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Teaching as Lighting Fires

It’s summer. Which means, among other things, that school is out.

Summer means different things to different people, of course. For some it’s about family vacation, for others it’s time at the beach or lake, for others – especially in the Northern Hemisphere – it means warm weather and longer days. But given that I have spent the overwhelming bulk of my life as a student, teacher, and/or parent of school-aged kids, summer has almost always been defined primarily as the time between the end of one school year and the beginning of another.

This summer – prompted in part, I’m sure, by my impending transition – rather than take a break from school, I have been thinking a lot about school: about what school is and should be, about what we hope from school, about what it means to teach, and more.

Along these lines, I thought I’d share a quotation I stumbled across some years ago that has been haunting me of late. (Haunting, of course, in a good way!) It’s by William Butler Yeats, who said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

This seems particularly pertinent to me as we live at a time of tremendous change. Many of the “majors” while I was in college may not exist when my kids go to school, yet much of education continues to be focused on mastering disciplines, passing tests, developing demonstrable pools of knowledge. But are we lighting fires, creating in them the capacity to learn on their own, sparking an interest in personal and communal growth? I’m not so sure.

The same is true in the seminary. We define most of what we do in discipline-specific terms. But if we continue that way – acting as if education is a transfer of knowledge – how do we respond to a changed and rapidly changing world and church? In this age of Google and Siri and the Kahn Academy, it seems to me that if we teachers lodge our credibility and competency primarily on the basis of the knowledge we possess and can give to our students, we are doomed.

So perhaps the number one thing we should be teaching – at every level – is the ability to learn and to keep learning, to sift through all the available information and judge which is good and helpful and relevant and which is simply just more information.

We should be moving, that is, from knowledge to skill – the ability and eagerness to do something with the knowledge that is available all around us. Or, as Yeats said it better: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”