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Posted August 6, 2004

Thoughts to ponder by lay leaders and priests
engaged in teaching/preaching religion

Visions and Realities: Part Two

Eugene F. Hemrick
Taken from Modern Masters of Religious Education
Edited by Marlene Mayr
Religious Education Press, Birmingham, Alabama

The Period of New Vistas

During the same time I was involved with communication and pedagogical behavioral skills another type of influence was affecting me. For many, the effect of Vatican II was to experience a new liturgy and new way of perceiving church. For me, it was a time of extensive travels, speaking both figuratively and literally. I, like Joseph Knecht, after listening to homilies and classes in which the pastor or professor had been to the Holy Land or visited famous cities, promised myself to do likewise. I made good on that promise and traveled to Europe and Central America.

During the same time I was also on another trip type of trip. The field of catechetics was enjoying a renewed vigor. I had the good fortune to return to graduate school at Loyola in Chicago and imbibe the newest trends in theology. I found myself once again reading copiously about living faith, commitment, form criticism, salvation history, the Omega point, the anthropological approach, and of course, pre-evangelization, evangelization/catechesis. What was more exciting, we not only read the works of great scholars, but many were our professors.

New ideas brought about by travel and graduate school gave me a sense of openness I never experienced before. As I reflect on this now in relation to my involvement with research I wonder if the desire to create openness and new interesting possibilities in religious education is another reason behind my present involvement with research. Travel throws one into foreign worlds and customs. At first it is like a bolt of lightning to discover that not everyone does things the way we do. It is also shaking to find how dependent we have become on the American way of life. Another shock wave hit me when I learned my pre-Vatican II education had to change to accommodate a post-Vatican II church.

Once these traumas normalized however, a fresh thirst for adventure and challenge arose. To become too dependent, too settled in, too complacent, and to seek a stagnant stability now seemed most distasteful. In retrospect, I believe these feelings and my propensity to come at the catechetical world through a research approach have a common denominator. I see research as a wholesome educational catalyst for stirring religious education into considering new challenges and adventures. So often I come across religion teachers and DREs who are discouraged, frustrated, and burnt-out, and I ask why? What is responsible for destroying these persons? Do we expect too much of them? Are they working against overwhelming odds? Are there helpful models of success that can be transferred to them?

I feel these and even harder questions about institutional policies and responsibilities must be asked continuously in order to motivate DREs and religion teachers and open them up to new and refreshing possibilities. I further believe that if real change is to happen, then conscience-pricking questions must be asked along with the many pat answers that already exist.

My own personal background, the Vatican II period and its connection to research in religious education, has led me recently to espouse what some might consider a radical position. For me, disciplined reflection, the ongoing quest for deeper understandings and the insightful questions needed to obtain them must be as much a part of religious education as are textbooks and the new ideas and models of theologians. Textbooks and theologians challenge the system of religious education from within. But the system must step back periodically and take a new look at its operations lest it continue to be without effect. Too many youths attending religion classes are saying they have heard it before, while at the same time crying for a value system to interpret a sometims hard-to-understand world. Too many adults are into every imaginable cult, save the most important one. As present models, policies, and institutional practices serve religious education, someone must be at their service. That person must ask, “Are present models out of date? Is there a need for policy change? Are we really listening? Have institutional practices become too mechanical and lost their punch?

I am aware, as travel so well teaches, that every time there is a jolt to the system there is also the risk of shaking its balance and possibly never regaining it. Looking back on the impact of Vatican II and some of the frightening, but at the same time exciting, learning experiences I have had with foreign travel, I believe we wouldn’t risk as much as we think we would.

A Period of Contribution

After having received a B.A., two M.A.s, and a Ph.D., and traveled all over the world, my mother’s reaction was sobering. I told her how fortunate I was to get a well-rounded education. Her reply was, “When are you going to work?”

Although I had been an associate pastor, worked in the diocesan office of religious education, taught, and was chaplain, she had a good point. When would I start to make a noticeable contribution directly related to all this specialized education?

The opportunity came in 1971 when Robert O’Gorman asked me to co-direct a summer institute in evaluative methods at St. Louis University. For the next four summers I feel I had one of my “finest hours” as an educator.

We were expected to design a course in evaluation, systems analysis, and to introduce students to various styles of supervision. I went to St. Louis with no preconceived ideas. I had developed skills at Notre Dame in assessing verbal dialogue using the Flanders Interaction Analysis system. I was also familiar with various schools of counseling I had studied at Loyola in Chicago. Having been taught the Rogerian method, and being conversant with Gestalt therapy, Jung, Freud, Maslow, and schools of administrative theory such as MacGregor, Follette, Drucker, and Etzioni I felt I could meet the challenge of the summer institute. However, what we needed most was not theory, but a method for making Flanders, Rogers, and the others operational. Would a student have, in addition to cognitive understanding, a good experiential grasp of our goals? It was because of this question I experienced a new outlook on teaching.

As we began to design the course we first looked at the total number of hours it entailed. Then we asked ourselves how many of those hours should be spent on input by us. Shoud there be a series of lectures and discussions with a final paper due, or should we opt for a different outcome? We chose the latter. It was decided that one-third of the course should explain how to evaluate teacher behavior, a parish religious education program, and utilize supervisory skills. Another third should give students time to team with each other in order to practice these skills. The final third should be used to go out into a real situation and perform these skills.

The most exciting pedagogic experience for me was to learn that a well-structured course which encourages students to test their cognitive learning in a real situation is far superior to the lecture, storytelling presentation I first had cherished as the model of teaching. To systematically structure a course so that a student can feel the emotional anxiety between his or her learning and its practical application was a new concept in teaching for me. It is one thing to read a foreign language and feel you grasp it. It is quite another to speak that language with a real foreigner and experience the sense of being the foreigner. Such experiences have a way of bringing out the “real you.” Once exposed to this experience two possibilities exist. You learn much better or you withdraw from the course.

Some might take exception to my desire to create an emotional anxiety in learning. Is this not adding yet another weight to those already shouldered by students? As Shakespeare put it, “Knowledge maketh a bloody entrance.” It is my feeling too many so-called educators come in from the wrong entrance.

After this awakening I now try to build into any course I structure a process which allows a student to experience learning in an operationalized manner. When, for example, Scripture is taught, I feel it is more important for students to go to primary commentaries, to experience the struggle of the library hunt and to fumble around reconstructing the information they find. This I advocate over lecturing or dialoguing in a classroom setting. I believe if graduate students properly learned how to find information and were encouraged to reconstruct it on their own this process would be the most valuable learning they could obtain. The less a student relies on the teacher and can develop his or her own criteria for finding information or experiencing a new learning, the better the teacher we are.

I am always amazed in teaching religious educators who may already have an M.A., or even a Ph.D., to find, when an assignment is given, that they cling to the professor. They seem to fear developing their own standards of assessment, to go beyond what the writer says, to touch life and author it. They will call at all hours of the night to confirm whether they are on the correct wavelength. This does wonders for professors with a guru complex. But can it be called real education? The desire to develop religious educators who are independent thinkers, who can go into a situation an take it upon themselves to construct their own way of understanding and coping with it has led me to one of my most cherished desiderata for religious education.

Much is being written about the right administrative or teaching model for religious education. It is argued that a good model will create a professional image. At present most administrative models come from the commercial business world or the medical profession. So often we attempt to copy these models. Business consultants from prominent firms are brought in for DRE seminars. They expound on the latest school of thought at Harvard or the Wall Street technique. This has value. I believe, however, that religious education leadership must go beyond the copy-adaptation stage. Unless the field of religious education creates a distinct model which coincides with the specific nature of its work, the spiritual, as well as the secular motivation behind the work and its eschatological goals, I am afraid it will cling to familiar apron strings and have a diminished image.