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Food for Thought: Nicholas Wolterstorff on “The World for Which We Educate”

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School

On Sunday, September 25th the NC State Graduate Christian Fellowship will gather for our first Food For Thought dinner of the year to eat and wrestle with a challenging lecture by Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The World for Which We Educate.”  Nicholas Wolterstorff is one of the most preeminent Christian philosophers alive today.  Having grown up in the Dutch Neo-Calvinist Tradition, Wolterstorff’s vision of Christianity is as wide as the world, and so, too, is his publishing record.  He has written on topics as diverse as epistemology, art, philosophy of religion, education, liturgy, social justice, and even the nature of Scripture.

This lecture was first delivered at Seattle Pacific University in the 1980s and was focused on helping Christian colleges to get a clearer vision of their mission as Christian higher educational institutions.  Most of what he says, however, can be appropriated by Christian educators in whatever educational/institutional context they find themselves.  

Wolterstorff argues that the goal of Christians working in the academy ought to be the promotion of shalom; that their teaching, researching, publishing, and developing ought to be aimed at bringing about peace, justice, and universal human flourishing.  Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, but not merely peace as the absence of conflict.  Shalom is the sort of peace that subsists only where justice and equity prevail, and communities are enabled to flourish.  In this essay Wolterstorff outlines what he sees as the implications for higher education of a committment to the advancement of shalom in an unjust and wounded world.  Below is a précis of Wolterstorff’s essay for those who would like to join us on the 25th but don’t have the time to read the essay in toto, and for anyone else who is interested.

“Education in general, and school education in particular, is a goal-directed enterprise,” says Wolterstorff.  Education is “an intervention in the lives of people with the aim of effecting some alteration in their lives.”  So we are asking from a Christian perspective, “What should education be for?”  What is the point and purpose, aims and goals of teaching and being taught, and what model of education will actually work towards the achievement of those aims and goals?

Wolterstorff bypasses four models of Christian education which he sees as deficient in one way or another:

  1. The Christian service model which sees the goal of Christian higher ed as training students to enter into some sort of so-called “Kingdom work” (e.g., evangelism, ministry, missions, etc.).
  2. The Christian humanist model which sees the goal as being to introduce students to the great cultural heritage of humanity from a Christian perspective.  One might think of so-called “Classical schools.”
  3. The Christian academic-discipline model for which the point of Christian higher ed  is to introduce students to the academic disciplines from a Christian perspective.
  4. The Christian vocation model, says Wolterstorff, takes the goal to be “to train students for whatever roles they will be entering, especially occupational or professional roles, and to teach them to conduct themselves as Christians within those roles.”

The chief reason for moving beyond these models is that “none of these models responds adequately to the wounds of humanity….”  Wolterstorff says, “I continued to believe in the importance of being inducted into our cultural heritage, I continued to believe in the importance of engaging the academic disciplines, and I continued to believe in the importance of training for the knowledge-intensive professions; but I also came to believe that we must energize our students to pursue justice and struggle against injustice.”

Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Wolterstorff suggests that the biblical concept of shalom offers a comprehensive view of human flourishing that ties all of these various goods together (culture and theory enhance shalom, he says) and orients them towards justice.  But if education is to be aimed at bringing about shalom it must be done with a sophisticated understanding of our situation, of the world for which we educate, and, hence, “social analysis is indispensable” for this model.  And so to social analysis we go…

Our Enlightenment Legacy

According to Wolterstorff the European Enlightenment profoundly reshaped our society, though, not in the ways that are usually talked about when the fallout of modernization is talked about.  The world has not, on the whole, become more secular, nor has religion necessarily become more privatized, nor have so-called “secular humanists” (a movement that was much bigger in the ’80s) really become cultural movers and shakers.  Wolterstorff points, instead, to three major shifts brought on by the Enlightenment as being of greater moment for our present condition:

1) Loss of Ethically Infused Social Roles

“In most of the world’s societies a high proportion of the social roles that people played or were expected to play were simply ascribed to them rather than allotted on the basis of choice.”  However, nowadays in the modern society one’s assigned social roles are “determined by will to an extent never before known.”  The ascribed social roles of pre-modern society were not merely instrumental, but also ethical in nature: they were understood as including the corresponding rights and duties attending one’s station in life.  They were moral requirements, the recognition of which “was customarily caught up in a picture of the universe according to which all of us not only have duties with respect to human beings and social institutions but also have duties and with respect to the sacred, the divine.”  Such obligatory, ascribed social roles have largely dropped out of Western society.

2) The Rise and Spread of Capitalism

“…[The] principal cause of the decline of ascriptivism, and of the near disappearance in reality and consciousness of ethically infused social roles, has be the rise and spread of capitalism,” says Wolterstorff.  He continues:

A prominent feature of the spread of capitalism into new sectors of society is that more and more things are put on the market, with the result that the presence of contractual relations among human beings is increased enormously, and the loyalty, and expectations of loyalty, to persons and institutions characteristic of traditional societies is destroyed….[Under] capitalism the generalized ethic of contract becomes more and more the pervasive ethic of society.  The range for that which one must contract is expanded, and the limits on that for which one may contract are removed….The corollary of this increase of contractual relations under capitalism is that one’s occupation of social roles is increasingly determined by decision rather than ascription.

Another feature of the spread of capitalism and the contractualization of our social roles is that ones life is divvied up into separate compartments such that one now has not one “life” but many: a private life, a public life, a professional life, a political life, a social life, a religious life, a sex life, and so on.  What any of these separate “lives” has to do with another is basically determined by the natures of the contracts one has entered into (so, e.g., in France a President’s sex life is seen has having no bearing whatsoever on his political life–they are simply separate).

3) Religious Diversity and Nationalism

Another dynamic of modern Western society is the variegation of religious convictions.  With the increased diversity of religious views has come a felt need amongst religious people to either justify their particular convictions to others or to regard their convictions as purely subjective (and, therefore, private).  Moreover, religious diversification “has meant that since our life together can less and less be grounded on shared religious convictions, we have to adopt other strategies for achieving social consensus and appeal to other dynamics for securing social loyalty.”

Since religion no longer provides much in the way of social cohesion, what holds society together?  “[The] dynamics of nationalism, patriotism, and statism.”

Loyalty to one’s people, one’s civil society, or one’s state—these have proved to be powerful dynamics in the modern world, leading nations (peoples) to ride roughshod over other nations, leading nations to make the state their own, leading states to flout international law, leading states to ride roughshod over other states, leading nations to and states to make religion serve their own purposes, leading nations and states to trample the dignity and violate the rights of those who do not bend to their will or who find themselves in their way.

A World-Systems Interpretation of Global Society

"A world in which a core dominates and exploits a periphery—that, it seems to me, is the world in which we find ourselves."

Over against explanations of the global scene today in terms of “modernization” and which sees societies as essentially distinct and autonomous entities which more or less on their own achieve (or don’t achieve) certain degrees of modernization, Wolterstorff advocates world-system theory as a more satisfying approach to analyzing and solving global problems:

Where modernization theorists see the world as containing a number of distinct societies at various stages in the process of modernization, world-system theorists see the world today as containing just one society—or social system, as they prefer to call it.  This one social system displays the historically unique feature of having a single integrated economy combined with a multiplicity of distinct states, a multiplicity of distinct peoples or nations, and a multiplicity of distinct religions….

World-system theorists emphasize that the world economy is capitalist in its structure.  There are socialist states—and even some communist states—that participate in the structure.  But socialist and communist states, when they enter the world market, prove just as capitalist in their behavior as the most capitalist of individual entrepreneurs.

"This is the society in which we and our students live. It is for life in this society that we teach."

…[The] capitalist economy of our world-system has a horizontal structure of core and periphery…. Those areas of heaviest capital accumulation constitute the core of the system; those of least capital accumulation, the periphery…. The core dominates the periphery; or, to put it from the other side, the periphery is subordinated to the core.  A consequence of this domination is that the core exploits the periphery; in the interaction between the two, the core almost always gets the better of the deal because it has more power.

Implications for Christian Higher Education

If Christian educators ought to struggle for shalom and urge their students to do likewise, if our practice precisely as educators is to be oriented towards this end, and if the foregoing analysis of our contemporary scene is roughly correct, then what are the implications for what we teach and the way we teach it? for our curricula, our pedagogy, our research?  Wolterstorff suggests that educating for shalom will involve three things:

  1. Because students already come pre-formed by the forces of capitalism, nationalism, and religious pluralism and modern ideologies of progress and individualism, educators must teach students to hold these practices and ideologies up to critical scrutiny from the vantage point of the Bible.
  2. “…[Having] done that, we must offer them alternative ways of thinking and guide them into, and energize them toward, alternative ways of living.  We must combat and counteract the ‘oblivion of the normative’….”  This enterprise is different from “ethics” which typically takes the status quo for granted and attempts to think find ways of ethically navigating it.  Rather, the aim is pedagogy that rethinks every sector of life so as to reorient them towards the pursuit of societal health.
  3. “…[We] have to teach for justice—not only on our local scene but on a global scale.  Justice, in the biblical sense, occurs when the little ones are not only protected against oppression but also have a voice in the community.  Our common humanity would call for us to care about justice in distant societies; the fact that we live in a world-system, with out own area at its core, makes that imperative.”

Finally, energizing students (and ourselves) to pursue shalom will take more than thinking and rethinking.  It will take the cultivation of discipline, looking towards examples,  rigorous reasoning, and, perhaps most importantly, the cultivation of empathy with those who suffer.  However, none of this should eclipse the dimension of delight.  “Delight,” says Wolterstorff, “is an indispensable component of shalom.”

“Christian education is for life, not just for thought.”


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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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