Teaching Within and Between Two Worlds
Years ago, a friend reflecting on his decision to buy a house in a working class neighborhood observed to me, “your backyard determines your politics.” He chose to locate himself in a setting that would remind him of a variety of needs and inequities in the community. If it is true that our choice of home can influence political outlooks, then no doubt professors’ institutional environments similarly shape their pedagogical philosophies.
My ultimate purpose is not to ensure that students master the theories and practices of conflict resolution so much as it is that they gain a deeper understanding of themselves, other people, and the worldviews and cultures in which they find themselves.
This essay outlines a philosophy of teaching centered in education as building understanding. My approach here is largely autobiographical, tracing institutional contexts and influences that have shaped my teaching. I will begin with a description of the contexts in which I have taught, look at how these settings have contributed to my concept of education as building understanding, and outline a few implications of this concept in the classroom and beyond.
My title, “Teaching Within and Between Two Worlds,” derives from language used at Conrad Grebel University College (CGUC), which was founded in 1963. CGUC is a Mennonite college that is located on the campus of, and affiliated with, the University of Waterloo, a public institution in Ontario. I spent time there as a student, senior dorm resident, and many years as a part-time instructor. The opening line of a college policy document asserts, “Conrad Grebel College functions within and between two communities, the University of Waterloo and the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada.” 1
The phrase bears similarity to the mission statement of Menno Simons College (MSC), founded in 1988, where I currently work, which proclaims its institutional purpose as “providing education flowing from Anabaptist Mennonite understandings of faith, peace, and justice while engaging other religious traditions and intellectual perspectives . . .” Menno Simons College is part of Canadian Mennonite University, but it is also located on the campus of and affiliated with the public University of Winnipeg.
In both cases, students enroll in the public university, take some of their course work at the affiliated Mennonite college, and receive their degrees from the public university. In a variety of ways, students and faculty members find themselves within and between two worlds, worlds that sometimes overlap, and sometimes diverge. There are approximately three dozen church-related colleges federated or affiliated with public universities in Canada, but CGUC and MSC are unique in the North American Anabaptist world as affiliated colleges. 2
When teaching in an affiliated college, one encounters an enduring, creative tension. Contemporary Canadian universities understand their mandate as providing non-sectarian education divorced from the moral character-formation agenda of early church colleges. 3 In recent decades many university faculties have taken deliberate efforts to change previous practices and ensure that Christian outlooks are no longer privileged over secular worldviews or other religious outlooks on campus. Given the current inverse correlation between levels of education and religiosity in Canadian society, 4 public universities arguably are populated by professors who are less religious than society at large.
While the public university is committed to non-sectarian education, the affiliated college has a mandate to be partisan and offer a particular perspective that might otherwise be missed in the academy. The affiliated college operates with a conviction that religion and faith have important perspectives to bring to university education. This partisanship may be reflected in curricula that highlight subject areas that are important to the denominational sponsor. The partisan perspective typically is also reflected in other ways, such as student life programming and chaplaincy services.
STUDENT INTERESTS AND MOTIVATIONS
In affiliated colleges, students operate with a spectrum of motivations and expectations that is broader than those present in many institutions. Some approach a class at CGUC or MSC with a clear expectation that a professor at a Mennonite college will teach the subject matter from an explicitly Mennonite or Christian perspective. Others arrive at class without any knowledge of the college’s religious grounding, enrolling because they want a particular course that fits their interest or timetable, and that course just happens to be taught by an affiliated church college. They may express confusion or annoyance if the course is somehow caught up in a religious setting, or prefer that college-sponsored activities such as student retreats not include worship components or religious talk.
I first set foot on the CGUC campus as a student in the 1970s. Prior to that I had attended Mennonite elementary and high schools for twelve years, then enrolled at a Mennonite liberal arts college in the United States. After two years there, I attended CGUG for a year, and was immediately struck by a different campus ethos. Whereas the schools I have previously attended had been founded in the first half of the twentieth century when safeguarding young people from the worldly influences was a principal reason for their establishment, I immediately knew (long before I ever read a mission statement or policy document) that this place was founded in a different era with a different purpose. The institution was designed facing the “world” rather than the “church,” and intent on engaging a wide range of actors. Faculty members were engaged with what at the time seemed almost heretical dialogue with Marxists, students from all backgrounds were welcomed (there was no expectation that you would need be Christian), and a sometimes zany succession of student and political groups used the college facilities for their meetings.
THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION
When someone asks me what I teach, I typically reply that I teach Conflict Resolution Studies. This is an accurate, but unfortunate and woefully inadequate way to answer the question. For me, the academic subject that is taught only opens the door to education. My ultimate purpose is not so much to ensure that students master the theories and practices of conflict resolution as that they gain a deeper understanding of themselves, other people, and the worldviews and cultures in which they find themselves. How I answer the question of what I teach is linked to a broader question of what constitutes education.
The purpose of postsecondary education (encompassing both teaching and scholarship) is often described as a search for truth. 5 Christian colleges and universities are especially prone to debates over Truth vs. truth. Is there a single ultimate Truth, or are there many truths, or does each of us construct our own truth? A prominent stream of evangelical writing in recent decades has emphasized the importance of educating students to construct a comprehensive Christian “worldview,” using a structure where philosophical presuppositions on the nature of reality provide the building blocks for educational philosophy and practice. 6
Scholars in Anabaptist traditions generally have been inclined toward understanding the purpose of education as something that not only sharpens one’s mind, but also equips one toward praxis or a life of discipleship. Ernest Boyer, the prominent American educator from the Brethren in Christ tradition opined, “The undergraduate experience at its best moves the student from competence to commitment.” 7
Anabaptist scholars have also critiqued the language of “integration of faith and learning” that grew out of the Reformed tradition and has been used extensively by evangelical scholars in recent decades. Scholarship and Christian Faith by Jacobsen and Jacobsen contains an excellent set of essays in this vein. 8 In the preface to this volume, Rodney Sawatsky writes, “Scholarship at its best is more than the pursuit of truth; it is the quest for wisdom.” 9 Sawatsky also notes that “faith” is but one part of the Christian religion, pointing to Paul’s formulation in 1 Corinthians 13 of faith, hope, and love, and Sawatsky advocates for hope and love getting equal emphasis with faith. I might add that Paul proceeded to assert asserted that “the greatest of these is love.” 10 Moreover, Jesus summarized the greatest commandments as loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. 11 Although an intellectual formulation of faith is valuable, there is good basis for concluding that such formulations do not fully capture the essence Christian education.
Through having a job that involves moving within two worlds and interacting regularly with people who are significantly different from me, over time I have come to view the principal purpose of education as building understanding. Understanding includes subject knowledge, such as knowing the difference between median and mean in describing averages in a human population, comprehending the composition of the human genome, or knowing the grammatical constructions that make for clear written communication. But understanding also has broader meanings, such as the understanding that comes from the heart. To truly understand a situation often calls for wisdom, intuition, and profound self-awareness.
Understanding includes understanding people, the capacity to work well with others, to comprehend the world as others see it, or to look deeply into the soul of another.
To a significant extent, an emphasis on “understanding” sidesteps the debate about Truth vs. truth(s). Understanding is more postmodern than the search for Truth, as one’s understanding always has the capacity to be expanded or refined.
A focus on wisdom and understanding of the heart is simultaneously premodern balancing recent intellectual and scientific discoveries with the wisdom of the ages.
In the Gospels, the emphasis that Jesus places on understanding, or the lack thereof, in his students is striking. Although Jesus sometimes speaks about truth, especially in John, 12 there are more gospel references to understanding than to truth. Jesus demonstrates little inclination for proclaiming overarching, unsurpassable frameworks or philosophies. Jesus’ interaction with his students, whether the core group of disciples or larger crowds, is geared toward producing understanding. He teaches through metaphor and parable. Parables are not an appropriate teaching method for transmitting knowledge in the form of information, but they are perfect for painting word pictures that spark insight or deepen understanding.
Jesus explains his penchant for speaking in parables by referencing Isaiah to emphasize a lack of understanding: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed listen, but never perceive.” 13 In Mark 7:52, the disciples do not understand the significance of the feeding of five thousand, and their hearts are hardened. Seldom does he explain a meaning beyond all doubt. Instead through stories, signs, and wonders, Jesus encourages listeners to ponder, reflect and understand layers of meaning. The impact of a parable is often to catch us unawares, illustrated in the answer framed by the story of the Good Samaritan to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Parables raise probing questions about ourselves, the world, and even our fundamental understandings of faith and God.
In the Gospels, understanding is shown to be an interaction between two people, or between a subject and an object. Understanding is not fixed, nor is it possessed in a static form. It evolves and grows over time.
Conceiving education as understanding necessarily calls for a measure of humility. As an educator, I am increasingly moved by Paul’s comment that “now we see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV). When I was an undergrad, I thought that a professor who introduced himself as being “a student of the Old Testament” was displaying a type of false modesty, calling himself a student rather than a teacher. But as the years go by I too have come to be a student more than professor. It seems that I know so little, and there is also so much more to learn, and things that once appeared simple and straightforward are much more complex. Education, like faith, is not a matter of certainty. Indeed, certainty is the enemy of both education and faith. Faith is about mystery, trust, and obedience. Education is about opening oneself continuously to new insight and understanding.
Unfortunately, humility is not always the hallmark of Christian educators. In his book Quality with Soul, Robert Benne offers insightful analysis of what makes colleges and universities “Christian,” but does so in a manner that is anything but humble, claiming Christianity provides “an account of life that is comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central.” 14 According to Benne, “Christianity’s comprehensive account does not claim to have all the relevant data and knowledge about our life in this world, but it does claim to offer a paradigm in which those data and knowledge are organized, interpreted, and critiqued.” 15
As with all who would follow Christ, I have a purpose of letting my life be a witness to the love of God (a love that I fail to display fully with annoying regularity). And like other Christians, I want to learn from other traditions, and I am blessed with a work context that mandates and facilitates engaging adherents of other world religions along with those who are indifferent to religion or sharply critical of it.
For those of us who are Christians, our understanding is fed by a variety of sources, including biblical, academic disciplines, personal reflection, social interaction, etc. Understanding is deepened by diversity of inputs, and especially those that involve contradiction or paradox.
As teachers, our understanding is also fed by our students. Indeed, as I have taught students who are Jewish, Muslim, or atheist, I have been led to a deeper understanding of their experiences, worldviews and perspectives, which has in turn enriched my own faith. I am currently teaching a course on religion and conflict. If I were teaching this course on a stand-alone Christian campus, I would likely devote a major portion of the course to Christian experiences and authors. But because I am teaching the course on a public university campus, I ensure that the course material draws upon several world religions. I draw upon the Christian material that I know best, laying out various ways in which Christian teachings and practice contribute to conflict, and provide resources to peacemakers. And when I explore comparable dynamics in other religions, I want the Muslim or Sikh students in the class to hear the interaction of their religions and conflict being discussed in a manner that reflects understanding and fairness, even though I may not bring the same depth of knowledge to discussing their religions. In doing so, two things have happened to me: I have both come to cherish my faith more deeply as well as to understand more clearly some of the dark side of Christian history and thought. Collectively as a class we have to grapple with how our respective worldviews or religious identities so readily can be used to diminish our common humanity.
This approach to my subject matter is not necessarily different from any Christian teaching social sciences in a public university. That is, I will attempt to ensure that a variety of voices are present in the course material. Although my teaching life gives witness to my faith in this setting, I will not see evangelism or faith formation as a principal purpose of my teaching.
What is different, however, in teaching at an affiliated college rooted in the Christian gospel is that I will have more institutional encouragement and support to work an awareness of how my faith intersects with my teaching, and explore within the academy the role of religion in understanding the course subject matter. In addition, there will be institutional bias in curriculum development that facilitates these discussions. For example, both CGUC and MSC made peace and conflict studies a major part of their academic programs at a time when such areas were not (and still are not in some quarters) seen as academically interesting or respectable. Moreover, the curriculum at the college where I currently teach consciously includes the role of faith and religion in programs of study in conflict resolution and international development.
Would my approach be any different if I taught at a stand alone Anabaptist institution? Based on my limited experience in this arena, my classroom activities might look very similar, but responding to the critical mass of student interests and institutional vision, I likely would accord Christianity a privileged position, and have less opportunity and motivation to stretch myself out of my comfort zones.
Like many people, regardless of their institutional base, I teach from who I am, to use Parker Palmer’s phrase. 16 Palmer posits that as professors we not only teach academic subjects and teach students, we also teach from “who we are” from the depths of our own lives:
Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together . . . In fact, knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge. When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life. . . . 17
Along with texts and other course material, students come to know me as a Mennonite Christian, psychologist, man, white, mediator, husband, or other parts of my personal and social identities. I teach from who I am not to foist myself on the students or the course material, but rather to approach the subject manner in an intellectually honest manner, and more importantly to invite the student to delve deeply into who she or he is.
In Parker’s approach, self-knowledge is a prerequisite for effective teaching. To engage in this pedagogy, one must be rooted. To know who I am, I need to know where I come from, to be rooted in a faith tradition, and in an academic discipline. Continuously cultivating that rootedness is essential to avoid the chameleon syndrome of taking on the color of whomever my companions happen to be at the moment, or as Paul says, “tossed to and fro, and blown about by every wind of doctrine.” 18
In reality, I find that being grounded as a Christian, and teaching from that perspective in an affiliated college setting is far more difficult than the task of writing these words. In the contemporary academic environment, there are pervasive pressures to not say or do things that might offend others, and in particular to avoid Christian chauvinism in the academy. One result is an easy tendency to focus on the “second half” of the godly life. The second half of the Ten Commandments deal with social relations, whereas the first several commandments address relations with the Divine. Jesus’ Second Great Commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, whereas the First is to love God and grow in that love. 19 There is a tendency for contemporary Christians to focus on concepts of service, peace, and social fairness as values with broad appeal, and lose sight of the Judeo-Christian understanding that our service is a gratitude response to God’s love and saving acts in history. The continuing challenge is for us to not only give witness to social values of the gospel, but also to remember and to articulate with humility and mutuality the reasons behind those values.
When I articulate my vantage points, I nevertheless see those around me as authentic conversation partners, not merely foils for testing and sharpening my arguments, but students and colleagues who can broaden and deepen my understanding.
Understanding as a pillar of education thus comes full circle. I teach students that they might grow in understanding, doing so requires self-understanding, and doing so increases understanding for myself and my students. My self-understanding increases the potential for students to develop understanding. This cycle is at the heart of a learning community.
BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
Being positioned within and between two worlds not only shapes the classroom experience, it also gives rise to similar exploration outside the classroom, of which I will relate one example.
As North America becomes more diverse religiously and culturally, most Americans and Canadians have the potential to get to know other religious traditions more deeply. But for the most part this does not happen. People of differing faiths may share the same workplace or neighborhood, but often do not engage significantly on matters of faith and spiritual life. Our churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues are the most homogenous gathering places on the continent.
Three years ago this realization, along with the Menno Simons College mandate of engaging with other traditions, prompted me and two others—a Muslim graduate of MSC, and a Jewish professor at the University of Winnipeg—to start an interfaith discussion group. We each invited a few people we knew, and promptly had a living room full of individuals interested in a deeper understanding of one another’s religious experiences. Most, but not all, are in some way associated MSC, either as teachers, students, or former students.
This group has become one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of my life as participants have shared the trauma and martyrdom stories of their respective traditions, and their personal joys and struggles of faith. We have seen similarities in the challenges that women encounter to be full participants in all our religious traditions; we have unpacked the meaning of Easter; we have been entranced by a young woman’s account of being part of the overwhelming crowds in the haj pilgrimage to Mecca; and we have probed the meanings of Zionism in our city. One member commented recently that without this group as a place to debrief her experience, she was not sure how she would have weathered the anti-Muslim attitudes she encountered following the arrest a group of Canadian Muslims on national security charges.
Seeking understanding is not only an educational endeavor, it is a spiritual journey. It has deepened and broadened my faith through tears of pain and tears of joy, and yielded enduring friendships. Recently I had the opportunity to visit a graduate of a few years ago, and meet his wife, new daughter, and his mother. He is a Muslim man of faith who had risked much as a student to confront me when he thought the college was not honoring his faith. The grace of God prevailed and that confrontation held the seed for a deepening friendship. As my wife and I sat down to dinner in his home in Israel, the family joined hands around the table and he invited me to lead in prayer. I did so with a sense of being enfolded by God’s boundless Spirit, and a deep gratitude for the student who had helped me look deeper into myself and meet God there.
Education does indeed change one, a reality for which I praise God. Seeking understanding by working from a particular faith tradition while meaningfully engaging other traditions is an exhilarating, rewarding, and sometimes disturbing undertaking. Although my occupational backyard enables such engagement, it does not happen automatically, but requires conscious effort. One does not have to be in an affiliated college environment for it to happen, but the physical context as well as the institutional culture facilitates such engagement. I am blessed to have been given these opportunities.
- “Appointments, Promotions and Continuing Contracts,” Conrad Grebel University College Policy 333.
- Other initiatives to forge a connection between church and public education include the Menno Simons Centre in Vanouver offering a residence for University of British Columbia students, and Messiah College’s program where students can opt to spend one year of studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.
- See, for example, Paul Axelrod, Values in Conflict: The University, the Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), and Tom Pocklington and Allan Tupper, No Place to Learn: Why Universities Aren’t Working (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002).
- Statistics Canada, 2001 Census http://www12.statcan.ca/english/census01/products/standard/themes/ RetrieveProductTable.cfm?Temporal=2001&PID=67772& APATH=3&GID=517770&METH=1&PTYPE=55496&THEME=56&FOCUS=0&AID=0& PLACENAME=0&PROVINCE=0&SEARCH=0&GC=0&GK=0&VID=0& VNAMEE=&VNAMEF=&FL=0&RL=0&FREE=0
- This is true not only of scholarly treatises, but of the conventional ways in which academic institutions have presented their purpose to the general public. Consider the large number of twentieth-century university crests or logos that incorporated “truth” in their institutional identity.
- Michael L. Peterson, With All Our Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2001), Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984).
- Ernest Boyer, College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 383-82.
- Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
- Ibid., 3. For a fuller discussion of the role of wisdom in shaping Mennonite postsecondary education, see Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, “The Invisible Curriculum—On Being Wisdom’s School,” in Mennonite Education in a Post-Christian World, ed. Harry Huebner (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1998).
- I Cor. 13:13 NRSV.
- Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31-33, Luke 10:27.
- John 8:32, 14:6.
- Matthew 13:14.
- Robert Benne, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with their Religious Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans, 2001), 15.
- Ibid., 6.
- For insightful elaboration of this approach see Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000) and The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998).
- Palmer, Courage to Teach, 2.
- Eph 4:14 NRSV.
- Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31-33, Luke 10:27.