I’m reading James KA Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom as part of an online book club hosted by the university where I serve as adjunct instructor. I started the book today over lunch, and this quote struck me.
An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices. And this will be true even of the most instrumentalist, pragmatic programs of education (such as those that now tend to dominate public schools and universities bent on churning out “skilled workers”) that see their task primarily as providing information, because behind this is a vision of the good life that understands human flourishing primarily in terms of production and consumption.
One, I want to push back on Smith’s objection to education meant to produce “skilled workers”. I have a feeling Smith is objecting primarily to university degrees that emphasize career skills at the expense of the humanities, but when I think of “skilled workers,” I think of the trades and vocational school. It’s worth noting that if education is indeed material and embodied, there are few greater opportunities for being material and embodied than the trades, and as Matthew Crawford has written, the materiality of the trades may be good for the soul. Vocational training may be closer to Smith’s ideal education than he assumes.
Relatedly, I’m not sure what Smith’s concern with being a “producer” is. After all, we human beings are created in the image of God, to be creators ourselves. Surely in producing things, especially within the “skilled trades,” allows us to fulfill our created mandate? (The emphasis on finding fulfillment through consumption remains a problem, of course.)
Two, I notice that Smith sets up a contrast between education which seeks primarily to “provide information” and one that seeks to stoke a hunger for “a particular version of the good life.” I think this contrast explains both the reason that so many students are reluctant to take my courses, especially Introduction to Literature, and the importance of that course.
Students are reluctant because they see education primarily as a pathway to a career. They want to get to that career as quickly as possible, and they can’t see what possible relevance a course in literature or writing has to that career. After all, when they graduate and become an accountant or a local business owner or a second grade teacher, they’re hardly going to be called on to interpret the symbolism in T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” So they CLEP out of my course, assuring me all the while that it’s not personal, they just want to focus on more “important” classes, where “important” means “informational”.
But if education is about more than information, then the importance of a literature class is clearer. Stories speak to the heart; they sharpen and shape what we hunger for. I’ve long urged my students to take my course as a kind of “applied theology,” a chance to wrestle with what they believe and think to be true in the context of fictive worlds. But perhaps a more accurate, and compelling, reason to take my course is that unlike their other courses, literature does not only tell them what is good and true; it whets their appetite for goodness and truth. Perhaps (and this is only a guess) the beauty of poetry and the tension of the stories we read are soul-shaping in a way more powerful than even students’ theology courses.
This brings me to my final observation about this quotation, that as an instructor it’s important for me to think about not only what I’m teaching but how I’m teaching it. C.S. Lewis once compared his love of writing to the love that a cook feels when pouring hot jam into clean jam jars; there is delight, he said, in seeing his ideas take shape.
I’ve been noticing lately that when my students have a hard copy of the text in front of them, they’re able to speak about it in greater detail; they make more insightful observations. This speaks, I think, to the importance of embodiment and physicality in class, and so the question remains: What am I doing, when I set up my classes, to help bring what my students’ are learning out of their heads and into the real world? This is a particularly difficult question in terms of the online course I teach, and I have no easy answers.
But it remains important that I, as a teacher, guide not only my students’ intellectual development but their development as whole persons, who both know and hunger for Wisdom.