurately defined one of the primary ironies of spirituality and higher education:

Higher education’s resistance to exploring the diverse ways in which people navigate their inner lives is baffling given its philosophical root system. (p. 49)

As a means of illustrating this, let me share a story that I used to tell my freshmen every fall at my Christian institution.

I once took Polly, my late mother-in-law, to opening chapel.  Part of this event is “The Parade of Flags,” in which all of the countries and states represented amongst the student body are paraded across the floor. It is an impressive sight. Polly was overcome with emotion, and with huge tears in her eyes exclaimed, “All of these people from all of these different countries are going to go to heaven because they came to this school to hear about Jesus.” My first reaction to her outburst was one of affection. I loved her innocent, naïve, and pure motives. She believed that this was the purpose of our institution, and immediately interpreted the moment through that lens. My second reaction was darker: I didn’t necessarily think that this was my purpose. I was here to educate them; I hoped that they would find a relationship with Christ, but I was here to serve a different function.

By the time chapel was over, I made a promise to myself that I would ensure that my students heard me say that I want for them to have a relationship with Christ. I would do whatever I can to convince my students that I am His servant as I engage in my work, and I would invite them to participate in that service. I would make the invitation overt, explicit, and deductive. I would not allow my students to guess whether they could talk about spirituality in my classroom, but that I would create environments where students could navigate their inner lives as we discovered the outer world together. This episode, and other episodes like this one, have remind me of the perennial challenge. How does one incorporate Christian virtue in the classroom?

As my instruction has migrated to the online setting, I am even more challenged to find ways to integrate Christian virtue in ways that are overt, explicit, and deductive. How do I practice my faith in ways that challenge us to grow spiritually together, particularly when my interaction is asynchronous and remote?

I want to carefully discriminate what I mean by Christian education. I am defining Christian education is the individual instructor’s intentional praxis Christian virtue in the act of teaching. I tend to concur that it is impossible for organizations to act with “virtue”; only individuals can act in virtuous ways (Niebuhr, 2013). Any implications for organizational policy are of less interest to me, as I account these as something different from “virtue.” I do not believe that one must work for an overtly “Christian” college or university to practice Christian virtues in the classroom. Some of the best practitioners of Christian virtue that I have witnessed were at institutions where religious discussion was discouraged, and proselytization was forbidden.

Conversely, it is unreasonable to assume that one teaching for a “Christian” college or university employs Christian virtues in the classroom. There is an advantage to working for an institution of Christian higher education: I can be as explicit in these interactions as I wish to be. But I would also note that these explicit interactions can easily be reduced to cliché. One former colleague proudly announced that she integrated faith and learning by having students count morphemes in the Lord’s Prayer, as if this was an act of spiritual reflection. Another colleague quipped, “I like to have a little prayer before class.”  While I am sure that ein kleines gebet is appreciated, this is not what I am looking for.

Moreover, I do not wish to define the integration of spirituality and education in directional terms.  Marmon (2008) described this kind of directionality in working to define the virtue of “hospitality” …

One time a friend and I stayed in a bed and breakfast where the owner told us not only where to shop, but what to buy. He also refused to fix the kind of tea I requested because he disliked it himself. “If you were a serious tea drinker, you would know that you only need a hint of flavor – try this!” His insistence created an awkward moment at the breakfast table, one that might remind us of an overbearing teacher who knew all the answers. (p. 35)

There are ways in which Christians are exhorted to think directionally. Christ offered forgiveness to those who crucified him by his own initiative. His compassion was not incited by the contribution of his oppressors. But I am consistently confronted with the truth that my own spirituality is in development; I expect that I will grow in my own understanding of virtue through a constructivist paradigm.

I intend to pick up on the previous discussion of “empathy” as a learning outcome, while expanding this thread to think about virtues on a broader scale.

References

Marmon, E. L. (2008). Teaching as hospitality. The Asbury Journal, 63(2), 33–39.

Niebuhr, R. (2013). Moral man and immoral society: A study in ethics and politics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Palmer, P. J., Zajonc, A., & Scribner, M. (2010). The heart of higher education: A call to renewal: Transforming the academy through collegial conversations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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