We continue and complete our multi-part interview with Biola’s Paul Spears and Wheaton’s Steve Loomis about their book, Education for Human Flourishing. Part one is available here and part two is available here.
In the book, you help readers think of education as a “social institution”? First, what does it mean to “think institutionally”? What is a “social institution”? What does it mean to think of education as a “social institution”?
Loomis: To think institutionally is to think integratively and interdisciplinarily
(philosophically, economically, theologically) about the nature of social structures and the formal and informal rules that enable and disable human development, performance, and flourishing. It is a methodological approach that carefully examines the large and small conditions of information and knowledge across human exchange and social environments. For example, the moral law is the overarching or supreme, observer-independent institution that sets rough, imprecise limits on the activities of social institutions as well as on individual human beings. The moral law is both a constraining institution that seeks to prevent abuse as well as an enabling one that promotes conditions for justice and ﬂourishing.
Basically – and this is the best I can do in a short space – a social institution is a powerful nonspatial, nonphysical mediating social entity that possesses distinct existence and has attributes that impact and are impacted by complex human reality. A social institution can have an observer-independent status, such as the moral law or Nature, or it can be entirely a social (human) construction such as money, sport, education, or government. Individual human beings and individual organizations work within the context of a wider set of institutions, which are connected to culture(s) and society. Stewardship of institutions is one of the foremost responsibilities of Christ-followers in any field. It is surprising that so few Christian philosophers and educational theorists have done work in this area of thought.
To think of education as a social institution is to at once understand that the productive activities of education, its ends and means, are influenced significantly by the information environment, that is, by the rules governing the decision-making and choices of participants. These rules can sanction or bias one line of thinking, lowering costs associated with that line of thinking, and forego an alternative line of thinking, thus raising costs in that direction of thinking. The information economy of education has to do with the price of information in agenda setting. And this has to do with the individual-collective questions of social choice, such as the important work of Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen. It also has to do with questions of justice. Some things, some areas of knowledge are viewed as too costly to retain in productive or allocative activities. This is where a lot of compartmentalization occurs; some faculty members fold their faith commitments like weak lawn chairs on a sultry summer day. We can see, for example, how in post-Civil War American society the philosophy of pragmatism did a lot of work to lower the costs of secularization in public spheres of American life, including in education. Or take the recent standardization of the teacher since the mid-1980s, or the higher education faculty member today, where only twenty-five percent of the faculty in the U.S. is tenured or tenure-track. These are cost-lowering consequences and effects of changes in the information economy of the institution of education. So, for new teachers to understand education as an institution, including the performance of schooling, they will need to be able to see and sense and reason more deeply than others about what is going on and how they individually or we as a community might help to resolve real and important problems in education.
How and why should pastors view their local church as a Christian knowledge institution?
Spears: One aspect of the church is the dissemination of knowledge. It is our knowledge that comes through our wrestling with the text of scripture through the illumination of the Holy Spirit that enables us to properly pursue life within the body of Christ.
What do you sense are already present and looming threats to education as an effectual social institution? How can Christian educators address these threats?
Loomis: It is interesting that, since the A Nation at Risk report in 1983, a gap has been widening between educational attainment and commensurate levels of knowledge and skills. One colleague of ours has called the education system a ‘machinery of inequality.’ There is more than a little truth to this assertion, particularly for Latinos in the U.S. Adding to this line of thought, we have shown elsewhere that there has been something like a public–private convergence in teacher education that prevents independent schools of education and teacher education faculties (and the teachers they prepare) from resolving persistent socio-economic problems, such as:
- Expanding economic and social inequalities between quintiles.
- Institutional scale and its information base stripping out particular forms of information(e.g., local values, preferences, ideals, aims, and modes of production) which is correlating with a growing asymmetry between educational attainment (more schooling) but an incommensurate level of knowledge and skill. This direction of information transmits a distorted signal to markets about the distribution of skill and talent in the workforce.
- Transaction costs being raised in the procurement and delivery of education goods.
- Competition intensifying in such a manner as to worsen inequalities of educational opportunity.
- An undersupply of the complex education good to an evolving and politically and economically stressed society.
Let me put something to you straight: too much of educational research today is either taking the pulse of a dying patient or working to prop up it’s collectivist (growth) vision. This needs to stop. This is one reason why our book was written: to inspire a new generation of education scholars to think differently and integratively about the field, to learn how to call into question the rules and the rule making functions of the institution of education. We are suggesting that a new epistemology be used, a new unit of analysis be integrated into a teacher’s development as a scholar. We need more educators to disconnect from the Matrix and see reality as it is.
Let me also make clear what is at stake here. The analysis of institutions, and the organizations that work within them, will reliably fall into incoherence – and much harm may be done – if scholars continue to insist on seeing them as merely instrumental rather than as instrumental and teleological entities. Indeed, it is the proper teleological rendering of social institutions, including education, that brings coherence to their existence and relations, not its absence. It is the purely instrumental or pragmatic view of institutions and social fields that distorts the human situation, as in the relationships between Nature and Reason, between the one and the many, between means and ends, between institutional growth and the social welfare, between information and knowledge, between schooling and learning. If we want to make any genuine progress toward understanding the nature and role of social institutions in culture and society, if we endeavor to understand the relation of institutions to the individual, his or her development and flourishing, we must come to understand, first, the purposes that different individuals and collectives ascribe to particular institutional arrangements and how these affect social choice and, second, realize that institutions are in fact non-natural entities bound to an inescapable relation with the transcendent moral law (the supreme institution).
How and why is character education integral to education as a social institution? What are the main challenges and prospects that must be faced in this area?
Loomis: The institution of education today tends to emphasize the development of mere rationality, that is, the inexpensive alignment of one’s beliefs and means to a lower-cost, institutionally-provided end, usually an end that is inferior in nature. This prevents us from calling into question the rules of the game. So, if we are to avoid Lewis’s Abolition of Man, castrating and bidding the geldings ‘be fruitful,’ if we are to develop the capacity to ask MacIntyre’s important question, ‘Always ask about your social and cultural order what it needs you and others not to know,’ we will need at the same time to develop the mind and heart, reason and the sentiments, in new and old ways. The solution already exists. The problem is that the technical model of education will not allow that solution to reach agenda. It’s seen by many elites and social choice theorists, and even many Christian academics, as too costly, too controversial, too irrational, too preserving of the individual’s free will; it is a solution that excites too much of the transcendent which is seen as lying outside of man’s control and power. What do we do in light of this? We teach to the transcendent anyway – exposing to the conscience the noteworthy fallacies and absurdities buried within the claims of the merely non-transcendent. This level of certainty will make some people nervous. You’ll have to forgive me; I haven’t spent my entire adult life in the Academy overworking a commitment to methodological skepticism. When I am in an alternative school teaching a young man who is on probation for having committed an aggravated assault or an attempted murder, I find moral skepticism a poor ally when my teary-eyed student asks me what he can do to turn his life around and to think, feel, and be a moral agent.”
How should a Christian philosophy of education think about “online learning”?
Loomis: We are not instantly opposed to the intelligent use of technology for learning. But there is a larger point within your question that I need to address. It is one concerned with leadership in higher education. The Christian university and other concerned market sectors can move in the opposite direction from the technical model of production in order to reach the goals that we have described in the book. For example, it can allocate scarce resources in the direction of quality not quantity. Consider some ways of doing this.
First, it can retain in its profile the identity of the good as the development and flourishing of the individual person, not a mean-or-aggregated FTE abstraction of a student. Leadership with Christian higher education is too enamored with the accounting framework of thinking. They too readily envision the faculty and students as centers of cost, not as centers of investment. Strategic leadership calls on developing the ability to figure out a world that doesn’t yet exist.
Second, it can emphasize recruiting and retaining the best possible faculty for its Carnegie category (we refer to the Carnegie classification system in the U.S.). The faculty is the most important component of production and the chief scarcity in higher education because there are so few exceptional people available. While provost at Stanford University Fred Terman understood this reality and launched Stanford into the top 5 in nearly every academic program it offered in a matter of 10 years, 1955-1965. He did it principally through securing the best available faculty and then supporting them with internal and external resources. While the market environment then was different than it is now, Terman today would likely invest in the direction of quality not quantity, knowing full well that quality inoculates a university from the ebb and flow of market recessions and risk in uncertain times. The lesson here is that pursuing quality in higher education is a way to hedge against market changes and fluctuations.
Third, quality higher education needs to be about something, it needs to pursue important questions and lead in the production or preservation of ideas and knowledge. That takes an information base and modes of inquiry that do not track a technical model of production.
Fourth, higher quality universities attract students who are more interested in the acquisition of knowledge and skills than they are about educational attainment. These are the students whose loyalties over time (and future giving) lie with that university because of the endearing development occurring during the college years and during graduate school.
Fifth, higher quality education offers loose, diversified, and independent internal structures that facilitate the natural complexities of knowledge work while at the same time operating consistent with mission specific commitments and activities.
Finally, it is of great consequence to recognize that no higher quality university makes a profit on tuition; no quality university is tuition-driven. For franchising or scaling on-line operations in order to secure organizational sustainability, the information economy of an organization usually must narrow and shift toward factors that line up with mere attainment. Often, this is a move away from the individual student, not toward him or her. Alternatively, a plausible strategy and an endowment over time with money put under faculty and students helps to add sustainability during market transitions.”
Spears: First, I wholeheartedly agree with Steve’s thoughts about online learning. It is easy to be an “academic snob” about this, but in reality, we need to figure out ways in which we can incorporate aspects of this new academic trend in a manner that best educates our students—which is our primary mandate. We should see online education as an opportunity to expose a broader community to excellent Christian scholarship and teaching.
What role and stewardship should funders – and philanthropy in general – have toward education as a social institution? How should they invest?
Spears: Education is more than producing individuals who contribute effectively to the economic viability of a nation. Universities have an important place in societal discourse. Christian universities should commit themselves to academic excellence, not for its own sake, but so that we can have a voice in both our churches and society at large. We draw from a reservoir of truth that we want the whole world to have access to, and it behooves us to engage with society in a manner that bespeaks of our commitment to, not only our faith, but society at large.
Loomis: Fund an interdisciplinary Center for Social Thought at a good Christian university so we can build and refine theory. Theory is the rails upon which a practice occurs. If theory is in error, then practice is likely to be suboptimal. Over the long run, human performance depends upon good theory.
How can Christian integration, educators, and educational leaders help to bring about meaningful educational reform in the U.S.?
Loomis: Two moves are necessary here. First, when someone is willing to fund an interdisciplinary Center for Social Thought at one or more good Christian colleges or universities we’ll demonstrate how to do meaningful and sustainable educational reform. Second, concerning the performance of Christian higher education, boards of trustees have got to stop hiring pastors, missionaries, and the equivalent of Friedrich Hayek’s ‘quantity adjusters’ as presidents of colleges and universities. It is holding us back from leading in the area of ideas and stewarding social and cultural institutions. We need more Nathan Hatch’s as presidents. Further, boards of trustees and academic administrators would do well to acknowledge that a faculty should be regarded as a center of profit, not as a center of cost. We don’t mean just in the economic sense, but in the advance of church and society. Come times of recession, the salary and benefits of a faculty are to be off limits. The competitive performance and reputation of a college or university pivots on an organization’s ability to attract, recruit, and retain the highest performing, Christ-honoring faculty available in the world (e.g., the inestimable profit, in terms of idea-work, Mark Noll and Art Holmes brought to Wheaton College are but two clear examples). In the fields of mental labor and creativity (e.g., higher education, institutes, and think tanks) there is simply a very real scarcity of talent in the labor market. Recognition of this scarcity not only prevents people from holding the technical model’s view that a faculty is composed of interchangeable units of production, it will bring appreciation for theological understandings of biblically just labor and wages (cf. Gen. 29:15, 31:7, 41; Leviticus 19:13; Deut. 24:14-15; Jeremiah 22:13; 1 Tim. 5:18; James 5:1-6). If the Church wants to be relevant in the marketplace of ideas, if the Church wants to bring about meaningful educational reform around the world, then it will need to unshackle and more fully compensate its scholars so we have the time, energy, and freedom to do the necessary intellectual work to get it done.
Spears: Steve outlines this beautifully, but let me add that large systemic changes in a monolithic system are almost impossible. As Christians, we need to pursue excellence, and opportunities to influence the existing educational institutions and society structures will emerge as we do so. For example, Michael Long, Biola alum (94) was named California teacher of the year in 2008, and John Thune is a U.S. Senator for the state of South Dakota. It is because of their pursuit of excellence that they have the opportunity to influence educational policy and the laws of our nation.
You can learn more about the Christian Worldview Integration series from IVP Academic by going here. Paul Spears is a philosopher of education with the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. Steve Loomis is a professor of education at Wheaton College.