Tag Archives: John Dewey

Unitarian Universalist Humanism: Introductory lecture

Introductory lecture delivered tonight, in a course in UU humanism:

In this introductory lecture, I’m going to attempt to outline Unitarian Universalist humanism for you. My primary approach in this lecture is going to be based on an approach used by the humanist theologian Anthony Pinn in his book Varieties of African American Religious Experience. After pointing out the inadequacies of theological traditions which merely point towards some ultimate revelation, something beyond what we see and hear and experience in this life, Pinn describes his approach as follows:

“I want to suggest that the task of … constructive theologies … is more in line with [Gordon] Kaufman’s ‘third-order theology’ and Charles Long’s reflections upon the theology of the opqaue. That is to say, theology is deliberate or self-conscious human construction focused upon uncovering and exploring the meaning and structures of religious experience within a larger body of cultural production. It is, by nature, comparative in a way that does not seek to denounce or destructively handle other traditions.”

I find Pinn’s approach to theology to be incredibly useful for at least four reasons. Continue reading

The Golden Memory Box

For years now, I have been promising some friends that I would get this story up on my Web site. It’s based on a story told by Grace Mitchell, who wrote a column for many years in Early Education magazine. Mitchell was the founder of Green Acres Day Camp in Waltham, Massachusetts, a camp with a distinctly progressive Deweyan philosophy of education. I have adapted this camp story to church life; as I tell it, this story reflects my feeling that when church looks more like camp, it is more memorable to children. A good story to tell at the end of the church year.

Once upon a time there was a girl named Keilah and a boy named Kyle who lived with their parents in the second floor of an old house that looked out over the harbor. During the week, Kyle and Keilah went to school, and on Sunday they went to church. Kyle liked school, Keilah didn’t like school, but they both liked church. They liked going into the worship service with their parents and singing one of the hymns they knew as loud as they could. They liked listening to the things their minister read, even though they didn’t always understand them. They liked going to Sunday school to see their friends. They liked going to social hour where they drank hot chocolate and, when the weather was nice, went outside to play in the church’s labyrinth.


On the first day of the new church year, Keilah and Kyle went to their new Sunday school class. Keilah was only a year older than Kyle, and this year they would be in the same class together. Kyle did not want to go to the new Sunday school class. “I won’t know any of the kids,” he told his father as they were getting ready to go. “Can’t I go back to my old Sunday school class?” Keilah was not sure that she wanted Kyle to be in her Sunday school class. “Can’t we go to different Sunday school classes?” she said to her mother. But in the end, they wound up going to Sunday school together.

As usual, they stayed in the first part of the worship service for fifteen minutes with their parents. Then they left when all the other children left. They walked more slowly than anyone else, so when they got to their new classroom, ten other children and three grown-ups, their new Sunday school teachers, were already there. A pleasant-looking man welcomed them and said, My name is Joe. You must be Keilah and Kyle. You’re just in time to play a game.”

The way the game worked, Joe told them, was that everyone had to pick something in a grocery store that had the same first letter, or the same first sound, as their name. “So I’m Joe Jumbo Juice,” he said. “That’s my grocery store name.” Keilah decided her grocery store name was “Keilah Cantaloupe,” and Kyle was “Kyle Kale.” Joe stood in the middle with a pillow, and one person started by saying someone else’s grocery store name. Then that person tried to say someone else’s grocery store name before Joe tapped them with the pillow. If you got tapped before you could say someone else’s name, then you went in the middle. It was a really fun game. At one point, everyone was laughing because Hong Hot Chocolate managed to get Sam Salmon with the pillow while he was talking to the person next to him. Keilah turned to Kyle and whispered, “This is a great game!” Kyle said, “Yeah, I wish it would go on forever!” Suddenly they both heard a voice, a mysterious high-pitched echo-y voice, say, “Put it in your Golden Memory Box!” (Except the voice dragged out “golden” so it really sounded like this: “Put it in your Gooolden Memory Box!”)

“Did you say that?” Keilah whispered to Kyle. Continue reading

No child left behind & the tapestry of faith

While I was driving today, I was feeling a little sleepy so I listened to a talk radio show — a sure way to raise my blood pressure and wake myself up. They were talking about the “No Child Left Behind” act, and as I listened I realized that the requirements of “No Child Left Behind” closely resemble the educational reform movement going on within the religious education department of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). But first I have to tell you more about the talk radio show.

The show focused on a new survey released this week by the Center on Educational Policy (CEP) which assessed the effects of year four of the “No Child Left Behind” act. In order to meet the reading and math requirements of “No Child Left Behind,” according to CEP, many school systems are having to cut back on other subjects. In the words of the report:

71% of school districts reported that they have reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics — the subjects tested for NCLB purposes. In some districts, struggling students receive double periods of reading or math or both—sometimes missing certain subjects altogether. Some districts view this extra time for reading and math as necessaryto help low-achieving students catch up. Others pointed to negative effects, such as short changing students from learning important subjects, squelching creativity in teaching and learning, or diminishing activities that might keep children interested in school. [Link to this passage; scroll down to page vii]

As usual, the show had people who liked “No Child Left Behind” and people who didn’t, and they heaved fairly shrill arguments at each other. But no one got into the deeper issues of “No Child Left Behind.”

At a deeper level, “No Child Left Behind” uses an essentialist philosophy of education — that is, there are certain essential things that people need to know. Essentialism often stresses a “back-to-basics” approach, with a closely defined body of knowledge and facts that must be mastered by all persons. CEP’s report also assumes an essentialist approach, CEP just defines the essential body of knowledge a little more broadly. And on the talk radio show, the argument centered around what should and should not be included in mandated tests. But what if you doubt the validity of the essentialist philosophy?

Just like “No Child Left Behind,” the UUA’s new Tapestry of Faith curriculum plan takes an essentialist philosophy of education. Instead of reading and writing, “Tapestry of Faith” focuses on:

Unitarian Universalist religious identity development, faith development, ethical development, and spiritual development. Big questions, central stories, spiritual practices, sustained anti-bias foci, and UU Principles and Sources….

But the overall philosophy appears to be the same: learners have to learn a few essential things. And the debate over “Tapestry of Faith” has so far ignored the issue of educational philosophy.

What might be alternative educational philosophies? A progressive educational philosophy would emphasize social problem solving, “educating for democracy,” and learning based on the direct experiences of the learners (think John Dewey). A romantic naturalist philosophy would say that we don’t need school at all (think of the “unschooling” movement). A reconstructionist educational philosophy would have learners working towards building a new social order as a part of their learning (think Paolo Friere, or Greg Stewart’s “Way Cool Sunday School”). More possible educational philosophies here.

I’ve been committed to progressive education, in the sense of “educating for democracy,” for many years now. As someone deeply committed to democracy, I find essentialism lends itself too easily to authoritarianism. And the educational debate I want to have would ask which educational philosophy will best support democracy (either in our nation, or in our denomination). But so far, all the educational debate I have heard has stayed at the level of talk radio — it never gets to the deeper philosophical issues.