Machen the Teacher
Machen the Teacher
"Education," Albert Edward Wiggam once wrote, "appears to be the thing that enables a man to get along without the use of his intelligence."
To this indictment J. Gresham Machen would have subscribed with a fervent Amen. He viewed with alarm and disdain progressive education's stress on method at the sacrifice of subject matter. He trained his guns on:
... one of the fundamental vices in education in America at the present time — namely, the absurd over-emphasis upon methodology in the sphere of education at the expense of content. When a man fits himself in America to teach history or chemistry, it scarcely seems to occur to those who prescribe his studies for him that he ought to study history or chemistry. Instead, he studies merely "education" The study of education seems to be regarded as absolving a teacher from obtaining any knowledge of the subject he is undertaking to teach. And the pupils are being told, in effect, that the simple storing up in the minds, of facts concerning the universe and human life is a drudgery from which they have now been emancipated; they are being told, in other words, that the great discovery has been made in modern times that it is possible to learn how to "think" with a completely empty mind. It cannot be said that the result is impressive.from The Necessity of the Christian School
Dr. Machen resented the approach to learning imposed on children at the lowest level of public schooling, the kindergarten. He would ruminate on an experience he underwent in that beginning cycle. He said that the most irksome period was one in which the boys were forced to stand under the watchful eye of the teacher and play games with little girls. It turned out to be, he complained, the toughest hour of the day. Years later he discovered that it was supposed to have been the recess hour! Catch the overtones of the sound and the fury in this invective:
What I held to be work was regarded by my teachers as play. I am inclined to think still that I, rather than the teachers, was right. Play that is prescribed and supervised by the powers that be is often the most irksome kind of work.
Machen drew the conclusion that the overall effect of secular education was the assembly-line production of machines. And the rub, he argued, was that man was never meant to function as a machine. In making him into a machine, society was doing the direct opposite of what true education ought to be doing, namely turning out a thinking commodity, not a robot.
One of his favorite illustrations was the supposedly educated person's passion to be entertained. Just leave the average modern man alone five minutes, he would say, and he has to turn on his radio. Snap off the radio for a moment and appalling emptiness of his life is revealed. An uneducated man shrinks from quiet; an educated man longs for it.
One wonders what kind of volcanic eruption the television tube would have wrung from him!
Dr. Machen carried his pedagogical convictions into the classroom. The love of his subject seeped out through his pores and in many instances filtered down into his students. Mastery of his material represented sheer wizardry. His course in Gospel History at Westminster Seminary opened windows on the ministry of Jesus that enriched his hearers in all utterance and in all knowledge. His exposition of Paul's Epistle to the Galatians made that great book come alive. The course in the Virgin Birth of Christ was as refreshing as spring rain, while his Origin of Paul's Religion was like an ascent to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense.
In his essay on The Importance of Scholarship, he observed that,
not teachers who have studied the methodology of teaching, but teachers who are on fire with a love of the subjects that they are going to teach are the real torch-bearers of intellectual advance.
On the strength of this he firmly believed that a new Reformation, should God in His mercy be pleased o send one, would go hand-in-hand with a new Renaissance.
Machen's method of teaching made his classes the interesting sessions they were. He did not bind himself to his notes. Ned Stonehouse says of his method:
There was a large measure of continuity in his teaching due to the basic continuity of his character and personality. On one matter there is specific evidence of his method of teaching, for he happened once to tell his mother that he was abandoning his earlier method of a fairly slavish use of a manuscript in favor of a semi-extemporaneous manner of presentation. His exceptional facility in extemporaneous speech, which was precise, lucid and attractive as regards diction and style without any suggestion of verbosity or meretriciousness, was to a later generation of students, at any rate, a constant occasion of wonder. Because of such qualities he was regarded, in the late twenties at least, as the most interesting and successful teacher in the Seminary.
Dr. Machen was a shrewd psychologist as well. Aware of the strain involved in solid concentration, he often broke his lecture routine with little acts of clowning. Sometimes, while a student was giving forth with an answer to a question from the desk, he would rise and with the utmost solemnity balance a book on his head. At other times he would climb up on a chair and bend forward like the Tower of Pisa, as though experimenting with the law of gravity. Again, he would on occasion take his stand about two feet from the classroom wall and lean forward slowly, hands at his sides, until his forehead touched the wall. He would remain in this weird position for minutes, staring with brooding eyes at the floor. Rituals like these endeared him to his students and always drew ripples of delighted laughter. We were constantly reminded that great scholarship and dry humor are not incompatible.
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