Sunday, January 8, 2012

Education, Ecology and Death

In his book How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind, Richard Hughes records a the comments of a faculty colleague at Pepperdine University.  "It's obvious to me", said the colleague, "that you have one objective in all of your classes." Puzzled, Hughes asked, "What's that?". He records:
[My colleague] looked me straight in the eye and said, half facetiously but also, I thought, half seriously, "You want to convince your students that they're going to die."
 In a chapter which seems to me a profound response to a partly facetious comment, Hughes develops this thought in several ways.
  • An educated person has learned to "embrace the ambiguity of the human situation", including the facts of his or her own finitude and frailty.  And Hughes is emphatic that this is particularly a task for Christian or faith-based education.
  • "By asking our students to take finitude seriously, we free them for a healthy skepticism... to question the wisdom of all human authorities, including the wisdom that they may learn from us."
  • In the same way "we prepare students to take seriously the finitude of others and to reach out with compassionate sensitivity" to those in need.
  • And finally, "by focusing attention on ultimate questions, not religious answers, we preserve our students' integrity and freedom to make religious discoveries for themselves."
 Hughes goes on to talk about how hard it is for 18-year-old college students to genuinely contemplate finitude and mortality.  They are young, and their whole life experience has been one of steady growth in power and freedom.  They know it can't last for ever, but how easy is that to take seriously when experience to date is 100% in the opposite direction?

The message of ecological economics is that "Western" society as a whole is in the position of the death-denying 18-year-old student.  Our experience to date - as far back as we can remember - has been one of steady growth in power and freedom, but that growth has in fact been fueled by the steady depletion of resources that we have simply no idea how to replace. A huge change looms: whether it is sober middle age, or slow decline, or sudden death, I don't think anyone can say - but society's teenage exuberance is close to over. And how easy is that to take seriously when experience to date is 100% in the opposite direction?

My question is: what would an education look like which prepared students to live with the finitude and frailty of our society, of our historical project, in the same way that Hughes tried to mold an education around the finitude and frailty of the individual student?

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