In the classroom, choices are meaningful but their impact contained.
This post was inspired in part by my brother William’s post Incompatible propositions.
Because I teach several low-level programming courses, I spend a fair amount of time designing and assigning programming projects to my students. A nontrivial subset of these assignments have the following properties:
There are many ways the students can get the computer to produce the required functionality.
Decisions the student makes during the assignment have lasting impact on the simplicity, efficiency, extensibility, and correctness of the program built.
There is scope for genuine creativity, ways of solving the problem that are unlike anything we ever discussed in class. This is true even in the projects were the functional requirements of the program to be produced is fixed. Some students produce code that I would call artistic.
The scope of the projects are so well understood that there is no real chance that any of the students’ work will ever be used by anyone to solve any real problems.
In other words, I give my students lots of choices that have no lasting impact.
Sometimes conversations about free will and God stray into a false dichotomy: either a choice impacts something of eternal merit or it doesn’t matter and the chooser is just a toy in God’s hands. This dichotomy suggests that choices that aren’t “do you want to damn this person or exalt them?” must be as tedious and ultimately meaningless as “which of these identical pairs of socks do you want to wear?”
As a teacher, part of my job is to create choices that are meaningful, but meaningful within in a controlled and safe context. Even when students say of my assignments “Who cares? This is stupid,” the choices thy make are still important, still have all the same ramifications on their own experience, on the functionality of their program, and on their leaning that they would have if they thought someone was going to use their program to save dolphins or make money or whatever the student cares about.
You could argue that student choices don’t even matter for learning. I try to make my classes a robust system so that a few bad choices don’t matter. I also keep working with less-apt students so that eventually they can all fully master the material: bad choices just slow them down. However, choices do still matter: until the students make good choices they won’t learn.
God is the Great Teacher, often identified as the Eternal Father in texts written when parents were most often the main teachers in a child’s life. Like any good teacher, He gives us many choices that are meaningful and that have limited scope for lasting harm. Christ payed the price for our sins so that we can have the freedom to make meaningful choices without the danger of messing up the world beyond repair.
So is the world just a schoolhouse where all decisions are safe? I don’t know. I expect it is more like on-the-job training where the choices are a mix of safe and functional. But the good student makes the same choices in the classroom and in the field, and for the same reason: to improve the world. Each good choice in the classroom will eventually be mirrored in the field.