STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/22/2009

ARTICLE | Out of The Classroom and Into The Community: Gordon In Lynn and Place-Based Learning

If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your spaceship, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground. On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large and full of beguiling nooks and crannies. --Wendell Berry

As I’ve worked with Gordon students in Lynn over the past couple years, I have become more and more convinced that our critical understanding and moral imagination can be deepened best within the context of a particular place and relationships. Our knowledge of God, or any other subject, doesn’t come simply through our minds; it involves our whole being--senses, spirit, emotion, intellect. Consequently, understanding political theory or economic systems or painting is not simply something to be learned but something to be experienced. And if we take it as a given that we are made in the image of God, that this Trinitarian God exists as a relationship and that our full humanity is only understood in the context of relationships, then part of the task of education should take place within relationships--to God, to others and to the created world. In our desire to help form the moral imagination of students, to generate faithful global citizens who are agents of shalom in this world, we should keep in mind that “moral decisions are, after all, made in real situations.” (Noddings, 182)

What has sometimes happened in Western education, however, is the abstraction of learning from real contexts and relationships. Paulo Freire’s work as a Brazilian educator and community activist has been an important corrective. In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed he asserts:
Apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. (Freire, 71–72)
In other words, when students become critical coinvestigators in dialogue with the teacher, and, in extension, with the community, there are greater opportunities for deep learning, or as Nicholas Wolterstorff might say, education for shalom.

Furthermore, the community in this process should not be seen as an object to be studied and dissected, because place-based learning is not merely a pedagogical technique but a whole framework for learning within community. The community must be brought into the process of learning--students in the community, the community in the classroom, both acting as students and learners simultaneously in dialogue with one another. When this happens, we find ourselves amidst the mutually beneficial relationships that are the bedrock of Gordon in Lynn.

One problem with our desire to educate students to become faithful global citizens is that any global, or even national affections taught within the classroom are only done so metaphorically. As Gordon professors Ian and Margie Deweese-Boyd have argued in regards to nationalism:
Without a substantive understanding and experience of community at the local level, the concept [of nationalism] is impotent to inform moral action beyond itself. If, as [Wendell] Berry argues, “A nation’s charity must come from the heart and imagination of its people,” its people must be members of a community... or they will lack the heart and imagination necessary to prompt care for others in communities beyond their own. In this way, local affections that constitute community form a foundation for any meaningful affection for the nation or the world.   (Deweese-Boyd, 56)
If we desire to educate students to be caring global citizens, perhaps our greatest role is to help them become rooted in a caring local community that is service-oriented and kenotic, one that places them in contexts where they are forced to reckon with and empty themselves out to the other just as they are being served and filled with new understandings. As Freire argues, purely academic knowledge can sometimes lead toward objectification of the other or of the knowledge being obtained. If students are taught only about global issues without experiencing this reality in a particular place--be it here or overseas--layered by social, economic, political, psychological and spiritual realities, their knowledge might remain impotent to generate authentic compassion (suffering with) for communities suffering on the other side of the globe, let alone their own neighbors.

Now more than ever Christians are becoming aware of how their daily, local consumer choices are related to the suffering on a coffee plantation in Guatemala, in a refugee camp in Kenya, or in an oil community in Pakistan. And because the world is moving to our neighborhood--to Lynn, in fact--the consequences become more easily visible and accessible. You don’t have to travel the globe to understand and experience this suffering and injustice. In Lynn students are filing fuel assistance forms for families who can’t afford the rise in heating oil prices; they are tutoring adults and youth pushed here by poverty or civil war in their home countries; they are gardening in soil recently cleansed of contaminates by industrial practices in far off places; and painting murals with students whose art education has been cut from their schools to keep their math and English scores up to abstract standards.

It’s crucial that we don’t separate our learning from praxis. As we seek to be about the work of shalom in our world and to develop faithful global citizens, we should encourage our students to get out of their classrooms, off their campus and into the community. The strength of Gordon in Lynn is that it was conceived out of an experience within and thus an affection and a hope for a particular place and people. From the start the office for the Lynn Initiative was imbedded within the city as the director, Val Buchanan, moved here and sought to know firsthand the streets and the people of Lynn. Out of this commitment a genuine care for and engagement with the community has preceded the growing involvement of both students and faculty. And out of this particular care has grown a compassionate cohort of students inspired within the global melting pot of Lynn to go out into the world--teaching English in China, studying international law in Texas, rebuilding communities in New Orleans, or pursuing peace and conflict studies in South Africa.

As our work continues to develop in Lynn, we wonder what it will look like as greater inter-disciplinary involvement happens in this place. Students could be studying, for instance, the successes of the urban gardening movement alongside the lack of access to food stamps. Or perhaps students could sit regularly with guests at the local soup kitchen or with refugee teens from the Sudan cataloging their stories. The learning that would happen in such scenarios would be multidimensional, deep and meaningful. The curriculum of the classroom would become even more alive because it would be connected to a relationship with a particular person, community organization or plot of land. This is already happening in small ways: Social research classes have created and administered surveys for our soup kitchen; social work students have studied nonprofit organizations; design students have created new logos for nonprofits with few resources; Spanish students have tutored Hispanic youth; art students have taught art classes and created murals; recreation students have planned activity fairs for people with disabilities... and the list is growing. The possibilities for placed-based learning in Lynn extend as far as our collaborating imaginations can dream; the potential payoff in the development of the next generation of Christian leaders is even greater.

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Christen Borgman Yates is the associate director of the College’s Gordon in Lynn Program.

Berry, Wendell. Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994).

Deweese-Boyd, Ian and Margie Deweese-Boyd. “ ‘Flying the Flag of Rough Branch’: Rethinking Post-September 11 Patriotism through the Writings of Wendell Berry,” in The Many Faces of Patriotism, Philip Abbot, ed. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2006).

Freire, Paulo. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (New York: Contiuum, 2001).

Nel Noddings. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Clarence W. Joldersma and Gloria Goris Stronks, eds. Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education. (Grand Rapids, MI: Williams B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004).