A Pedestrian-Idealist’s Approach to Education

by William Barnwell

Mr. Barnwell is Episcopal chaplain at the University of New Orleans and Tulane University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 19, 1977, p. 944. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Can an educational philosophy true to the Christian ideals of love, truth and justice — and one that helps people in their daily lives — actually work? The author presents eight ideas in helping students face the underlying philosophy of education.

When I was invited to help a small group of English teachers and counselors at the University of New Orleans develop a philosophy of education within which to construct a total curriculum for 150 of the university’s remedial students, I jumped at the opportunity. At the time, like many college chaplains, I was tired from trying to coax students to come to the religious center for hamburgers and colas, “encountered-out” from too many meaningful group experiences, hoarse from civil rights, antiwar and ecology pronouncements. Working with this group would enable me to think through education from a Christian perspective. Could we develop a plan for the remedial students that reached for the Christian ideals of love, truth and justice and, at the same time, actually helped people in their daily lives? I have always pictured Jesus as incorrigibly pedestrian -- he walked the roads of Galilee in order to meet the basic, sometimes humdrum, needs of ordinary people -- and as wildly idealistic: he preached a kingdom of love. Could our educational plan be true to him?

Our group of planners was an ideologically diverse lot: Marxists, human-potential buffs, lovers of language and wisdom, and me, a pedestrian-idealist. In our long meetings we were always faced with chaos, but we always knew we had the possibility of synthesis, of bringing different ideas together in a new way. One factor that helped us tremendously as we developed our plan was the knowledge that we would be the ones to try it out. We would be the teachers, counselors, administrators. If the plan failed, it was we ourselves who would have to look in the faces of the bewildered, angry, bored, disappointed students.

The remedial students at UNO come principally from the much-criticized, little-supported New Orleans public schools. Most of them are black and poor -- the old story. In the past their failure rate has been high. Less than one in 30 has made it through to graduation day. Typical remedial students enroll with great hopes -- usually they are the first ones in their families to go to college -- and, before they know what has happened, they are dropped from the university. Participants in the curriculum planning group, with extensive experience in working with remedial students, believed that things could be different.

A $75,000 federal grant to implement our program, to which we gave the innocuous name College Life Project, enabled us to get under way. We were able to keep the classes small, to offer block scheduling so that the students would attend most of their classes together, to provide math and English tutoring for everyone, to offer seminars for each group of students to teach them survival skills and help them develop a supportive community among themselves.

What I want to try out here is not so much a description of the College Life Project but rather the philosophy underlying it. Is it a Christian philosophy? Could it be called a theology of education? Our ideas are presented under eight headings.

The Drama of Education

First, we hope to discover and reinforce the drama in the students’ lives -- students who come to us with little confidence that anything they have to say in a classroom is worthwhile. They devalue their own life experience; often they are ashamed that they have been poor and outside the advantages of the America they watch on television. In concentrating so heavily on the mechanical aspects of writing, in teaching content areas so far removed from inner-city life, our high schools have seldom helped students see potential strengths in their own lives. The results are near (or close to) disaster. In the words of one of our program’s English teachers: “It is mighty hard to teach students the correct way of writing when they believe that nothing they have to say is worthwhile.”

But there is drama, mystery, excitement in the lives of our students. They are like the people of the Bible -- their lives are worth telling about, worth writing about. In one of our designs, students take a fantasy trip, down a country road to a meadow where they discover themselves at age six. Here is what one student wrote about the experience.

I am walking down the road of my life. Its sights and sounds are very vivid as my mind wanders aimlessly. It is very cool. A light mist brings on the appearance of another world. As I walk along the edge of the road, the crunch of the pebbles beneath my feet are barely audible. A slight breeze whispers through the tall pines causing the needles and the tall grass beneath the trees to sway in rhythmic motion.

The sun is a brilliant orange as it has just cleared the horizon. I know the cool moisture in the air will soon take leave. The birds sing in unison but with different calls, letting me know that they are after breakfast. It seems as if I’m walking through a tunnel of serenity because all is so peaceful here. Because of the upgrade I’m taking my time breathing deeply of this dream. The fragrance of the pines and the green grass give off an aroma to be unmatched by any man-made perfumes.

As I walk farther down the road I notice a clearing to the right. As I near it, I see a little boy standing beside the road as if he is waiting for someone, but he doesn’t look my way. I am only a short distance, away now and I can see that. the clearing is paved with concrete. The little boy is wearing old clothes like I used to wear when I was a kid, hand-me-downs. Then he turns around with a blank expression on his face, and suddenly it hit me, he looked exactly like me in every detail. He reached out his hand in a begging gesture. Because my senses were trained entirely on him, I had not noticed what was to my right. It was a ghetto. What a trip. I kept walking fast.

After writing this account and reading it to his classmates, the student realized that he did have something to say. The teacher was then in a good position to help him say it in a more effective and correct way.

A Community of Persons

Second, we hope to build a sense of community in the classroom so that the students feel at home with one another and with the teacher. ‘The ideal of the university,” says philosopher-educator Robert Paul Wolff, “is a community of learning. This phrase expresses the central fact that a university ought to be a community of persons united by collective understandings, by common goals, by bonds of reciprocal obligation, and by a flow of sentiment which makes the preservation of the community an object of desire.” Community-building as part of the education process is advocated by practically all educational reformers. But I find few educators who pay much attention to how to go about building community in the classroom or, on campus. They seem to believe that, if the teachers stress the importance of community and seat the class in a circle, it will happen automatically. In my experience, building community is a discipline all its own. To my knowledge, the only two organizations in our society that really think through the hows of community-building are the church, which has been at this task continuously for the past go centuries, and the various branches of the human-potential movement.

Our program has borrowed insights from both. What my church calls “shared ministry” becomes ‘shared teaching” in the College Life Project. With William Schutz, author of Joy, we believe that people bring to a group various needs that must be met: the need to be included, to have some control over the life of the group, to experience affection from some of the group members. Through the use of various exercises, primarily in small groups, we try to help teachers and students meet these needs and thus bring them together as part of the same learning team. When we were still in the planning stage, we received the following letter from a student:

I would like to request that there be more opportunities and activities for students and faculty to become more united. I feel like classes are not as exciting and enjoyable as they could be if people knew each other. Teachers rarely get tight with students because they only know the students’ numbers and don’t even know the names. I feel it is important for a school to have a student-teacher and student-student relationship. Therefore if you could consider a way to get us united, this school would be really dynamite to attend.

Third, once the community-building process has begun, we try to give the students skills and incentive with which to teach each other. During my long years of schooling at college and seminary, what I found most frustrating was that I lacked opportunity to give. I had good teachers and much opportunity to receive, but there was little chance for me to make my offerings. Just as I believe that the need to love is as great as the need to be loved, I believe also that the need to give is as great as the need to receive.

In our program we encourage as much as we can the teaching of students by students. There are more than 30 upper-class students serving as math tutors, and faster students in the program are expected to help the slower ones. We want all of our students to know that they have something special to give to their classmates. Christianity and Marxism come together in the belief that each should, according to his or her ability, give to others according to their needs.

Having students teaching students not only contributes substantially to everyone’s learning but also offers them a chance to give their gifts and thus to build self-esteem. To the degree that it works, this approach goes a long way toward changing the usual competition of the classroom -- which over the long haul yields, thorns and thistles -- into a form of cooperation in which students get their kicks out of the classmates’ victories as well as their own.

Individual Uniqueness Within Community

Fourth, at the same time the students are developing more and more of a sense of community, they receive support for that aspect of themselves that lives outside community: that is, their uniqueness. When talking in small groups, each student -- over a long period of time -- will tend to say pretty much the same things again and again. But in their writing, students are much more likely to show their uniqueness. Our teachers affirm that uniqueness, stressing that the differences people bring to a group are what make the group exciting, alive.

In the following examples of student writing, such diversity is indicated -- a diversity that can bring strength to community. The students who wrote these paragraphs were all in the same class and were writing about their own neighborhood:

Only in swampy St. Bernard can there be a neighborhood like mine. Behind my house there is a canal with a levee behind it. . . . The canal is fairly big, full of snakes, turtles and a lot of junk. In the summer the water lilies grow until the black ugly canal looks like a beautiful field of green. But when winter comes the lilies die, leaving a combination of odors.

When walking though my neighborhood in the early morning, I have to walk over all the wine, beer and soft drink bottles in the street. I have to walk over all the trash and garbage. I have to watch out for all the fools swinging around the corner at high speed. In the afternoon I have to walk over the broken glass pieces that were bottles that morning.

We have a trained rooster in our neighborhood that knows how to watch for cars before crossing the street. When he is called, he comes just like a trained dog or cat.

In the spring when the farmers are beginning to prepare the ground, there are many white egrets swooping down behind the tractors preying on bugs and insects harmful to crops.

And then a student made my point -- that uniqueness strengthens community -- better than I:

I like my neighborhood because of the different nationalities of people who live there, but I dislike the lack of care given to it. . . . My neighborhood is made up of blacks, whites, Mexicans, Japanese and Italians. We share our language and arts. We listen to each other’s music. We combine our cooking skills and make fancy breads. We all get along good together. . . .

My neighborhood is very run down. The streets need to be repaired and the sidewalk paved. Most of the houses are not painted and have broken panes. The air smells of trash that the garbage men leave behind. But this is not our fault, the landlord won’t make repairs.

There is no racial discrimination in my neighborhood. It makes me feel good to know that somewhere in the world there is a neighborhood like mine, full of love. We plan to keep it that way.

We would like our classrooms -- as slick as this student’s neighborhood is shabby -- to partake of that kind of unity; we would like our students to find their own synthesis amid diversity.

Accomplishment and Fulfillment

Fifth, for those who must leave UNO before they graduate, we hope to substitute for the prevalent idea of ‘failure” that of “work completed.” Even if the College Life Project is very successful, not all of our students will get through. We will in fact be lucky if ten out of every 30 students make it to graduation. In terms of our philosophy of education we are just as concerned about the 20 who are not graduated as about the ten who are.

At UNO like most schools, students go as far as they can; if they cannot go all the way, they “fail out.” The idea of failing out needs to be turned around. What could be more devastating to a serious student than, after a semester or a year or more of hard work, to fail? F’s as usually handed out are works of the law; they leave people believing they have failed as people as well as students -- they are enough to make St. Paul wince.

What is needed is to help people take pride in the work they have accomplished. “At the setting of the sun” (in the words of one of our hymns) we all need a little praise, someone to say: “Servant, well done.” Much of the work our students are doing in math, English and social science actually represents great strides forward for them. Many are learning arithmetic for the first time; most are developing better reading habits and writing skills; all are learning something about New Orleans and its peoples. There is no need for them to leave UNO with a sense of failure; a “servant, well done” attitude is much more appropriate.

At the end of the two years of our College Life Project, we will give everyone who is still with us a graduation certificate. Some of the certificates will say: “Work completed, with the recommendation for further study”; others will simply say: “Work completed.” If we are successful, both will be valued.

Encountering the World of Art

Sixth, we want to offer a curriculum that has a balanced emphasis on “art for art’s sake” as well as on practical matters. When I asked the students in one of the College Life, seminar groups I lead for a definition of art, they gave these answers: “Art is something that expresses your feelings for you when you can’t do it so well yourself”; “Art makes your mind wander”; “Art makes you want to write.”

Educational reformers do students from economically poor homes a disservice when they stress only the side. of college education that will help in a practical way. College is a time when students  -- poor and rich alike -- should be introduced to the world of art with all of the enthusiasm and power a teacher can muster. The definitions of art the seminar students gave indicate the kind of sensitivity possessed by many in the program -- a sensitivity that can grow and flower. Like learning, the appreciation of art has a value in itself. Our students may respond to the art of Richard Wright more than that of John Milton, but, we are convinced, they -- as much as students anywhere -- have the capacity to soar, to “wander” before the beautiful.

At the same time, we know that our students do need to learn practical skills that will help them when they leave UNO. They need to know how to keep a budget, look for a job, speak to a personnel manager, assert themselves in writing -- whether to a newspaper or a city council or for a union newsletter. At times we must get downright practical in our program, but I hope we never lose our emphasis on art for art’s sake; that would be losing part of our soul.

The Teachers Together

Seventh, we hope to develop a sense of teamwork among the teachers and staff in the program. Given the type of teaching method we use -- the teachers’ personal involvement with the students in their learning -- it is equally important that a professional identity along with appropriate distance from the students be maintained. It has been said of A. S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill (the original free school): “He accepts the children, forgives them, trusts that they with any luck at all will turn out okay. But he doesn’t need them, and he doesn’t need them to need him. At the root of his love is a benign indifference.” The teacher who will be able to bring his or her special offering to the classroom must not need the students in a dependent way, nor need them to need him or her.

The teachers and staff in the College Life Project all meet together weekly in separate small groups. These serve as support groups, as outlets for teachers and staff to exchange ideas, to air their frustrations, to develop and maintain their professional identities. The meetings are often stormy, but our stake is high. When differences arise, we keep talking until we work out something we all can live with.

Eighth, we want the curriculum to be as integrated as possible so that what the students are learning in English, for example, will not be totally unrelated to what they are learning in history or social science. Furthermore, we want to help our students integrate their school learning with their personal lives. College courses should give meaning to life instead of just being viewed as something one disciplines oneself to get through. John Dewey said:

A divided world, a world whose parts and aspects do not hang together, is at once a sign and a cause of a divided personality. . . . A fully integrated personality, on the other hand, exists only when successive experiences are integrated with one another. It can be built up only if a world of related objects is constructed.

Jesus put the same thought more vividly: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

In the College Life Project, courses are constructed so that they fit together as much as possible. A paper assigned in a political science class can be written with the help of the English class. A statistical problem introduced in social science can be studied in mathematics. Then, in the seminars, students are encouraged to relate what they are learning in school to what is going on in their lives. They, of course, must be the ones who finally integrate the learnings of school and home, but in our program we try to help.

As in any new program, we have a lot of problems in College Life, but overall it seems to be working. The students are working; the teachers and students are talking; significantly larger numbers of students are passing (at least for now); and there is some appreciation of art.

What is the verdict? Are we being blessed with a little balm in Gilead, exhibiting some progress? Or are we, in our enthusiasm, just postponing a familiar despair? Whatever the case may be, I write now, while hopes are high, thoughts arise, and dreams are still young.