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Thinking Out Loud

Average is Over

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 22, 2014
average is overThomas Friedman wrote a column some time back about the revolutionary changes sweeping through higher education. In his column, “The Professors’ Big Stage” (The New York Times, March 5, 2013), he observed that Harvard Business School no longer offers a basic accounting course. The school refers its students to an online course offered by another university, observing that there's no need for them to use Harvard's resources providing that kind of basic course. Better for Harvard to concentrate on the kinds of educational offerings they are best at providing.

A couple of things are notable in Harvard Business School’s strategic adjustment.

(1) They recognize that certain kinds of knowledge can be acquired just as well from a high quality online or hybrid educational source. It is not that basic accounting as a subject isn't important, it is just that the particular kind of knowledge is suitable for transmission through a non-traditional delivery system.

(2) Harvard Business School itself is focusing its resources on those methods for transmitting the kind of knowledge, wisdom and competencies that it does best. It excels at intensive face-to-face instruction that transforms the student through the acquisition and integration of knowledge and practical wisdom.

In developing his argument, Friedman makes a fascinating observation that ought to be carved on the heart of every organizational leader today: "When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over."

From the perspective of theological education, the message could not be clearer. We must make the case that theological education is not simply good for the church. Theological education is indispensable to the practice of Christian faith.

What do I mean?

I read The Economist each week for two reasons. It is fascinating. (That's the purely positive reason.) And, more importantly, it has become indispensable to me. I would be afraid of what I would miss if I didn't read it.

Is this a fear-based motivation? Sort of. But it is true. As someone who needs the best information I can get, I would indeed be afraid not to read this journal. I don't feel the same about many other good newspapers and magazines, some of which I read regularly.

Seminaries need to demonstrate that they are indispensable to the preparation of excellent leaders for our churches and our society. Average is over. Just being "Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery Store" may be good enough for Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone, but it is not good enough for the real world of ministry today.

But even that is not enough.

We must demonstrate that we are thoughtful in determining what can only be learned and what can best be learned through the educational modes we cultivate. And we must never stop learning what needs to be learned for leadership and ministry and how best to teach this. Average is over. Average is no longer an option. Not if our schools are to have a future. And not, I would argue, if our communities of faith are to flourish in this rapidly changing environment.

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