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Three Educational Paradigms Demonstrate What We Love the Most

April 7, 2021 by Admin

by Bruce Rottman, Upper School Humanities Teacher

What YouTube tells us about what we love

Recess and RhetoricIf you’re a bit bored and you have a hankering to discover what people really value, you can always check out the most popular YouTuber on the planet. His moniker is PewDiePie, and he has 109 million subscribers.

That’s 109,000,000. Apparently, more than a hundred million souls find this Swede’s sarcastic commentary on video games, other YouTube videos, and various snippets of American life as pulled from social media to be entertaining, mesmerizing, and perhaps even inspiring or educational.

Every day, a billion hours of videos are viewed on YouTube. A billion hours! I admit I watch YouTube videos about economics (though the people I follow have far fewer subscribers than does PewDiePie). Much good educational content is available on YouTube—but what is most popular tells us something not only about our culture but about the educational paradigms that shape our culture.

Three paradigms for teaching

Education is important to me. I’ve been a full-time high school teacher since 1980. After 40+ years standing in front of several generations of teenagers, I’ve had many opportunities to reflect on how I and my fellow teachers contribute to our culture. I have identified three paradigms describing the art—for that is what it is— of teaching:

  1. Expanding upon what students already love
  2. Sampling what they might come to love 
  3. Shaping what they should love

While each paradigm has its merits and plays a part in the total package, I’m going to argue for the third option. I firmly believe shaping what students should love is the outcome parents would do well to choose if they want their children to experience a robust and distinctly Christian education. 

Bruce Rottman

  1. Expanding upon what they already love is a child-centered approach, viewing students as innately both curious and wise; teachers serve as “guides on the side,” helping students satiate their noble inner longings. Shaped in the early twentieth century’s Progressive era, and honed in the 1960s and 1970s, this approach works well for some students, particularly the small minority who are self-motivated and need little external direction. This approach troubles me primarily because it makes some questionable assumptions about the perfectibility of human nature.
  2. Sampling what they might come to love is a smorgasbord education, where teachers serve up a potpourri of nibbles on a host of topics. Skipping superficially over what are often already superficial topics, this method caters to our increasingly shorter attention spans; the lack of depth or gravitas, however, means students know a little about a lot but are woefully ignorant about what really matters most in our world.
  3. Shaping what they should love relies on the teacher—the “sage on stage”—to cultivate deep knowledge about, and, one hopes, deep love for topics students may never have considered. In this paradigm, education has a defined goal and purpose: to shape what one cares about most. In modern iterations, the goal of such education is to inculcate a progressive vision, aiming at a deep understanding and rethinking of topics such as race, class, and gender, shaping students to tackle the causes de jour.

I believe this “shaping what they love” paradigm is the best approach—but with a more traditional iteration, grounded in both the truths of Scripture and logic. Genesis 1-–3 teaches us at least two truths: we are both created in God’s image, and we are deeply flawed. That duality has great significance for what and how we teach. We shape students to love what is good, true, and beautiful, acknowledging that our selfish human nature and each person’s incomplete knowledge place real limits on what individuals can achieve. When students discover their ignorance, something beautiful and constructive happens. They understand just enough of the complexity of life to realize simple solutions are usually simplistic. They learn humility at the same time they advance their analytical, problem-solving, and creative-thinking skills—all habits of the mind we strive to foster in our graduates.

Pursuing truth, beauty, and excellence

Discovering truth is a primary goal of a sound education. When I teach economics, for example, I ask questions that lead students to discover foundational truths about life. Nobel prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek famously wrote, “the curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they know about what they imagine they can design.”

A basic economic truth involves the forces of supply and demand, which, like ocean tides, constrain our idealistic aspirations. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or even a free COVID shot. Market prices act as signals to tell resources where to go, and when governments change those prices (by taxing or subsidizing) these actions have consequences. When governments tax any action—selling a house for a profit or purchasing cigarettes—we should expect to see less of that action. When governments subsidize activities—planting soybeans or going to college—we should expect to see more of that activity, and at subsequently higher rather than lower prices.

Though some of the truths discovered seem a bit “ugly,” I am privileged to help shape students to see the beautiful as well. Students discover the beauty of spontaneous order in the anarchy of profit-seeking—a purposeful pursuit that propels innovation.  In human culture, striving for success creates exceptional beauty: for example, Renaissance masterpieces, Dante’s Inferno, and Homer’s Odyssey. Of course, striving for popularity also creates YouTube drivel, and a good teacher helps shape students’ hearts toward—shall we say—more “noble” pursuits than PewDiePie and his ilk.

Along with acknowledging the true and the beautiful, Christian educators also continually aspire for excellence. We think deeply about how best to help our neighbor. We ask questions that poke through facile, superficial thinking about issues. We introduce students to dozens of deep thinkers, such as Augustine, Locke, Madison and Adam Smith, whose insights, we hope, they learn to love as much as we love. We demand excellence because we love both the ideas that we teach and the students whom we teach. We want students to love, even imitate great ideas, and, of course, be equipped to critique them.

Rottman classroom

Passion and purpose

The distinctly Christian educator seeks to shape students to hold deep passions. Of course, etymologically, “passion” is really all about suffering. An element of suffering exists in the gritty hard work involved to learn how to solve quadratic equations, to create shading in a drawing, or—for examples from my subject area—to understand how Martin Luther’s 1521 “Here I Stand” speech profoundly shaped the modern world, how German Expressionism arose out of, and greatly influenced, post-WWI society, or why the socialist labor theory of value is a false paradigm.

This purpose-driven education is actually more relevant than PewDiePie’s clever videos, and certainly more edifying in shaping how students will live lives of purpose in a world adrift with little ambition other than seeking amusement and killing time watching YouTube videos.

Bruce Rottman teaches humanities, economics, and government classes at Providence School. He also directs the Libertas Scholars Program for students who have a passion for humanities-based reading and discussion. Mr. Rottman has been honored by NASDAQ, The University of Chicago, and the Wisconsin Council on Economic Education as an outstanding educator.


Teaching Students What to Think by Bruce Rottman (9/13/17)

Truth and Truth: Critical Thinking Alone Is Not Enough by Bruce Rottman (3/5/14)

Irrigating the Desert: Why We Need Humanities More Today than Ever Before by Susan Isaac (3/17/21)

A Blueprint for a Distinctly Christian Education by Soo Chang (2020)


Libertas Scholars Program

For more information on humanities-based, distinctly Christian education at Providence School, contact Admissions Director Tawny Kilpper at tkilpper@providencesb.org