Jesus, as a teacher, was primarily a man of action but in terms of instruction it was his powerful parables and sermons that stand out in the Gospels. Importantly, there is no sense of exclusion as he encourages shunned lepers, hated tax inspectors, prostitutes, criminals and especially the poor, to receive his message. When it came to powerful messages it was through his individual acts of love, kindness and forgiveness that make their mark. However, there is much to learn from how he taught. He was in many ways a radical and effective teacher.
Parables were not used by him to impose moral rules but to show, by storytelling, how to act by listening to examples of how others have acted. Jesus was clear about why he used them and why they worked, explaining this in the Gospels. Parables are image rich and allow the listener or reader to picture the scene and recall from memory. They appeal to the illiterate poor and have the power to change behaviour and lives. Indeed, Christian art is full of images that retell these parables, as most people across the ages were illiterate.
Jesus also used sermons, notably the Sermon on the Mount, to tell his story and the sermon was to become the preachers’ pedagogic weapon for centuries to come. Paul the Apostle was the man who took Christianity out to the world, preaching in major cities and shaped the way Christianity was to be spread and taught for almost two millennia. From Paul we get speeches and authoritative sermons. This is not the Sermon on the Mount but the proselytising sermon that we still hear from the pulpit to this day.
Sermon to lecture
Given the hold religion had on educational institutions until relatively recently, especially Universities, it is hardly surprising that the sermon transmogrified into the ‘lecture’, which to this day, remains the main pedagogic technique in Higher Education. In education, it moved from pulpit to lectern. The language shows the move from a pre-printing age when manuscripts were rare and had to be read to students. ‘Lectern’ means ‘reading desk’ and the word ‘lecture’, from the 14th century meant ‘the act of reading’, from the Latin ‘to read’. It was only in the 16th century that this shifted to mean a talk for teaching a specific topic or subject. The verb ‘to lecture’ is first recorded in 1590. This pre-print pedagogy remains the primary pedagogic method in Higher Education but is, in some ways, a hangover from an age when books were scarce.
Schools and Universities
The religious influence on pedagogy also meant that the sermon became the one hour lecture, which still dominates much of our educational pedagogy today. This, many argue, has held back pedagogic progress rendering much higher education a slow and too often tedious affair. Nevertheless, Christianity played a seminal role in the setting up of those early European Universities, that were eventually to become more secular.
Christianity has also played a key role in the provision of universal schooling. The need to read scripture was a powerful force after the Reformation and in the conversion process as Christianity spread around the world.
It also laid the grounds for the scientific revolution that followed. However, this was matched by the holding back of science, witness Galileo and many others. But the study of God’s design and dominion, often by pious minds, eventually led to the elimination of design through Darwinism. This is still a threat today posed by fundamentalist Christianity, in its denial of evolutionary theory, especially in the US.
We can learn from the power of parables, that attitudinal change can come if we show exemplary behaviour in a way that is memorable, through story-telling. This has been the power of YouTube and video learning. We should also remember that this is not the way to treat all forms of learning. Video storytelling has its limits and can lead to the illusion of learning. Storytelling may not be appropriate for knowledge and, in the end it is through action that we learn to change ourselves. The point is not just to look and listen but to act.
Has there been any more powerful teacher? His only rival is perhaps the Buddha or Mohammed. This one man shaped two millennia of thought and culture through the use of simple parables and sermons. These were to be retold and evangelised by others such as Paul, and armies of preachers, to congregations, largely in churches, that continues to this day. Note that some, like Nietzsche, thought that this led to a two millennia aberration and, in particular, a thousand years stultifying scholasticism.
Wilson A.N. (1992) Jesus Sinclair-Stevenson