The End of Trickle-Down Education

Last week, I taught a week-long intensive course at Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, New York, and I had a wonderful time.

At one point, I reflected on the changes that I see coming in theological (and other forms of) education.  One student typed as I spoke, and he sent me this direct quote,

“I don’t believe in the trickle down theory of knowledge anymore. That is bankrupt. That is not the way the world changes anymore. That is because there are institutions involved in communicating that knowledge in a power-oriented manner. How will knowledge be communicated? Aesthetics. Imagery; symbolism and the power of symbols. Pedagogically, we realize that people learn things in all sorts of ways. Somebody learns well by didactics, aurally, kinesthetically, visually, etc.”

In fact, I spend a lot of time on this subject, but primarily in private.  That’s because I’m often trying to convince academic/professor type people to write at a more popular level — either for one of the Emergent Village lines, or, really, anywhere.  But it’s tough, because most of them have several books in the queue with Eerdmans or Westminster/John Knox, or some university publishing house.  In fact, at Princeton, the president has made it clear to faculty that they are to publish only with university presses.

That has to do with tenure and peer review, in part, but it is also based on an academic elitism that is in death throes.  The “trickle-down” theory of education says that the brightest minds teach and write at the highest levels, influencing their own guild and the graduate students, who, in turn, influence the masses.  But it takes about one example to debunk that claim.

That’s simply not the way that knowledge and influence work anymore.  And it saddens me that some of the most brilliant professors I’ve had (particularly at Princeton) are destined to retire in anonymity, even though their ideas could radically transform the church and even the faith.

Some have been critical of the publishing partnerships that Doug and I have forged for Emergent Village, but here’s the deal: Piper writes at a popular level; MacArthur writes at a popular; even the Pope writes at a popular level.  If we want our emergent theologies to compete in the world of theological ideas, then we have to write populist theology.  And, at this point, the Internet is a powerful tool, but traditional dead-tree publishing is powerful in a different way.  Academic elites bitch and moan about the Left Behind theology that is ascendent in America, but they continue to write for Oxford University Press and are thus destined to sell about a tiny fraction of the books that LaHaye/Jenkins sell.

I was corresponding with Brian Walsh about these very ideas when he sent me the lyrics of this Bruce Cockburn song.

Bruce Cockburn, “Trickle Down”
co-written with Andy Milne

from the album, You’ve Never Seen Everything [True North Records, 2003]

Picture on magazine boardroom pop star
Pinstripe prophet of peckerhead greed
You say ‘Trust me with the money — the keys to the universe’
Trickle down will give us everything we need
 
Brand new century private penitentiary
bank vault utopia padded for the few
And it’s tumours for the masses coughing for the masses
Earphones for the masses and they all serve you

       Trickle down give /em the business
       Trickle down supposed to give us the goods
       Cups held out to catch a bit of the bounty
       Trickle down everywhere trickle down blood

What used to pass for education now looks more like ignoration
Take the people’s money and slip it to the corporation
Yellow rain golden shower pesticide firepower
Summon feudal demons of sweatshop subjugation

Workfare foul air homeless beggars everywhere
Picturephone aristocrats lounge around the pool
Captains of industry smiling beneficently
Leaking hole supertanker ship of fools

       Trickle down give me the business
       Trickle down supposed to give us the goods
       Cups held out to catch a bit of the bounty
       Trickle down everywhere trickle down blood

Take over takedown big bucks shakedown
Schoolyard pusher offer anything-for-profit
First got to privatize then you get to piratize
Hooked on avarice- how do we get off it?

       Trickle down give me the business
       Trickle down supposed to give us the goods
       Cups held out to catch a bit of the bounty
       Trickle down everywhere trickle down blood

       Trickle down give me the business
       Trickle down supposed to give us the goods
       Cups held out to catch a bit of the bounty
       Trickle down everywhere trickle down blood

UPDATE: HarperCollins is pioneering an open-source, internet vetting of submitted manuscripts HERE.


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