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We Don’t Get It, Part I: Good Teacher, Fix My Student

Meditations on Jesus as Teacher

By contemporary standards, Jesus is a bad teacher. If Jesus were to be evaluated by the common core “teachers” of today, he would almost certainly fail the test. And it is a fact often overlooked by Christians—not merely evangelical—that when the Bible speaks of “teachers” and “teaching,” it attaches very different expectations to these words than we find in our current definitions.

Until recently, most everyone, regardless of religion, would have granted that Jesus was a good teacher. Jesus is in command at every moment, authoritatively teaching the “curricula” of the Kingdom of God. This true authority of Christ is often contrasted with the false authority of the Pharisees. Jesus was about his Father’s business, declaring peace to them that were afar off, restoring the lame, opening the eyes of the blind, loosening the tongues of the deaf, illuminating the darkness of the world—all images analogous to education. Most would agree, therefore, that Jesus taught good things and that the content of his message was good. But few people would be willing to say that he taught such things well; and even fewer would be able to argue that the form of Jesus’ message was an appropriate model for student success. A close reading of the gospels will reveal that Jesus is full of hard sayings, that he doesn’t always answer every question, that he doesn’t always give enough feedback. Jesus seems to not to bother about any common core, nor does he submit his lesson plans to the Pharisees for review. The fact is, if we were to judge Jesus by the immediate success of his students, a trend which is now popular in America, Jesus might not be seen as the “good teacher” after all, the apotheosis of all teachers (as we surely know He is).

The hyper-scrutiny and obsession with measurement of student performance that we find in modern education has its origins in scientific knowledge. Educational specialists today believe learning can be scientifically demonstrated in various forms of observation; in order to justify their methods, these modern educational alchemists must prove that learning is happening by measuring students every year, month, week, day, hour. If they could, they would try to measure them minute by minute in order to “see how learning really takes place in the brain,” or some such nonsense. And this is not an exaggeration. Teachers of contemporary classrooms often believe they are being successful if they can demonstrate with clear evidences that a student learned something: because said student submitted the right answer to Problem A, said student is now learning. Check. Pat on the back. Our students are learning. They can also push the feed bar for food pellets on the AP Exam.

Jaques Barzun offers one of the best diagnoses for the sickness of education today. Teaching, he says, is not a problem; it is a difficulty. That is to say, when we find that a student doesn’t “get it,” we are often tempted to say that it is problem. But if it is a “Problem,” says Barzun, then it must have a solution, much like science experiments or math sets. It is, therefore, something to be fixed with methods, technologies, or reconditioning. Hence the endless cycles of educational theory.

Calling education a problem to be fixed is neither Biblical nor wise, however. It is not wise because children are not simply machines. Neither are children “blank slates,” for by the time a child enters kindergarten, he comes with much already written on that slate of his. The reason teaching is a “difficulty” rather than a science problem is that humans are…well…messed up—morally, physically, spiritually, intellectually—and some more than others. The Bible is fairly clear about the human condition, and when you sit down to the task of teaching another person, you are trying to get them to think what you think, speak the way you speak , and act the way you act. In other words, teaching is difficult because it is based essentially on imitation. Anything less than mimesis in education is not worthy of the name. Given that we live in a fallen world, however, this makes teaching a seemingly impossible task. Not to mention that our modern times have forgotten all about the reality of imitation in school.

Because we want a teacher who can “fix” the problem of Johnny Student, we are tempted to look to the teacher as the messiah. But Christians who have messianic expectations of teachers are the first to forget that even the Messiah Himself found teaching difficult:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.” Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:6-9)

As a teacher I sometimes find this scene ironically very comforting. If this doesn’t illustrate the typical frustrations of teaching humans, I never writ, nor no man ever taught. Here, we have Jesus expressing his astonishment at his student’s lack of understanding. Phillip simply doesn’t get it, regardless of the reason (that is another essay entirely). In the Incarnation, Jesus did indeed take on the flesh of all mankind, and in his role as teacher, he takes on the ministerial experience of all teachers. We have all had our Philips, the student who eagerly raises his hand to ask the very question you just finished answering, the student who would have gotten an A had he only followed directions, the student who spite of continuing his second year of Latin still doesn’t understand accusative case. Amazing. And yet, this is teaching.

We know a student is not above his master, and that when he is fully formed he will be like him. But even masters have masters and teachers teachers, and One Master and Teacher above them all. If, therefore, Jesus, who is The Teacher, had trouble with his students’ learning, how much more can we expect to experience the same difficulties? Furthermore, the notion that we can immediately and empirically prove a student has learned something is woefully misguided. Learning takes time. Learning takes leisure. That’s why we call it schola.

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