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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 112–113 

Book Review

Teaching that Transforms: Why Anabaptist-Mennonite Education Matters

John D. Roth. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2011. 235 pages.

Reviewed by Elmer J. Thiessen

Mennonite schools are in the midst of significant changes, in part because the Anabaptist-Mennonite (henceforth A/M) tradition in North America is itself in the middle of a profound transformation (19, 198). A commitment to missional outreach on the part of many Mennonite educational institutions combined with a competitive educational marketplace has led to a situation in which many students have no direct connection to the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition (60, 202), thus leading to challenges regarding the identity of the schools in question. These challenges, together with the larger public debate over educational goals and assessment, prompted leaders of the Mennonite Educational Agency, representing more than forty schools, to commission John Roth, history professor at Goshen College, to write a book exploring the essentials of an A/M philosophy of education, in hopes that “it might stimulate a broad and constructive conversation among congregations, parents, board members, and teachers” (22).

Roth begins with an excellent overview of the history of education in the Western tradition and the emergence of Mennonite schools in North America in the twentieth century. He then identifies the Incarnation as the theological starting point and foundation for an A/M education (ch. 2). This focus on the Word made flesh in turn shapes the ethos and pedagogical practices of A/M schools (ch. 3). The ethos or hidden curriculum of A/M schools ought to be characterized by a posture of worship permeating all activities in the school. Attentiveness to telling past and present stories of A/M history and institutions should be fostered along with a focus on developing a healthy community where conflict is addressed in peace-creating ways. Teachers will model pedagogical dispositions of curiosity, reason, joy, patience, and love, which in turn should nurture similar dispositions in students.

Roth is very much aware of the difficulties in measuring the outcomes of education (ch. 4) and warns against limiting such evaluation to the measurement of test scores, competencies, and skills (130). Nonetheless, Roth proposes six goals of church-based education, using the six human senses as a template, an approach which seems forced. What we want in our students are habits of vision (being able to see a larger pattern of meaning), touch (embodied learning), taste (skills of discernment), hearing (ability to listen to others and to God), voice (discovering one’s unique vocation), and smell (attuned to the presence of God).

There is much to commend this book. It is clear and readable, with a good number of inspiring stories. A personal highlight is the section on the importance of identity. Mennonite schools, Roth argues, struggle with what might be called an “embarrassment of particularity” (68). {113} They worry that a stress on a distinctive theological identity might sound arrogant and inhospitable. Roth argues convincingly that particularity is inescapable. We grow up in a particular home, and within a particular community, and we should not be embarrassed about this, but rather see our particularity as a place from which to grow, and from which to engage in mission.

However, I have some concerns about Roth’s attempt to define the distinctiveness of A/M education. I quite agree with Roth’s emphasis on the incarnation and a Christ-centered education, but this emphasis is surely not unique to Mennonites. At times, Roth also makes the doctrine of the incarnation carry more weight than it can bear. I fail to see how curiosity, joy, and patience grow out of the incarnation (112, 115, 116). Further, it is unclear that these pedagogical virtues are uniquely Mennonite. Indeed, Roth admits the same, and at times resorts to talking about Christians or Christian education generally, rather than A/M education (106, 99, 111, 130). Perhaps when it comes to education, Christian distinctives built on the central Christian doctrines are more important than A/M distinctives.

To his credit, Roth does not ignore these problems when he addresses some of the tough practical objections often raised about A/M schools in our churches (ch. 5). The book concludes with an inspiring look at the future challenges facing A/M schools. Though this book is not conversant with the professional disciplines of educational philosophy, pedagogy, and curriculum theory, it should nonetheless stimulate a much-needed discussion about education in A/M circles.

Elmer J. Thiessen is retired from Tyndale University College, Toronto, Ontario, where he was Research Professor of Education. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ontario.

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