Often a chance to look back on familiar territory from an unusual angle is the source of new insights. So it was for me when, on a recent mission trip to Africa to teach theology to church leaders, I had the unexpected opportunity to speak in a couple of school assemblies. It prodded me to think anew about Christian education from the standpoint both of the student and the teacher.
There is a poster one sees in Kenya that proclaims, “Literacy for Improved Food Production!”I told the students of St. Philip’s Secondary School in Kitale, Kenya, that I don’t doubt improved food production is a worthy goal and that literacy can help attain it. But there is so much more to reading than that! Reading makes available to us three things that are much harder to access without it: the Word of God, the world of ideas, and the world of imagination.
The Word of God, recorded in the Christian Bible, contains the personal revelation of the Creator of the Universe, including God’s wisdom, commandments, love, and plan for the salvation and eternal fulfillment of his creatures. The world of ideas gives us the cumulative experience and thinking of the human race in its history, science, and philosophy. If nothing more, it can keep us from spending our whole lives reinventing the wheel. The world of imagination shows us the creative stirrings of the human spirit, stimulating our own spirits to make creative responses to what we learn and experience.
Any of the three worlds to which reading gives us access—scripture, ideas, imagination—can expand the mind in such a way as to facilitate things yet undreamt of (including better food production). When we combine them together, their capacity to do so is increased exponentially. So we all should pursue the adventure of reading with all our might, both in school and out of it! My talk to the students of St. Philip’s was Newman’s Idea of a University recycled impromptu for an African context. And I don’t think it’s a bad exhortation for American students, either.
When traveling in Africa, your plans are rough ideas that may have little resemblance to the actual ministry opportunities that present themselves. I was expecting (since that morning) to address the students at St. Philip’s in an assembly at the end of their school day. But after they left, I was also unexpectedly invited to address the faculty in a separate meeting as they stayed behind.
“Why are we here?” I asked them—asking myself (in a different sense) the same question. “Why are we doing this?” I continued, as the Lord helped me see a direction in which I could profitably go. Teaching is not just another job, something we do to put food on the table. It’s not just a slightly more prestigious form of factory work. Unfortunately, many African teachers (and some Americans) look at it that way. At least the Americans are reminded every payday that they aren’t doing it primarily for the money!
So why do we teach? Only if we have a well-thought-out answer to that question can we hope to foster truly transformative learning. And the only answer that begins to be adequate is that we do it out of love. I encouraged the