Learning for Living

Ann Holt & Mike Simmonds

‘In the beginning God…’

Education is part of the very, ‘in the beginning’ story. Learning and developing is part of the creation mandate that unfolds in the earliest chapters of the Bible. There is more to this creation than procreation and more to the harvest metaphor of tilling, subduing and filling than growing seed or even, as it is often narrowly interpreted, producing infants.

Part of ‘being made in the image of God’ is being made in the image of the Creator. This suggests that we are fundamentally called to be creative. Theologians talk about ‘being co-creators with God’ and that’s not just about fulfilling his commands but actually about developing the potential of the very creation that He has made.

Throughout history human beings have, often unwittingly, worked to fulfil that mandate. Whilst many creations by man have not been put to good use it does not deny the original command to ‘be creative'. But in order to be creative you have to be taught, learn and discover.

From the very beginning God has actively communicated both through the creation and through words. The book of Hebrews says ‘In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son’ (Hebrews 1:1-2, NIV). If God communicates we need to listen.

Listening alone does not achieve great results but learning from what we hear, discover and understand makes the difference. This is the education God wants us to engage in, a lifelong process.

For what purpose?

Jesus talked about becoming ‘disciples’ and the etymology of the word has the same root as the word ‘to learn’. To be a disciple means to be a follower or a learner. Jesus Himself said, ‘Learn of me’. What he asked of the twelve people that he called was that they learn about him and from him. He is often described as ‘the great teacher’ which assumes that people actually wanted to learn from Him.

There are almost as many references biblically to the idea of ‘the mind’ as there are to ‘the heart’. This is because what we do with our minds is conformational. We have to respond to God with all our heart but what is going on in the heart then produces fruit in the mind. Throughout Scripture there are these very powerful references to the business of learning and therefore not to learn is in a sense to be wilfully disobedient to that very calling.

Education is therefore at the very centre, the heart of life and such lifelong learning has to be a continuous ongoing experience. The popular expression, ‘lifelong learning’, however gives an impression of learning for a specific cause or purpose or stage of life. It is often used today in connection with developing skills and to prepare for new employment opportunities. In responding to a recent government consultation on Higher Education CARE was concerned about such an emphasis on learning for employability and the all too often emphasis on economic priorities in education policy.

Perhaps ‘learning for living’ might be a more appropriate description, where learning is about becoming the person you are meant to be and uncovering the image of God in which you are created. That is what Jesus was doing when he took the twelve disciples and spent three years developing them through His role modelling, His teaching and the experiences that they went through in order to become the kind of people they could continue to grow to be. As you read through the New Testament, the way in which they had learned with Him; what they learnt on the road was continually changing them as they established and built up the church. Discipleship, biblically, is a lifelong experience - we have never ‘made it’; we don’t get there till the end of our lives. This need to learn and grow is what we need to keep kindled.

Personal Development

Education is also about the very nature of being a human being because it is about developing what human beings can actually do, what they can understand and what they can be. A lot of school mission statements state that the school is about developing people’s potential and that really is the purpose of education. It is also about finding out the gifts and talents that we actually have even if a lot of the time we don’t really know where they’ve come from. Discovering what human beings individually are and then what they are able to be and do is very important. The Hebrew understanding of actually what it means ‘to know’ is the whole idea of ‘being responsible for’; of being ‘stewardly’. This suggests that education is actually in some kind of relationship with the very thing that you’re trying to know and giving you a certain amount of responsibility for it. They often say, ‘Ignorance is no defence in the face of the law’ - built into that aphorism is the idea that once you know something you are actually responsible for what you do with it.

Education is certainly about what we know and how we know. It is about knowledge information but also about our attitude towards it. It is about discernment and about wisdom; about having a view about what something means and how you are going to use it. It is about attitudes. It is also about skills. One of the problems today is that many recent developments in education seem as though learning and therefore teaching for learning has been reduced to a set of technical skills. If we are not careful this will become like the plumbing in a house, when we actually need education to give us a whole picture, a view of what the house itself looks like and what it is there to be used for.

Learning therefore should not just be about achievement or reaching an attainment target but also about experiencing and developing an interest, awe and wonder and an understanding of all around us. Is that not what God wants for us? He wants us to enjoy the creation, to develop a fascination for the things around us and have the wisdom to use that to be creative. Anyone studying at school or university or on any course ought to be encouraged to work for more than the grade or qualification. Surely the deeper purpose in all learning should be ‘learning for living’.

Ann Holt & Mike Simmonds

(This article appeared in ‘Education Update’, July 2003, published by CARE for Education in the UK and it is reprinted here with permission of its Editor.)