Thursday, December 9, 2010

In Praise of the Lecture

The paradigmatic act of the university professor in the (originally) Western (but now Global) university in the modern age is the lecture. The disputation was central to the pedagogy of the Medieval university and the tutorial system is fundamental to the Oxbridge system. The graduate seminar is the backbone of the modern, research university. But common to all universities of all times is the lecture.

Many of the great books of world history originated as lecture series and the lecture series tending toward publication is one of the paradigmatic acts of the university community. The invited lecture series recognizes expertise, brings the academic community together and provides an occasion for listening, dialogue and debate. The question and answer session, the chit chat over refreshments and later the well-aimed article or book written in reply all are sparked by the lecture. For a supposedly one-way method of communication, the lecture can spur a lot of thought, discussion and nuanced argument. It takes more than Twitter-sized sound bites or 30 second commercials to make an argument that can change informed minds about complex matters.

It is well-known that the most important theological works of the twentieth century (by a rather wide margin), the fat volumes of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, took their form as lectures over the decades in Gottington, Munster, Bonn and Basel. I had professors in graduate school who recalled sitting in the audience during the lectures on IV.3 in the 1950s in Basel. It it highly significant, I think, that when Barth retired at the age of 75 he immediately lost his energy for producing the remaining volumes of the series. Without lectures to give, it seemed somehow pointless to him.

Today, the lecture is out of favor in politically-correct circles. Like dead white males, high academic standards and absolute truth, it has been consigned to the dustbin of history by enlightened, late-modern, progressives who do not quite believe that God grades on the curve, but who do hold it against Him that He does not.

I would speak in praise of the lecture. Some of my most memorable academic moments of revelation and insight occurred in lectures. I have, on occasion, left a lecture feeling privileged to have witnessed an historic event. True, some lectures are boring. But scholars who bore students should simply be taken out and shot for they have committed the unpardonable academic sin. Isn't that why James 3:1 says that not many should aspire to be teachers? (For all those serious pacifists out there, please note that my tongue is firmly in my cheek. Steady, there.)

In all seriousness, I wish to offer a few words in praise of the maligned and the outdated lecture. I can only hope that the reader will not feel that I am "lecturing" him because, to my dismay, the verb "lecturing" has been reduced to a mere synonym of "hectoring." What a come-down for a noble verb of great pedigree!

The Lecture is a Moral Event
First, we should recall that the lecture is an event. A book can be opened anytime I want. You Tube is always there. Great libraries all over the Western world are full of wisdom and knowledge contained in books which go unread as millions race to get in front of the television before the show de jour comes on.

But a lecture is always at a certain place at a certain time. Once it is over it is over. I resist students who want to tape my lectures and I would never put my lectures on video. How painful it would be to watch them five years on when I have moved on in the intellectual life and gained a few more inches (I would like to think) in the pursuit of wisdom.

But what kind of event is the lecture? I say it is a moral event first because it is a kind of profession of faith, which is why we are called "professors." Max Weber, good positivist that he was, would be horrified by this flaunting of the fact/value distinction. But the fact/value distinction is a product of a stunted modern epistemology detached from its metaphysical life source and left to die slowly from its inability to sustain itself in thin air.

To lecture is to take a stand of some kind. It is to present a thesis, propose an interpretation, or make an argument. It is to choose to leave some things out and to put other things in. It takes place in a set period of time and must prioritize ruthlessly. The most important thing in a lecture is to tell the truth and no lecture that does so will ever be boring.

To take a stand is a moral act. A person lectures, not a disembodied ghost or a mechanical voice coming over a speaker that sounds like a robot. A lecture is given in a concrete, specific language and from a certain perspective, whether that is Marxist or Buddhist, Freudian or Augustinian, Christian or Positivist. To lecture is to be forced out on a high wire in front of an audience where it is impossible to be neutral with regard to the truth. Qualify all you want, nuance all you like: your audience expects (and has a right to expect) you to take a position and defend it. This is a moral act. To be insincere here is to be exposed to the world as a hack, a sophist and an intellectual prostitute.

The Lecture as a Personal Act
Closely related to the idea of the lecture as a moral act is the idea of the lecture as a personal act. True education is always about personal growth toward the Truth. Some would charge the lecture with being the paradigmatic act of arrogance: one person stands there with all the truth while the rest sit quietly as supplicants. But this is to distill the university experience into only one of its moments, as if the slow movement of the pendulum to the right were never balanced by its eventual arc back to the left. To read in preparation and to argue in response are the parts of the educational experience set in motion by the lecture, which acts a fulcrum.

The lecture is given by a person; an individual with a history, a faith and a worldview. It is not given by rote or in accordance with a preset ideology. That is called propaganda and is to university life what the brothel is to the marriage bed. The listeners are also persons and they respond in a personal way. This idea is captured well by a remark I recently heard Don Carson make. He said: "My students do not learn what I teach them. They learn what I am excited about." Many teachers would recognize the truth of that remark.

The Lecture as a Tribute to Metaphysical Truth
Christianity is the religion of the Logos, the Word become flesh. Karl Barth's great formulation, building on the teaching of the Fathers and Reformers, of the three-fold Word of God reminds us that Jesus Christ is the Word in the primary sense, the Scriptures are the Word in the sense that they bear witness to Christ and the sermon is the Word of God proclaimed in the power of the Spirit. This is Reformation theology and it is a re-capturing of a true spirit of catholicity.

The emphasis on universal literacy and public education in the countries most strongly influenced by the Reformation is a testimony to the connection in the Protestant and catholic mind between the word and truth. "I am the Truth" says our Lord. "In the beginning was the Word" says the apostle. Pictorial representations of God are forbidden by the Second Commandment, but preaching is the Divinely-appointed means by which the Word is to be communicated. Given the exalted status of the sermon in the Protestant, and especially the Reformed, Churches, it is little wonder that some of its prestige should have rubbed off on the lecture.

In the University of Zurich, which sprang from the Bible lectures given by Zwingli in 1525, the line between the sermon and the lecture was blurred in his exegetical lectures which were considered life-giving and life-changing by their hearers. In a multitude of Reformed Churches today, pastors give Bible lectures that are lapped up by thirsty listeners eager to get to know God better by searching out the truth of the Holy Scriptures.

The authoritative proclamation of Scripture became a model for the proclamation of truth in the university and the metaphysical framework provided by the classical tradition of biblical theology provided a canopy under which science could grow and flourish. This "sacred canopy" today is filled with holes and in many institutions of higher learning it has been rolled up and carted away to the delight of the atheists and materialists. But science and the pursuit of wisdom does not flourish in the harsh sun and flash floods of atheistic materialism. The lecture is dying; the university is dying. Could there be a connection between the two tragedies?

I have spoken in favor of the lecture. I trust that I shall hear many more and give many more before the end of my life. As long as Christian learning thrives, the lecture shall live.

1 comment:

R Davis said...

"It takes more than Twitter-sized sound bites or 30 second commercials to make an argument that can change informed minds about complex matters."

So true. Small group work and the like, while it certainly has its place, is never going to give rise to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics or Newton's Principia or Clarke's Demonstration. Indeed, in Clarke's case, his A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God was the result of his being invited to deliver the Boyle Lectures in 1704.