Hospitality and Schools: Four Lenses

If we want to think about hospitality and schools, we might be tempted to go straight to questions of personal warmth. We might think about how welcoming our spaces are for students and parents, or the tone of the reception that we provide to visitors. These are not bad things to think about. Yet there is more to the relationship between hospitality and schooling than gestures and attitudes. In this essay, I will outline four additional lenses for thinking about how our schools might be related to Jesus’s call to welcome strangers. I will look briefly in turn at how hospitality is connected to the nature of schooling, to curriculum content, to the way we teach, and to learning outcomes.

1. Schools as Places of Hospitality

Let’s begin with schools themselves. In the late Middle Ages, in the early days of the first universities, students often lived in communal houses overseen by a master of the arts. Food, accommodation, and the rhythms of learning and communal life were provided in exchange for a fee. One name for such a house was the hospicium, or hospice (Schwinges 218). Before it became associated with end-of-life care in the nineteenth century, a hospice meant a rest house for travelers. The students were hospites, guests. Another name for the shared house was the paedagogium, a place of pedagogy. Teaching and hospitality are close neighbors here; schools, like hospices and hospitals, are places of hospitality. To teach was to shape a shared space in which learners found safety, sustenance, and a pattern of life together. To provide schooling was also to provide hospitality, a temporary but formative place to dwell during part of life’s journey.

To teach was to shape a shared space in which learners found safety, sustenance, and a pattern of life together.

Even when schooling is not residential, the idea that it might be a kind of hospitality lingers. Claudia Ruitenberg’s recent book on education and hospitality discusses Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the nature of education. Arendt (cited in Ruitenberg 4) writes:

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token to save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands the chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.

Hospitality is not abandoning guests on a vacant lot, nor is it inviting them into our homes and dominating the conversation without regard for their needs.

Arendt evokes two scenarios that are neither educational nor hospitable. We might abandon the young to their own projects, like potential guests left out on the street. Or we might crunch them through a tight script of required responses, like guests tied to their chairs and force-fed our own favorite foods. Hospitality is not abandoning guests on a vacant lot, nor is it inviting them into our homes and dominating the conversation without regard for their needs. Schooling, Arendt suggests, involves making space for the young in two senses: making a cultural space that has a shape and texture that have been wrought with care, so that they do not have to begin from scratch, and making space for their own agency, so that they do not lose the chance to contribute. As Ruitenberg notes, that sounds a lot like hospitality.

There have been other images for schooling. We have sometimes imagined schools as printing presses imprinting knowledge on the young, or as factories turning out polished products, or as businesses providing services to clients. How might we do it if we instead imagined schools as agencies of hospitality?

2. Hospitality and Curriculum

The idea of hospitality is not self-explanatory. It can be twisted in various cultural directions. When hospitality becomes primarily a way of profiting from travelers, or a way of showing off our homemaking skills, or a way paying back to friends what they give to us, or a way of sustaining advantageous connections to our bosses, colleagues, or pastors, it becomes something other than what scriptural accounts of hospitality evoke. Explicit instruction about hospitality recurs in Christian preaching throughout the centuries, building on passages such as Leviticus 19 (“Love [the foreigner] as yourself,” v. 34), Matthew 25 (“I was a stranger and you invited me in,” v. 35), and Hebrews 13 (“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers,” v. 2). Christian leaders repeatedly address the reality of mixed motives. “Whoever receives the great, often does it from vainglory also,” warned John Chrysostom. “Surpass us in generosity,” he continued. “Have a room, to which Christ may come. Say, ‘This is Christ’s space. This building is set apart for Him.’ Even if it is just a basement and tiny. He won’t refuse it.” Chrysostom anticipated protests from his congregation: what if the strangers are unworthy or ungrateful? Well, he says, then your reward in heaven will be greater. In the meantime, we should attend to our prejudices: “If you know indeed that they are impostors, don’t receive them into your house. But if you don’t know this, why do you accuse them lightly?” (qtd. in Oden 61–62). John Calvin echoed the point: “Say, ‘He is contemptible and worthless’; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to himself” (Calvin 3.7.6). Christian teachers across time have challenged the impulse to self-righteousness and pointed believers back to the biblical emphasis on seeing in the face of the stranger a call to welcome.  

Explicit instruction about hospitality recurs in Christian preaching throughout the centuries,

There is also a history of detailed Christian reflection on the practicalities of hospitality, as Christine Pohl has detailed. A few strangers are a real threat. Welcoming strangers in a public place, at the well in the center of the village, meant that ancient acts of hospitality were not hidden. This provided some protection for the hosts. A commitment to welcome all without distinction can quickly exhaust the emotional and material resources of a community, and we are not the first to wrestle with the challenge of drawing appropriate boundaries as we seek to serve. One early church manual recommended that a stranger should be welcomed but after two or three days could be expected to work for their sustenance (Choge). Current Christian scholars provide analysis of how Christian communities are dealing (or failing to deal) with diversity (e.g., Kaemingk) and careful discussions of how biblical treatments of hospitality relate to present-day social needs (e.g., Jipp). 

In other words, if we want to think well about Christian hospitality, we have more than hunches to work with. There are things to learn, matters to clarify, and resources available. There is a rich history of Christian reflection on hospitality. Might it benefit our students to learn about that history? Where in the curriculum might they learn to think carefully about hospitality, its practical challenges and creative community responses? Where and how might students learn about societal conflicts through a lens of hospitality? If hospitality involves more than warm intentions, what might that imply for what we teach across the curriculum? It would be odd and counter-cultural to consider schools as fundamentally places of hospitality. Although we have never deemed the topic worthy of study, I suggest we should.

3. Hospitality and Pedagogy

If hospitality is part of our faith, a facet of what schools are, and a topic ripe for study, inconsistency and hypocrisy beckon if our teaching practices are not themselves hospitable.

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Works Cited

Calvin, John. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Choge, Emily J. “Hospitality in Africa.” Africa Bible Commentary. Edited by Tokunboh Adeyemo, Zondervan Academic, 2010, p. 390. 

Jipp, Joshua W. Saved by Faith and Hospitality. Eerdmans, 2017.

Kaemingk, Matthew. Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear. Eerdmans, 2018.

Nouwen, Henri. Reaching Out: Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. Image, 1986.

Oden, Amy G. And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity. Abingdon, 2001. 

Pohl, Christine D. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Eerdmans, 1999.

Ruitenberg, Claudia W. Unlocking the World: Education in an Ethic of Hospitality. Routledge, 2015.

Schwinges, Rainer Christoph. “Student Education, Student Life.” Universities in the Middle Ages. Edited by Hilde De Ridder-Symoens, Cambridge UP, 1992, pp. 195–243.

Smith, David I., and Barbara Carvill. The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning. Eerdmans, 2000.Ystebø, Asle. Ser du meg? Bryr du deg? Kjærlighet i profesjonelle pedagogiske relasjoner. Masters Thesis, NLA Høgskolen, Bergen, 2022.

David I. Smith is director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning, coordinator of the de Vries Institute for Global Faculty Development, and professor of education at Calvin University. He is editor of the International Journal of Christianity and Education.