My Role as a Ph.D.-Educator in the Orthodox Church

I am briefly coming out of hiding (my apologies, but my life has become rather hostile to blogging activities for the time being) in order to address a growing concern that is bubbling up from a number of different places. I want to address what, in my opinion, is the role of the Ph.D.-educator in the Orthodox Church. I am, and hope to remain, a layman. I have no part in the hierarchy of the Church (nor do I desire one), yet as a Ph.D., I have gained a certain amount of “rank,” “clout,” or whathaveyou within the social order we all live in. Though, I am the least of Ph.D.s, newly minted, sans tenure-track position, and without a weighty CV. My word doesn’t count for much, nor should it probably, yet I am conscious of my role as an educator in the Orthodox Church and as an intellectual in the public sphere.

I have recently heard from a certain internet comment thread that “Ph.D.s” exist to serve the church “establishment,” this being said by someone notoriously outside of mainstream Orthodoxy. I suppose this may be true in some cases, especially when these Ph.D.s are also clergymen, educated at confessional institutions or under confessional advisors and committees (though to be sure, some of our best scholars are of this type!). I am all too aware that Ph.D.s often become bludgeons of an establishment, henchmen sent to do the “dirty work.”  But I certainly would hope that not to be true in most cases or especially in my case, not that I have any interest in subverting the dogmatic tradition of the Church or the hierarchy. Yet my place as an educator is not to uphold the establishment for the sake of the establishment, but to uphold intellectual honesty, integrity, and rigor, and as an Orthodox Christian to uphold the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which defines and establishes Orthodoxy (not the other way around). And I would add that the so-called “establishment” should be committed to the same thing, where our goals align to the benefit of everyone.

That being said, an honest question or an honest concern voiced in an educational environment, even if it be contrary to the established tradition of the Church, deserves an honest and respectful discussion and answer, and this I am committed to give. I have always considered my job as an educator (namely as an instructor for the St. Macrina Institute, the late vocations program of the OCA Diocese of the Midwest) not to be one of indoctrination but of education, and education requires a safe and healthy environment where students and educators alike may operate in freedom to voice their opinions, questions, and concerns without fear of reprisal, ridicule, or clandestine report to higher authorities. If neither I nor my students facilitate that safe environment, real education cannot occur.

As the 2016 academic year began this past week at my alma mater, the University of Chicago, headlines were made after a rather strongly written letter was sent out to incoming students of the class of 2020 stating that the university would not support so-called “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” out of interest in preserving academic freedom and an environment where students can be properly challenged. Naturally, both conservative and progressive voices went to their respective sides either approving or condemning the position of the university. Yet what was not discussed in the letter is the fact that education requires a “safe space” in order to exist at all. Students have to feel that they can safely take down their guard, briefly, if not temporarily, discard their presuppositions, beliefs, and assumptions in order to consider a new idea, evaluate it, critique it, and make an informed decision about it. Authoritarian attempts to shove controversial ideas down a student’s throat is as much an indoctrination as shoving down uncontroversial ideas down a student’s throat.

Education is about empowering students to educate themselves. This very idea first occurred to me after my fourth year of graduate classes, when I finally realized that I no longer needed to take classes in the myriad of subjects I wanted to learn. I had gained the ability to teach myself whatever I wanted to learn. That is education. I had become educated, because I could educate myself. The role of the educator, then, is to teach students how to teach themselves, how to research, how to critique and evaluate, how to analyze and deconstruct, how to synthesize and reconstruct, and how to articulate their ideas clearly and effectively.

My role as an educator in the Orthodox Church and as a public intellectual on the internet “Orthoweb” is precisely this, and I do hope to achieve this ideal. I have not done so perfectly in the past, as my students could probably attest, and for that I do apologize for my failings.

I have a theory about leadership, that a leader is a mirror image of whom he or she leads. If the leader is authoritarian, abusive, and manipulative, then his or her subjects will be servile, demure, and incapable of independent thought. If a leader is a defender, helper, and facilitator, his or her subjects will be free, actively engaged, and fully capable of independent thought. It is the latter kind of leader we should seek to be, either lay or clergy.

You should not fear the Ph.D. as an authoritarian academic regent wielding knowledge like a sword to strike down ignorance wherever it be found.  You should not fear the educator as a propaganda tool of whatever “establishment” writes his paycheck. You should welcome the Ph.D. as a facilitator, a helper, a protector, and a defender. And if you do not, then it is our fault, not your own. Do encourage us in this endeavor, pray for us, and help us realize our calling in the Church and in the world.

2 comments:

  1. I am a bit confused about what triggered this posting. Anyone who has accused you of being a marionette of the Orthodox establishment has not read your posts. If, on the other hand, the post is the result of your challenges to deeply ingrained but unsubstantiated prejudices, e.g. your excellent four part article on the Masorite v. Septuagent, then to you I say, “Bravo, press on!”

    As you said, it is the Gospel of Christ that shapes Orthodoxy, not the reverse. We need scholarship to inform our understanding. Ours is not a “blind faith.”

  2. This is a good post. I’m a fellow (relatively newly minted) PhD, and blog/podcast for AF as well (Time Eternal). My PhD was in European History, with emphasis on early modern Europe (Reformation Germany). I also took my exams in history of technology and Church history. The main question you raise in this essay is something I’m still grappling with. I’m still struggling with what my actual dissertation-and-beyond academic research have to offer the world. I rely more on the skills than the content knowledge gained during my graduate degrees–critical thinking, communication of ideas, meta analysis, and the ability to see things from multiple viewpoints at once. I don’t do any formal instruction but writing and podcasting feel very much like teaching to me. Part of being an educator–in a religious as well as institutional context–for me means opening up spaces of wonder for others. A lot of what you do when you teach is reveal new vistas of thought or reality to people. There is a time to learn and figure things out and seek knowledge, and there is also a time to sit back and be in awe. I like getting students and readers to the awe moments, the mysteries 🙂

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