Against Mechanicalism, or Why It Is Utterly Mistaken to Conduct Experiments to Test Whether Certain Religious, Spiritual, Aesthetic, or Pedagogical Practices "Work"

Prof. Delbanco is describing the role of grace in the process of education as it was understood by the Puritan founders of our collegiate tradition, particularly as it is (or should be) dedicated to the psychological and ethical growth of students:

"More than achieving the competence to solve problems and perform complex tasks, education means attaining and sustaining curiosity and humility.  It means growing out of an embattled sense of self into a more generous view of life as continuous self-reflection in light of new experience, including the witnessed experience of others.

"With these ends in view, Puritans spoke almost indistinguishably about teaching and preaching.  Consider John Cotton, arguably the leading minister of New England's first generation...  By his voice and arguments, but most of all by his manifest commitment to the impossible yet imperative task of aligning his own life with models of virtue that he found (mainly) in scripture, he was mentor to his students in the same way that he was pastor to his flock.  In his theological writings, which were largely concerned with what we would call moral psychology, he explored the mystery and contingency of learning, which, he believed, sometimes proceeded in steps, sometimes by leaps, sometimes by sheer surprise in the absence of exertion, sometimes by slow and arduous accretion through diligent work.

"Such a teacher is convinced that everyone has the capacity to learn and grow, but that the moment of electric connection between teacher and student cannot be predicted or planned.  For some it may never come...; for others it may come when least expected.  In order to create the best conditions for it to take hold, such a teacher avoids exhibitionist erudition, speaks in plain rather than florid language, and, humble before the subject, understands himself as merely the human instrument by which God may choose to convey to the student the 'spirit of discernment.'  Such a teacher also knows that there is no telling when, or whether, the transmission will take place.

"In our mostly post-theistic academic world, these assumptions may seem remote and possibly bizarre--but perhaps they are less so than they appear.  Every true teacher, after all, understands that, along with teacher and students, a mysterious third force is present in every classroom.  Sometimes this force works in favor of learning; sometimes it works against it.  This is because ideas must cross an invisible interval between the mind of the teacher and that of the student, and there is no telling when a provoking thought will succeed in crossing that space, or what exactly will happen to it during its transit from speaker to hearer.  One never knows how the teacher's voice will be received by the student, in whose mind it mixes with already-resident ideas that have accumulated from prior experience and, perhaps, from other teachers.  Sometimes the spoken word is nothing but noise that evaporates into air or has no effect in the mind of the student beyond annoyance or confusion.  Sometimes it can have surprising and powerful effects--yet it is impossible to say why or when this will happen for some students and not for others.

"The Puritan word for this invisible and inaudible force was grace.  One does not need to share their belief--or to be a believer in any conventional sense--to understand what they meant.  To explain their concept of grace to my own students...I sometimes draw an analogy from outside the classroom.  Imagine that two college roommates go out together to see a production of Shakespeare's great play, King Lear, about an old man cruelly duped by his own children, who is losing his grip on power and dignity and even his own senses, and ends up wandering alone under the open sky without shelter or mercy or hope.  The roommates go to see a local production of the play, and when it is done, one of them comes out of the theater saying, 'You know, I've seen it done better; let's get a beer,' or 'I don't know what all the fuss is about; this guy had it coming, he's a real whiner.'

"Meanwhile, the other young man has had a devastating experience.  He doesn't know why or how, but he finds himself thinking about his own father--about the obligations of children to parents and, for that matter, parents to children; about the savage sadness that comes upon many people in their broken old age; in fact, he finds himself thinking about every aspect of his life in a new way.  Does he want to have children of his own?  If so, how will he bring them up?  Maybe he thinks about becoming a physician; or maybe he's decided to call home to see how his father is doing, with whom he's had a difficult relationship; or, more likely, he doesn't know what to do but feels a sudden conviction that his plans and priorities need to be revisited and revised.  One thing he knows for sure is that he doesn't want to end up like Lear wandering alone on the heath.  In short, the world has been transformed for him while it remains utterly unchanged for his friend.  And yet they have heard the same voices and words, seen the same bodies and props moving about on the same stage, or, to put it in mechanistic terms, experienced the same aural and visual stimuli.

"It is impossible to say why something so important has happened to one of these young men and not to the other.  Their SAT scores may be identical.  In fact, the one whom the play leaves unmoved may have higher scores and better grades and better prospects to make the dean's list.  The difference between them is immeasurable by any testing instrument, and has nothing to do with which one has studied harder for tomorrow's exam on Elizabethan drama.  While most of us who work in education today have no language to account for this mystery, that does not mean the mystery does not exist."

--Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), pp. 46-50 (my emphasis).

Remember this lesson whenever someone tries to convince you that it might be interesting or even meaningful to "test" by "scientific" experiment such spiritual practices as meditation or such religious practices as liturgy, preaching, or prayer.  Grace is not something that can be tested or proved, only received.  But that does not mean that it is not real, however much it may elude the efforts of the researcher to measure it or those of the huckster to offer it with a guarantee.


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