Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Formation or Germination? Higher Education, Theological Education -- and the Difference

In February our grant took us to Pittsburgh. Not so exotic as Mexico or El Salvador or Spain. Walking the bridges of a city in transition, I realized: I'm in transition too. This would be my last meeting of theological educators, the title given to those of us in graduate theological education. In July I move to Augsburg College and focus on undergraduate education, known in the biz as "higher ed."

Outside the academy, perhaps, such nomenclature matters little. But I ran into a big difference here in El Salvador, where my colleague and I, two theological educators teaching at grad schools, met with a group of educators involved in undergraduate education, or higher ed.

I was trying to get a handle on what goes on at this immersion program, an endeavor that has three components: intentional dislocation in another culture, accompaniment through all levels of the program, and -- "formation."

The word "formation" clattered to the floor, and I knew immediately it was the wrong one. But, in the moment, I couldn't think of a better one. "What do you think we're trying to form?" asked one of professors in the immersion program. I responded, "You tell me: citizens of the world?" He replied, "We're just planting seeds, trying to help people be their very best selves."

The conversation haunts me still, but let me offer some provisional thoughts. Formation comes straight out of the context of theological education, i.e., graduate education directed toward shaping leaders for the church. I'll speak as a theological educator here: seminaries do have a "form" or mold we're trying to shape students into. We aim to produce certain kinds of leaders. Candidacy committees demand them; my institutional website describes them (hyperlink to -- and click on "Dimensions of Ministry Excellence"); the church needs them. Formation is appropriate for theological education: it's what educators aim at.

Undergraduate education is more about planting seeds: germination. E.g., Santa Clara University names them pretty clearly: competence, conscience, and compassion. Augsburg College, my new calling, puts it differently: "We believe we are called to serve the neighbor." Germination is more appropriate for higher ed: it's what educators plant -- and hope students will grow from.

Depending on where they are called to serve, students will be formed in any number of different ways. They'll receive professional formation as lawyers and nurses, teachers and organizers: the soil will be different, but all flowers will bloom.

We spoke yesterday with a business major from Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. He chose the program intentionally: "I didn't want a party abroad program, I wanted a study abroad program. And this has been fantastic. How could I ever be complacent again?" Raised by a poor family in the Philippines, he found in this program a way to reconnect to his roots and reposition himself to do business with a conscience. A global conscience. He'll enroll in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps before pursuing an MBA.

Germination pushes from behind -- or better, below, like a sprout pushing up through moist earth. Formation draws from ahead -- or better, above, like the sun drawing all the heliotropic energies of a new shoot into the air.

Even as they are different in thrust, we need both for healthy growth.

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