Sacred Classrooms

There is a dangerous myth in Australian education. It is that teaching can be, or should be, neutral. That is a lie. All teachers are inviting students to be transformed. Some may pretend that they are just teaching ‘facts’, but that is not how it works for us as humans.

The lie starts with an incorrect view of who we are as persons – or our anthropology. The incorrect assumption is that teaching is simply a matter of the transfer of information. Currently, the espoused purpose of transferring such information (and its attendant skills) is to become an economic asset. But that is the process that we would use if programming a machine or training an animal. We, as humans, are not simply animals that have more highly emerged physical brain capacities.

Who are we then? Christian Smith from Notre Dame University took over four hundred pages to answer this question in his book What is a Person? His finding is that we are ‘embodied souls’. As Smith expressed it:

Human beings, I will suggest, are free, ensouled creatures of a particular kind… When it comes to the human, therefore, reductionist moves towards either the physical or the mental, the material or the ideal, the corporeal of the spiritual are unacceptable and self-defeating. Humans are embodied souls who can only be well understood and explained in light of the complex reality. (p.22)

This is a Biblical way of understanding who we are as people. This concept accepts that there are ‘unseen aspects’ of life for us as humans, as well as the physical aspects (see Genesis 1:26-27).

Biblically, we are also told that “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24, ESV). John Lennox (in 2084: AI and the future of humanity) applies this teaching to highlight that this aspect of life has primacy over the physical aspect of life – that is, because God is our Creator God, His nature takes precedence before ours. Thus, ‘spirit has primacy over physicality’. Or as Lennox explains it:

The case for dualism is strengthened when we take on board the Biblical teaching that matter is not primary but derivative. Spirit is primary. Matter does not generate spirit. It is God, who is Spirit, who generates matter. (p.125)

All this has deep implications for how we think about thinking, teaching and learning. Aurelius Augustine, a one-time scholar at a pagan university who went on to become a Bishop in the north of Africa, wrote about this in 427 AD. Towards the end of his small but profound book called On Christian Teaching, he summarised his logic the following way:

So too, the benefits of teaching, applied to the soul through human agency, are only beneficial when the benefit is effected by God… So the speaker who is endeavouring to give conviction to something that is good should despise none of these three aims – of instructing, delighting, and moving his hearers – and should make it is his prayerful aim to be listened to with understanding, with pleasure and with obedience … (p.123)

Augustine understood that we needed to be instructed to overcome ignorance. CS Lewis apparently noted that “there is nothing as dangerous as a fifteen-year-old boy who has a strong opinion but who knows nothing” – I suspect some leaders are dangerous in this way as well. But Augustine knew that ignorance was not helpful, and long before Dewey, recognised that we who instruct should do it delightfully if we want our students to keep learning from us. But he also knew that the point of teaching, Biblically, was to invite students to ‘give assent’. In our language, this is an invitation to do good with what we are learning about, before God.

That is why teaching cannot be neutral. If we are teaching mathematics, or creative and performing arts, or science and humanities, our students are picking up “This is what it’s for”. The unspoken message (or what educators call the ‘hidden curriculum’), conveys from the teacher to the student what important beliefs underpin any values being presented – for example, is this for economic security, or for success, or for influence, or social critique, or progressivism of some kind (sometimes called ‘wokeism’)? Therein is the lie. All teaching is transformational. The question is, transformative towards what? Biblically, if it is not an invitation towards loving God and others more, then it is away from Him. The Bible calls that idolatry.

Again, Lennox puts in well in 2084, when he explains what is important educationally, or in using AI:

The fact is that we humans need saving from our sins much more than we need political freedom or upgrading. Programmes of education and technological or medical upgrades will never adequately deal with moral failures because the root of that failure is a fundamental alienation from God. (p.169)

Therefore, every classroom is a place of inviting souls to be committed to someone or something. Ideologies underpin all we do – and an ideology is a belief system in which we put our faith. For the Christan teacher, wherever the context, they are praying that what they teach and how they teach it is an invitation not to an ideology, but to Jesus Christ. That is why their classrooms seek to be sacred. They want their teaching and learning spaces to be ‘set apart’ (holy) so that pupils can see the wonder of the Creator as the starting point to meeting the Creator.

The alternative has deep eternal consequences. It is why the Apostle Paul wrote that God becomes angry when those who claim to be wise suppress the knowledge of God (see Romans 1:18-32). His response to this temptation for Christians is answered in Romans 12:1-2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your rational service. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (ESV)

And I would add, in this context, ‘do not be conformed to the patterns of your professional world’. That is what we must continue to test, to invite God back into the sacred place of the classroom.