Friday 18 May 2007

Schleiermacher, textbooks and oral tradition

In his charming little book On the Glaubenslehre: Two Letters to Dr Lücke (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1981), Schleiermacher makes a humorous observation about textbooks (p. 75): “Not only must we always take care that there is enough room to shelve these printed pages, but in my opinion it is important that our students have books that they can carry around comfortably…. Moreover, in our universities there is a great deal of oral tradition about both the teachers and the texts, and it seems to have quite an influence on our beginning students.”

I love this tongue-in-cheek reference to “oral tradition.” And he’s right, too: when you talk with first-year students in a theological faculty or seminary, it’s often very striking to see that they have already formed crystal-clear opinions about which books and authors are important or unimportant, which teachers should be taken seriously, which ideas are childish and naïve, and so on.

It would be interesting to know something about the sociology of all this. What is the precise nature and function of such oral traditions in academic institutions? How formative is the role of oral tradition in the development of students’ education?


michael jensen said...

Ben, you may know a little of D. Broughton Knox, the principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney from the sixties through eighties. He published very little - though his book on the Henrician Reformation is still quoted today, and his work on the Trinity in the early 80s was somewhat ahead of the Trinitarian revival elsewhere. But it is as a pedagogue that he had most of his impact. He taught using the Socratic method - with very little content per se, but rather engaging with provocative questions, and which by turns frustrated, teased and delighted his students. He was polemical and irascible and mercurial: and he left his stamp indelibly printed on his students to this day. That I can tell you all this even though I was too young by a decade or more to attend one of his classes says it all really... even today the older faculty ask each other 'what would Broughton have done?' That's oral tradition for you!

Anonymous said...

When I arrived on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Jan. 1, 1986), the shadow of several recently retired professors loomed large: Dale Moody (theology), Frank Stagg(New Testament), Eric Rust (officially, he taught philosophy of religion, but Rust also managed to teach OT theology courses and systematic theology courses), Henlee H. Barnette (Christian ethics), and Penrose St. Amant (Church History)--loomed VERY large.
But there was also much oral tradition from earlier generations. There were stories that floated around about long dead profs. like A.T. Robertson (New Testament), E. Y. Mullins (theology), etc. The ghosts of long dead professors and students seemed to haunt the halls sometimes.
I remember dying with laughter after hearing about 2 students who lived in the same dorm I did--but back in the 1920s during the height of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. One of these men was a partisan of Harry Emerson Fosdick, Shailer Matthews, & other liberal spokesmen. The other was a strong fundamentalist. The entire dorm had to put up with their loud debates. Then they left for a summer of student interns. When they returned, the story went, they had each reversed their positions. The dorm had to hear all the same arguments, but with the people espousing the positions reversed! :-)
The "atmosphere" of the school gave us the impression that we were being initiated into a tradition of Baptist scholarship (2 words that haven't always and everywhere gone together) to the left of much of the SBC and in firm dialogue with mainline Protestants, but still broadly "evangelical." That atmosphere DID have an influence, although some students reacted negatively to it and either deliberately adopted far-left or far-right views.
I never have figured out how such an oral tradition is transmitted. I do know that it is not necessarily permanent. I have visited the campus since the advent of Al Mohler and the "conservative resurgence" and the atmosphere I knew is gone. The ghost of James P. Boyce (founding president and 19th C. Calvinist, former student of Charles Hodge) was still there--and much more prominent. But the others were now banished--Mullins and Moody were reviled. The atmosphere now is like a field which detects those not "true believers" (like me) and makes them quite uncomfortable--even if one is just trying to use the still excellent library.

Anonymous said...

I did my undergrad at King's College London in the mid 1990s. When I started, a friend of mine had just completed his BA and was now studying for his MA. He divulged his views about who was 'sound', 'dodgy' and 'okay' - and I'm sure that his opinions influenced the way I heard the lecturers themselves.

Needless to say, he gave Colin Gunton a glowing report, which is possibly why I'm such a Guntonite now!

Ben Myers said...

A friend emailed me about this post, and he had some interesting information about the sociology of such oral tradition:

"Actually, this has been the subject of some study. Barbara Wheeler [and others] did a study of theological education in American with the title of Being There: Culture and Formation in Two Theological Schools (OUP 1997). They studied Gordon-Conwell, Fuller and Wesley Seminary in D.C. (conversative, mainstream, liberal). And they did it by moving into the dorms and living with the students. They discovered two things. 'Being there' means living on campus. They said that was incredibly important for shaping what students learned because: (factor number 2) the 'informal curriculum' was at least as important and in many ways more important than the formal curriculum. Students views are shaped by peers in the program. From them, they get a sense of what is important, who to take, who not to take, which questions they should deal with, etc. Professors who are completely unaware of this operate at a distinct disadvantage."

Sounds like a very interesting study!

Anonymous said...

I'll second the recommendation of Being There - it's an important book.

::aaron g:: said...

I think this observation speaks to the importance of the informal/hidden curriculum:

“We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment. Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or whether we design environments for the purpose makes a great difference.”

-- John Dewey

Anonymous said...

There may be gender differences here, too. My mentor, Molly Marshall, organized theology discussion sessions especially for women. Why? Because the men held bull sessions in their dorms automatically, but women had largely been socialized not to explore ideas in a free and unhindered way.

Things may have changed, but I would be interested in hearing if there were differences in male and female dorms--and married dorms.

And does living off campus change what students learn? How and why? As more and more students come to seminaries older and married, what does this mean for the "informal curriculum?"

michael jensen said...

Also, while part-time study has many benefits for people who wouldn't otherwise study theology at all, it is hard to make an effective seminary out of part-time students.

Our students in Sydney do a magnificent job of ensuring that the informal curriculum is stimulating and vigorous. It is really delightful to hear that they have organised out of class debates and discussions.

Anonymous said...


Though I see your point about part-time students and the community that they are part of, it ought not to be neglected that part-time students contribute to seminary life in a way that full-time students cannot. Most part-time seminary students are active in full-time ministry and to say that they wouldn't otherwise study theology at all is a rather elitist approach to the academy, and dare I say ignorant. It has been my experience (praise God!) that some of the best theological thinking has been found in the church rather than the classroom. In addition, I have found that full-time students are sometimes at a disadvantage in their theological studies, since many of them lack church ministry experience, which at times seems to hinder their ability to understand theological relationships to everyday life – something that many part-time students are able to help them with.

Thus it is important that a divinity professor be aware of the present "oral traditions" of the church.

former part-time student

michael jensen said...

Sorry, Fp-tS, your point is valid and I would hasten to clarify: 'wouldn't otherwise study theology in a formal academic setting at all'.

I think this is just a reality of contemporary life - the secular universities are likewise full of part-time students who are integrating their learning in this way with work or other duties as best they can given the economics of it all.

The theology situation is somewhat different I suppose since the part-time student inhabits two LEARNING communities, ie the church and the seminary.

At the college where I have taught, almost all of students have had two years ministry apprenticeships before they come. Of course, the problem this creates is that they feel like they know all the answers before they come having learnt 'on the job'!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the clarification. It is a shame that ministry before seminary can become a problem though -- isn't it? I would like to think that students/ ministers/ professors realize that seminary is not a place you receive or provide right answers. As you might agree, I would hope that seminary helps people to learn to ask appropriate questions.

And would you agree that the two learning communities of church and seminary ought to be better integrated than the typical requirement of 8 credits of internship toward the end of an MDiv? And perhaps that a better integration might help equip and empower people for ministry; helping seminaries prevent the churning out of technicians, rather than ministers?



michael jensen said...

Well I can only speak from my own context, and as a denominational seminary teacher in a big city who wished his students paid rather more attention to their studies than to the pressing needs of parish life! Our students are always involved in parish work while the study. For the pragmatists among them especially, it is really hard to keep their focus on their studies for this period...! There is something about effective thought that takes time and a break from business...

Anonymous said...


I can see the difficulties. It is a challenging and fulfilling task equiping seminarians and I'm sure you do an excellent job of it.


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