Does Education Have a Future?

(a classroom in Rwanda).

I was listening to a lengthy presentation on the future of education as we know it. It was depressing. Very depressing. The presentation was on the changing face of education, but really it should have been called the growing facelessness of education– education without classrooms, without teachers, without personal interaction, without any incarnational qualities. Just a data transfer by computer and tests, endless small tests. And oh yes—- cheap cost, and sometimes it’s even free.

Americans are suckers for cheap or free. Often they do not even ask the question of whether it is true or not, they just want to know how much the information costs. Cost, not knowledge, not truth, not personal action is the real bottom line in education these days. And it is driving education in all sorts of bad directions. It’s also driving real teachers to drink.

So we listened to a discussion of MOOCs and LOOCs. If you are unfamiliar with those terms you may want to get familiar with them. The former refers to massive online courses offered basically without teachers. It’s just you, and your computer and data. Occasionally you may have access to a ‘coach’. On this model teachers are not expected to actually teach, model good behavior, develop a relationship with students…. nope. It’s a different pedagogy where all the heavy lifting has to be done by the students. Teachers are like coaches who stand on the sidelines, or in some models more like cheerleaders on the side lines because they don’t even call the plays!

And then of course there are all these ‘online’ universities, some of which have no teachers at all! (I kid thee not. Check out the variables with the University of Southern New Hampshire, or Western Governor’s University). And what is driving the train is of course cost. These sorts of online ‘institutions’, I will not call them universities, because they are not, come into states all over the country offer ‘accredited’ online courses for a fraction of the cost of actual live education in a classroom somewhere, and they are putting small colleges out of business, and large universities into a panic. And why are they doing this— you may ask? To make money of course. Not, primarily, to educate people, but to make money, whereas almost all traditional public universities are non-profits (did you know that?).

And the net effect is mostly not good. Mostly we are dealing with considerably dumbed down, watered down content. Only institutions that are offering a blend of both online and on campus courses, and carefully monitoring what they do online so content at least is not watered down, are doing this reasonably well.

The speaker was asked– ‘Are there any forms of education which should not be done strictly online?’ He said “Well I don’t want my airplane pilot to have been trained strictly online, nor my brain surgeon!’ That’s it? Really?

I wanted to ask— ‘What about education that could save somebody’s soul or actually offer them everlasting life?’ Do you really think that the most personal thing of all is adequately offered in such an impersonal way? I think not.

Now I have to say I am not totally opposed to online education, indeed I teach a few courses for Asbury online. It is not an adequate substitute for face to face incarnational education, but it can be a useful supplement or second best. What I do is: 1) have video segments of actual lectures; 2) interact with students every week online when they discuss the questions for the week; 3) grade their tests and papers and give comments and guidance. etc. This is not a perfect system, but as a better than nothing system it is o.k.

But here is the deal. We are training people to be pastors and teachers. This is not simply about a data transfer at all. We need to see how they interact with other people, do they have people skills? We need to see whether they have gifts and graces that tests can never reveal. It is not just about gaining knowledge or skills, it’s about becoming stewards of the mysteries of God.

Furthermore, I do not believe in a model of pedagogy that says ‘the best education is when the ignorant teach themselves’. Nope. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for people being self-starters and self-helpers when it comes to education.

But at the end of the day when you are ignorant about something: 1) you do not have the critical chops to know what sources to use; 2) you cannot tell good information from bad information; 3) you do not know if you have learned something properly or not—— unless you have a teacher, a wise teacher who does know these things and can give guidance. At the end of the day there is a major problem with applying an analytical model of data transfer to a subject in the humanities, including theology or Biblical studies. Why? Because the subject itself is not finally reducible to things that can be measured by numbers. How can you measure grace, or love, or hope, or salvation?

There is an old adage— you get what you pay for. This is normally, though not always, the case with education. If you are being offered education for little or no cost with little or no sacrifice required, with little or no interaction with actual teachers, with little or no travel except from the bedroom to your computer desk, then you should expect to get little or nothing out of it…. other than a pile of data and who knows whether that information is even knowledge, never mind godly wisdom?

Here’s how a great American/British poet T.S. Eliot put the matter in the opening from his classic poem Choruses from the Rock–

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

  • doughibbard

    Dr. Witherington,

    Having done seminary in-person and now trying to finish up via a distance learning option–

    I agree. Something is missing in the online-only structures. I’d love to see an extended conversation and examination of how to rethink theological training in a way that recognizes the shortcomings of both the “move off to a distant seminary” model and the shortcomings of the “do it all from home” concept and finds a system to train well those who will preach the Word. Too many of the discussions I’ve heard have come from a strong spin: seminary professors sounding defensive, detached learning people sounding offensive.

    But there is a tremendous inadequacy in doing this completely without community. I almost think we could do all the “academic” part online if we still met with wiser folks and fellow learners a few times a week for a few hours to help it gel in our heads.

    Doug HIbbard

  • Richard H

    In my teaching experience one of the questions I’m continually tempted to ask is “Do you understand?” I’ve learned, however, that the question is almost useless, since so often students are sure they understand when they don’t. It requires personal interaction and attention to discern this. Well, if one were teaching a subject like math I suppose the understanding process could be more easily automated.

  • Oscarspicks

    Is this post solely about seminary training? If so, then I can understand the point being made. But if it is about the wider world of higher learning then this whole conversation will change. Cost, personal contact, learning critical thinking, all of these things change when put on the larger stage. What many modern mega universities are producing is a degree for a price, a steep price, which each year is made more inaccessible to the average person without taking out life changing loans and financial assistance.

    When you add in the governmental push for EVERYONE to enter higher education then you actually promote price inflation while, at the same time, diminishing the degree’s actual value.

    A complex issue, but keep seminary training small, personal and social.

  • archidude

    Hey Dr B
    I agree with Oscar and Doug. I grew up in a tradition (holiness, pentecostal, word-of-faith) that valued personal ministry and proper behavior but had little patience for the academic (those with PhDs were known as post-hole-diggers).

    During and after earning my degrees in Special Ed (UNM), I was made aware of the amazing world of Biblical Studies. As a teacher (and pastor/worship leader), I find no accessibility to graduate level course work in the field. The cost is prohibitive. I continue to ask the Father for a way to be trained, perhaps in the future; but that is not my portion right now. My only real option is books. I can’t really attend the SBL anymore, regional meetings are outside New Mexico, and the online option seems weak without a mentor to guide through the process – so many voices. I don’t want to teach myself, but what option do I have? I barely get to see my heroes anymore, but I can look for you all online.

    I always scan for video and articles by you, Wright, Hays, Bauckham, Keener, Enns, Bird, Waltke, Walton, Watts and a host of others who share the light of Christ through wisdom and research or asking hard questions. I sift through y’all’s data, trying to understand the issues, and then ask myself, “is this the way forward?” If I find someone with theological training in Albuquerque, we go for coffee (or a burger and beer). I think I may have even found my voice on some issues. (of course there is always the danger of my wife running out of patience with my book purchases – but that is another issue)

    There has to be lots of folks out there like me. Higher education systems seem designed for a certain elite, I’m just not in that crew. But we watch and ponder and hope for those blessed times when we can engage the issues with others who understand the language of doctrine and bible. If anyone can help find solutions , I’m confident you can. Please consider, we are not at Asbury (or other amazing schools) not because a lack of desire but for a lack of resources. blessings gary

  • BenW3

    Hi Archdude: I am certainly not unsympathetic to your plight but we have plenty of good online courses you can take right there where you are. We also give away lots of resources for free through Seedbed on the Asbury website. There are also whole courses out there through Bill Mounce’s online free stuff which I have done one of. In short, there are more solutions than just more books.

    To Oscar I would just say that yes, I am mainly talking about seminary training, but it also has a direct application to courses in the humanities at the undergraduate level as well– you simply cannot do justice to things like art, dance, music, Shakespeare and I could go on, outside of a real incarnational setting with real people in real time. You just cannot. And I would add that ‘the cost of the education’ while a very important issue of course, is a collateral issue, not the main issue at all. I am all for financial responsibility, but there is nothing wrong with incurring a certain amount of student loan debt and paying back gradually. Most people do. When it gets to be exorbitant that is another matter. Then the issue is not cost vs. free, but the prohibitive size of the cost. In general, I agree with the old adage that ignorance in the long run is far more expensive than the cost of good education


  • Oscarspicks

    I can agree on one point, that is, that if one is not set on getting the letters after their title then, yes, there are a lot of resources that can be found. But if your job description REQUIRES those letters then you are just plain out of luck. Unless, that is, your income is larger than the average ministry worker’s salary. You need a supporting, and WORKING, spouse as well as a rock hard DRIVE to reach that goal.

    If you have children then they will suffer from your absence. You may be IN the home, but you will definitely be unavailable as much as most parents. I got half way to MY goal when my daughter arrived, but I discovered that my wife needed more support than I was able to give her while going to school at night. I quit because it was the right thing to do.

    I KNOW whereof I speak because I also have friends who had to wait till their kids were grown and gone before they could get that precious PhD, MA or Master of Divinity.

    If you do not do it straight out of high school and on into your mid to late twenties you will be singing “To Dream the Impossible Dream…” as your theme song.

    The REAL question is ” Do you really NEED those letters to serve in the capacity that you feel God is calling you to?”

  • BenW3

    Oscar I would say if you are going to be a college or seminary teacher, yes you need the degrees. If you are going to be a minister or a teaching pastor, you need the knowledge but not necessarily the degrees. Good for you for looking after your family. BW3

  • SamRocha

    Interesting post. I, too, worry about the place of the teacher today. You may find my recent book on philosophy and education interesting and relevant: