a journal of analysis and comment
advancing public understanding of religion and education
Vol. 34 No. 3
Sally A. C. Galman, Ph.D.
As I set out to begin this study, I had rosy, romantic views about wholesome seasons spent in the Midwest. One of my doctoral advisors reminded me that while the Midwest is the heart of the nation, that heart has many shadows. In other words, it is a place where sustenance and challenge coexist, and where austerity fosters both isolation and camaraderie. As Kathleen Norris writes in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, “the plains are full of what a friend here calls, ‘good telling stories’,
…and while our sense of being forgotten by the rest of the world makes it all the more important that we preserve them and pass them on, instead we often neglect them. I walk downtown, wearing a good many of the clothes I own, keeping my head down and breathing through several thicknesses of wool scarf. A day so cold it hurts to breath; dry enough to freeze spit. Kids crack it on the sidewalk. Walking with care, snow barely covering the patches of ice, I begin to recall a canticle or psalm, and my body keeps time:
Cold and chill, bless the Lord
Dew and rain, bless the Lord
Frost and chill, bless the Lord
Ice and snow, bless the Lord
Nights and days, bless the Lord
Light and darkness, bless the Lord.1
During my months at the Midwestern institution I will call “Prairie College,” I would time the slow steps of my long walk across the snowy field separating my campus apartment from the college buildings to that chant—cold and chill, rain and snow, ice and frost—but as the wind whipped I found myself less able than some to bless the Lord—mine or anyone else’s—for it. This was one of many things that separated me from most of the people at Prairie College who acknowledged the blessings and richness of grappling with seemingly intractable problems. What follows is a discussion of Prairie College and its Education program, including a discussion of the Prairie context and ideology and its application of that ideology to teacher education.
Teacher Education: Classic Dilemmas
Teacher educators work in a field that is challenging at best. The classic dilemmas of teacher education constitute a long and varied list including negotiations of the following: the strong influences of pre-service teachers’ apprenticeships of observation; the conflicting needs of both “batch processing” and individual attention in program structure; the perceived gulf between theory and practice; the bounds of pre-service teachers’ own sociocultural perspectives; the complexity of learning skills when their ultimate application context is unknown; the stigmatized status of schools of education (and schools in general) in contemporary culture, and the question of what constitutes “preparedness” for new teachers in an era of tests, scripted lessons and accountabilities.2 The list goes on.
Such an expansive list is daunting, if not outright depressing, and calls to mind a feeling not unlike staring out across a cold, dark, windswept Midwestern winter, knowing that ice and snow will be your constant companions. Unlike the saccharine suggestion that one should “look on the bright side” or seek the “silver lining,” the predominant attitude at Prairie was more nuanced. In recognizing the power of the long winter, the cold, the ice and the wind, one acknowledges their complexity. In the Prairie College teacher education context, such challenges are acknowledged and create a space for introspection, reflection, a respect for complexity, and a resistance to the easy discourse of the “quick fix.” Ultimately this facilitates richer and more complete discourse around what it means to become a teacher, or to prepare others to do so. This begins with a theoretical and practical “story” unique to Prairie and influenced by its theological and progressive orientation.
The Prairie Story of Teaching
It is worth acknowledging, in all humility, that though there are many great, beautiful, noble callings for human beings—ministry, healing, protecting the powerless through law, making art, music and literature, the most wonderful things that human beings are privileged to do—none of them is more valuable to the human race, to the future of the planet, or to our own souls, than the work of teaching (Prairie College Education Program materials)
While individual experiences and stories of those experiences varied, the influence of the institutional “voice”—or, the institutional ideology—was unmistakable in most narratives and spoke to the classic dilemmas of teacher education. What follows is a portrait of Prairie as an institution and a description of study methodology followed by a discussion of the “Prairie Story of Teaching” as it addresses teacher education practices.
“Prairie College” is a four-year undergraduate liberal arts institution rooted in progressive politics and tenets of belief associated with the Quakers, or Religious Society of Friends.3 It was initially established to provide a religious education for the children of Friends in the early 1800s, a time when Friends referred to themselves as “the peculiar people” and separated themselves from the world via a unique style of dress and speech. Almost immediately the historic tension between practicality and morality began to effect school operations; “Practicality” meant that within twenty years of opening, the school started to admit non-Friends because there simply were not enough Friends’ children to keep the school open. On the other hand, “morality” meant that a strict code of rules was in place for everyone—and there was always a struggle when the question was raised of trying to relax any of those rules. At one point there was a lengthy debate about whether or not to allow a particular work of fiction into the school library—since, on one hand, it represented a moral tale, but on the other hand, it was, incontrovertibly, a novel, and Friends’ at that point in history had long been suspicious of fiction. “And what is fiction,” said one faculty participant, “according to early Friends but the vain imaginings of some worldly person—a good traditional Friends’ phrase!” The process of slow compromise continued until the early 20th century by which time Prairie College had a full-blown campus culture including football games and cheerleaders. But the tension between morality and practicality, and the influence of Friends’ theology and culture, remained.
Friends’ religious belief in the United States is diverse, and Prairie represents only a part of the larger picture, and a more liberal part at that. While most faculty and students who are Friends represent the face of more progressive Quakerism, other sects are more conservative.4 However, regardless of the many differences between groups, most Friends will agree on five things: 1) All Friends’ worship should be led by the spirit—which manifests itself in some congregations as silent worship and, at the college, as silent meetings; 2) All Friends are required to minister in some way, and teaching is considered a kind of ministry; 3) All Friends agree that decisions should be made by finding unity in a gathered meeting in the form of consensus-based decision making; 4) All Friends share a commitment to simplicity—though the manifestation of that simplicity is often hotly contested and 5) All Friends share a commitment to education and teaching is important and valued.5 These are manifested in daily life at Prairie: in silent faculty meetings, consensus-based decision making on multiple levels—from making new faculty hires to making decisions in senior seminar—in the school’s statement of purpose, and so on.
Of particular interest in this study was how elements of Quakerism are manifested in teacher education practice. The commitment to education, inward reflection and ministering translate into a focus on the process of “discernment”—or, the search for the appropriate vocation and calling. “Because,” said one faculty informant, “if you believe that all life should be ministry, then finding a career is finding the way that God intends you to minister to the world…that probably underlies the emphasis that we put on vocation here.”