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Committed Openness and Education

April 29, 2015

Over the many years that I have been researching and writing about education, influence, and persuasion, there is one conviction that has been growing, and it has to do with the importance of open-mindedness. Now open-mindedness is not the same as empty-mindedness. Indeed, there are no empty minds. Contrary to John Locke, our minds are not blank slates at birth. And as we mature, we cannot help but have convictions. We are always committed. But there is a desperate need to combine our commitments with open-mindedness. Committed openness is an important intellectual virtue.

Some readers might object to the very idea of combining commitment and open-mindedness. Surely “committed openness” is an oxymoron, if ever there was one. I disagree. Indeed, I believe this combination describes what it means to be a healthy human being. It also describes a healthy Christian mind. I am convinced that the goal of Christian education should be the cultivation of committed openness.

One of the problems with writing books is that once they are published you can’t change what you have written. If it were possible, I would change the title of my first book, Teaching for Commitment (1993). I would choose instead the title, “Teaching for Committed Openness.” Not that I didn’t deal with the issue of critical openness in my book. But, I think it would have been better to highlight both the concept of commitment and the concept of openness in the title of my book.

The Bible calls us to be both committed and open-minded.

We all know the first and greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Lk.10:27). There is a propositional component to Christian commitment. Commitment includes conviction. Throughout the Scriptures, men and women with strong convictions are held up as ideals (II Tim. 1:5, 4:7). Paul warns against being like infants tossed back and forth by the waves, blown here and there by every wind of teaching (Eph. 4:14). Instead, as Paul exhorts us repeatedly, we are to stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that have been passed on to us (II Thess. 2:15; Titus 1:9).

The bible also calls us to be open-minded. After contrasting those who understand the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and those who don’t, Jesus says this about the latter group: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand” (Matt. 13:13). And then Jesus turns to his disciples and says this by way of contrast: “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (v. 16). Paul gives us a depressing analysis of human nature – men and women suppress the truth because of their wickedness (Rom. 1:18). Elsewhere, Paul suggests that the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (II Cor. 4:4). And God invites such people to open their minds and hearts to the God who said, “Let light shine out of the darkness” (v. 6).

The Scriptures also encourage us to be critical thinkers. Watch out that no one deceives you, Jesus said, as he predicted a falling away at the end of the age (Matt. 24: 4). Don’t believe every spirit, John tells us, but test the spirits (I John 4:1). The Bereans are described as being of more noble character than the Thessalonians, we are told in Acts 17, because they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (v.11). Nobility of character not only includes moral virtues but also intellectual virtues such as critical openness.

So we see both commitment and open-mindedness affirmed in the Scriptures. We therefore need to affirm both ideals. They are not contradictory. And Christian education must aim to cultivate this combination of committed openness in students.

Why is it that we today tend to think of committed openness as a contradiction in terms? I believe the roots of this error go back to the Enlightenment, with its pervasive suspicion about tradition and authority. Bruce Kimball, in his history of the ideal of liberal education shows how, since the Enlightenment, liberal education has been understood primarily in terms of liberating students from limiting traditions and narrow prejudices (1986). Implicit in this ideal of liberal education is a very negative assessment of the upbringing that children receive in the home where children are initiated into a particular language, a particular culture, and a particular set of beliefs. The purpose of a liberal education is therefore understood to involve liberating students from the narrow confines of their upbringing. Hence the emphasis on open-mindedness and critical thinking in education today. Liberal education is seen as the very opposite of teaching for commitment. Teaching for commitment is associated with indoctrination.

There are two problems with this ideal of liberal education. First, it is fundamentally wrongheaded to see parental upbringing and initiation into a particular culture and set of beliefs in such a negative way. Creating a strong primary culture for our children is one of the most valuable things we can give to our children. Healthy growth can only take place if children are given such a foundation. Secondly, this ideal of liberal education fails to do justice to the fact that liberation can only occur if children have first been initiated into a particular set of commitments and beliefs. Critical thinking is only possible if you first have something to be critical about. Doubt can only come after belief.

Liberal education, as traditionally understood, is therefore necessarily parasitic on something else, namely initiation into particular primary culture. In other words, liberal education is necessarily parasitic on teaching for commitment. Or, to use another metaphor introduced by Brenda Watson, nurture is the necessary “cradle” of (the liberating phase of) liberal education (Watson, 1987, 9). Of course, liberal education does not only consist of initiation into a particular primary culture. It doesn’t only involve teaching for commitment. There also needs to be liberation, opening up, broadening of horizons and encouragement to critically evaluate beliefs one is committed to. But such teaching for openness must be combined with teaching for commitment.

What about the worrisome charge of indoctrination? Teaching for commitment should not in itself be viewed with suspicion. I have argued that commitment is a good thing, and that initiation into a particular primary culture is an essential first component of a balanced view of liberal education. I believe the charge of indoctrination is made far too often, and that when it is applied to Christian education, it is often quite unjustified.

But, and this is a big but, we need to be careful. It is possible to take teaching for commitment too far. Teaching for commitment can be distorted into teaching for fanaticism. We can be too bold in initiating our children and our students into the particularity of a religious tradition. We can fail to give them the space to process and reject that which they are being initiated into. We can fail to expose students to anything beyond the Christian faith. And when we fail in these ways, we can legitimately be charged with indoctrination. I would suggest that indoctrination occurs when we fail to balance teaching for commitment with the liberation phase of liberal education.

Here another important question arises. What is the practical relationship between teaching for commitment and teaching for critical openness? When do we teach for commitment? When do we teach for critical openness? Does the one component simply follow the other? To some degree, yes. Teaching young children in the home consists primarily of teaching for commitment. But, even here, it is not only that. Two-year-olds, as any parent knows, ask many questions. They keep wanting to know “why?” But, given a healthy trust relationship, they accept a parent’s answers to their questions. What happens when children enter school at the age of 6 or 7 years of age? At this stage I believe the focus should still be primarily on teaching for commitment. That is why I believe in Christian schools for children from Christian homes. There needs to be continuity between the home and the school. Too much of a disconnect between the home environment and the school environment will be traumatic for children.

As children mature, there should be an increasing emphasis on broadening their horizons, and nurturing the ability to question and to think critically. But even here, there still needs to be some emphasis on teaching for commitment, and gaining a deeper understanding of the faith of their parents. The need for security, for being grounded in a particular commitment, and for having this reinforced by “plausibility structures” persists throughout a person’s life, according to Peter Berger (1969, 16, 22). At the same time, there should always be openness to critically evaluating our present commitments.

Much more could be said about the practical implications of the above analysis of the need for a balance between commitment and open-mindedness. For a more detailed consideration of these practical implications see my Teaching for Commitment (1993, Ch. 9).

By way of conclusion, let me highlight only one important implication. It is imperative that Christian teachers model this balance between commitment and critical openness. Here two sets of questions might be useful to help Christian teachers assess whether they themselves maintain this healthy balance.

Do you love God with the whole of your being, with heart, soul, strength and mind? Are you passionately committed to Jesus? Is following Jesus your ultimate concern? Is all of your thinking transformed by your allegiance to Jesus Christ? Are you committed to the Christian community that you are a part of? Do you love your neighbour as yourself? Do you regularly pray for your students?

Are you open to examining aspects of your commitment to Jesus? Do you find it easy to admit that you are wrong? Are you humble in your affirmations of truth? Are you slow to speak and quick to listen? Do you at least sometimes read magazines and books that run counter to your basic assumptions? Do you resist the temptation to unfriend your friends on Facebook who express opinions contrary to your own? Do you from time to time examine some of your fundamental presuppositions? Do you welcome others criticizing your convictions?

If you hesitated in giving a positive answer to some of these questions, then perhaps you should read this article again!

Works Cited
Berger, Peter L. 1969. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden City, NJ: Anchor.

Kimball, Bruce A. 1986. Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Thiessen, Elmer John. 1993. Teaching for Commitment: Liberal Education, Indoctrination and Christian Nurture. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. Watson, Brenda. 1987. Education and Belief. Oxford: Blackwell.

(This article was first published in Christian Educators Journal, Vol. 51, #1, October, 2011, pp. 23-6, and is here slightly revised. It is based on a presentation I made at the 2010 OCSTA Educator’s Convention. For an expanded version of this article, see “Teaching for Committed Openness,” in Cultivating Inquiry Across the Curriculum, ed. by Kim A. Winsor. Lexington, MA: Lexington Christian Academy, 2008, pp. 159-185. See also my chapter, “Religious Education and Committed Openness,” in Inspiring Faith: Studies in Religious Education, ed. by Marius Felderhof, Penny Thompson, and David Torevell. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing. 2007. pp. 35-46.)