The Matthean Effect

At the very end of the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30), Jesus gives a very enigmatic explanation:

“For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance; but to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29)

This has always bothered me.

It hardly seems fair.

Don’t we want Jesus to say — and doesn’t He usually say — something like “For to everyone who has, what he has will be shared with others; and as for him who has not, he will be given even more“?

I mean, isn’t that the sort of thing “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and the other Beatitudes illustrate? And isn’t Jesus always telling us to help the poor (the  ones who “have not”)?

Turns out, Jesus’ words perfectly describe high school students and how they learn. To those who have, more will be given. But for those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.

I just finished grading a whole pile of reading quizzes. Over the weekend, I had my kids read this great article by Dr. Mark Lowery (from UD!) entitled “Myth Become Fact” as a way to help them with the answer that exceeds the question.

This article simplifies C. S. Lewis’ more complex essay, which shows how Christianity is BOTH mythological AND true. Basicially, the thesis is this:

Myth and Christianity are not, therefore, antagonistic to each other. Various myths exist either as anticipations of Christianity or as echoes of Christianity. (Lowery)

We have been learning about reading strategies, annotating, etc. I thought this article wouldn’t be too hard for them.

But, alas.

An alarming number of them couldn’t even pick out the main idea.

I mean, some of them definitely did. There were several perfect scores on the quiz.

However, some of the kids did not read the article at all. My village atheist may have read it, but if he did, he did it with such a closed mind that he was able to honestly claim “Having Christianity be a foreshadow in myths in ridiculously insane. […] I chose to ignore answer b [the quote above] because it is a stupid thought – everything and anything can have something wrong” (Student A, “Reading Quiz”).

Sigh.

But even worse, some of the kids clearly tried to read the article but still had no clue what it was saying. Some of them thought Dr. Lowery is an atheist. Others believed he was showing that all religions are equally true. There was even one girl who thought the article was talking about how Joel Olsteen converted to Christianity.

I’m serious.

And I know that when I give back these quizzes, some of the kids will be confirmed in their view that English class is too hard, or the article was far beyond their reading level, or what’s the point in trying anyway, or that they are always going to fail.

It’s the Matthean effect.

To my kids who read, who try, who want to learn — in other words, who “have” something already — they can get something more out of my class. They get excited by these ideas. They push themselves harder. They learn.

To my kids who don’t read, don’t try (or don’t know how to try), who don’t want to learn – in other words, who “have not” — they seem to lose, and keep losing. They get discouraged, then bored. They blame the article. They blame me. They blame school. They give up. Because who cares, anyway. Mythology is stupid. And so is reading.

I want to help them. But I don’t know how.

I am baffled sometimes by their ignorance. I’m not trying to say that in a judgmental way. I’m trying to describe this sense of bewilderment I feel when I read what some of them write on these reading quizzes.

And I do know that in the end, a large part of all this lies within the mysterious realm of their freedom. My students can come and ask for extra help – or not. They can do the reading – or not. They can develop a growth mindset – or not.

Luigi Guissani, in a different context, has words that seem to nevertheless apply. He even quotes the passage of the Gospel which describes “the Matthean effect”:

For God tends to give value to the position our freedom has already assumed. God seconds a decision our freedom has already made and forces it to reveal more clearly what it is willing to do. When one’s freedom is disinclined, when it adopts a closed attitude, everything that happens encourages it to close itself even more and vice-versa. ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance; but to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away’ (Matthew 25:29).” (Guissani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim 71)

Thoughts?

Have other teachers experienced this? What do you do?

CaravaggioContarelli

I originally discovered “the Matthean effect” idea in my Childhood Development class at Notre Dame. I think the following article coins the term (APA citation format):

Sameroff, A. (2010) A unified theory of development: A dialectic integration of nature and nurture. Child Development, 81, 6-28.

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1 Comment

Filed under Catholicism, Christ, Literature, Teaching

One response to “The Matthean Effect

  1. Maura-
    I know exactly how you feel and deal with similar problems in my high school classes. I teach at a large Catholic high school, and my classes are filled with students whose lack of ability and interest prevent anything from getting through to them. It seems like an unsolvable problem at times. I think it’s important to recognize that ultimately, we as teachers can’t make them learn. We can simply create an atmosphere in class that’s as conducive as possible to learning, to the desire to know, and hope it takes root. Ultimately they have to want it themselves. It’s about their freedom. We can plant the seed, fertilize it, water it, coax it, but we can’t make it grow.

    I think the Allegory of the Cave is apt here. The longer students remain in the cave, the more they will resist any effort to help them discover reality. What’s our job? As Plato puts it at the end of the allegory, it’s to direct our students’ gaze in the right direction, to show them what is most real and most beautiful, hopefully causing them to want to discover more about it.

    I’m actually trying to do something similar to what you’re doing here on this blog, at thecatholiclitclassroom.blogspot.com. Thanks for the good thoughts–keep them coming!

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