Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bread for Dogs

There is a growing niche in education. Enabled by the new global information structure, some rather significant players in academia have pioneered new approaches in educating the masses. Most notable at the moment might be heavyweight Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been the leading proponent of a concept called OpenCourseWare (OCW). In a nutshell, MIT OCW provides material (e.g. lectures, handouts, exams) from maybe thousands of courses taught at the school over the past decade. This is all free and accessible to anyone anywhere in the world who has access to the internet.

Another approach comes from MIT/Harvard educated Salman Khan. His online Khan Academy has thousands of video lectures along with a unique platform for practicing and tracking student progress. I have personally significantly benefited from Khan in my own studies with geology and advanced calculus, and just a few weeks ago I heard of a family near me that integrates Khan’s resources with their homeschooling. The kids themselves say they love it.

Univeristy of the People is taking a third route and endeavoring to create a truly tuition free online university. At the present, they offer programs in computer science and business administration and they are in the process of seeking accreditation. U of P adds the structure that is not present with OCW offerings such as an actual professor and a class of peers. This general trend toward alternative means of educating is remarkable in and of itself and also stands in remarkable juxtaposition to the other, more prolific trend of creating for-profit commercial institutions out of the carcasses of failing traditional colleges. I can see only good things coming from intelligent, creative people taking it upon themselves to make education more available to the broad world.

So what is going on with the church? While we certainly have some strong representatives in the for-profit (and arguably predatory) movement with Grand Canyon University and Victory University, the church is conspicuous in its near absence from the alternative higher education thrust. This should be an utter embarrassment to all of us who claim to take seriously the standards set forward in scripture, because we have a mandate to build up the church freely and sacrificially. Making disciples certainly encompasses education, so should gaining a Christian education for a disciple of Christ cost as much as it does for a disciple of Wall Street to attain an MBA? Is the church just blithely trudging along on the same well-worn path with the rest of academia—the same academia that much of the church is so quick to condemn as damnably secular and progressive?

It would still be an embarrassment to us if Christian educators were merely on par with the secular educators in alternative education. We have fairly clear guidelines on how to go about life differently and we are the ones that should be setting standards. And while there are small players here and there that are operating in that direction (see thenarrowpath.com, covenantseminary.edu, and studycenter.com), the major agents in Christian academia (e.g. Wheaton University or Dallas Theological Seminary) are, to my knowledge, completely absent. So what are we to make of this? Is there to be a distinction in this kingdom of priests between a well-educated, controlling class and laity that has a life-long dependence upon the professional ministers to truly understand the Bible? Are we to understand that Jesus’ edict to make disciples of the world was intended to include a hefty tuition for those being made (and comfortable salaries for those doing the making)? And what happens to Mathew 10:8—is it null in our day considering that those who now have (in the context of education) certainly didn’t freely receive it for themselves?

There are likely unqualified, ungifted, and I dare say even unsaved men and women in Christian institutions of higher learning all across the country. They can afford tuition so they receive the best that Christian minds can offer while there are likely those who are called, gifted, and abandoned to the Lord who get by on the scraps that are left on the floor. Can we seriously not do better than MIT and Yale in meeting the educational needs of our own? Certainly it is not right to take the children’s bread and sell it to the dogs.

Christians should be very interested in finding creative ways to make the highest quality theological education available to anyone in the church who is willing to learn. We have seen that with OCW models this can be done without risking the established system of allowing those with the means to attend school and actually walk away with diplomas in hand. There are likely several potential solutions to this situation that do not involve an overnight abandonment of the Christian educational system as it now stands, so it really comes down to whether or not the people with the knowledge care enough about equipping Christ’s body to actually do so.