RALEIGH — From the fall of Rome to the early Renaissance, the tools and materials of classical scholarship were preserved in the libraries and monasteries of the Christian church. In the same vein, a North Carolina college growing in the shade of a Baptist seminary is cultivating a new generation of teachers, saturated in classical Western thought and prepared to nurture young scholars in every venue — whether a public high school, an island missionary station, or a suburban kitchen table.
Southeastern College at Wake Forest is a school of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a graduate school supported by the Southern Baptist Convention. The seminary was founded in 1951; the college was established in 1994 and currently has about 500 students, compared to more than 2,000 at the seminary. Southeastern’s original focus as preparation for seminary study has expanded to other undergraduate programs including music, English, history, and education.
Dr. Alan O’Dell is the chair of Southeastern’s education department and a veteran administrator and instructor at both K-12 and collegiate levels. He is overseeing the transition to an intellectually rigorous teacher-education program, fully integrated with Southeastern’s “History of Ideas” curriculum, which challenges students to engage the Western tradition of Christian thought and scholarship.
Many teacher-education programs, he said, have promoted professionalism at the cost of a well-rounded education for the students themselves. Southeastern hopes to recover the ideal of a classical education, something he said is particularly lacking in colleges of education today.
“One of the things we’ve done in [teacher] education is to make it fragmented,” O’Dell said. “Where we fall short is spending all our time on how to teach, not on what or why. We’re not giving the students a framework to help them answer questions for the next 40 years, rather than just get through the next year.”
Part of this stems from the growth of high-stakes testing, which affects school faculty and administrators as well as students.
“I think the governors’ meetings that prompted Goals 2000 and America 2000 showed an agreement that education is broken. The response has been to develop a set of tests upon which to judge the quality of education. A primary goal now for the states is improving test scores,” O’Dell said.
“There has been some improvement in passing the tests,” he said. “We can’t tell if they’re making progress on becoming educated.”
He has reason to doubt. “I’ve polled my students about their coursework in high school, and almost uniformly the students say, ‘We didn’t read in high school. We weren’t allowed to take our textbooks home, so how could we?’ ”
A different course
Southeastern is taking a different approach by designing a teacher curriculum that follows the classical traditions of Christian scholarship. Undergraduates take many of the same introductory courses found at any liberal arts college, but the centerpiece is a 12-hour block of classes called “The History of Ideas.”
Students are stretched to go beyond basic classes in English and history to engage the great works of Western literature and thought, from Plato and Aeschylus to Calvin, Locke, and Descartes, and including modern thinkers such as Kant, Marx, Freud, and W.E.B. Dubois. Divinity students and teachers concentrating on the humanities take another 12 hours in their senior-level studies.
Dr. Peter Schemm, dean of the college and a professor at the seminary, told Baptist Press in April that this intensive study in the currents of literature and philosophy is key to realizing the college’s mission.
“Understanding the history of ideas — great ideas and not-so-great ideas — through the ‘Great Books’ of Western thought is how students become culturally literate. And if our college students are going to reach people of other cultures, as well as our culture, they must be culturally literate,” he said.
Every undergraduate, whether aiming for seminary or not, also takes several courses in theology, Bible, and church history, enough to graduate with a dual major in Biblical studies and their other discipline. In fact, the education curriculum is properly titled, “Christian Teacher Education,” to emphasize its reliance on traditional Christian thought as the standard for education and instruction.
“At most Christian colleges, the program is geared toward producing public school teachers,” O’Dell said. “I don’t think they have consciously committed to integrated faith and learning. They see a true division between secular and sacred as two separate things. But we are intentionally training students to be teachers with a Christian world view.”
The “Christian” portion of teacher education is not about preparation for church schools, he said, but a full-orbed view of life. O’Dell sees the curriculum’s religious aspects from a broad, philosophical standpoint. “A comprehensive Christian world view is day in, day out, how you think. It’s how you process life. These students will have foundations in place for how they think,” he said.
“[Non-religious] schools should not be afraid of a Christian teacher any more than they are afraid of an eclectic teacher without particular beliefs — which they aren’t,” he said.
Southeastern’s programs in secondary English and social studies are both approved by the state’s Department of Public Instruction and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. Graduates of SECWF go through the same certification process as other public school teachers, completing their student teaching in local public schools and taking the same exams.
While the emphasis on classical scholarship is a return to an old tradition — Southeastern offers courses in formal logic and rhetoric, for example — the college is expanding its vision beyond training for the classroom alone. By moving the curriculum’s primary emphasis toward individual scholarship, Southeastern is hoping to attract students who hope to become tutors, missionaries, or to simply pass the breadth of Western culture on to their children.
Recently the program director for Christian teacher education met with representatives of private school, Christian school, and homeschooling organizations, to ask their perspective on the new curriculum. The initial response has been positive, O’Dell said, both from well-respected private schools and from homeschooling advocates.
He also noted that a number of Southeastern students already enrolled in the old curriculum are choosing to convert to the longer and more rigorous program.
O’Dell said that when they started the History of Ideas and great books program, they were told “these books are too hard for people who are going to be teachers.” Some may believe the old saw, “Those who can’t, teach.” Southeastern College at Wake Forest plans to change that perception.