Learning from the Model

- Modelling and Wisdom in Judaeo-Christian Thought

Georg A. Pflüger

If one asks Christian teachers what differentiates them from secular teachers, one hears answers like "personal commitment" or "I am concerned about each individual pupil". Christian teachers and also Christian schools in general want to be characterised particularly by love. This cannot be wrong. "Love your neighbour as yourself – that is the law and the prophets", says Jesus. However, what sounds so simple can be very difficult to translate into practice. So some misguided pedagogues work hard at this task: to educate children by their personal commitment, to train by their own example. These are grounds enough for asking: What does "learning from the model" actually mean?  And to go a step further: What is actually “Christian" in my presence as a teacher –  my person?

The problem with human models

"God loves the Chinese, otherwise he would not have created so many." So someone once said in an effort to describe the value of the Chinese people. Whether this statement is correct, I cannot judge. But I do know that God created many average human beings. There are in fact very few children who at the age of six deliver lectures on osteoporosis at a medical faculty, who compose music to a high level at a tender age, who play concertos or chess. God seems to have purposed to create the broad mass of people as average human beings. For us ourselves, whom we recognise in enlightened moments to be not (much) better than others, it is not at all so simple to take the role of model. Of course, as Christians, we want to follow Jesus as our model. But we know that in spite of this, we are still a long way from being like Jesus - an example to follow. In addition, we read in the Bible, "in humility, respect others more highly than yourself”. Does this mean that the other person is always the better model? Or can I be exemplary in matters of humility? Confused idea!

Naturally we can shine in the small and inconspicuous things. We take the first step after an argument. We apologise when we lose our temper. We empty the waste-paper basket ourselves sometimes. But we do not want that which is "Christian" to attach itself so completely to our lives as teachers, our mediocre and, in any case, sinful personalities. Otherwise, burnout is inevitable.

The problem with the exercise of authority in education

If we look at Jesus and his way of working as a teacher, then we see one thing above all others. He never abused his power, never controlled, never used force. He confronted his pupils and his listeners with the truth, sometimes sternly and firmly, but never manipulatively, always from his heart.

There is probably no other field of activity apart from education, where we walk so easily and imperceptibly into this trap: to manipulate others and to want to control them. Because of our fear or our inner wounds or even from the best of motives. This produces obligation instead of love, the phenomenon of transference instead of genuine argument, and the whole kaleidoscope of repressive and neurotic trauma with which every teacher must contend - within the children and within oneself.

My wife once wrote a poem with the title "My Child?" In it she asks the question whether our children belong to us. And she comes to the conclusion that our children do not belong to us. That does not mean, however, that we may not love them or that we should influence them only in response to fear. The question is how this influence happens. And the question is also whether my Self, that so-hard-to-understand and ever-changing being, can always be a suitable model.

Why human models are necessary

To be sure, all those who study their personal learning biographies attentively find that again and again there were individual personalities who opened up new worlds to us. I want to illustrate this from my personal experience. Consider whether you have had similar experiences. At the beginning and full of influence were my parents. They were the first models for maleness and femaleness in my life - with all their strengths and weaknesses, through which these people poured themselves into my life. Then there were teachers who impressed me. One saw the future teacher in me. Another awakened in me a love for language – that is why I became a philologist.

Also, in my spiritual life as a Christian, there were examples, leaders or models. I remember thinking, shortly before my conversion, "what they have is what I want to have". And then there were people who again and again made me think, "OK, if this is what a family can be, then I want it too". Or, "if spiritual life looks like this, then I can imagine it for me, too".

At university, I discussed with many fellow students why we in the arts so often chose professors not because of their topics but because of their personalities. Also on an academic level the person is an effective and vital factor for ongoing growth in learning. Blessed is the person that experienced a positive mentor in his own life! One who was able to see personal potential and open ways to its development.

The neurological basis for this learning from the model can be found in the so-called mirror neurons. They are why humans from childhood on learn from models. Their discoverer is acknowledged to be the Italian scientist, Giacomo Rizzolatti, who first published it in 1996. In Germany, Professor Joachim Bauer at Freiburg is studying them. In his latest book, Why I Feel What You Feel: Intuitive Communication and the Secret of the Mirror Neuron, he explains clearly and helpfully the connection between empathetic sensitivity and the mystery of the mirror neurons.

The mirror neurons are a special kind of nerve cells. They become active when individuals perform physical tasks but, surprisingly, they also become active when these individuals observe other people performing the tasks. The mirror neurons are thus able to internalise the actions of other people automatically - whether the person performs them then or not is another matter. Thus what an infant observes, for example, "will be played afterwards on its own neurobiological keyboard in real time". These circumstances provide the neurobiological basis for intuitive internal reconstructing of certain actions (this is why yawning is infectious) or the spontaneous response to a picture or a face.

Both personal experience and the results of the neurological studies point to the fact that humans learn from models and by imitation of them. This leads to the question: How can I use the obvious advantages of learning from the model without falling into its traps?

Learning in relationship with and in dependence on God

One searches in vain in the Bible for statements such as "Blessed and wise is the one who spends twelve years at school" or "Graduation is the beginning of knowledge". The rationalistic idea that knowledge is something neutral, a kind of objective material, which can be injected by professional specialists working according to all the rules of the art, is foreign to the Bible. Instruction cannot be found in the Bible to be a kind of inoculation by means of which, independently of the person and the historical situation, rational substances are administered as a prophylaxis against irrationality and stupidity in the future, and, by means of compulsory schooling, without a declaration of consent on the part of the "patient".

The Bible’s approach is deeply personal. The two-dimensional didactical triangle "teacher-student-content" must be replaced by the more biblical three-dimensional didactical pyramid: "teacher-student-content-God". This is worked out again and again in the Jewish-Christian tradition: "God, who is both love and truth, instills love in the teacher and truth in the student", says Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (in Man must Teach, accessible here on the internet).  In other words, the student apprehends because his spirit was created for the apprehension of truth. Just as the eye was designed for the perception of light. The teacher respects, informs and loves the student, because he has himself experienced love. Both, teachers and learners, depend in their roles on God.

Neurological studies also show that knowledge is best processed with ongoing effect if the student understands the value that is placed on this knowledge in the cultural context. Thus Professor Dr. Martin Korte of the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology says, "education can develop therefore only where one attaches value to what is being learned. We always take note of what is judged by the brain in its culture-determined default connection as being important."

"Judged by the brain in its culture-determined default connection as being important" – what does this mean? Our plural postmodernist world has come up with many plausible-sounding sayings, which on the one hand permit the educational search for meaning, but on the other hand respect the philosophical ban on the requirement of certain truth. In this regard, people often speak of "coherence" or "consistency" in the "lifeplan" or in the "educational process", mixing in terms like "experience" or "competence", and peppering that with "individually", "cultural" or "making a case for". Sentences come out like this: The goal is to strengthen the coherence of the individual’s experience and at the same time to increase competence in the evaluation of culturally consistent plans. In plain language: The child needs a world view in order to be able to attach value to knowledge. At the same time, one wants to guarantee openness to different orientations. No matter how we describe this state of affairs, and, independently thereof, which meaning is attached to the world, it becomes clear that education cannot take place without a framework of reference to make it all meaningful.

The Bible knows this connection but it takes the discussion a step further: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”. (Proverbs 1:7 (NIV)) In a synoptic study of different languages, it is evident that one should not differentiate here between knowledge and wisdom, and, one could add, between material knowledge and a life direction. In the parallel saying, wisdom (la sagesse/ sapientia/ the wisdom/ chokmah/ aisthesis/ sophia) and instruction (l`instruction/ doctrina/ instruction/ musar/ paideia) are connected with knowledge. In both everyday knowledge and education, understanding and wisdom find their origin in human acknowledgement of an overarching reality, the "fear of the Lord".

If it is the case that instruction and education can be biblically considered only within the framework of relationships and worldview, then it is not possible to exclude our role as models for others. Then only one question remains: how do we live it out? Not by thinking that our person or our behaviour is central but by pointing again and again, and explicitly, away from us to the source of knowledge. This lightens our loads!

How can this look in concrete terms? Different answers have been given in the history of Christian education: biblical instruction, the study of exemplary personalities, seeing the world as a polished work of creative Design, the telling of stories. A possibility, which is to be developed in some detail here, is the study of what the Bible precisely calls "wisdom".

Foolishness and wisdom

In the Old Testament, the role of model is not limited exclusively to the father, the teacher or another mediating person. He is certainly important and his life is to be a true example by which the learner can align his learning with the teacher. In the Proverbs of Solomon, it is put like this: "My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart.” (Proverbs 3:1 (NIV)) But both, both father and son, subordinate themselves to still another higher authority, that of wisdom. What does "wisdom" mean in the Bible?

Wisdom is, in the Old Testament, the result of clear and critical reflection. In the Jewish text books (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Psalms), wisdom is understood as something teachable and learnable. Wisdom can be imparted therefore in homes, synagogues or in the courts of kings. The goal of wisdom is to help the student to a successful life. Wisdom knows no frontiers, it is no philosophy and no conceptual system, but a treasure of "common sense", "savoir vivre", healthy understanding of people, in short, a general understanding of what is human: Whoever is wise holds to it.

What is meant by wisdom here is seen also by looking at its counterpart: foolishness. Foolishness is not to be confused with stupidity, lack of intelligence or poor education. In the Old Testament, the fool is described thus: he cannot listen or make correct assessments. He "drives stubbornly through the bad" and "his heart is not right". Foolishness in this sense is, according to Gerhard von Rad, the “non-acknowledgement of rules and bounds once legislated for human beings”. Wisdom, on the other hand, knows and recognises these rules and acts accordingly.

Knowing and doing go together in the Old Testament. A fool does not become wise merely because he can utter wise sayings. The deceiver is not excused because he knows the paragraphs of the penal code by which he is condemned. Educational knowledge is not the same as wisdom. The one who only learns and remembers – what unfortunately does not affect his conduct sufficiently in everyday life. The wise person is in a position to hear and to see, to discern, to judge, to understand and to act accordingly.

The wise person is aware of his limitations. "I know that I know nothing", said Socrates along with all those who seriously and persistently try to fathom the mysteries of the world and who also bear witness that each answer raises new questions. Certainly the Jewish-Christian tradition, which does not exclude experiences of God from the search for wisdom, also recognises situations in which human judgment reaches its limits. Because of these experiences in the ways wisdom is earnestly searched for, the Jewish-Christian tradition never trusts its own wisdom:

“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?

There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

(Proverbs 26:12 (NIV))

Wisdom and faith

Wisdom, in Jewish-Christian understanding, also never constructs a monolithic system such as, for example, Plato’s world of ideas or the all-pervading and ordered “Maat“ of the Egyptians. Thus all paths whereby knowledge is intended to lead to power are eliminated. Instead, in Jewish wisdom, a deep distrust can be discerned of every world-explaining theoretical system that is based on concepts and axioms. Wisdom is always demonstrated in individual situations, sees things from several viewpoints, remains open to new interpretations and is often developed in dialectical discussion.

Recognising the wise rules and obeying them is in the long run a matter of faith. For example, it is said in the Psalms: "Whoever of you loves life, and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies”. (Psalm 34:12-13 (NIV)) But can I rely on it? It is said: "Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice”. (Proverbs 16:8 (NIV)) But is that correct? Is not the popular wisdom correct: "Money rules the world"? Isn't the "honest one the loser", as Ulrich Wickert, presenter for many years of the Tagesthemen (‘Daily Topics’) TV programmes, says in his book on ethics of the same title (The Honest is the Loser: the loss of values)?

The Jewish-Christian tradition struggled, after centuries-long and careful observation of the world with a genuine view in all directions, to this conclusion: "How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver”. (Proverbs 16:16 (NIV)) And: "A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength”. (Proverbs 24:5 (NIV))

Experience also fed into this conclusion the evidence that all does not always automatically turn out well for the righteous: "This is what the wicked are like – always carefree, they increase in wealth”. (Psalm 73:12 (NIV))

However it is pointed out again and again that this luck stands under the verdict of transitoriness: "I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil, but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found”. (Psalm 37:35-36 (NIV)) Whether in illness, on the run, in exile or in mortal danger, the realisation remains that wisdom is a vessel which contains life itself: "I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread … The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just … Consider the blameless, observe the upright; there is a future for the man of peace”. (Psalm 37:25, 30, 37 (NIV))

When King Solomon with the surname of ‘the Wise’ was offered whatever he wished by God in a dream, he asked for an "understanding heart" (Hebrew: shama’ leb, I Kings 3:9), in order to be able to distinguish between good and evil. Behind this request lies the faith that this world is not in some mysterious way a self-organising chaos, but rather there is meaning to life, humanity, and the study of the cosmos, which can be decoded, deciphered, heard out and understood. For this interpretation of wisdom about the world there is, however, no clear method. A precondition is a basic attitude, an "education of the heart", a listening, which recognises that human beings cannot gain control of the cosmos as the measure of all things, but that humankind is fitted into a larger framework which overarches everything. Surprisingly and according to experience, one can bring faith to this large unavailable entity - even if all secrets are not aired and even if questions have to remain open (see Job’s question about suffering). Not by doctrinally distorted observation but by impartial research and questioning in the light of the realisation that this world and its creator merit our confidence.

Wisdom in this sense is thus a teachable and learnable discernment to distinguish between good and bad within oneself and in others, that is:

Wisdom aims at a successful life for oneself and others in the confidence that the honest one is definitely not the stupid one. Wisdom remains always open for new experiences, because life itself is determined in the long run not by rules but by God.

The model has models

The burden is lifted: I know that I am not the model by which everything is measured. Also as father, mother or an instructor, I learn with the child: What is wisdom? What is truth? What would Jesus have done?

We may not keep from the children the fact that there is a wisdom that leads to life. It is a lie on tissue paper to say: Mathematics does not have anything to do with God. Or history does not have anything to do with God. Or foreign languages do not have anything to do with God. That is an Enlightenment and rationalistic myth which we may expose and unmask, disenchanting and demythologising in a way that is intellectually and pedagogically fair. We must think about it: What has mathematics actually to do with God? Where does wisdom show itself? And we must also then talk with children honestly about it. Again and again. From all possible perspectives. "Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates”, said Moses to the people of Israel. (Deuteronomy 6:7-9 (NIV)) What the children decide in the long run is up to them. They do not belong to us. But we may not withhold from them that there is a wisdom which leads to life and that there are also truth and lies. And that the Bible verse is correct, which stands in large type characters over the main entrance of the Freiburg University: "The truth will make you free." This lightens our loads!

Georg A. Pflüger

10 May 2006