Education,  Worldview

American Confucionism?

A class changes your life. Ideas gained from reading, discussing and listening to lectures usually transforms, to some degree, how one sees and lives in the world. This fact is fast becoming the aim of education. Whereas modernity stressed the objective analysis of differing theories, new education systems will, perhaps, stress what has, up to now, only been implicit – that theory should shape life.

An example of such an educator is Michael Puett, professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, who now teaches the third most popular course at the university. Puett’s course, “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory,” is aimed explicitly at shaping students’ worldviews. The aim of the class is, “to help 18- and 19-year-olds who are struggling to find their place in the world figure out how to be good human beings; how to create a good society; how to have a flourishing life.” Apparently it is working. One former student remarked, “The class absolutely changed my perspective of myself, my peers, and of the way I view the world.” These kinds of classes are explicitly practical, leading to application of philosophy to life. The article concludes:

At the end of each class, Puett challenges his students to put the Chinese philosophy they have been learning into tangible practice in their everyday lives. “The Chinese philosophers we read taught that the way to really change lives for the better is from a very mundane level, changing the way people experience and respond to the world, so what I try to do is to hit them at that level. I’m not trying to give my students really big advice about what to do with their lives. I just want to give them a sense of what they can do daily to transform how they live.” Their assignments are small ones: to first observe how they feel when they smile at a stranger, hold open a door for someone, engage in a hobby. He asks them to take note of what happens next: how every action, gesture, or word dramatically affects how others respond to them. Then Puett asks them to pursue more of the activities that they notice arouse positive, excited feelings. In their papers and discussion sections students discuss what it means to live life according to the teachings of these philosophers.

The Chinese philosophy in question focuses on noticing the details of life and ones feelings. Puett teaches that decision making is more about living in accord with positive feeling than rational thought. The change in approach is that Puett teaches directly from text to life; he focuses on application. Puett’s claim is that the class will change your life. If this sounds familiar, it should. For it sounds much more like the claim made on some church billboards and commercials for Tony Robbins. And if this is to become the new norm for educators, then teachers will have to be more like preachers or motivational speakers. Tyler Cohen writes:

The professor is… a motivator first and foremost. Let’s hire good motivators. Let’s teach our professors how to motivate. Let’s judge them on that basis. Let’s treat professors more like athletics coaches, personal therapists, and preachers, because that is what they will evolve to be.

There is something to be said for the implicit rejection of the modern project, the always-one-step-removed-overly-rational learning environment. It is also a recognition of an inevitable fact – that learning shapes lives. Such was the idea in ancient education. Learning was shaping of life and society; teachers were life guides. 
However, whatever quibble one might have with the methodology employed here, the question is: which theories are good ones and which ones are bad. Merely having a pedagogy based on application to life is shallow without a critical eye as to what one ought to apply to life. A vacuous philosophy remains vacuous no matter how well it is followed. 
And herein lies our cultural conundrum – we have already abandoned any measure by which to determine what theory is good and what is bad. Modernism rejected institutional and religious authority and postmodernism rejected the possibility of finding and agreeing on the truth through human reason. And without such standards any theory is as good as another. 
In its place we have attempted to form a behavioral contract – any idea is fair game as long as those interacting with the idea behave in a tolerant, non-judgmental way, accepting of all ideas. If we can’t argue about ideas (since there is no way to tell which are good and which are bad), then we ought to tolerate them all. And, if what’s left is everything, then the aim of learning ideas is to learn theories well, apply them and act in accord with them. 
This impulse bleeds into the Christian context as well. It is found in the discomfort with statements of faith, doctrinal propositions used as the basis for teaching and behavior. One writer in a comments section of a recent post by Peter Enns (famed Adam and Eve denier who is somewhat alienated from his former evangelical community due to a denial of a statement of faith) wrote: 

I sometimes wonder if we would be better off if we just did away with these statements of faith and instead substituted something more like a “statement of behavior” that would articulate how we will treat one another… And maybe statements of faith would be a lot better if they included as a last point something like this: “In faith, we will be willing to revise and update all of the above should the Spirit of Truth guide us as a community into new ways of understanding.” 🙂 Wouldn’t that put a beautiful twist on these “statements of faith”?

Such sentiment amounts to a dilemma: If you have to choose between being kind and being right, choose being kind and you will always be right. Such a behavioral commitment implicitly includes a denial of a standard for thought and introduces a new standard by which to determine any oughtness that might have been lost. The standard is the lack of critical analysis of a given theory. The adaptive ability of the student is held in high regard, his ability to reason with the text, to think in accord with it, is the way to gain a higher grade. If the student reasons against the text, he will be deficient in applying it and, if the class grades by its aims, will probably fail. 
For Christians whose minds and lives are shaped by scripture, it has long been apparent that the modernist project of objective human reasoning contains a fatal flaw. That human reason devoid of authoritative judgement cannot produce agreement among humans. Consequently, educators’ attempts to move on from this mistake are surely to be praised. And it is also positive to see learning in a way that is tansformative to life, that life should be shaped by the text. And therein lies the conflict. It is not any old text that will do. 
In order to make the point, let me expose the jarring that the Christian has with the ideas above. Let me speak unfiltered, softening nothing for your ears: Scripture is not mere text to be analysed, but script to be lived by. And the reason we can do this is not because we have arbitrarily chosen scripture as our script, but because scripture is authoritative for life. Scripture is God’s text and therefore imperial in its content. Yes, written in historical context, but in God’s historical context for God’s people in all historical contexts. You can see the difference. The demand for God’s text to be lived in context comes with a much stronger weight than some ideal of practice. Confucius is not the creator of the universe, nor is he the judge of the universe. Just because you live your life in accord with a teaching does not excuse you from judgement. “I was consistent” is no excuse if it is being consistently hostile to God and his word. 
Such ideas are at home neither in the modernist nor the postmodern academy. They are decidedly irreconcilable, in principle and in practice, with either ideal. One’s study of scripture is a study of God’s word on all matters of creed and conduct, principle and practice, belief and action. Our failure to accord with God’s thought is not merely to have picked an alternative class, but to have thought and acted in unbelief. And unbelief, if consistently held, is unforgivable punishable with death, eternal separation from God. There is no escape from such judgement no matter how reasonable one thinks one has been or how nice and non-judgmental one has been. 
Yet the content of scripture is what counts. It tells  us how we came to be in such a state, why sin reigns in our bodies, our lusts running over to offences. It tells of our inability to love God, our irremovable hostility to our Maker. And it also reveals God in Christ, one who lives his own word consistently, applies it in every way righteously. And it is to him we will turn in our life-papers at the end of our life-semesters. And we will all fall short, but for the grace of God in Christ. And yet this Christ, the one to whom we will report, is the same Christ who stooped to death on our behalf, to save us, make us new, and provide the reason and the will to love one another. 
In Christ is the key to all learning, for in him all things come together, they make sense. Our empty, deceitful, philosophies come to naught in the face of Christ. This is not merely the authority of the expert, one who happens to know better, it is the authority of the King of kings, Lord of lords, the one in whom and for whom all things were created. 
So, if you might forgive the tone of the above, you can see the irreconcilable nature of the Christian faith with many theories in learning. It is profound because the Christian worldview is one in which being kind and being right are no longer a dilemma. Truth can be harsh, bring judgement, convict of sin and, at the same time, be deeply loving, compassionate and have the goal of good for the student. Christian education contains this not as tension, but as coherent whole provided in the gospel which reconciles mankind to God. Right belief is what makes kindness meaningful, what makes it both reasonable and feel good. For it is both belief and passion, truth and love, right and felt that comes together in Christ.

I suspect discussion in education will continue to oscillate between criticism and tolerance for many years ahead, always attempting to bring them together. It will be interesting to see how Christian education fairs and how non-Christian universities treat their Christian seminaries. It will also be a test for Christians in higher education to see how we respond to the latest moves and theories in contemporary education. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.