I spent this week attending the Global Proclamation Congress in Thailand. Besides speaking in one morning chapel, I spent my time mostly thinking, listening and learning. The biggest takeaway is the discussion about education. Since Christianity isn’t always a popular religion in many countries, access to theological education isn’t always readily available. Some obstacles are persecution and English literacy along with general educational level of local population. I also heard about a number of Protestant (quite often evangelical) theological institutions doing away with the tenure system in favor of a more “practical” approach to education. How are these related? I will discuss below.
Let me go with some definitions first. Formal education is one that goes through all the necessary steps with the goal of receiving a degree at the end. Non-formal education trains up students in a practical way that forces them to go through necessary steps without necessarily getting a degree at the end. Sometimes, non-formal education is an abbreviated version of formal education for practical reasons. Informal education may be anything that is done informally without necessarily going through all the steps of either formal or non-formal education but the student learns something. Whatever that “something” is probably depends on the effort of each student. Most likely, the vigor of formal education is greater than non-formal and informal.
In formal education, there’s a system in place not only to ensure that the student passes qualifying steps but also to ensure that the instructors go through their own qualification for ranking. In non-formal education, students also go through the qualifying steps but probably in a less vigorous manner. As far as instructors are concerned, in non-formal education, qualification can vary because quite often, there’s no requirement for the instructors to enhance their professional growth.
Let me now turn my attention to the formal education in terms of a tenure system. Traditional formal education has a tenure system. It’s a system set up for ranking so that the instructor has something to shoot for. Instructors with fresh PhD’s with good potentials are often put on a tenure track, a journal that qualifies them for a tenure position, typically lasting 5-7 years. After qualifying through publications, administration and teaching, the instructor achieves tenure usually given a title of associate professor. In non-tenure formal education, instructors often teach in such a way that they earn their ranks also through publications, administration and teaching. Yet, there’s less security with job security without a tenure. In recent years, the second form of formal education has deteriorated to such a degree that in some cases, only adjuncts are used. In such a case, there’s no requirement to publish. Everything is geared towards the “practical”. This is a tragedy.
I suspect there’re two possible reasons why the deterioration happens. First, the institution doesn’t have the budget to pay so much benefit to tenured professors. Second, the cry of the church for practicality is so great that the institution sees keeping tenured professors who sit around contemplating huge concepts and writing about them as luxury, or worse yet, as dinosaurs of a bygone pre-internet age. I believe the main cause however is the lack of clear direction and understanding of the role of the formal educational institution. As a result of this tragedy, the formal has slowly faded into a non-formal structure while insisting that it’s still giving a formal education. It’s little wonder that some instructors have mistaken writing in social media, blogs, popular magazines, or other forms of non-traditional medium where there’s no quality control or refereeing as serious writing. Such aren’t serious writings. They’re pretending to be serious writing but the goal of such writing merely expands one’s cyber footprint and quick fame. These media aren’t serious scholarship. Neither are the resulting watered down courses serious education. The deterioration of the institutional understanding quickly spreads to the deterioration of the understanding of each individual instructor. We need to ask some serious questions at this juncture. Who will research and write future commentaries and dictionaries etc.? Who will further our knowledge database? Without new horizons, teaching becomes a rehashing of old class notes (which happens more often than you’d imagine) and old knowledge. This regurgitation of overnight vomit will surely destroy the church ultimately.
I’m not saying that the tenure system is the answer, but I believe the complete abolition of the tenure system is surely not the answer. In fact, such a move towards all adjunct faculty only indicates deeper problem of lack of understanding of what education is. Perhaps, we lack a middle ground non-formal education at the church level. So, when the student arrives at the seminary, s/he isn’t really ready to absorb the seemingly irrelevant material for ministerial use. The cry of irrelevance is often a cry of ignorance due to the inability to absorb intellectually challenging material. The funeral of the mind starts at the lack of non-formal training at the local church in favor of other priorities. Until we get that piece of non-formal training in place, the misplaced blame and uninformed pressure put on the seminary will continue to cover over the real problem. We may as well sound the death knell for the church. Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls? It tolls for the Protestant (often evangelical) church.