Excellence in Our Fields: The System of Theological Education

By: Patrick B. Reyes
April 06, 2017

“The essentials,” I answered, “are to learn to shape God with forethought, care, and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny.” - Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

What is excellence in theological education?

During FTE’s annual Mentoring Consortium, a gathering of organizations who support scholars of color, we asked this very question. Traditional definitions relate almost exclusively to being admitted to and thriving at top tier schools, from the traditional academic disciplines, and achieving markers of excellence in the footsteps of the luminaries in our respective disciplines. It is a system that recreates itself. Scholars meeting rigorous demands of tenure and bringing the next generation along in similar fashion.

Excellence, defined this way, is often inaccessible to all but a few exceptions from communities of color. We are not “less excellent.” The standards of excellence are written, regulated, and held for and by different bodies. Take for example, the Chronicle’s recent report on educational attainment. While overall baccalaureate education was up to 40% of those who were between the age of 25 and 64, only 28% of African Americans and 20% of Hispanics in that same age range have undergraduate degrees.1

The question then is not what is excellence in theological education, because so many of us and our communities are not included in the very representation and calculus of excellence. The question we should be asking is the system of theological education excellent?

Years ago and after working the fields and packing sheds of Salinas, California, a small agricultural town with only a junior college and mostly agricultural work, I was promoted to the position of quality assurance. Every day I got into a small mobile trailer and looked at shipments of produce. From small samples, I calculated what percentage of the whole may be of “bad quality.” In addition to looking at the samples, I made visits to the fields to evaluate the growing conditions of the crops. I checked the soil for the right nutrient mix, tested the water for contaminants, and looked at the natural conditions of the fields (fog, sunlight, what part of the valley the field was situated in, etc.). Though it was not required, I noted the conditions of those who worked the fields: access to bathrooms, drinking water, the number of hours they labored, etc. I asked the field supervisors and sometimes owners how they felt about their crop and workforce. All of this to capture the “quality” of the field.

After studying samples and viewing the conditions of the fields, I could anticipate if the quality was excellent just by looking at where a load of produce was coming from. Likewise, I could tell by inspecting a small sample of a produce if it were grown in conditions where crops could thrive.

If we begin to see individual scholars as part of larger living systems, rather than individuals who have the ability to meet the standards of white academic excellence, excellence can be redefined based on what Octavia Butler rightly named above as the “essentials.” Does the scholar as part of the system, “educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and … contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny?”

Excellence is defined by the conditions in which students and scholars of color can thrive and contribute to the collective thriving of our communities.

Markers of excellence include how institutions support the production of knowledge and conditions for research to spring forth the produce necessary for life.

The knowledge generated by scholars should be just as necessary as the food we put on our table.

Growing and harvesting processes should get the produce to the people that need it. This includes publishing houses, journals, social media and other forms of media that disseminate life-giving knowledge to the communities that call for it. We require quality assurance and community-review to make sure that the system is cared for and what is being produced is ultimately essential to the survival of communities. This, and so much more, is theological education meeting the essentials. It is theological education meeting standards of excellence.

Is the system of theological education excellent?

If we adjust our standards of excellence, we can begin to imagine healthy institutions and executive leadership that cares for the conditions for those that work and labor in our fields. Likewise, if we labor in the field, we will care for the grounds and conditions that support what we are trying to grow together, knowing that what we grow is necessary for the collective and our own bodies.

1. Selingo, Jeffrey, “2026 The Decade Ahead: The Seismic Shifts Transforming the Future of Higher Education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. (2016), 13. Download the full report here.

Tags...: Diverse Solutions, Thinking Out Loud

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