Educating imaginative, resilient leaders for God's changing world.

"Sankofa," Sabbath, Technology, and Going Back to School

by Deborah F. Mullen

Deb Mullen is CTS Dean of Faculty and Executive Vice President and Associate Professor of American Christianity and Black Church Studies

“Going back to school” isn’t always a helpful phrase to use, when we talk about adult education.

A lot of the people who come to Columbia Seminary – whether for a degree-granting program or Lifelong Learning courses – are very accomplished in their own right.

But, somehow, when they sit in a seminary classroom, they revert to the first grade. They lose confidence in all they’ve brought with them to our classroom. They bow to the formal education process, as if the only person who has authority is the one standing in front of the classroom.

That paradigm doesn’t fit with our understanding of the priesthood of all believers. We all have vocation, regardless where we practice that vocation. We all bring gifts, graces, knowledge, and experience that can enrich the learning experience for everyone in the classroom.

The term “going back to school” does have a good connotation when it means going back to get what you couldn’t get before – retrieving something that was out of your grasp during an earlier time in your life.

An exciting way to think about this comes from an African wisdom tradition called “Sankofa”  – going back to retrieve something while at the same time moving forward. The Sankofa symbol is a bird, its neck craning back to pick up an egg, while at the same time flying forward.

We recognize that our students do not come into our classrooms like tabula rasa – clean slates. They are adults coming back to school, bringing much with them that others in the classroom can learn.

That’s one aspect I like about the teaching ethos here at Columbia Seminary – all students and all comments and questions are treated with respect.

And, that’s why – when I’m teaching – I like to place myself at the same level as my students. Whenever possible, I sit among them, rather than standing at the front of the room, the authority with all the answers.

Another helpful way to look at “going back to school” is to see it in relationship to Sabbath.

Sabbath is not only a day of rest at the end of the week’s work, but also the day of Jesus' resurrection and new beginnings. In that light, Sabbath renewal can be preparation for what is to come – a time to prepare for the new things that “going back to school” brings.

In a slightly different light, some people can see going back to school itself as Sabbath – a time that allows them to step aside from normal practice, to have space and time to reflect.

Either way, like Sabbath, going back to school means setting aside the ordinary, to engage in spiritual refreshment and renewal, re-membering – pulling together the parts of oneself that have been left along the way, becoming a renewed self.

This is especially true because of the ways education is being delivered or enhanced by technology in the classroom. What new capacities we have, for interactive learning! An idea comes up, and we can immediately go to Wikipedia, Google, blogs, Twitter, to get more information or to see what others are saying.

It’s important, of course, that this be practiced with ethical parameters – students not shopping at Amazon.com during class, but rather doing Web searches in service to the community in the classroom. We enter into a covenant:

In this classroom, we’re working together and are accountable to each other as a learning community. We set up guidelines together, with technology as a conversation partner, not a distraction.

So, with these thoughts in mind, I encourage you to take a look at the upcomng Lifelong Learning courses highlighted in this issue of “Journeying Together.” You’ll find lots of opportunities to look back, move forward, and re-member.