I came across this quote by C.S. Lewis some time ago and have been mulling over what it might mean for an educator to take this to heart. Certainly Lewis’ point applies to teachers of any sort, but what would it mean specifically for a theological educator?
It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than a master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought to me by my pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t (Reflections on the Psalms [Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1958], 1-2).
At the very least, Lewis reminds us that good educators model honest inquiry. Fear must not dissuade us from asking tough, uncomfortable questions. This applies not only in preparation for courses, but in the presence of students as well. Nothing is more corrosive to cultivating a love of learning than giving the impression that you have it all figured out—you don’t, and you know it.
But there is more going on here. Lewis pulls out into the open—without naming it—an elusive skill of good educators. It is hard to put your finger on it, but you know it when you see it or when you experience it in the classroom. I don’t know what else to call it but empathy. Good educators empathize with their students’ struggle to learn; they enter into their labor with them, and in doing so they come to understand the students’ questions from their perspective. They come to feel again the tension of it, and are then able to address it.
For the theological educator I think this boils down to loving students. To empathize with them is to enter into the struggle of their unknowing; I struggle out of my supposed knowing and enter into their place. I suffer the cost of pushing back into those questions that are long-settled in my mind, and this is costly. I would go so far as saying that for the theological educator, empathizing with students is a form of embodying the love of Christ. In me, I hope they see something of Christ’s willingness to suffer the cost of entering into our place as finite, human, unknowing, creatures.
Said differently: for a Christian, theological educator the doctrine of Christ should have a pedagogical function, shaping one’s philosophy of education at a more fundamental, basic level than general theories about teaching, learning, and higher education.