I’ve started in on Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School. The sub-line is more informative: “A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom.” See here,here or here.
Without giving an in-depth summary or review of the book, here are some of the more fascinating insights I’ve gained thus far (through 2 chapters). I’m sharing them largely as tidbits for reflection rather than being particularly analytical:
Thinking and Memory
Compared to the majority of the brain’s other functions, conscious thinking is actual rather slow, inefficient, and clumsy.
“Thinking” is defined as combining information in new ways and that information comes from both the environment and one’s long-term memory.
The argument that we ought to focus on teaching people/kids to evaluate information rather than acquire new knowledge because of the volumes of information readily available in the internet is false (I used to hold the evaluate rather than acquire view).
“Working memory” is the part of the brain where thinking and awareness take place.
Knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. When it comes to learning and thinking, the effectiveness of our working memory doesn’t depend on the amount of information we are trying to take it, it depends on the number of meaningful objects, or “chunks” of related information we are trying to process.
The more “chunking” we can do with all the information around us, the more and faster we can learn. Chunking requires background knowledge in order to group things in our working memory, combining information and tying new information to existing information. Therefore, “background knowledge allows chunking, which makes more room in working memory, which makes it easier to relate ideas, and therefore to comprehend” new ideas or knowledge. Empirical studies have demonstrated — in reading comparisons, for instance — that the amount of comprehension depended far more on a reader’s prior knowledge than their reading level as indicated by standardized reading tests. To sum, comprehension depends on background knowledge. The more you know, the faster you learn, and the more you retain.
Willingham addresses the proverbial (and demonstrable) “fourth-grade slump” whereby students from at-risk or underserved backgrounds tend to lag a grade level behind their peers in reading ability suddenly fall even further behind starting at fourth grade:
“reading tests start to emphasize comprehension. As described here, comprehension requires background knowledge, and that’s where kids from privileged homes have an edge. They come to a school with a bigger vocabulary and more knowledge about the world than underprivileged kids. And because knowing things makes it easier to learn new things, the gap…widens” (p.28).
Background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills.
Long-term memory plays a much greater role in problem solving than specific critical thinking skills. Memory is “the cognitive process of first resort.” It is naturally what our brain turns to first before conscious thinking in working memory. Consider the difference in thinking required by a 15-year old student driver versus a 40-year old adult who’s been driving in urban traffic to work for decades. The latter has to do very little concrete thinking because of the vast knowledge bank (also called “experience”) they have accumulated: road routes, vehicle speeds, traffic patterns, muscle control, foot-hand-eye coordination, road locations, turn signals, exits, and so on.
Factual knowledge improves your memory
Experimental studies demonstrate that having a greater amount of background knowledge directly correlates to the amount of newly acquired information you retain as time goes by. Consider two people, one of which is a dedicated football fan and the other who knows virtually nothing about the game. Imagine they both are asked to read a summary of a college football game from the prior weekend. Which would you suppose would recall more details or have an easier time recalling those details from that article 24 hours later? The more knowledge you have of something, the greater your memory when absorbing new information because you have a much greater bank of knowledge to tie it to. Having factual knowledge makes it easier to acquire more factual knowledge.
Einstein was wrong…sort of.
Einstein supposedly once said, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Willingham hopes to persuade us that Einsten was wrong. I concur. Knowledge is required for the kind of imagination that is needed for creativity, problem-solving, entrepreneurial work, and good decision-making. It is true that one can have knowledge and not be imaginative, but it is difficult to grasp how one could be imaginative without have a meaningful well of knowledge (data, facts, information, ideas) which are the raw ingredients for imagination. This is all the more ironic given the incredible wealth of knowledge which Einstein himself so obviously possessed. What I would contend Einstein actually meant (or should have meant) is this: you must acquire knowledge so that you may then use it to be imaginative in a way that changes the world around you.
But knowledge you must have.
Willingham offers these implications for educators.
Build a good knowledge base before emphasizing critical thinking.
Do whatever you can to get kids to READ…and not music, social media, or sports sites on the internet.
Knowledge acquisition can be…and often is…incidental. Often, the best acquisition of knowledge happens by exposure in the midst of other things than in concentrated study or memorization; e.g., factual data wrapped in math or science problems, reading good historical fiction, watching documentaries, thoughtfully written movies, conversation with friends, reading the news, and the like.
Start early. Which also means early intervention in building exposure to the world of knowledge is both the greatest challenge and greatest gift we can give to kids.
Make knowledge meaningful. Simply expelling lists of facts (or dates or concepts) is not all that useful. Instead, connect the dots, make it interesting, tie facts to familiar things, make it about the excitement of discovery rather than the drudgery of memorizing another useless piece of data.
The loss of an objective aesthetic in art has led to a loss of the meaning of beauty, the celebration of the scatalogical, and the move, as he puts it in the video, from the transcendent to the trashy.
Art is a window to the human soul, which we peer out of to see visions of what could be or peer into for pictures of what is. In either view, the aesthetic of of much of modern art offers nothing of real substance or meaning because it is not grounded in any objective standard of what is good, excellent, or beautiful. The loss of an objective aesthetic is not merely a matter of art, then, but of culture’s understanding of truth in all it’s forms.
The highest ideal is no longer the nobility of the transcendent but the expression of one’s desires above all else. Here, then, art has become a progressive, intellectual, and secularized society’s own golden calf. Except this time, the calf looks like us and it’s neither excellent or beautiful.
The truth about society, marriage, sexuality, gender, or the meaning of personhood itself has followed precisely this same trajectory as classical art. There are no standards, no objective reality. Nothing except the sum of one’s feelings about, well…whatever.
In this sense, as a window (or mirror) of culture, modern art’s obsessive navel-gazing and deification of self-actualization both reflects and helps feed the slow death of society.
“The Church does have a mission in the world because it advances an incarnational faith, one in which God himself took human form. So we cannot deny the human, and hence, political dimension to the Gospel but if one does not get the mix right, one gets confused on one side or the other. One error says that we should abandon the world and run away from it, and the other error says that we should on the world and run it.”
I have been reading Fr. Robert Sirico’s The Soul of Liberty. Father Sirico is the founder and President of The Acton Institute, an think-tank I highly recommend for their splendid work to promote a free and virtuous society based on human liberty and religious truth.
One of the most transformative implications of the Church’s mission in the world — proclaiming the Gospel of the redemption of all creation through Christ — is the dignity, worth, and entrepreneurial creativity of human persons made in the image of God. In human history, it has only been in societies rooted in this biblical worldview that equality, freedom, prosperity, and justice have flourished. Only a truly Christian, biblical view of the created order leads to an economic and political system in which “individuals have the right to own, to create, to contract, and to prosper” but where those rights are “tied to a profound sense of moral and social obligation.” Secular (rejecting religious truth) systems inevitably lead to either tyrannical despotism, fascism, or anarchy. The French (and Haitian) and Bolshevik (Communism) Revolutions, German National Socialism are three modern examples. Only a Judeo-Christian view of the world (and subsequently, economics, property, and law) leads to this necessary balance of freedom and internal moral, social obligation.
Sirico raises a very important point about the incarnational nature of the Church in the world as well as the need to get the mix right. The doctrine of creation means that the fundamental activities of human society — economics, trade, use of property, the rule of law, and politics — are not products of a fallen human society but rather expressions of the imago Dei in culture. And, as such, has profound implications for the our understanding of what it means to be a human being living in a physical world with others in a society. We cannot limit our understanding of the incarnational aspect of the the gospel merely to the spiritual or physical needs of individuals. Rather, the Creation and the Incarnation beckon us to speak to the economic, legal, and political systems of our day. Not in the effort to “run the world” but to point culture to its telios, its created purpose found only in God the Creator.
 The Soul of Liberty by Fr. Robert Sirico (The Acton Institute)
“Loneliness is not good for the world. Whoever you are, gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural and healthy to want someone to go through life with. It’s central to our humanity. We want someone to go on the journey with.”
“Marriage, gay and straight, is a gift to the world because the world needs more not less love, fidelity, commitment, devotion and sacrifice.”
Rob Bell went on to suggest that the church and Scripture are largely irrelevant:
“I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life with someone.”
It is as if he thinks that there were not flesh-and-blood people who were friends, relatives, and acquaintances of the early church leaders and theologians. Apparently the church’s understanding of human nature and society were formed in a sterile vacuum devoid of any real people. (Note: This is one reason why studying history is so critical.)
That’s one fatal flaw of modern progressivism: the assumption that modern science and psychology has helped us understand something about human nature that the millennia before us were too ignorant to comprehend. Bell’s inference here is that if the early church had only known what we know today, they would have written and taught differently.
It’s the oldest temptation of human history: to fulfill my own needs and desires while determining for myself what is right and wrong. God becomes irrelevant. All that matters is what I want and that is what I call “good”. That’s an attractive, appealing, and beautiful road in life that ends in calamity.
This worldview championed here by Oprah and Rob Bell is nothing new; it always ends the same way. Augustine of Hippo and, later, Martin Luther, used a phrase to describe this: cor incurvatus in se, a heart curved in upon itself.
That is precisely what Rob Bell is advocating and preaching here: a definition of love that is self-referential and self-oriented: incurvatusinse. When resolving your loneliness becomes the basis of your thinking about relationships, love, and marriage, you have already begun the journey of destructions of others. The more you need others to fulfill your own desires and satisfy your own emptiness, the more they become merely objects to be used. This kind of love is ultimately only thing: the love of self. There is no room for others, not truly. They are only useful as long as they serve some greater purpose in my life. This view destroys personhood, human dignity, and the very idea of relationship itself.
When the heart is curved in upon itself, in time the whole world becomes curved in upon you as well. In this world, love does not win. It is obliterated and humanity destroys itself.
Real, true love is grounded in the recognition that God establishes the order for human relationship and identity. He is the fixed reference point for what is true, good, and right. The only way we can fully and freely love others as we were intended is by anchoring ourselves to that point of reference.
Excerpts from my upcoming new book (Summer 2017), Kenotic Leadership and the Movement that Changed America (working title), that looks at the imitation of Christ in the life and leadership of Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist church in America.
Francis Asbury: “I am brought to conclude that slavery will exist in Virginia perhaps for ages; there is not a sufficient sense of religion nor of liberty to destroy it; Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, in the highest flights of rapturous piety, still maintain and defend it.”
The issue of slavery was very complex and multifaceted for the Methodist Episcopal Church, just as it was in culture. It was a moral and political debate that would eventually tear both Church and nation apart. Slavery would not legally end until Lincoln’s Emancipation in 1863. Two decades before that, in 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split into North and South contingents along the fault line of slavery. It would take nearly one hundred years for the divisions to heal and the main bodies of the church to reunite.
Abolition was the general position of John Wesley and the English Methodists. In England, William Wilberforce had been waging his campaign to abolish Britain’s slave trade that would eventually result in the Slave Trade Act of 1807. About the time the Methodist Episcopal Church was forming in America, Wilberforce experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity and worked closely with Methodist and Quaker abolitionists. Wilberforce was strongly influenced by John Wesley, who had been actively involved in the abolitionist movement prior to Wilberforce.Just days before his death, in a letter to Wilberforce, John Wesley called slavery “that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature” and referred to the American form of slavery as “the vilest that ever saw the sun.”
On the other hand, George Whitefield, a Calvinist Methodist preacher and close friend of John Wesley, was a vocal and influential champion for the institution of slavery on both economic and scriptural grounds. Whitefield argued that Christian slaveowners had a moral obligation to treat their slaves humanely, to care for their physical well-being, and to provide good spiritual training. But blacks were not equal to whites; they were a lesser form of creature. God, in his providence, had subjugated them to the care and authority of the whites.
Undoubtely influenced by Whitefield’s position, most southern Methodist conferences, particularly the Carolinas and Georgia, held that the Bible sanctioned or even called for slavery. Conveniently, this theological position reinforced the economic arguments of the South. Like Whitefield and other notable Christian pro-slavery leaders, the southern position argued that neither God nor the early church condemned the practice. They pointed to Jewish laws in the Old Testament detailing the proper treatment of servants, the Apostle Paul’s admonitions regarding slaves’ and masters’ treatment of one another, and the New Testament letter to Philemon, a slave-owner and early Christian. Additionally, most southern preachers advocated a divide between political and religious realms. Slavery was a secular, legal structure, not a matter for the Church. The Church’s concern were the “winning of souls” and the spiritual wellbeing of people, not their political status. This included slaves. Conveniently, for the southern churches, the Church simply had no business interfering in the affairs of government.
On the other side, most northern conferences favored abolition. For them, slavery was a moral rather than a social or political issue. Many preachers strongly believed slavery to be inconsistent with Christian belief or practice, and considered it an unjust social evil. In America, slavery was an immediate and much more socially volatile issue for the common citizen than it was in England. As a result, it was far more personal and emotinoal. Asbury was caught in the middle. As bishop, Asbury was convinced his leadership had to span both sides of the divide. On the one hand was the mandate to care for and minister to slaves while advocating for an end to the system. On the other was the need to hold together the whole movement in unity and fellowship. Then, as now, the question of what unity meant or required was messy and harder to discern in the moment.
Asbury shared Wesley’s abolitionist views, insisting slavery was morally wrong and contrary to Scripture. The question was what to do about it in a church whose people firmly occupied diametrically opposed sides. He lamented that there was “not a sufficient sense of religion or liberty to destroy it. [Christians] in the highest flights of rapturous piety, still maintain and defend it.” Compounding the problem was the fact that Methodism was strongest in the south. In essence, the problem Asbury believed he faced was a Gordian knot: choosing between pursuing the abolition of slavery and maintaining the unity of the church. As history proved, it was a knot impossible to untie.
Throughout his ministry, Asbury showed concern for the condition and spiritual life of slaves and free blacks. He actively supported their participation in worship services, class meetings, and love feasts. He placed special emphasis on the education of slaves and their children, and traveled closely with Richard Allen, a free black, who would soon go on to start the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In places where segregation was demanded, he helped establish classes and churches just for blacks. But elsewhere, he was frustrated, sometimes to the point of anger, by the lack of charity towards slaves, such as one meeting where nearly one hundred slaves had to stand outside a half-empty house because they were not worthy to come inside with the others.
Early on, Asbury actively campaigned for the abolition of slavery. He sought to maintain the anti-slavery stance of Wesleyan Methodism in the church, endorsing resolutions calling for manumission and expulsion for unjust or inhuman trading of slaves. One northern conference “almost unanimously” agreed and resolved “not to hold slaves in any State where the law will allow them to manumit them, on pain of forfeiture of their honour and their place in the itinerant connexion [sic].” In any state where slaveowners were forbidden by to law to grant slaves their freedom, the conference agreed that slaves were to be paid and, when the current slaveowner dies, to entrust the slaves to a new owner who would work to bring about their legal freedom. But just a few years later, he described how grieved he was at Methodists who would “hire out slaves at public places to the highest bidder, to cut, skin, and starve them…I will try if words can be like drawn swords, to pierce the hearts of the owners.”
Eventually, Asbury realized he was walking the proverbial razor’s edge. Offsetting his concern for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of slaves and free blacks was his concern that a strong abolitionist stance threatened to divide the church along northern and southern lines or drive southern preachers out of the connection. He soon realized that a strong abolitionist campaign would stir up bitter feelings and potentially destroy the church.
By 1809, his position had tempered considerably. He lamented the loss of “great numbers” because slave-owners kept their slaves away from the Methodists due to their abolitionist principles. This was where he famously noted, “would not an amelioration in the condition and treatment of slaves have produced more practical good to the poor Africans, than any attempt at their emancipation? The state of society, unhappily, does not admit of this.” Regrettably, this emphasis on care at the expense of freedom would be echoed by slavery sympathizers in the church across the next 100 years. Asbury never relented with his belief in the immorality of slavery, but in the end he adopted a less active and public pursuit of social reform. He shifted to focus on amelioration of the slaves’ condition. Like many other leaders of the day, Asbury was content to allow emancipation to wait until a later day, hoping the institution of slavery would eventually die out.
Pradaoxically, Asbury’s position represents a posture of embracing humanity. Caught in what was truthfully an impossible situation, Asbury sought to embrace the slaves and hold the church together. Although from a modern, evangelical, Christian perspective, Asbury’s softening on abolition can be rightly criticized, one must appreciate the real tensions and exigencies of the day even while not needing to justify Asbury’s decisions. The humanity Asbury sought to embrace was fractured, broken, and deeply flawed. To embrace the whole of his social reality, Asbury had to reach his arms around two sides of a great cultural chasm. In one sense, Asbury felt he could not fully give himself to one cause without losing his ministry to the other; to choose one over the other was fundamentally wrong.
Asbury’s compromise was to leave the political arguments to others. All along, his primary concern had been the wellbeing of slaves and blacks regardless of their legal status. Whether or not emancipation was to be the law of the land, Asbury sought to embrace and care for them. That he did not go far enough in pursuing their legal freedom is a matter of debate and historical judgment (he did not). That he worked within the confines of the legal boundaries of his time to embrace those who suffered injustice and oppression while working to hold the Methodist church together is beyond dispute. From his perspective, the price would have been the unity–and even the existence–of the Church, a price he was simply unwilling to pay.
Asbury’s record on the problem of slavery is not flawless—he could have done a number of things differently—but his fundamental motive and concern was for the entire spectrum of those in the church. In this regard, Asbury’s embrace of humanity, in spite of its many foibles, misjudgments, and misguided actions, is nonetheless one born of love and identification with his fellow men.
Higher education is facing, to paraphrase Dickens and Thomas Paine, the best and worst of times, the times that try institutions’ souls. These are the worst of times because of the great challenges facing higher education: escalating costs of tuition, facilities, books and resources, and personnel; increased competition and decreasing enrollment pools; aging adult populations; rising freshmen populations increasingly unprepared for the academic and intellectual demands of college; a near-decade long recession; mounting obstacles in secondary education – lack of funding, falling graduation rates, teacher shortages, growing achievement gaps; a shrinking middle class; and an increasingly polarized political environment. Globalization, immigration, religious pluralization, and technologization put strains on both public and private higher education unlike any ever known.
But for all those logistical and operational challenges, the gravest danger is ideological. These are the times that try the soul, mission, and integrity of institutions. A battle of ideas is being waged for the hearts and minds of our children; nowhere is that battle more pronounced than on university and college campuses, even Christian ones. We are on the frontlines of this cultural collision between truth and its counterfeit. A collision in which the academy is no longer a place of the free exchange of ideas and critical thinking but is characterized by safe spaces, the “snowflake rebellion,” microaggressions, marriage and transgender equality, LGBTQ rights and their identity crises, the intolerance of the new age of tolerance, and, for Christian schools, the even more problematic reduction of Christian theology to one dimensional, self-referential proclamations of love and social justice.
The battle for the mind of the academy is not new. Mission drift has long been a threat to Christian schools. It is no accident that most of the oldest institutions in U.S. history were founded as religious schools whose mission was to ground society’s leaders in the knowledge and practice of God’s divine truth. In 1692, Harvard University’s original motto was Veritas Christo et Ecclesia, or Truth for Christ and the Church, a philosophy occasionally still found in the original seal on certain buildings around the campus. But by the 20th century the motto had been reduced simply to: Veritas, a quest for truth and meaning unanchored to any objective source.
Harvard represents a long list of many significant educational institutions whose beginnings were rooted in a biblical, Judeo-Christian worldview and mission. Yet virtually none of those institutions today bear any theological resemblance to their origins. Their unmooring and drift has often been imperceptible, like the proverbial boiling of the frog. Now, though, the forces against Christian truth, religious liberty, and genuine human freedom rooted in the imago dei are swift and powerful currents. Far too many Christian schools, including conservative evangelical ones and even those in the wider Wesleyan tradition are being swept away from their historical and theological anchors. Indeed, too many campuses have become centers for progressive propaganda and indoctrination.
All of this, in short, points to a pervasive loss of the Christian mind. Harry Blamires reminds us that the most vital task in “reconstituting the Christian mind will be to reestablish the status of objective truth as distinct from personal opinions.” If we ‘unhook’ our Christian worldview from the discussion of spirituality in the marketplace or the classroom, we help perpetuate the discouragement of free intellectual inquiry . In effect, we become theistic existentialists who say that although (for us) truth is rooted in God, it’s validity to the non-Christian world is only determined by its personal value to the individual, not by its nature as divine reality. For a Christian thinker, student, scholar, or professor, this is intellectually dishonest.
As Christian, if we decide we are only going to talk about values and not religious belief, in order to “engage” with those from a non-Christian worldview, we prevent the conversation from moving to the very place we think we are taking it. Indeed, we can and must talk plainly, honestly, and winsomely about our Christian faith while at the same time cultivating an atmosphere of honest intellectual freedom and a respectful listening to others.
This has happened in history and is needed again. Eugene Peterson, pointing to the effect that the Monastic movement and the Protestant Reformation had on human history, said that “Christianity can and will have a considerable impact on culture when it involves thinking at the most fundamental levels…Those who hope to see Christianity affect culture in America and elsewhere must work toward the development of a strong publicChristian mind (italics mine)”. . We have no reason to be either afraid of talking “Christian” in the classroom or marketplace.
Too many Christian universities and faculty are increasingly reluctant to face the challenge of remaining truly Christian. The wide path involves either blending or hiding; blending in with the majority silencing the voices of the past, relegating them to the halls of archives and choosing generic spirituality masquerading as “relevance”; or cloistering and hiding away as we become increasingly indifferent and inconsequential, privately holding onto the truth but afraid to let that voice be heard or let its light shine for fear of public scorn, rebuke, attack, or, God forbid, closure.
The narrow, harder way is to be a lighthouse and a beacon to culture, proclaiming truth, offering liberty, and modeling transformation. As Dr. Everett Piper, our president here at Oklahoma Wesleyan, has time and again noted, only institutions that genuinely believe in divine objective truth can be places of truly higher education’s noble ideals of freedom, liberty, critical inquiry, and justice. Our culture is morally adrift and in desperate need of the freedom and power of the classical, Christian liberal arts anchored in a true north of the laws of nature and nature’s God.
No group of people are more significant in that endeavor than our faculty. The recovery effort of Christian higher education begins with the “mind” of the faculty. And it’s not just Blamers or Peterson that beckon us to the recovery of a Christian mind. The medieval Scholastics like Aquinas and Anselm were driven by this sense of “faith seeking understanding,” that God and his nature could be discovered and worshipped using the highest faculty of human reason and intellect.
As Christian professors, we do not live in the tension between faith and intellect. Rather, we can embody for our students a life of integrity in which our minds are in pursuit of divine truth which is revealed and lived out in wisdom and practice. We are called to love God not just with our heart and soul, but with our mind. We find in that, as as thousands of years of history before us, God’s truth is robust and strong enough to not only hold up to the scrutiny of human reason and inquiry, but is the only, ultimate ideal which can fully satisfy and make sense of reality.
So, dear faculty, engaging your students with the full measure of Christian truth as it permeates all disciplines and all subjects is and can be an act of worship and adoration to the God who created and revealed all truth.
 Sirico, R. (2002). The Soul of Liberty. Grand Rapids, MI: The Acton Institute. p. 34.
 Peterson, M. (2001). With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame. p. 206.