On Education: What My Nana Taught Me

My Nana was a wise woman, but she attended little formal school: at most, eight years. She continued to grow culturally and intellectually, evidenced by her songs and poetry, but she had to do so with the resources she could find.

When I went to college, Nana said an insightful thing to me: “Don’t forget the folks.” By this she meant the “plain people”—the men and women who made my education possible.

Nana did not resent my education or fear it, but she worried what it might do to me. Her experience had taught her to value college, but also to know that it is not everything. She saw Papaw’s friends at the plant claim abilities far beyond their actual skill or fail to solve problems that he could solve with eight years of schooling. She also saw young men and women puff up with their credentials and come to despise their parents’ wisdom.

Not all knowledge, after all, can come to a man through books or academic mentoring.

Nana meant more than that, of course. She wanted my education to be useful to me, but also to the community. She was reminding me that God had created three essential institutions: family, state and church. There was a place for clubs, schools and other social institutions that could aid those three basic cultural institutions, but they did not exist by necessity.

As a college student, a graduate student and now as provost of a University, I remind myself daily that I exist to serve the family, state and church. The family wants me to help in the education of their members, but they retain the power to decide what that education should be. The state of Texas and the United States subsidize this education to make better citizens and produce patriots. The Church of our Lord Jesus Christ created the university because it needed leaders and workers for service.

The family, the state and the church can learn from the university, but we exist to serve them, not for them to serve us. This lesson by itself has often challenged and changed my perspective.

Education is of and for persons, and it is not about ideals abstracted away from life. Persons created in God’s image will never fit any program or plan perfectly. People live, in part, because of tension. We are between what we should be and what we should not become, what we will be and what we were. People are not simple, yet educational ideals must be incarnated in people. Recognizing this, a good school or a great educator will always shape an educational agenda around the individual. Programs are for people; people are not for programs.

This is to state a fact, but from a new angle.

Part of the tension within educational programs is due to the jobs that family, church and state have given to them: intellectual, job, leadership and religious training. The priority or emphasis we give to each “job” will determine the success of our educational ventures. Getting these priorities wrong creates a school without meaning or purpose to one or more of its founders: the family, the church, and the state.

Intellectual Training

Nana’s intellectual training mostly took place in church, in society, and in her home. She was part of a generation that successfully faced the Great Depression, Hitler and Stalin, but with each success, aspects of culture became more specialized. At the same time, Nana was born in a nation still grappling with misogyny, and in which her education—especially specialized education–was undervalued simply because of her gender.

Nana grappled with intellectual tensions as best she could, but she was aware school and mentors could have helped. She valued education, because she knew it would have presented her with options that she could not invent herself.

What she did do was amazing, and no school cramped her authenticity and creativity. But without the aid of guided intellectual training, she also relived old mistakes and the danger of answers already known to be failures.

Job Training

Family, church, and country delegate some intellectual training to schools, because the possibilities in an educational institution are so many. But while this training would be enough for sixteen years of school, the man with a complete worldview also has to eat.

So schools also teach men to get their daily bread.

Nana learned her job by doing her job, and this is commendable. In a specialized society, however, not all jobs can be learned in this manner. Nobody wants the heart surgeon to learn by trial and error.

As an alternative, we turn to books. Reading is a kind of “virtual reality.” As Plato says in Phaedrus, books are dangerous, but they do allow experiencing an emotion at second hand. This is not perfect, but it does prevent many dangers. A romantic can learn and train his heart by reading Wuthering Heights without having to live on wuthering heights. The man who makes Heathcliff’s mistakes rarely survives long enough to learn from them.

Increasingly, we overlook the fact that job training can get in the way of this moral training. I knew a professor who was dissatisfied that one of his top student’s religious and moral education was reducing the percentage rank of the student’s “A”.

Do we wish to train a physicist with a “high A” at the cost of his happiness?

Job training as a mandate in high school and college does prevent a weird abstraction from the world from developing. We must earn a wage and so we cannot forget the world as it is in our learning what it should be. At the same time, we must be aware of the tension between moral and job training, and take care to keep this tension in place.

Leadership Training

Nana was a leader, but one who got her lessons from “the school of hard knocks.” All will matriculate there, but without outside help, the Darwinian methods used eliminate too much potential.

Those that survive were fit, but only fit in the sense of being fortunate. Nana’s generation was ravaged by typhoid, but also by an epidemic of wasted chances. Too many of her peers wandered off into intellectual dead ends and so ruined their lives.

Much of this waste is avoidable. Through intellectual mentoring, an individual can learn from others’ past mistakes and accrued wisdom. True, mentoring leaders requires a great deal of time and attention, but it pays a family, church, and state to try. We create leaders by allowing individuals the opportunity to be guided by and to imitate existing leaders.

Religious Training

Most schools began with the expectation of religious training. Nana’s public school did not endorse religion when it dismissed classes during the Adventist, Baptist, and Methodist revivals. Nor did it show divisive favoritism, because Christianity unifies education.

We take this for granted. John Locke, our Founding American Intellect, John Milton, Rembrandt, and J.S. Bach all shared a common Faith. This Faith told Americans what should be while science told us what is. Because “ought” can never be derived directly from “is”, religious education is essential. Christianity, robust Christianity, gives intellectual activity meaning, ennobles all jobs worth doing, and is a pillar of fire to lead our leaders.

If a college does all five of these jobs, then how should it proceed?

Five Ways Forward

First, we must not try to resolve the tension. At the moment, the early chapters of Genesis and mainstream science are not easy to put together. In earlier times, the doctrine that men and women were created in God’s image contradicted the best secular thought.

In a broken world, these tensions will always exist. Just as we cannot read plain text well, we constantly struggle to see the world as it is. We bring bias and assumptions to reading and seeing.

While sin is partially to blame, it is not merely sin that brings tension. Tension is good and would exist for people in an unbroken world. People as people don’t know everything and never will. It is the delight of being human to discover new things and imagine answers, even wrong answers. Learning is a pleasure for us and it is not a pleasure God will ever take.

Being wrong about the world is not morally wicked unless we cling to errors of judgment irrationally. Being wrong can be helpful! Often, it is part of the “growing up” for a man or woman created in God’s image. The Lord Jesus Himself developed when He “grew” and “waxed strong.” His development did not necessitate sin. Learning simply implies ignorance in His human nature that fell away as He grew into the reality of His nature.

Second, we must allow any question, but not every answer. This is a hard balance for the religious school. However, sincere questions or the desire for clarification is never harmful.

There is a sophistic type who “questions” only because he wants provoke what he believes is the “answer” that we don’t want to hear. This type will ask only because it is “unsafe” in a creedal or denominational school to hold the opinions that he does. But feigning Socrates to cover for cowardice to act on conviction dishonors the dialectic for which Socrates died.

This person should start a community built around their actual values. Instead, he will infiltrate and undermine the work of others by forcing them to waste valuable time discussing issues that the community has (otherwise) settled. The denominational school is a place that can work out the implications for the family, church, and state if the denomination is correct. To be forced to constantly revisit first principles is a distraction for that school, though it might be of interest in a different sort of school.

Third, we must recognize that nothing is totally evil, but that nothing in this life is totally good, not even my particular copy of Sacred Scriptures! God created everything good. Saint Augustine was right that nothing that exists could therefore be totally evil: mere existence echoes God and His nature. But neither is anything totally good. Merely touching the perfect would not heal a broken man starting with an unbroken text or world. He more likely will smash the mirror that would reveal his nature.

The fact that nothing in this life can be experienced as totally bad or totally good means that humility must be the rule in all our proclamations. We think we have it right, but we know we have some of it, hopefully a very small something, wrong.
When my great-great-grandfather brought the message of Jesus’s second coming to West Virginia, he was right. Jesus was and is coming soon. Jesus was at work in that time, and the End for each person truly was nigh. Now, one hundred years later, every person that heard my great-great-grandfather preach is gone and awaiting the judgment.

He was right, but he was also wrong. He thought that Christ would come in his lifetime. So He did at the moment of the preacher’s death, but not in the manner expected. Yet the preacher’s mistakes were less than the mistakes of his contemporaries, who envisioned Utopia in the growth of an omnipotent state and religious persecution.

We can take from this story that the goal of a Christian educational program must be to make our errors as harmless as possible and our truths as plain as possible.

Fourth, we must not be afraid to form new organizations to allow exploration of ideas or techniques in education. Coming to Houston Baptist University, a school exactly my age, I have had the honor of meeting the founding generation. I am trying to add to their vision, not hijack it. After all, if my beliefs were incompatible with their beliefs, then I could start my own school.

We are too loath to split, because we confuse separation with isolation, and overlook that we can separate and cooperate. The pro-life movement is the typical model of this cooperation: pro-life groups cooperate where common ground exists, but keep their own groups where competition exists.

Similarly, I am not a Roman Catholic, but I can work with a Roman Catholic colleague. Neither my beliefs nor those of Rome would be improved if I worked as mole from within the Roman Catholic Church instead of openly proclaiming my differences and allowing the argument to proceed.

Finally, orthodoxy is a door and not a wall. A creedal or denominational school should contain scholars who mostly have settled the issues involved in the creeds of the school. They affirm these creeds, and their affirmation allows further and deeper questions within the set perimeters.

Examples of this internal expansion are abundant: All Christians affirm that Jesus is fully God and fully man, but what are the implications for this affirmation to psychology? We also affirm that God is creator, but what does that mean for biology?

Nana did not want me to forget the people in the pew. She wanted my work to (as much as possible) be translated for the enrichment of the life of all God’s people. It is true, painfully true, that my thoughts on Plato’s view of human psychology are not of gripping interest to many, but this only increases my desire to explain it in straightforward language. Family, church and state pay me to think about such things because the demand to accessibly explain what I am thinking clarifies my thoughts, preventing me from escaping into jargon instead of building new ideas.

Nana died in the hope that her next waking thought would be with Jesus. Her sleep would wake to an eternity spent loving her Savior. Love motivated all that she did, and that love inspires me still. The love that moves the Heavens is the love that can move me. Love is never self-satisfied or certain, but love is hopeful and full of wonder, not toxic skepticism.

It turns out that Nana taught me more than any professor.