Back to School: Only the Penitent Man Shall Pass

Back to School: Only the Penitent Man Shall Pass August 19, 2015

640px-Indianajones4Everything you need to know about education can be found in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This is an overstatement, of course, but not much of one. Character will define the education you receive or give and character is the theme of the last Indy film: have it and you choose wisely and live, turn out to be a Nazi or a self-serving worm and die. You might survive a school bureaucracy as a totalitarian or a grifter, but you will never be educated or be an educator. You might not rise up the hierarchy through virtue, but you will please God and best serve your fellow humans.

Choose wisely.

At the very end of the film, Dr Jones faces three challenges if he wishes to reach the Holy Grail and the first states that “only the penitent man shall pass.” Those who fail the test (literally) lose their heads. Jones recognizes that the penitent man is humble and comes to the challenge kneeling before God. More teachers (and students) have lost their minds in education by failing to kneel before God and humble themselves than from any other challenge.

We cannot learn or teach if we do not come to the material with a humble heart. Even the simplest truth can be misunderstood, misapplied, or forgotten. The humble man knows that he has used “2+2=4” badly. As he teaches (or learns this truth for the first time), the penitent educator humbles himself before the truth and with the honor of teaching a soul created in the image of God. The student is thankful to get to learn and to face the hardwon wisdom of the teacher. Together they will pass kneeling or they will not pass at all.

In my field, we see a lack of humility when we preach and do not practice. Do I tell my students a liberal education is important and then fail to read new books, gain new intellectual skills, and create beauty in my own life? Do I teach Socratically, but live in the surety that all my opinions are true? If so, I am a hypocrite and my teaching will be ineffective. I have some truths I have learned, I believe, and I keep examining, but never should I be arrogant about this understanding. If my students should learn new things, truths uncomfortable to them, I should do the same.

As a student, do we demand our teacher be prepared and yet come to class unprepared. Do we wish to be treated as a learner with the teacher and come demanding all the “educating” be done by the teacher? If we come to class with those attitudes, we are a hypocrite.

The penitent educator will not trumpet his credentials and certainly not inflate his accomplishments. The true teacher will  like my Dad who uses his education, but does not flaunt it. We do not come to impress, but to serve. The good teachers I have do not tout awards from award-mills, name drop, or inflate their CV. They are known by their works and their works follow them. In the same way, good students do not play Eustace Scrubb ready to list their grades and accomplishments at any moment. Instead, teacher and student will focus on the project and learn together. I will pick my teachers based on character proved over time and my teachers will reward students for character and learning and not “test scores.”

In short, the humble teacher and student will be exalted and teacher and student who exalt themselves will be humbled. This is a hard challenge and nobody makes it, certainly not me. This is why we must bow before God and confess our sin, taking every chance to exalt others on the team, and build consensus. We become like Jesus in washing the feet of our co-workers, our teachers, and our students.

Jesus said it best:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,a and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.c 9And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

As I go to class may I kneel before God, my students, and my co-workers in humility and so keep my head this year. Only the penitent me will pass.

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