Living the Continual Tension

In his 2005 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz told a short tale about his quest for jeans.

At the store, the salesperson asked him if he wanted slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy; and then whether he wanted stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed; and then button-fly or zipper-fly, faded or regular. 


"I was stunned," Schwartz said. As he surveyed the options, he told the sales clerk he just wanted "regular" jeans. She didn't know what he meant by regular, but eventually, with the help of coworkers, she found a pair meeting that description. However,

The trouble was that with all these options available to me now, I was no longer sure that 'regular' jeans were what I wanted. Perhaps the easy fit or the relaxed fit would be more comfortable. Having already demonstrated how out of touch I was with modern fashion, I persisted. I went back to her and asked what difference there was between regular jeans, relaxed fit, and easy fit. She referred me to a diagram that showed how the different cuts varied. It didn't help narrow the choice, so I decided to try them all.

Schwartz's account of buying jeans reminds me of education. Soon as I think I get it, soon as I think I understand what makes for a good school and teacher, I'll make the mistake of picking up a book or browsing the Internet. And then I'll start to think that maybe my class discussion should have been boot cut, or perhaps my lecture should have been stonewashed, or perhaps my entire school should be relaxed fit, or maybe slim fit, or . . . 

When it comes to education, there is no end to the options, methods and approaches. Some focus on test scores, others stress critical thinking. Some promote MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) and herald the demise of traditional schools, while others champion project-based learning within a classic campus. Experts talk of curriculum models like backwards design or standards-based design or of innovation-based learning -- see Tony Wagner -- that turns the classroom into something like Steve Jobs's garage. Some schools are even consulting with prestigious design firms to integrate "design thinking" into curriculum.  

Faced with this variety, this unceasing newness, it's easy to feel like Schwartz. It's tempting to just ask for regular jeans. The assortment of opinions can overwhelm, and educators might seek quick remedies to dissolve difficult questions. Right now, for example, schools of all types bear increasing pressure to purchase iPads, so thoroughly have they become identified with progress and sophistication. And no school, of course, wants to be labeled "behind the times."

But Ignatian education requires a different posture, a different way of evaluating the countless philosophies and perspectives. According to Fr. Pedro Arrrupe, S.J. (speaking in 1967), "If our schools are to perform as they should, they will live in a continual tension between the old and the new, the comfortable past and the uneasy present."

Fr. Arrupe's words express a way of proceeding that subverts our typical talk. It is counterintuitive. Most of the time we try to resolve tension, not live within it. Much of education reform proceeds as if there are solutions, as if education is fixable with the right curriculum or pedagogy. Ignatian and Jesuit education, however, move within the space of sin and grace. It's a fallen world, and no option is perfect. As one gap closes, another opens. No theory or device, no method or philosophy will be invulnerable. A school with iPads will have its drawbacks -- as will a school without them.

And that, as it turns out, is okay -- and liberating. To live in the continual tension is to live within mystery, humility, and faith -- ideal beginnings for an excellent education.   


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