When we think about hospitality, we each have a range of associations with the topic. Perhaps we think of good meals offered to or received from friends. Perhaps we think of special events that gathered a circle of relatives and acquaintances to celebrate at someone’s home. Perhaps we think of someone who welcomed us to a new church or city, or perhaps we think of the hospitality industry. For most of us, it is unlikely that school classrooms are among the first things that come to mind. Aren’t hospitality and education rather different enterprises?
In fact, there is a long and rich Christian tradition not only of reflecting theologically on hospitality as part of the life of faith, but of imagining education in terms of hospitality. We can think about the relationship between hospitality and education in four main ways.
First, schools themselves have at various times been imagined as places of hospitality where the young are welcomed and hosted as they learn and grow. In the early days of the medieval University of Paris, students would live together in a shared house presided over by a master who would provide food, a daily schedule shaping their common life, and instruction. One name for such a venue for living and learning was the hospicium, the place of hospitality. Since then, others have reflected on how schools provide not just a building in which information can be exchanged, but a way of living together that reflects a set of values and prepares us for a way of life. Schools are places in which we neither leave the young to fend for themselves nor hammer them into identical molds, but rather open space for them to grow into their callings and help them to develop the skills and dispositions that they will need to live well.
Second, the teaching and learning process that happens within schools has been imagined by various educators as something that should bear the characteristics of hospitality. A thousand years ago, Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of teaching as a kind of breaking bread, sharing sustenance with a community of learners, and making sure that each gets to eat. More recent writers have similarly reflected on what it might mean to teach in such a way that the classroom is a welcoming rather than a fearful space, one in which some do not dominate others, but all receive care and support, no matter the gifts that they bring.
Third, we can think about hospitality as a topic to be considered within the curriculum. Christians have reflected carefully about hospitality throughout Christian history, and their accounts of hospitality have often differed in significant ways from default cultural understandings of the word. Hospitality, they have insisted, should not be about gaining social status by inviting the well-connected, or about showing off our beautiful homes and culinary skill, or about reinforcing our inclination to spend time with those we like. Christ-like hospitality welcomes the poor, the stranger, even the enemy, and is rooted in sacrificial care and the recognition that we ourselves depend on an undeserved welcome from God, offered while we were still enemies. Where in the curriculum might students learn to think carefully about the practice of hospitality and what it means in a Christian context? And might there be fruitful curricular spaces for them to think about how it can specifically frame their approach to civic and political differences?
Fourth, we can think about hospitality as a learning outcome, one that needs more than talk for it to be realized. Understanding the concept, being able to write an essay about it, gaining the ability to name some doctrines, discussing the possibility – none of these things are quite enough to equip us to actually be hospitable in the moment of real-life encounter with those who differ from us. We do need conceptual learning, careful reflection, and critical appraisal, but we need more. We need intentional formative practices, chances to try out the postures, the moves, the gestures that make up a hospitable response to difference. What kind of learning might help us to become the kind of people who can respond to difference not with fear and hostility, but with a hospitality born out of our own awareness of the mercy we receive?
This rich network of relationships between faith, hospitality, and education forms the context within which this resource was developed. In these materials we are proposing that the curriculum experienced by students should include attention to hospitality as a way of thinking about their civic experiences and responsibilities. We are also looking for ways of teaching and learning that do not reduce this to an exchange of information, but that make it possible for students to both experience hospitality in the classroom and prepare for the practice of hospitality in their future civic engagements. We hope to contribute to the role of schools as places where the young are welcomed and nurtured as they make their way into a challenging and diverse political world. Each of these facets is part of what it means to teach for civic hospitality.