A few years ago, one of the developers of this resource had a conversation with a student who had just experienced an unusual beginning to their semester. “The instructor started the first class of the semester by talking about what kind of community we were,” she recounted. He said that because we were a Christian learning community, that meant that each person mattered, each person had inherent value and their own gifts to bring to the group, so it was important for everyone to come to class every day. I actually found it quite inspiring. Usually the first day of class is about the syllabus and the due dates. Talking about what kind of community we were was something new.” She paused for a moment before adding, “it took me a couple of weeks to figure out that it wasn’t really true. The class was mostly lecture, the exams were mostly reproducing class notes. It actually made very little difference whether I was there or not.”
This short conversation offers some important provocations for anyone who wants to think about how faith can frame education, or more specifically about what the idea of civic hospitality might have to do with the classroom.
First, it highlights the way in which using morally and theologically weighty words in public makes us accountable. Once we start to use words like “community” or “hospitality” or “Christian” in the context of a learning environment, we create a kind of accountability. If the practices and rhythms that make up our teaching do not plausibly count as an outworking of the big-picture words, we risk mostly teaching cynicism: “It wasn’t really true.” If we want to teach about a rich, theologically infused concept such as hospitality, we will fall short if we try to do it only with words. That does not mean that the words don’t matter or that explanations are not valuable, only that they are not enough, because other kinds of learning are always also underway.
Second, it draws our attention to the way in which a classroom functions not just as a place to give assignments and communicate information, but as a miniature community. Any classroom has certain ways in its members get used to treating, viewing, and interacting with one another. The other members of the class become anonymous fellow audience members, or competitors for scarce resources of teacher attention, or irritants to be tolerated, or sources of insight and bearers of God’s image to be approached with care and attentiveness. Students draw conclusions from how all of this works regarding what is expected of them, what counts as success, and what our values are. We teach not just through our words, but through the rhythms of practice that we foster, whether or not these are intentional.
The lesson plans in this resource represent an attempt to find ways to teach about hospitality as a civic virtue. We begin from a question about civic life: What might it look like to approach the deep differences that interrupt our life with others not with disengaged tolerance, aggression, or an abandonment of our own convictions so that everyone can get along, but with a Christ-like hospitality that extends care to others even when they are different from me? This leads to a question about education: What kind of learning might help students become the kinds of people who can muster and sustain a hospitable response to those who hold different convictions, even in a highly polarized landscape?
Making headway with this does involve some careful thinking. How is Christian hospitality different from, say, the hospitality industry or the tips for home making in the glossy magazines? How is hospitality different from tolerance, or from compromising core beliefs to play nice with others? What would a hospitable approach to civic engagement look like in practice? There does need to be space for student to think carefully about these questions and to learn from those who have done so in systematic ways. Some of the lessons in this resource focus more on this part of the task.
Yet the goal is not simply to learn about hospitality, but to begin to gain the skills and dispositions that make a hospitable response possible. We think that this means that we have to pay attention to whether interactions within the classroom itself are intentionally shaped by an ethic of hospitality. We think it also means intentional practice with others, not just correct understanding. It requires space to try out the concrete moves of civic hospitality toward others through intentional, controlled practices. Some of the lessons in this resource focus more on this task.
No series of lesson plans will be the ultimate key to transforming students. However, the chances of a positive impact increase if carefully designed learning resources are taken up into an intentionally designed classroom and school culture that reinforces the same values. For that reason, the question of whether our students can learn to approach differences through civic hospitality is bound up with the question of whether we as teachers can model the truth of what we are saying, and build learning communities in which its truth seems evident.