The best education experiences I ever had

In the early 1960s, there was a test pilot in the Air Force whose career seemed to be sluggish.  He thought himself apathetic.  He thought himself lazy.  He thought he lacked ambition.

One day, however, he settled into the cockpit of P-51.  It was a fighter plane.  From the moment of starting the engines, the young pilot could feel the surge of power in this machine unlike anything he had ever known.  On takeoff, he was speechless.  The plane soared–HE soared.  He spent so much time simply absorbing the new feeling that he forgot to put up his landing gear until he was well up in the sky.

From that day on, he felt afire for anything faster.

What do you know?  He wasn’t apathetic.   He wasn’t lazy.  He had merely been uninspired!

Career advances occurred quickly.  By the time most of us heard his name, he was the 8th person to walk on the Moon.  Jim Irwin.

For fellow Pittsburghers, we may take pride that Jim Irwin was born in our city.  His father was a steam-fitter at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in the Oakland neighborhood near where the University of Pittsburgh is located.  But the family moved to Utah while the son was young.  He did most of his schooling in Salt Lake City.

What makes me think of Jim Irwin is that I’ve been thinking about schools in America.   I suspect that most American students–at all levels–from elementary to college–had the same approach towards education that I myself had.

It was a matter of playing defense!  What do I have to do to NOT get a bad grade?  For the more ambitious, what do I have to do in order to GET a good grade?

This pattern was more a matter of “playing” at education rather than really GETTING an education.  The pattern finally broke when I was a divinity student in seminary.  I was by that time 35 years old!  That’s a long time before really feeling inspired about taking classes.

I attended the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  There WERE courses that I was required to take for which I employed the same old mindset:  What did I HAVE to do?

Three courses, however, were for me–it!  THIS was education!  I was learning.  I was EAGER for learning.  I was–inspired!

The first course that I felt this change towards was–of all things–Calvin’s Institutes.  The professor was the Rev. Dr. Charles Partee, whose specialty WAS Calvin.  Dr. Partee also had a special knowledge of the ways of seminary students.  The first day of class, he said to us, “If I give you a paper to do, most of you will cut half of the classes.”

He was right.  We would spend more time in the library, researching our topic for the term paper, than attending the class.  We didn’t have time for BOTH.  Because most students were working full-time jobs, in addition to raising a family, in addition to having other courses and other papers.  By semester’s end, it was common for a student to be scrambling to write two term papers in the final weekend.

Dr. Partee knew the students.  He also had an idea about education.  He thought grades killed education.  In this way, too, he knew well the student mindset.  Having to get grades meant–“playing defense.”  What do I HAVE to do?

So, here’s what Dr. Partee told us that first day.  We would not be assigned a paper.  This way, we would show up for class.  Furthermore, our ONLY requirement was:  Read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion–and find ten contradictions in Calvin’s writing!  This way, we would read thoroughly, with a questioning mindset, looking for things that even Calvin himself missed!

The final “paper”?  Simply turn in a list of ten questions showing inconsistencies in Calvin’s tome.

That was one of the best courses I ever took.  I learned because I was seeking eagerly.

This pattern became the key to the two other courses at seminary that were for me–it.

One class concerned a subject that I didn’t think I even had any interest in:  Traditions of meditation.

It had a fancier title than that.  But that’s what it was about–different styles of mediation, from the Desert Fathers to modern liturgies.  The course was taught by a very insightful professor, Dr. Martha Robbins.

She was insightful in that she knew that these meditation techniques would NOT work for some students–like me!

The ancient meditations of the hermits and the Medieval meditations of the monks and the modern meditations like Taize–NONE of it did anything for me.  Because the problem that I was contending with at the time did not entail needing time alone nor time in quiet.  Rather, being alone was my PROBLEM!.  I didn’t know at the time but I was stuck in a major funk.  I was going through a depression.

Depression is very isolating.  You think that the thoughts haunting your life are specific to YOU, thoughts of put-downs and accusation.  Your sins seem worse than anybody else’s.  Your failures seem worse than anybody else’s.  Your incidents of humiliation, your setbacks–all seem magnified than what anybody else has ever experienced.

What a person with depression is at first unable to do is:  to see these thoughts as an illness.  And the problem is not specific to one’s self.  It’s one of the most common illnesses around the planet!

One day, during that semester when I was finding no relief doing any of the traditional meditations in our textbook, a friend gave me a book about depression.  It was nothing religious–just a secular book about depression.

But I began feeling connections.  Yes–this was it.  THIS is what I was feeling.

These exercises in self-analysis from secular psychology I was responding to the way other students were responding to the traditional, religious meditations.

NOW I wanted to learn.  NOW I was hungry for more information.  Now THIS was education!

I disregarded the textbook.  The professor gave me the freedom to do my own readings.  When it came time to write the term paper, I was so exploding with newly found insights that I wrote not the required 10-page paper; I passed up page No. 10 when I was just getting warmed up!  The paper went on for 31 pages!

Some days later, I got the paper back–with jottings in the margins.  The notes were observations of exuberance on the part of Dr. Robbins.  At the end of the paper, I saw the grade.  She gave me an “A.”  Honestly, I didn’t even care.  It didn’t occur to me that I was writing this paper for a grade!  I was writing it to share what I had learned.  When I saw the grade at the end of the paper, I shrugged, “Oh, right, we were getting graded on this.”

Some days later, the professor saw me in the seminary dining hall.  She came up to me.  “I thought your paper was fantastic,” she said.  ‘It wasn’t enough that I wrote comments on it.  I felt there had to be more–I wanted to speak to you.”

Nothing like that had ever happened in all of my years of formal schooling.  It finally happened in post-graduate school in my mid-30s.

The third course was a similar experience.  It was a class on Christology, the way we think about Jesus as the Christ, the One sent by God to draw us close, and the One Who himself IS God.  The professor was a feminist theologian, whose biography I would years later write–the Rev. Dr. Susan L. Nelson.

Dr. Nelson–like Dr. Robbins–was insightful about what it mean to LEARN.  Above all, she wanted the students to be honest.  If they didn’t like a theologian whose works she gave us to read–SAY so.  But have good reasons.  No cliché opposition to feminism or progressivism.  No trite agreement, either.  She wanted the students to say why these writings of theologians made sense to THEM–made sense in their own life experiences, as parents, as spouses, as church members, as church staffers…

I found, as previously, that I wasn’t getting much out of the theologians whose writings she was assigning us to read.  Their writings were so well-known by this time in my seminary career that I had trouble thinking of them in a fresh way,.  Rather, again, it was reading psychologists–who helped me examine my own life–and the writings of Paul Tillich–who put a fresh viewpoint on all of the traditional doctrines about salvation and the Fall and the Flood–and–of all things–I had begun reading novels by a famous Jewish author.

The writer was Chaim Potok.  His writings were NOT part of the assigned reading.  Rather, a friend introduced me to one of Potok’s books, The Chosen, and from then on I read anything of his ravenously.  I read one novel after another–on my own time.  I was devouring his books!

Why?  The characters in his stories were ME!

In just about every Potok novel, there is a young person who has to choose between the security & acceptance of subscribing to what the traditions of his Hassidic community in Brooklyn maintain–vs. breaking away.  The pull AWAY is from new information he is encountering–from science, from progressive theologians…that the world is not 6,000 years old, that Adam & Eve weren’t the first two human beings, etc.  In short, the worldview of his community was–flat wrong–outdated–and holding him back from living as full a life as a religious person in the modern world can live.

By the end of the semester, I was so psyched up with all that I had learned.  Again, the term paper we had to write was 10 pages.  I passed page No. 10 in a flash.  By the time I had finished typing, the paper was 40 pages long!

Again, days later, I had the same experience as with the previous term paper:  seeing notes written in the margins, exuberant, happy for me in this experience of learning–and at the very end of paper:  the grade.  A+.

Honestly, it surprised me–that I was getting graded!  I didn’t even THINK about a grade all the while I was writing the paper.

Today — years later– I have had time to think about what made these three courses the best education experiences I ever had.

First, I wasn’t “playing defense.”  That’s because the professor gave us relief from the pressure of grades.  This approach, admittedly, was being done at the highest level of education, where the maturity of the students is assumed.   Whether anything like this could work with teenagers or even college students…

Secondly, I experienced the change from apathy (PLAYING education) to inspiration.  The difference is:  hunger!  I had a NEED to learn.  I was learning about my own life.  I was learning about my journey in faith.  I was EAGER to learn!

This may be called “need-based learning.”  I did a biography about a famous Presbyterian preacher, the Rev. Dr. Bruce Thielemann.  He believed in “need-based preaching.”  That is, you don’t preach all the way through a book like the Gospel of Mark, one Sunday after another.  Rather, you as the pastor think about what the needs of the congregation are.  Preach to those needs.  The passages in the Bible will be cited not from one source week after week but from all over the pages of the Scriptures–whatever speaks to the needs that are being addressed.

This approach CAN be used–no matter the age of the students.  When I teach teens in a confirmation class, we don’t begin by talking about Jesus or God or Christianity or the Bible.  We begin by talking about THEM.  I raise questions about THEM:  What do they face in school (teasing, peer pressure, loneliness…).  How do they handle these pressures?

I raise first the need–and then suggest ways that the needs can be met by belief.

There IS a way to go from “playing education” to really learning.  There IS a way to go from sluggishness to inspiration.  This way entails MORE work for the student–and for the teacher–the teacher must be more creative, more flexible with each student–but I have found the experience totally worth it.









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