“Few people understand that or grew up with that; we’ll lose them if we ask them to change. To make people comfortable, let’s provide them with what they're more familiar with.”
In which of the following scenarios (if any) would it make sense to say the line above?
A) A tennis camp deciding whether to teach a “continental” grip for serving or to allow beginners to hold the racquet however they want
B) An educational institution deciding whether to make some crucial yet challenging units “core” or “elective”
C) A church deciding whether to initiate congregation members into a traditional liturgy or to offer a worship experience more in fashion with the current culture.
Most people would probably sense that tennis coaches should teach proven techniques rather than letting beginners do whatever feels natural. I clearly remember the first time I was taught to serve by someone who knew what they were doing. It was very awkward. I found the recommended grip and foot placement uncomfortable, the language was unfamiliar (what is a “continental” grip, anyway?), and I didn’t understand why my coach insisted that I do it that way. “Stick with it,” he said; “it will make you a better player.”
As a beginner, I didn’t know what was best for me, but my coach did. Fortunately, I submitted to his authority, and the more I practiced the new grip and stance, the more I came to realise why they were effective … and the better I became.
In short, tennis is the kind of activity in which doing well requires training. We come to appreciate it more, not by remaining at our present capacity or comfort level, but by growing our capacity, so that we can achieve a level of joy that we couldn’t when we started. It is a joy won through endurance.
Can we not say the same thing about education and Christianity (options B and C above)? Can their goals and goods be understood and appreciated in the same way by everyone, regardless of their level of training?
Just like tennis, I clearly remember the first time I was given the opportunity to study Latin. I was in high school, and I found this dead language very awkward and uncomfortable. I wanted to be entertained in class, not to struggle through something that I considered irrelevant. I promptly chose another “elective” subject instead, because I thought it would be easier and therefore more enjoyable.
How I wish an educational coach had exercised some authority by telling me, “Stick with it; it will make you a better thinker”! And how I wish I had submitted to that sort of authority rather than to my own poorly-formed sensibilities.
In a similar vein, you may clearly remember a time you experienced a new church liturgy—perhaps with different rituals or phrases than you were used to. If we attend a worship service for the first time and feel uncomfortable with certain musical styles, or we don’t see the point of certain practices, should we immediately go somewhere else that better suits our present tastes? By the same token, should that church allow its forms of worship to be determined by the sensibilities of those new to the Christian walk, or should it exercise some authority and say, “Stick with it; it will form you in certain ways and help you appreciate certain things better”?
I think that tennis, education and the Christian walk share something in common: excelling in them requires a process of patient training, which often starts out uncomfortable and seemingly unproductive. These activities have a goal that doesn’t come naturally to most novices. Growing in these crafts requires learning certain words and phrases, performing certain actions until they become habits, submitting to the authority of a coach, and discerning standards of excellence within a particular tradition. (And, unlike television, their purpose isn’t to entertain!)
This isn’t to say that coaches, teachers and church leaders shouldn’t try to connect with people “where they are” as beginners; rather, it’s to note that the goal isn’t to have them remain as they are but to help them change. The goal isn’t comfort, it’s growth. Ironically, it’s the latter that brings hard-won joy. For the joy which lay ahead of him, he endured... (Heb. 12:12).
At the Millis Institute, we view the path to wisdom as a craft. This means that we encourage our students to see themselves not as entertainment consumers but as apprentices (those desiring to become, through hours of training, like a master). As a result, we don't allow them to set their own curricula. Except for a few electives, we require our students to take certain proven, time-tested subjects—even uncomfortable ones like logic, geometry and astronomy—whether they want to or not. We do this because we believe that grappling with these subjects will help them think more like masters (such as Socrates, Euclid and Einstein) and better achieve the purposes of education. And we think that as their capacity to achieve these purposes increases, so will the joy they find in it.
It’s a joy won through endurance.
Watch James K A Smith's Symposium Keynote Address
Last month CHC hosted its inaugural Research Symposium. Entitled Learning and Loves, the event featured presenters from 34 institutions and 6 countries. Click here or on the image above to watch Dr James K A Smith deliver the Opening Keynote: "Higher Education: What's Love Got to Do With It?"
Millis Student Shares Stories of Oxford
What did you do this winter? Kim Noronha, a bachelor's degree student at the Institute, participated in a five-week study abroad program at Oxford. At our first formal hall of the semester, Kim gave a presentation about this life-changing experience. Combining photos and personal stories, she recounted her travels to Stonehenge, Bath, Canterbury and other sites around England, along with wonderful memories of the "City of Spires" itself. During her time at Oxford, Kim studied two units that transfer credit back to the Millis Institute: "The Intellect and Imagination of C.S. Lewis" and "Faith and Reason During the British Enlightenment." See here to find out more about this study abroad opportunity.