The Commodification of Education

A fellow adjunct and I were recently lamenting the woes of higher education when she commented, “Education has become a commodity.”

While I was slightly taken aback, I agreed. She gave voice to something I’ve been observing in the classroom and experiencing in my interactions with students.

According to Dictionary.com, education is “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.”*

This definition held true for my undergraduate and graduate experience. Questioning, dissecting, dialoguing, synthesizing, and learning how to learn, were hallmarks of my education, and primers for adult life.

However, if we’re using Dictionary.com’s definition present day, education is a gross misnomer.

In my brief teaching experience, I’ve come to discover that education isn’t what most students are seeking. They’re seeking a diploma, and seemingly equate their tuition payment with this paper gem. In exchanging paper for paper, they’re unconcerned with whether or not learning is actually occurring. If anything, in their very means to an end mindset, learning, challenging themselves, and putting in the necessary effort, are annoying, albeit necessary evils, to achieving their ultimate goal. Seeking truth and knowledge, and even more so, being transformed by this truth and knowledge are missing from the equation.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. I’m willing to grant that all of us, at one time or another, have taken classes merely to satisfy requirements, and have adopted the same means to an end attitude when approaching our education (fulfilling requirements for “well-roundedness” raises an entirely different educational issue not addressed in this post).

Nor is this a new issue. Educators have been debating it for eons. However, the pervasiveness of, and rate at which, education is being transformed into a diploma-seeking end product (in which learning is merely a byproduct), is alarming.

I believe there are a couple of reasons for this.

First, the instant gratification mentality we’ve adopted as a society has invaded our college campuses. Students seemingly want everything quicker, with little-to-no effort. They want a stellar grade without reading the material; they desire to graduate with highest honors without sitting through an entire class; they covet a diploma without putting in the time required to achieve it.

Second, in addition to (and intricately connected to) the above, a spirit of entitlement and apathy are rampant on our college campuses. In my experience, students believe they’re guaranteed an education; that this is something owed to them.  If students genuinely believe that education is given to them rather than seeing it as something they have to earn, then they never have to develop a shred of excitement, passion or fervor in order to go after it (the definition of apathy). Apathetic students have haunted the halls of academia long before John Bender’s appearance in The Breakfast Club.  However, entitlement and apathy are rising at a frightening rate, and are inversely related to the dwindling remnant of students who are genuinely concerned about the process of education versus the purchasing of an education.

I’ve deemed the combination of instant gratification, entitlement, and apathy, the “Unholy Academic Trinity.”

Just like John uses the dragon, sea and land beast (the “Unholy Trinity”) as a parody of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the book of Revelation, so to, instant gratification, entitlement, and apathy are a parody, a sham, a knock off, of what education should be—the pursuit of knowledge, truth, and learning for the sake of learning.

The Unholy Academic Trinity has reduced education to a mere commodity; something to be passively consumed after making a payment to the Registrar’s Office.

 

* http://www.dictionary.com/browse/education?s=t
**This post doesn’t address the role administration, faculty, and governing boards potentially play in the commodification of education, though it probably should.

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Bronfenbrenner’s Biblical Interpretation Model

I love teaching the Bible to early childhood development majors for several reasons: (1) It combines two fields I’m deeply passionate about (Bible/theology and child development), (2) ECD students are extremely relational and intuitively understand God’s relational nature, (3) They approach the Bible with humility and a genuine desire to learn, (4) Working with children gives them an entirely different perspective on Scripture, and (5) They’re terrified the first night of class (due to their perceived biblical ignorance), but by the last night, they gladly, willingly, and confidently share their insights.

Many of my students have never actually studied the Bible before and are completely thrown when we start discussing the Three Worlds Model—the guiding model for the course which approaches the Bible from a historical, literary, and contemporary perspective.* They have difficulty grasping that the Bible was written in a very different time period, culture, and intellectual milieu than our own, and that this impacts the writers’ message, the way the text is constructed, and the terminology, images, and stories the authors use to convey their message.

However, my students recognize the importance of context when it comes to child development. They know that a child can’t be understood apart from their family, neighborhood, community, and the larger political and economic policies at play in society. This idea of context is most pronounced in Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory Model (see diagram below).

Bronfenbrenner Model

Rhodes, Theories of Child Development, 2013.

Last night, as I started discussing the Three Worlds Model, my students’ eyes glazed over. Knowing their familiarity with Bronfenbrenner’s model, and in a Holy Spirit-inspired moment, I attempted to explain the Three Worlds Model using Bronfenbrenner’s multi-system theory. I broke it down as follows:

Child = Bible
Microsystem = Historical context
Mesosystem = Literary context
Exosystem = Contemporary context

(the comparison broke down in the Macrosystem and Chronosystem)

I commented that just like we need to understand a child in his/her context, we must understand the Bible within its historical and literary context, as this gives us a better understanding of its message before applying it to our own lives present day.

Then, in a semi-tangential rant against proof-texting (and in an attempt to help them further understand the literary context), I again reworked Bronfenbrenner’s model:

Child = verses
Microsystem = paragraphs
Mesosystem = chapters
Exosystem = book
Macrosystem = Canon

I commented that when reading the text, individual verses have the power to speak to us; however, it’s dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions based purely on one or two sentences, without acknowledging what comes before and after. I further explained that we must situate verses within their bigger contexts (paragraphs, chapters, book, entire Bible) in order to gain a better understanding of what the author was saying to his audience, and a fuller picture of the Bible’s message for us today.

In the moment, this seemed to elucidate things; however, any long-lasting impact remains to be seen.

 

*Model taken from Hauer, Christian E. and William A. Young.  An Introduction to the Bible: A Journey into Three Worlds, 8th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2011.
**Image taken from http://msnaeemsclass.weebly.com/developmental-theories.html, as adapted from (Rhodes, Theories of Child Development, 2013).

 

 


Divine Scaffolding

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist came up with the zone of proximal development (ZPD). This “zone” represents the distance between where a child is at and where they can be. It’s the bridge between what’s already known and what’s unknown; the link between an already-skill and a not-yet skill. It is in this zone where learning takes place.

The ZPD is part of Vygotsky’s Social Developmental Theory. The skills acquired in the ZPD result from interaction with others—specifically those more knowledgeable than us who can assist, guide, and encourage us. Vygotsky claimed that all development occurs via social interaction in which a “more knowledgeable other” scaffolds our learning experience.

The concept of scaffolding (though Vygotsky never actually used this term) isn’t limited to child development or educational psychology. It’s everywhere.

Teachers, parents, managers, CEOs, chefs, coaches, and college professors use it. We scaffold our children’s, employees’, interns’, athletes’, and students’ learning environments in a way that appropriately challenges them, steers them, and propels them from where they’re at to where we want them to be. We set them up for success when we carefully, and intentionally, structure their learning experience.

As Vygotsky pointed out, skill acquisition doesn’t happen in isolation. It doesn’t occur overnight, nor does it ever end. We find ourselves in various ZPDs throughout our lifespan, and therefore, scaffolding applies at any age.

In revisiting Abraham’s faith journey, I couldn’t help but think of Vygotsky’s ZPD. Between Genesis 12 and 22, God scaffolds Abraham’s experience. God doesn’t start off asking Abraham to sacrifice his yet-conceived son. He starts by asking him to relocate. There are steps, people, and encounters between Haran and Isaac that develop, encourage, and guide Abraham’s faith. These experiences, this scaffolding, were vital to developing the obedience Abraham displays in Genesis 22.

I believe God scaffolds our learning as well.

Case in point: Me, in the following 4 areas.

Teaching:

Me: “I will never teach.”
God: “I want you to teach.”
Me: “I don’t know how.”
God: “Start teaching a bible study.”

Scaffolding:

Teach bible study for a year ✔
Teach trial run online class for Aspect Ministries ✔
Get advice, encouragement, and spiritual insight from endless people about teaching (more knowledgeable others) ✔
Apply to and get offered an adjunct position at FPU ✔
Panic ✔
Teach 1 class ✔
Teach 2 classes ✔
Teach 4 classes ✔
Teach 13 classes ✔
Possibly apply for Ph.D. ✔

 

Writing:

Me: “I will never share my writing with others.”
God: “I want you to share your writing.”
Me: “No, that’s too vulnerable.”
God: “This is another area where I want you to practice vulnerability.”
Me: “Blurg!”
God: “I’m not asking you to write for Huffington Post, but start sharing.”

Scaffolding:

Start a blog, make it private, and tell no one about it ✔
Make the blog public and tell no one about it ✔
Tell people about blog ✔
Write a small article for publication ✔
Write another small article for publication ✔
Share writing with students ✔
Possibly write a book ✔

 

Preaching:

Me: “I will never preach.”
God: “I want you to be open to the possibility.”
Me: “I’d made a terrible preacher.”
God: “I’m not asking you to preach in front of a 10k congregation, just start accepting opportunities that come your way.”

Scaffolding:

Read book on effective preaching ✔
Accept youth group pastor’s invitation to speak at the end of the year ✔

 

Dating:

Me: “I never want to get married again.”
God: “I want to ransom you from relational exile.”
Me: “What?”
God: “First, I’m going to teach you what vulnerability really looks like.”
Me: “I thought I knew what vulnerability was, but alright.”
God: “You don’t, and because of this, you struggle with relationships and picking good men, so start dating. You need the practice.”

Scaffolding:

Read books about vulnerability ✔
Return to therapy for tune up sessions ✔
Practice vulnerability with trusted friends and family ✔
Date 3rd tier men ✔
Date 2nd tier men ✔
Still dating 1st tier men ✔

In looking at my experiences, it seems that when God wants his children to learn a much-needed skill or lesson, he sets up situations in which to exercise these. When he desires us to move toward further understanding and maturity, he brings new experiences and “more knowledgeable others” to help guide us. When he wants us to acquire and use our gifts for his glory, he provides opportunities to start practicing. God knows we won’t magically meet our goal or learn a new skill without first makings steps and approximations toward it.

God meets us in the ZPD, and as the More Knowledgeable Other, his scaffolding takes the form of gentle nudges, loving prods, and patient guidance.


My Victory

June’s song of obsession:

 

*David Crowder, “My Victory.”

 

 

 

 

 


Permission to Fail

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
—Winston Churchill

This quote makes me extremely uncomfortable, because I capital H-A-T-E failure.

As most of you know, I’m a recovering perfectionist, and perfection doesn’t allow for failure (nor does it allow for joy, grace, or authenticity).

Failure is anathema to me for several reasons:

  1. It’s vulnerable.
  2. It shows weakness.
  3. It’s shameful.
  4. It’s admitting you can’t do something, even though you put everything on the line. Essentially, “Your best just isn’t good enough” (which taps into #1).
  5. It’s saying “I’m not worthy without my achievements” (whether this be winning the gold medal or completing my to-do list for the day).

Additionally, I have no schema for failure = success, let alone that consistent failure = success.  For me failure = failure. Thus, the notion that failure can = success is fairly new to me.

I recently had lunch with one of my mentors in which I was sharing my fears about not hacking it in a Ph.D. program and how terrified I was of potentially having to quit midway.

She was taken aback by my comment, and then simply asked, “Have you given yourself permission to fail?”

Internally, I started crying. Her question struck a nerve. It challenged the five distortions above.

She sensed my discomfort and sat with me in it.

I finally said, “No, I’ve never given myself permission to fail, whether preemptively or not.”

She graciously exhorted me, “Perhaps you need to.”

The profundity of her statement is still sinking in.

In response to her exhortation, my gut reaction was, “Yeah, but doing that is equivalent to admitting defeat before you even start. And that’s totally lame.” However, my more reflective reaction was, “Yes, I want to grant myself permission to fail. I want to experience the freedom that comes with this.”

What I’ve snail-paced come to realize over the past several months, and what has been reconfirmed over the last 72 hours, is that the paradox of failure is this: you need it to move forward. According to Gonzalez-Mena (2013), “One of the best feedback devices we have is failure” (p. 252). * This quote also makes me extremely uncomfortable.

So, in light of my recent conversation, I’m accepting my mentor’s challenge. I’m giving myself permission to totally bomb, not just in the academic sphere, but in any relational, professional, athletic, or hobbyistic (I just made this word up) endeavors.

The reality is, I’m not very well acquainted with failure, namely because I only do things I know I’ll be successful at, and shy away from things that will overly challenge me, or will result in failure.

This is a truncated way of living. One I’m no longer interested in.

While I’m on a mission to fail, more than anything, I’m on a quest to be ok with it, and to understand failure as a necessary feedback tool. I’m on a journey to redefine failure and success, in the hopes of developing a new equation in with failure can = success.

Without over-spiritualizing this, in rehashing the conversation with my mentor, I couldn’t help but think of the cross.

From a worldly, 1st century Roman perspective, the cross was an epic failure. Abandoned and alone, Jesus ended his short-lived mission as a crucified revolutionary. He too, was an epic failure.

Yet, in an ironic twist, the cross was God’s greatest success; it was his ultimate victory. On it, God defeated death, exposed and stripped evil of its power, conquered vengeance with love, and offered new life. Jesus’ death was never the end game. It was the victorious beginning of something the world had yet to witness.

Perhaps this is where my reformatting begins.

 

*Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2013).  Child, family, and Community 6th Edition.  Boston, MA:  Pearson