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Education is good, but formation is better


JD Lasica | CC BY 2.0

Tod Worner - published on 10/20/18

What we need today are confident, well-reasoned, magnanimous mentors who are interested in forming their young apprentices.

“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”

– Robert Frost

The buzzword for transmitting information and knowledge from one generation to another is education. Large classes of college students spend top dollar to listen to a disinterested graduate assistant educate a class on [fill-in-the-blank]. The editorial pages across the political spectrum educate the masses with ill-considered, strident rants in favor of this or in opposition to that. Politicians, with sparkling teeth and well-coiffed hair, educate their constituency as they mindlessly recite talking points in debates and town halls. With all of this education, we should be there smartest people on the planet.

But this is hardly education.

Flannery O’Connor once aptly quipped, “Total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me.”

What we need today are confident, well-reasoned, magnanimous mentors who are interested in forming their young apprentices. What we need is not education, but formation.

But what is formation?

Formation is the painstaking, earnest investment of an older generation of mentors in a younger generation of apprentices. At the root of formation is a trusting relationship that a mentor is wise, reliable and well-intended in passing on information to a humble, hard-working and discerning apprentice. Before they were introduced to the nuance of brushstrokes, the great artists first had mentors who taught them to sweep the studio, run errands and mix paints. Ultimately, these artists did the same with their apprentices. Starting quarterbacks review plays with their back-ups. Outgoing presidents leave letters of counsel to their incoming successors. Obi-Wan had Luke. Mr. Miyagi had Daniel. You get the picture.

Inherent to the process of formation is the passing on of wisdom born of experience, intuition and judgment. The apprentice (hopefully) eagerly aspires to be like the mentor, but she cannot rush it. Experience takes time. Judgment is hard-earned. Furthermore, wisdom is distinct from knowledge which is distinct from information. Mentors guide in the thoughtful use of information.It is not enough to simply internalize information or know how to access it. One must be discerning. Smart is commonplace; wise is exceptional. And beyond the art of discernment, formation is about character. Accompanying knowledge is its right use. The properly formed mind has intelligence midwifed by integrity, honesty and common sense. Formation sows seeds of “I ought” amidst a field once dominated with “I need” and “want.”

A person cannot form themselves. And yet too often mentors in all fields are sending survey after survey about what apprentices think will better form them. Barring a search for wholesale abuse by irresponsible mentors, this solicitation is preposterous in anything other than appeasing a group who should require no appeasement. And generally, when an apprentice has no true understanding about how to be formed, their responses will usually be counter-productive, self-serving attempts to satisfy their immature appetites. Hard work is circumvented. Creativity is deadened. Self-discipline is weakened. Did General Eisenhower seek input from his soldiers on the eve of D-Day? Did Jesus Christ pass around a feedback form to his disciples?  Did Obi-wan or Yoda submit to Luke the right to direct his own training? Hardly.

There is a reluctance today to endorse or be receptive to a true process of formation. That is because formation is hard. It is trusting that someone knows better than I do. It requires the mean sacrifice and pain that comes with growth. It erects a structure. It imposes order. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, “It changes us and change is painful.” And I don’t always like that. I find myself asking, What do these old ways (or traditions) have to do with me anyway? Aren’t we living in the modern world and these older folks just need to catch up? Why can’t we just do things in a new and improved way (namely, my way)? Can’t this just be easier? 

G.K. Chesterton had a few things to say about tradition and the wisdom of mentors,

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’People do not know what they are doing because they do not know what they are undoing.Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.

Formation is a dying art because of a growing culture of meek inoffensiveness (among mentors) paired with a rising (if not defiant) culture of entitlement (among apprentices). Mentors are too scared to teach and apprentices are too proud to learn. Additionally, mentors are also too busy and increasingly less expert, so they are spread too thin among too many apprentices (remembering my 400-strong biology class during freshman year of college). But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s get past all of the nonsense. Let’s shelve the sensitive feelings and hand-wringing and wishy-washiness. Let’s do fewer surveys and do more work. Let’s get back to that meaty relationship where mentors want to give the best damned advice while apprentices eagerly and intelligently seek to take it. Let’s have discussions. Let’s entertain debate. But let’s do this with the full knowledge that you are both on the same team. Let’s recognize that the effort to arrive at the truth is meant to ennoble, not to paralyze. It is time to realize that no instructor is infallible, no student is perfect and no material is flawless. That truth shouldn’t shock anyone. But what may shock the modern consciousness is that we can proceed anyway.

Education is a fine thing, without question.

But formation is even better.

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