How We Talk About Education Shows What It Means To Us

Published June 25, 2014

In his book To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, Parker Palmer discusses the (d)evolution of the image and purpose of knowledge. To paraphrase, Palmer posits that in pre-modern times, people approached knowledge lovingly, reverently, and to draw a knower into a deeper communion with the known—that “hidden wholeness” of creation of which Merton speaks. Modern images of knowledge, however, suggest that we value knowledge only to the extent that it allows the knower to control, to manipulate, and to lay claim on the known.

Palmer goes on to suggest that this latter approach to knowledge is, at its core, akin to that first sin in the Garden of Eden: “In the language of religious tradition, Adam and Eve committed the first sin. In the language of intellectual tradition, they made the first epistemological error . . . The sin, the error, is not our hunger for knowledge . . . [rather] Adam and Eve were driven from the garden because of the kind of knowledge they reached for—a knowledge that distrusted and excluded God. Their desire to know arose not from love but from curiosity and control, from the desire to possess powers belonging to God alone” (emphasis Palmer’s).

I have no doubt that God desired for Adam and Eve the pursuit and attainment of wisdom, but I have to believe He wanted them to receive this gift by way of reverence for and relationship with Him. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But this pathway towards wisdom requires humility and, ultimately, acknowledgement that we are not in control. Indeed, how beautiful that fruit must have appeared to Eve! How easily plucked, held, examined, owned. In this single act Eve rejected the very nature of wisdom.

Mastery Learning?
This notion of knowledge-as-control is troubling because it has become common, even in classical Christian education, to talk about “teaching for mastery” and “mastery learning.” My own assessment methodology for my math classes revolves around this idea of mastery, and I use this language with my students almost daily, telling them that they must master this or that. While I believe that it is good thing to exhort students toward cumulative mastery of critical mathematical concepts and skills, I am also somewhat bothered by my uncritical assumption of this idea. Could my use of this language undermine those more organic mathematical discussions and explorations that I hope might cultivate in my students a love for math and God’s nature revealed therein?

Regardless of those treasured moments when my students are inspired by math—when they are actually regarding math lovingly—at the end of the day we all know that my students will be assessed and evaluated (told their value) based on what concepts and skills they have mastered. They know that mastery of math—not necessarily love of math—is what will ultimately bring them “success in the real world.” At least that’s the narrative in our schools, is it not? 

As I reflect on how this narrative is told in my own classroom, Palmer’s words weigh heavily on my heart. As the teacher, one who Palmer calls “the mediator between the knower and the known, the living link in the epistemological chain,” do I not surreptitiously perpetuate Eve’s “epistemological error” in my classroom whenever I present knowledge as something to possess or control or master, rather than as a gift to love?

Is there something worth exploring here, or have I buried myself in an argument of semantics? I’m not so sure. Some examples of the power of language in the classroom may be helpful here.

Riddle Me This
I always get a good chuckle when I think about the seemingly magical power of a riddle. By simply calling a word problem a “riddle,” students are suddenly transformed into voracious seekers of truth. The first few times I started class by saying, “Okay students, today I have for you a challenging riddle,” the excitement almost approached giddiness as they tackled what was actually just a dressed-up word problem. Of course students start to catch on after a while, but still they cannot hide their eagerness whenever I use the word “riddle.”

Why do I find the need to “trick” students into engaging mathematics? To answer this question, let us consider another example of the power of a name, this time considering the more traditional nomenclature: “word problem.” The epithet “problem” preemptively communicates that the only redemptive result for a student who approaches such a task is to find the solution, because problems require solutions. I should say here that there are actual problems in mathematics, many of which have led to the discovery and development of new ideas and techniques—Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem comes to mind. But what we give our math students are not actual problems—meaning, the solution is not yet known—and I don’t think we’re fooling them. So, continually faced with “problems,” students at even the elementary math stage—most likely without even realizing why—become obsessed with the answer, or with simply finishing, finding no value in the mental gymnastics and hard work that might regrettably end in a wrong answer. I have seen this approach to math engender in some students the belief that no math problem should even be attempted if the probability of finding the answer is low; in other words, they quit before even trying. What good is a journey if we have no hope of ever reaching a destination?

‘Math Opportunities’
At the beginning of this school year I decided to buck this injurious tradition, and I attempted to fight back against the negative power that language holds over the act of knowing. I announced to my students that we would no longer use the phrase “math problems” but instead work the alternate expression “math opportunities” into our classroom lexicon. This turn of phrase was my attempt to communicate that, although I do want all of my students to be able to reach a correct solution, there is always an opportunity for them to stretch their minds, do their best work, and learn something, even if they don’t arrive at the correct answer. If language has power, then maybe I could turn that to my students’ benefit, back toward a more proper sort of knowing. I have to admit the phrase hasn’t quite stuck (traditions die hard, bad traditions seem to die harder), but there is one student who still refuses to say “problem” and corrects me every single time I slip up. I love it.

There are more examples that I could provide, and I am sure the reader can contribute some as well. But I think we can stop here and agree that there is power in the name we give something or the words we choose to describe it. To explain this concept away as merely a matter of semantics is to miss an underlying aspect of what it means to be human. After all, God invited Adam to name the animals, not count them. So if language is indeed powerful, what does that mean for how we approach and talk about knowledge? Instead of telling my students that I expect them to master the factoring of polynomials, shall I say that I expect them to enter a state of loving communion with polynomials? This sounds kind of absurd (my eighth graders would especially agree), but is it not what Palmer is getting at? Experience in this world of teaching strongly suggests that students are significantly formed by the “hidden curriculum” in our schools—Jamie Smith’s “classroom liturgies” come to mind—as much as if not more than by what we explicitly teach. If this is indeed the case, do the words we choose to describe the “act of knowing” carry more significance than we think they do?

And what is really at stake here? Palmer uses pretty strong language in response to this question. Led along the path that teaches us to objectify knowledge, ultimately we will “value knowledge that allows us to coerce the world into meeting our needs—no matter how much violence we must do.” We will be just like Adam and Eve, who “reached for a kind of knowledge that always leads to death.”

Using, Not Loving
The extreme example Palmer uses of the “violence” that results from this hostile approach to knowledge is the research that inevitably led to the development of the first atom bomb. But we need not go that far to find the casualties of a hostile approach to knowledge; just look around at the stressed out, burned out children in this country who are infected by a falsified “American dream,” gobbling up as much knowledge as they can so that they can eventually become consumers who will gobble up as much stuff as they can in a fruitless, exhausting attempt to become “happy.” By high school these children will have already—perhaps unwittingly—crossed the event horizon that will rapidly lead many of them to a midlife crisis and a realization that they have no more control over their lives as “educated” adults than they did as ignorant children. This might seem like a ridiculously precipitous conclusion if it did not describe the trajectory of my own life before God mercifully intervened eight years ago. But that’s another story. 

So how might we teachers, as the gatekeepers of knowledge, mitigate against this woeful path on which so many of our educated youth find themselves trapped? How can we use knowledge to bless our students, rather than to curse them? If we adopt a language that communicates a more charitable, reverent approach to knowledge, could we help them adopt a posture that is more conducive to the growth of a loving relationship with the Knower?

Asked another way, if we encourage our students—wittingly or unwittingly—to objectify knowledge, to hold truth at a distance, to study it in order to master it so that they can use it to get what they want out of life (good grades, good college, good job, good retirement—or, summed up by the three S-words: safety, success, and security), then how can we act surprised when they come to “know” Jesus in the same domesticated, transactional, utilitarian manner? Woe to us for leading these children astray.

Perhaps the greatest violence (I don’t think Palmer’s word is too strong) we as teachers can do with our impoverished approach to knowing is to graduate students who remain slaves to knowledge and the false sense of control they have over it, versus students who are freed by Truth and He who embodies it; students who seek a relationship with knowledge, versus students who seek a relationship with the Knower; students who only know, versus students who are known.

Jason Faulkner ([email protected]) teaches at Heritage Preparatory School in Atlanta. Article reprinted from The Circe Institute with permission. Image by Professional Development Early Arts UK.