Weekly Edgework #48 - May 24, 2005

Beyond Textbook Learning

A textbook is a reduction of subtle thought into a simple outline. In the process of streamlining complicated thought, soul is lost…The intellect demands proof that it is on solid ground. The thought of the soul finds its grounding in a different way. It likes persuasion, subtle analysis, an inner logic, and elegance. It enjoys the kind of discussion that is never complete, which ends with a desire for further talk or reading…it probes and questions and continues to reflect even after decisions have been made (Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul, p. 245).

One of the challenges I faced regularly as a college teacher was selecting appropriate textbooks for the courses I taught. I discovered that there were two very distinct routes I could go in the process of making my selection. One was to find a book that summarized the subject matter of the course I was teaching into neat categories, “streamlining complicated thought” into bite-sized pieces students could handle. The other was to select one or more books written by persons wrestling with the material “on the ground” – unaware that their writings might be used as textbooks in a college course. Sometimes I chose the textbooks various publishers had prepared specifically for students like I would be teaching. Publishers smiled when I did so because my singular choice boosted their sales of that particular book by thirty or forty in one shot. (No wonder they kept sending me free personal copies!) Some of these textbooks were indeed helpful to kick-start the learning process of a specific discipline. They gave students an overview of the subject matter we would be discussing in class – a bird’s eye view. These textbooks introduced them to central questions that had been asked about the subject in the past as well as a summary of the various ways those questions had been answered up until the time of their publication.

Of course the downside of choosing such a textbook is the fact that some students will assume that, once having mastered the textbook, there is nothing left to learn about the subject. They may even be unaware that summary conclusions of their text are, that very moment, being challenged by contemporary thinkers. Yet they can walk away from the course feeling quite smug about their quick mastery of the subject. After all an A+ is nothing to sneeze at! Of course sometimes teachers have as much fault in such an outcome as students. If, in the teaching process, teachers slavishly follow a textbook and simply ask for a regurgitation of its contents on an exam, they are an accomplice to the crime.

I say “crime” deliberately because it is a travesty indeed if students do not continue learning beyond the mastery of a textbook. That is why it is important for teachers to introduce students to original writings on the subject being studied, authored both by writers of the past and present. It is one thing to read a summary of Platonism and another to read one of Plato’s dialogues. It is one thing to read a chapter about Reformed Theology, and another to dig into John Calvin’s writings. It is one thing to read an outline of various positions taken on an ethical issue, and another to read the passionate defense of a particular position written last month by a real, live person living in a particular place.

It seems to me that too much education in our institutions is textbook learning. When used in an introductory way textbooks may have their place. But I think it is fair to say that real learning begins in earnest after you have forgotten where you placed your textbooks. When you begin picking up books on your own written by real people, not drones of the various publishing houses that churn out textbooks. When you study a subject for all you’re worth and dialogue about what you are learning with others because real life is screaming for answers.

I will now reveal a dark secret I have kept mostly to myself for too long. Both while doing research in preparation for writing “Search for Renewal”, and while serving as Conference Minister for five years, I had many opportunities to dialogue with pastors in their offices. A question I frequently asked was what they were currently reading that kept them on a growing edge. Sometimes I was delighted by the response of those who had been able to move beyond textbook learning. Their hearts and minds were fertile soil for dialogue about issues of faith and life that really mattered to themselves and their people.

On the other hand I experienced blank stares from too many, together with some kind of a stuttering excuse that they were too busy with ministry to keep learning. And when my eyes would fall on the three or four feet of books on their library shelves, it took me only a moment to recognize most of them as Bible College textbooks used in the era when they had studied. Unfortunately the hearts and minds of such persons often showed evidence of infertility. They had never moved beyond textbook learning. It is small wonder that their sermons consisted largely of a regurgitation of summary statements they had learned in Bible College, and that they often had only poorly-informed opinions about current issues of faith and life.

But there are also too many people in our pews who are only textbook educated. It is not uncommon for even highly educated persons not to be on a growing edge. With no exams in sight, they have stopped reading and growing, content to repeat formulas learned somewhere in the past. How encouraging it is, however, to connect with those who don’t simply fall back on textbook learning – persons who are reading, growing and going somewhere. I know some people like that. And that gives me hope.