Ladders and Higher Learning

I think we would all like to believe that education is transformative, that it brings about some good that is better or higher – a telos that is worthwhile in and of itself  or a process of formation that changes a person for the better, thereby making the world a better place.  I can’t think of any educator who doesn’t hold this ideal to some extent or at least long for it.   However, it is also easy to become cynical about the possibility of vertical ascent in an educational context that is deformed by the horizontal goals of consumerism, individualism and utilitarianism.

Education has often been referred to as a ladder – a ladder to success, a ladder to a job, a ladder to another degree.  Some have also called education a “hoop to jump through”, suggesting pejoratively that education is a means to an end or something to be suffered temporarily (images of slaves or prisoners in work camps come to mind).    In all of these references, the effort to climb or jump is largely understood as a matter of individualistic “muscular will”, as Simone Weil (1951) would say.  Echoes of this notion of learning as “muscular will” are found in every report card comment that encourages the learner to “work harder”, or every deduction for a late assignment given in “fairness”.   Playfulness, joy, reverence and wonder are absent in this discourse and I see the impact of such conditioning on the faces of my students every semester around exam time.  They are weighted down with the gravitas of time pressure, multiple assignments and high stakes assessments – weights I feel compelled to impose. Our higher learning institutions – even those that claim to understand higher learning as spiritual transformation seem to do their best to make it impossible for learners to even hope for a vertical step.

These utilitarian, consumerist and individualistic ladders differ greatly from spiritual ladders offered to us – Jacob’s ladder, the ladder of the beatitudes, or the ladder of the fruit of the spirit, to name just a few.  “Muscular will” can do little to help you ascend these ladders because the first rung is always humility or self-emptying (being destitute and experiencing the awesome presence of God in fear and trembling in the case of Jacob’s Ladder, accepting Christ’s words that being poor in spirit is a blessing, discovering that last fruit of the spirit – exercising self-control – is really the first rung of the ladder because all other fruits depend on this).  These ladders are more about descent than ascent.  They are always a synergy of God seeking us, descending to us, and inviting us, and helping us make our ascent possible through a process of self-emptying and looking for/paying attention to/waiting for God.  The goal of the ascent (to become like Christ/to participate in the life of God)  is so ontologically brilliant that it is very evident that all you can do is step off the path you are on, take off your shoes and stand as close to burning bush as you can. In fact, the more you try to climb these ladders through “muscular will” rather than a desire and longing for God, the more quickly you fall off.

It is no wonder, then, that we can become cynical or at least question the possibility of the current context of education as spiritual ascent.  Education that is focused on the “muscular will”, not only results in “apprentices without a trade” (see yesterday’s post), but a confusion about ascent.  We come to believe that we can move vertically under our own power, that growth/learning/transformation are not essentially gifts given in a loving relationship that fosters compassion and increasing desire for all that we come to know/can know.  We become people ‘‘who try to raise their souls like a man continually taking standing jumps in the hopes that, if he jumps higher every day, a time may come when he will no longer fall back but will go right up to the sky.  Thus occupied he cannot look at the sky.’ ( p. 127)  All education is transformative, but, sadly, the transformation is often a degenerative slide into the root cellar.

In order for education to be true higher learning, we must find ways to invite our students into learning that is not corrupted by ladders of consumerism, individualism and utilitarianism.  There are things we should do everything within our power to resist in order to provide learning that is enriched by time to look, time to wait, and time to desire, as well as, supported by educators who know how to extend these ladders and descend them in ways that help their students ascend.  Somehow we must find a way to do for our learners what God does for us – provide a ladder that is invitational, grace-filled, attentive, worth longing for and waiting for.  This doesn’t mean that learning is always “fun” – this kind of ladder is equally ego driven and horizontal.  Ascents are always a struggle and when we can’t rely on our “muscular will” or on “pleasure” the struggle is even greater.  I am simply expressing a heart that is often saddened by delusional learning ladders.  I am equating higher learning with the possibility of connecting with something that is real, beautiful, true and good for real, beautiful, true and good reasons.  I am still learning to do this as an educator.  Still looking.  Still longing.

Weil, S. (1951).  Waiting for God.  HarperCollins Publishers: New York.

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