Part 1 in a 4 part Series
This year, the keynote speaker at the biennial Christian Schools Canada Leadership Conference was James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College and the editor of Comment magazine. Smith is also the award-winning author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?
A dynamic speaker and an engaging voice in Christian education today, he kept a rapt audience throughout his four keynote addresses at this year’s conference.
Over the next few weeks, the OACS News Service will provide readers with summaries of Smith’s four keynote addresses. We hope this series will be a benefit to conference attendees wishing to revisit Smith’s ideas, and for those who were unable to attend the event. These summaries are not intended to serve as supplements to the full lectures (which can be found on the Christian Schools Canada website) but as helpful starting points for discussion.
Learning is for Lovers
In his first lecture, Learning is for Lovers, Jamie Smith invites us to consider how our fundamental loves and learned habits connect to a holistic vision for Christian education. He begins his lecture by inviting teachers to think critically about the assumptions tucked inside their teaching methods, pointing out that every approach to teaching assumes something about the nature of human beings. These assumptions (unintentional or perhaps unconsciously born) have consequences. For example, when an approach to teaching is guided by the idea that students are more or less “intellectual receptacles”, the dissemination of information—above all else—will be the fundamental aim of the educator in charge.
Although he describes himself as “pro-knowledge”, Smith takes issue with treating students like empty containers, or “brains on sticks”. He suggests that we what we love, might actually be more central to our identities than the information or ideas we’ve absorbed: “What if we’re defined not by what we know, but by what we long for?” he asks. “What if we do in fact love in order to know, and love before we think?”
If that’s true, then Christian schools have a significant role to play in shaping the loves, the longings and the habits of their students. And, as Smith points out, Christian educators must also be attentive to the way that cultural practices (of all kinds) are forming those loves and longings already. He makes specific mention of the mall—a tactile experience that he refers to as a “cultural liturgy” of sorts—where display windows, draped manikins and enticing advertisements tell a story that captures our imaginations. Repeated visits to the mall offer us a picture of “the good life” that has the potential to shape our loves and our habits, says Smith.
When students show up to class the “liturgy of the mall” is one liturgy among many that has already been inscribed on their hearts. These liturgies are not just practices that students do, these are practices that are doing something to students—shaping their loves, their desires, and their wants, often on a subconscious level. While not all cultural liturgies are destructive or inherently bad, many of them have little to do with the kind of shalom-filled “good life” (or kingdom) that Christ wants his people to long for.
That’s one of the reasons Smith believes our loves and longings need to be “re-trained”. And, he’d like for Christian education to provide students with the communal practices and rhythms needed to do just that. God knows we’re creatures of habit, says Smith, which is why he gives us practices to shape (“and re-habituate”) our loves and longings.
Although Smith maintains that a Christian worldview is important for a person’s “perspectival engagement of the world”, he makes a compelling argument for why much more is needed. He brings his lecture to a close by reflecting on the opportunity that Christian schools have to shape the “social imaginary” of students. The term “social imaginary” was coined by Charles Taylor and refers to the fundamental way that each human being imagines the world and their relation to it. Smith points out that a social imaginary is not expressed in theoretical terms. It is caught—through images, stories, legends and practices.
“What if we thought of Christian schools as places that equip students with a kind of social imaginary?” asks Smith, “giving them a Christian know-how that they carry in their bones?” By capturing students’ imaginations, and not just informing their intellect, Christian schools can help students live towards a distinct version of shalom, says Smith. And it’s a version of shalom that shouldn’t simply be something that they “know” about—it should be something that they long for.
To listen to the full audio files of Smith’s Learning is for Lovers: Beyond Worldview (and Back Again) presentation, click here.