I don’t think I’ll be asked to defend myself if I say that most ‘learners’ at secondary or tertiary level treat their education as a means to an end. I’d imagine the student who is studying for the sheer love of learning is a far rarer animal than the student who is studying because it is the only way to attain whatever goal he or she has set. Kids spend their lives at school waiting to be out of school, and students tend to be at university waiting to get a job.
Such an attitude is a bit of a scourge for educators, because who can blame us for wanting rather not to teach those who would rather not be taught?
I’ve been assigned my first ever 1st-year group this year, as I have only had the pleasure of teaching 2nd and 3rd years in previous years. So, for the first time ever, I’ve had the opportunity to launch into a tyrade concerning the attitude that one should adopt towards study — particularly in a theological college, but also in other institutions.
One of the errors in attitude that I tried to address was this one of treating study as a means to an end. Consider the following timeline.
If you spend your entire school life and your entire college life waiting for life to happen in the future, you’ve spent a lot of time waiting in limbo (without even knowing whether your life will extend much beyond your schooling!). But even you do live a long life, there is a second problem:
The trouble is, if you’re waiting through your education to reach a goal (that is usually getting a paying job), you’ve put an awful lot of pressure on your job to fulfill 15 or 20 years of waiting. Once you get there, you typically find that your job is lots more drudgery than you’d anticipated, and having already possessed the means-to-an-end attitude for so long, work can also become one more thing that you wait through, expecting life to happen elsewhere. Even Christian ministry has more than it’s share of drudgery, especially if you were hoping to avoid more time in the study.
The following is true of theological education, I think, but I imagine it has applications elsewhere. Treating theological study as something to be endured until at last one can pursue ‘fulfilling spiritual ministry’ somewhere is not only spurning an opportunity to engage in the rare privilege of personal and spiritual development, but it is also outright dangerous. Treating theology as one would regard manual labour can be death to spiritual vitality.
On the other hand, possessing an attitude that regards education and curiosity as things that are good even for their own sake engenders a love for all of life’s activities — even (dare I say) the drudgery, seeing as there can occasionally be avenues for curiosity and gems of discovery among the most mundane of tasks. If your life is characterised by love of learning, you never need to live waiting for life to happen.
In spiritual terms, if one is always hungry for opportunities to deepen one’s knowledge and love of God, then theological education won’t mean death to spiritual zeal, but an avenue for new vitality.
Perhaps that is part of what is meant by ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’.