A Problem solving Seminary?


Philosopher of religion and chair of the department of religion at Columbia University, Mark C. Taylor, has written a provocative op-ed artice entitled, “End the University as we Know it.” (Thanks to my colleague Rhoda Cairns for pointing this out.)

Some highlights:

  • “As [academic] departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less.”
  • “The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.”
  •  “Young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.”

Taylor goes on to speak about six steps that will be needed “to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative” (which I won’t recount here) by making higher education centred on a “problem solving approach.” For example, he suggests, “A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture.” I like this idea. 

Some years ago I attended a lecture by process theologian John Cobb, Jr. who suggested a similar approach to education centered around problem solving. It might be interesting whether our modern day seminaries could begin to structure, at least partially, in this way. Indeed, I have begun to realize how important our “Ministry Related Research Project” (affectionately known as the “MRRP” (pronounced, “Merp”)) here at Briercrest Seminary really is because it is already somewhat directed toward a problem solving approach.  But what might be very interesting is to think about a cohort of graduating students would all work together on a single MRRP focused on a practical ministry problem, but bringing in the expertise of each of the disciplines (leadership, pastoral ministry, theology, biblical studies, counselling, etc.) to bear on the topic. 

For example, imagine what would happen if, for example, we addressed the problem of “biblical literacy” as an interdisciplinary problem to solve. It would be fascinating to get a group of final year seminary students from all the programs sitting together in a room and brainstorming on how to address this problem from the perspective of their discipline. The final outcome would be fascinating, especially when trying to integrate the insights into a coherent document! But I think it could be fruitful and an exciting learning venture.

What do you think?


7 thoughts on “A Problem solving Seminary?

  1. David,

    An interesting post. About the book’s highlights – if these are its best points then pardon my rudeness to the author but, “YAWN”. This is nothing new and I’m not sure they’re a problem. Life is competitive and so is higher education. Get over it. Pay your dues, work your way up from the bottom and if you’re good enough you’ll get into academe. If not, you can stay near the bottom until you’re smart enough to figure it out…

    The interdisciplinary problem solving idea is definitely not a yawner – that’s a worthwhile subject for a book 🙂 I just got a report from TWU’s Faculty of Natural Sciences which cheers about getting a $40,000 grant for faculty from Environmental Studies, Geography, Biology, and Chemistry to research and propose environmental solutions for the Langley Bog. That’s the way it should be!

    I like your example of addressing the problem of biblical literacy from an interdisciplinary approach. But I think you have to find ways to help students work together on a research project, and make it acceptable and rewarding to do so. It’s all fine and dandy to sit together in a room and brainstorm, but if the storm is going to produce anything of any force you have to give it a practical outlet. So, taking your example a bit further, could you allow students to collaborate on a Thesis? Or could you have a bunch of students agree to create a cluster of topics that come out of the brainstorming session and help them turn them into individual theses and MRRPs.


  2. This is an interesting idea to me. I wonder what the long term results might be in an environment that has become competative and protective over ideas. (I am not thinking of Briercrest, but of comments made by a classmate who is also a professor at the UofC).

  3. ”Young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments.”

    Ha ha, suckers! Oh, wait a minute . . .

    I like the idea of a “problem-solving seminary”. Of course, one wouldn’t want theological education to become merely situational and reactive, but the concept of group projects aimed at current church/social crises or concerns is good for several reasons:

    1) Often the interpretation and addressing of church concerns and crises ends up getting left to whoever can get a book deal for Christian pulp-non-fiction. The academy can have an indirect or occasional role here, but perhaps if it became seen as a place for church problem solving it might be a postive thing. I’d take something like Briercrest’s Serve (especially if it involved the presentation of some of these projects) over a dozen Leadership Summits.

    2) Group work is good. As it is, depending on the community involvement of the student, you do see cooperative efforts to some degree in MRRPs and theses (I think of the library and coffee shop discussions I had in my time there, some of them even taken to the intentional think-tank level), but it is largely up to the initiative of students. But when colloquiams and group discussions and stuff enter into the equation it only makes the theological efforts better.

    3) Theology should be for the church.

  4. Grant, I think Taylor’s preliminary comments are just that–preliminary lead in to the actual substance of the article on rethinking graduate education. As for getting the goods out (and not just putting people in a room together to brainstorm), I agree. That would be the real challenge…as it is for all the disciplines, though particularly for humanities where the one-to-one connection between the discipline and its “usefulness” in a pragmatically driven world is obviously not always very clear.

    Jon, wouldn’t be interesting to have a conference where the presenters were the “attendees” and the seminary students and faculty would listen, after which a problem or set of problems emerge that the seminary could work on in a collaborative fashion?

    It’s so crazy, it just might work!

    Oh, and Jon…I know you aren’t planning to get a PhD for the practical benefit. That’s a crazy notion, too…

    • Hm. I don’t know. What is the point of competition? (Thinking out loud, here). Competition motivates the participants to work hard, to bring their best for the purpose of … pride? To be able to say that you’re better than the other? Could the same result occur motivated by the betterment of society and greater understanding of humanity, or is this a naive Star Trekish idyllic impossible in a consumer society?

  5. I’m just beginning to work through F. LeRon Shults, _Reforming Theological Anthropology_, and I’m slowing down to try to digest what he’s saying about interdisciplinary study. In my naivete, I think collaboration is what will save higher education.

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