Knowing is Integrative, Pt. 1

Knowing is Integrative, Pt. 1

September 14, 2020

by David Williams, President of Taylor Seminary

In the last couple of weeks, we have drawn attention to how theological education began to recognize and then address problems that we were experiencing in educating students. Treating the problems as if they were piece meal and solutions were “add-ons” assumed we only needed “technical changes” (in the language of Ronald Hiefiz), Of course, each time we added this or tweaked that we created more complexity and thus more costs.  But the changes we needed were not “technical” but rather “adaptive.”  We needed a more fundamental change.

That’s why in the Kairos Project we talk about “knowledge” as “content, character, and craft.”  Without all three of these aspects of knowing, something essential is missing.  By speaking of knowledge as content, character, and craft, we constantly are forced to integrate and thus to remember that content isn’t the goal no matter how good, credible, or important that content may be. We recognize that there is an essential mutuality to these three dimensions which has been missing previously.

This linguistic change isn’t merely semantic. It dramatically changes the educational journey. If knowledge is a three-fold mutuality between content, character, and craft, then the pathway students take toward an educational outcome, the assessment as to how well they have achieved that outcome, as well as whom needs to be working with the student on the journey toward embodiment of that outcome must reflect this integrated nature of knowledge. This is why in Kairos the mentor team includes a faculty mentor, a vocational mentor, and a personal mentor. It is only when we look through all three lenses that we can adequately assess a student’s knowledge.

An institutional shift toward a more robust, integrated understanding of knowledge does imply a shift away from the previous role content has played.  This is inevitable.  When knowledge was identified with content then delivering content was at the center of the institution. That is no longer the case.  This “decentering” of content and content delivery in the educational process in order to include attention to character and craft is a far reaching and sometimes painful process. It may be painful, but it is good.

But de-centering doesn’t mean content is not essential. Content is essential. It is as essential to knowledge as character and craft are. One shouldn’t think we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Because of this, we still have to address perhaps the most significant problem related to content: what content is necessary? This question is exacerbated by the fact that the amount of content in virtually every discipline is growing at phenomenal rates.

Of course, the abundance of knowledge really isn’t anything new to any of us.  I remember as a seminary student feeling just a little overwhelmed by the amount of reading that was expected of us for each class we took. And, it seemed the further I went in my education, the longer my reading list became. The more I knew, the more I wanted to know about a growing list of subjects, authors, ideas, and debates.  One of my favorite T-shirts was a gift from my wife lamenting “So many books, so little time!”

Our earlier observation about the communal nature of standards of excellence provides us with an important starting point to answer our question.  The default answer has always been the faculty.  The faculty are hired as content experts with the result being they control what is taught.  In the language of our accreditors: faculty must control the curriculum.

Historically, it has been the faculty that constitute the community of practitioners who determine the standards of excellence regarding what should be learned. This really makes sense because they are the recognized experts in all the disciplines contained in the educational journey. Of course, it’s not just a particular school’s faculty that creates these standards (though they are forever called on to make these determinations).  Really it’s the larger community of practitioners of the disciplines, which we sometimes call “the guild” or “the academy” that was essentially defining the standards.

I think this served the church fairly well when the community of practitioners in the academy was the same community of practitioners in the church. Many schools can recall a time in their history where the faculty not only served as faculty of the school but also pastored congregations and/or served in other denominational roles.  When the ecclesial community and the academic community were populated by essentially the same people, there was strong convergence between the work of school and church.  But, we all are aware that this hasn’t been the case for most schools for decades.

As the disciplines became more specialized, complex, and nuanced, success in school more and more meant cultivating and honing the abilities to navigate the nuance and complexity of a variety of different disciplines, not to mention to accumulate and process the immense quantity of information the disciplines were each creating.  Doing well in school was no longer necessarily connected to doing well in ministry. As communities of faith were challenged to engage an ever changing world, the educational needs of those giving pastoral care and leadership to these congregations changed as well.  Doing well in ministry wasn’t essentially connected to doing well in school.

Next week, we will continue to call attention to adaptive changes that come when you embrace a more integrated understanding of knowledge, particularly as we more fully attend to the communal nature of our standards of excellence for determining what a student should learn.