Education from an Objective Perspective
Can insight from a brilliant, prolific, yet little-known (at least in secular circles) theologian lead the way to real education reform?
In his thorough work Method in Theology (1971), the esteemed theologian Bernard Lonergan explained that "in the world mediated by meaning and motivated by value, objectivity is simply the consequence of authentic subjectivity, of genuine attention, genuine intelligence, genuine reasonableness, genuine responsibility." He goes on to note that "[m]athematics, science, philosophy, ethics, theology differ in many manners; but they have the common feature that their objectivity is the fruit of attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility."
As a new school year gets underway, Lonergan's insight would benefit educators in their noble task of instruction. In an academic sphere dominated by relativism, a serious return to objectivity would be a welcome refreshment to the advancement of knowledge and the advancement of students.
Lonergan's four seeds that produce the fruit of objectivity -- attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness, and responsibility -- can be considered in a stepwise fashion to apply them to an educational plan.
First, in order to get a student engaged in learning, you must get his attention. Competition for that attention abounds from many directions -- family situations, friends, cell phones, video games, sports, et al. Regardless, the challenge for the teacher is to instill a discipline in each student that will help all students pay attention to important subject matter. This attentiveness can be encouraged by setting the rules in the classroom. Inside the classroom, students are to focus on the important task at hand -- learning a particular topic and its connection and application to practical and theoretical matters. All other concerns are to be temporarily suspended for the purpose of learning. A side benefit of this suspension may be that it provides a much-needed oasis for a student who, say, has weighty issues at home from which he needs to take a break.
Once attentiveness is achieved, intelligence should take over. Although student intellectual levels may vary widely, they all can apply whatever inherent intelligence they possess to learning. The challenge for the teacher is to help cultivate student understanding by applying as appropriate the wide variety of teaching techniques that were hopefully taught and learned in the schools of education. A good mix of various methods from the traditional theorists and practitioners such as Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner can go a long way toward student intellectual development, as can objectivism and constructivism and applications involving hands-on discovery learning and modeling. Regardless of the personal socialist philosophies of many of the pedagogical "luminaries," their astute observations and applications can assist in the advancement of student knowledge.
Besides intelligence, reasonableness can be nurtured so that students will continue to be motivated by the value of what they are learning. The value of a good education is obvious to mature adults. Getting students, especially at an early age, to see that value and be energized by it is another serious challenge for the educator.
Consider this: I have always been amazed in my many years of pedagogical observations of student athletes enrolled in my classes. Frequently, such athletes -- who may be geniuses on the playing field -- have a very lackadaisical attitude toward academic subject matter and just get by with a passing grade. Oftentimes they exhibit an inability to even be able to learn the rudiments of the subject being taught. However, these same athletes are required to learn complex plays, undergo stringent training and game-day schedules, and conform to rigorous rules.
What is the difference between success with a sport and success in education? Certainly, one difference that almost assures personal success with both is motivation. And it is motivation that can be the most elusive characteristic that educators can develop in students. Perhaps getting students to appreciate the reasonableness of a good education will become part of their personal motivation.
Finally, responsibility includes what students do with what they know. Here is where educators can help their students learn not just how information is applied, but why and to what ends. There is unfortunately a move to develop student activists for all sorts of dubious causes like social justice, climate justice, animal rights, and the like. But educators must steer away from trendy political indoctrinations and move students toward thinking that's responsible, intelligent, independent, and lasting. From such thinking, derived from a solid, in-depth education, students may be able to make their own responsible choices on how to act with what they learned objectively.
I confess that my application of Lonergan's sage advice is comparatively superficial. However, it suggests a basic, sensible plan that can begin to produce an appreciation for learning that yields students who not only come to know useful, objective information, but can apply such information (and even create new information) for the betterment of their own lives and the lives of others.
(Author's note: My association of Bernard Lonergan's ideas with insight is no accident. His most famous work is likely Insight: A Study of Human Understanding [5th ed., 1992, originally published in 1957].)
Anthony J. Sadar is a certified consulting meteorologist and science educator. He is author of the new book In Global Warming We Trust: A Heretic's Guide to Climate Science (www.inglobalwarmingwetrust.com).