The Future of Seminaries (Part 2)

Last week I wrote a little bit about the challenges facing higher education institutions, especially seminaries, and the future of such institutions as places. In this post I want to explore four things that I think are necessary ‘re-adjustments’ to our thinking, especially about seminaries, if they are to continue to be viable. Especially, these are a call for seminaries to stop modelling themselves on secular education institutions, because secular higher Ed continues to move to a model of Education that is driven by “delivering a product/service”, “students as consumers”, “professors as ‘education’ providers”, and “University as Business”. I don’t think this serves the genuine goals of education, and for seminaries I don’t believe it serves the church well.

Learning as a process of developing competent practitioners

If we stop thinking about education as primarily about transmission of content from knowledgeable sources (teachers) to empty buckets (students), how should we think about it? Our first re-adjustment is to think about the kind of people we want a school to produce. One aspect of that is to see the process of learning as about acquiring competence, not knowledge. This is a way of thinking backwards, and thinking about what that graduate should be able to ‘do’. For seminaries, the graduate is generally speaking going to be involved in various kinds of ministry, so we want them to be well-rounded competent people at ministry. Especially, I would say, we want them to be skilled handlers of Biblical texts – able to read and ‘exegete’ responsibly, well, to apply a sound hermeneutic, to deliver teaching and preaching to their communities and individuals, and so on. Some of that will involve acquiring a body of knowledge. But more of it will involve a process of:

  1. Seeing those skills practiced by experienced practitioners
  2. Experiencing those skills practiced on them by skilled practitioners
  3. Attempting those skills in various configurations themselves
  4. Gradually improving those skills through various forms of feedback
  5. Demonstrating their competence in those skills through performance.

Notice that assessment (5) is not a knowledge test, it’s demonstration of competency through actual practice. And most of that development of competency is through 3 and 4, actual practice. I use the term ‘competency’ because we are not after ‘mastery’, i.e. a high level of honed excellence from years of practice. We are after a level of ability that warrants trust in post-graduation independent, unsupervised practice.

This is true across most traditional areas of seminary study: New Testament study, OT, Church History, Pastoral Skills, Discipleship, Preaching, etc.. We want people who can do these things, not just people who ‘learnt’ a bunch of stuff way back when, passed an exam, and forgot half of it.

Learning as formation of persons in community

Related to my former point, seminaries ought to be institutions that shape not just a person’s ability to practice a set of skills, but furthermore shape the character of that person. This will emerge only if seminaries are actual communities. There must be shared relationality that goes beyond the ‘classroom’, and it must be genuine, not superficial or artificial.

My seminary talked a lot about community, and I experienced genuine community while there, but the community they talked about was not the one I experienced, and in many ways the community they talked about was undercut by the actions of the institution.

How does a community shape the character of persons? By holding and practising common values and shared disciplines. A community that values prayer and seeks to shape prayerful persons must practice regular, disciplined, corporate prayer. Not just make a note about it in their glossy brochure.

Sometimes in the push for distance and online education options there comes the push-back, “I have community, local church community”. There is a profound and right truth about this. But it also means that that individual is not being shaped by the same community as the seminary community. It might be a gain in other ways, but it is a loss in this way. This is an opportunity cost that must be counted, not simply ignored.

Learning as co-operation in research

You’ll notice that the first two points are about things done in community. In fact, all my four points are about community. Because the key issue of the 1/8th of a second problem is the key issue of 2 and 3 John, “I have many things to communicate… but I hope to see you face to face”. Transcending time, space, and embodiment is good, but being physically present is better. As embodied beings we prize, value, and derive greatest value from embodied fellowship.

In contemporary and traditional schools, real professors do research, and teaching is a distraction and a burden, best left to second rate researchers. Students don’t come up with new things, they just digest regurgitated breakfasts from mommy bird. This needs to go.

What if ‘teachers’ and ‘students’ were about learning. About studying together. If we really implemented point 1, that teachers were teaching students how to practice the craft of learning, then part of that would be investigating topics, studying things old and new, seeing old knowledge from new perspective. Some of this might look like traditional essay writing, but some of it would be even more co-operative. In this view the seminary is community of research, in which students have come to share and participate in the work of the more ‘permanent’ members of that learning community. They didn’t come to get some pre-fab processed material that everyone already knows is ‘correct’ and ‘safe’ and can be reheated at home.

Language Learning as a Language Community

Of course, language acquisition is a soap-box issue for me. But it has a place here too. Seminaries ought to be about studying the Scriptures, and in the original languages. They should be places where Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and other languages too, are taught. This content in particular cannot be delivered through lectures. Or, to put it another way, you can make lectures about languages, but no-one will learn this way.

Languages aren’t even like other skills. I used to think this, but language as a phenomenon is too complex to reduce to a set of skills that need to be practiced until automated. We tried that, in the 60s and 70s with drills, audiolingual stuff, and it was better than some older pedagogies, but it’s still not up to scratch. Language is communication, and it needs ongoing communication to improve one’s ability.

The internet is amazing. In the last 4 years I’ve done 140 hours of online language classes, all with people thousands of miles away! Who would have thought this was possible. When I started learning Latin only 11 years ago, they mailed text book materials to me, and I mailed hand written assignments back. Crazy!

You can learn a language online, but you can acquire it better in person. And you acquire it better in a community of speakers. I also used to think language was just about an individual acquiring knowledge + skill, but it can never be that because language is about communication, and for that you need community. At least 2, but more is better. Small is okay, because it needs to involve all parties.

I think the tide is shifting in this area, I hope it will grab more people. Comprehensible Input, active proficiency, communicative strategies, etc., etc.. All these go best when there’s no 1/8th of a second dividing us. When language isn’t a ‘subject’, it’s the air we breathe.

Last thoughts

I haven’t said everything, I could probably think of more, but I’ve touched on four elements of the seminary as embodied, learning, community that I think need to be realised, grasped, adopted, incorporated, and set as the vision for the coming age. Seminaries that continue to adopt secular university models may not die immediately, but they will die. The small ones at first as the big ones consolidate and grow, but even then. And it’s not even simply these changing realities that ought to force seminaries to change. It ought to be a realisation that some of the current, not just future, practices of seminaries are in conflict with what they ought to be. It’s not merely education theory, it’s theological thinking about seminaries, that needs to drive some of this.


Enough from me, over to you.

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