The Laboratory of Life

The Laboratory of Life

June 15, 2023

Trees we trim; tigers we tame; but humans we teach. For while trees can produce and tigers perform, only humans can ponder. It’s this uniquely human pastime of wonder-filled pondering that launches us on the voyage of discovery that we call learning. 

So it is that we created the most human educational concept.

For it’s this uniquely human pastime that compels us to unravel the mysteries of far-flung planets, and those of long-forgotten civilizations. And it’s here that our passion for the beauties of a Shakespearean sonnet, or a Euclidean equation, is born. It’s the seed of science, the cradle of culture, and the womb of worship. And it is, we believe, the key that unlocks the door to a uniquely human pedagogy. For wooed by wonder, the labors of learning become labors of love. 

But the curiosity that lightens the learning load is also a clue to our uniquely human calling as creatures. We are made to mirror our Creator’s passions and perfections into his wide-reaching created domains. Curiosity-rooted learning draws out our nature's God-imaging capacities and so equips us to maximize our effectiveness as our Maker’s vicegerents. So pursued, learning becomes something other than a narcissistic quest to satisfy our private curiosities or personal cravings. For when we learn to see our Creator in every glance at creation, we soon find that we’re also learning to care for creation on behalf of our Creator. And it’s then that our education grows in nobility, and we with it.       

But we were called to more than curiosity. For we were also fashioned for community. More precisely, we were created with a kind of curiosity that’s only fully satisfied within community. For it’s only when I add what I know in part to what another knows in part that I come to know more than the part I know alone. But more, I never really know as I ought, even what little I do know, until I know how to deploy what I know in helping another knower. And to learn that I must do my learning in proximity to other learners. For, like John Donne might say, as “no man lives to himself,” so no man learns to himself, unless he wants his learning to be less than human learning. 

But where in today’s academic landscape might one combine his/her uniquely human capacity for curiosity with his/her uniquely human craving for community in the pursuit of a uniquely human commitment to a Creator-honoring, creation-stewarding, and character-building curriculum? Public schools? Private schools? Charter schools? Church schools? A ‘school’ of any kind? Sadly, the correct answer seems to be “none of the above.”    

So that’s why at Excel College we created the ‘most human’ educational community on the premise that learning is only truly ‘human’ when it’s (1) birthed in curiosity AND (2) pursued with companions AND (3) housed most conducively for the wedding of learning and living. And we believe we did just that. How? It was really quite simple. We developed an applied pedagogy for the Laboratory of Life by integrating Human Content (curriculum for our common human calling and practical apprenticeships for our personal kingdom calling) with Human Contact (cohorts for personal and pedagogical impartation, practice, and pursuit) in the most Human Context (our residential student homes blending new and veteran students for character formation and discipleship).

HUMAN CONTENT - curriculum for our common human calling and practical apprenticeships for our personal kingdom calling 

Our Common Human Calling - As carriers of the “Imago Dei,” each and every one of us is called to represent God to the world and bring His Kingdom to Earth. In The Core (Phase 1), we study one subject at a time in the flow of the biblical narrative to lay a foundation for this common human calling – a foundation from which students build their lives, families, financial decisions, workplace habits, and careers. We begin with a modular curriculum to groom the God-imaging capacities of students. Consequently, learning becomes something more than mastering the ability to read, write and reckon. Instead, it becomes an opportunity to enter a conversation with the greatest minds who ever lived about the greatest questions ever asked to evaluate the greatest answers ever given in the light of the greatest story ever told. Such conversations cannot properly be contained within the constructs of a classroom, but become the paradigms and principles that form student experience going forward.

The result? Students come away with a vision of God as the unifier of all knowledge - in thought and practice. But this is only the beginning. For this realization ignites a passion for learning and provides a light for students to find themselves, life’s meaning and their unique role in the plot of God’s Grand Story. Math is no longer an esoteric exercise in useless effort; it’s the tool Kepler used to discover God’s design of celestial movements. Psychology goes from a subject devoted to irrelevant theories by dead scholars with names like Freud, Pavlov and Skinner to a body of insights of how we were “fearfully and wonderfully” made for imitating the thinking, feeling and choosing of our Maker. Biology is more than dissecting frogs; it’s eavesdropping on a debate between Darwin and Moses on the origin of species. In other words, every discipline is another ‘language,’ which, when mastered, allows students to hear anew the Logos of God articulating the designs of God for the multi-faceted creation of God. And with every new utterance, students grow more competent – more human – in echoing the Word they hear and reading the ‘Book of Nature’ in the light of the ‘Book of Scripture.’ Here’s a sample of what they read – and a taste of what they learn:

PART 1: In the Beginning, God

Module 1: Critical Thinking: Judiciously live according to God’s Truth

Module 2: Theology: Doxologically apply God’s Grace on all important matters

Module 3: Philosophy: Prudently apply God’s Wisdom to all subjects

PART 2: And God Created

Module 4: Mathematics: Skillfully steward God’s Bounded Creation to the measured realities

Module 5: Physics: Curiously steward God’s Bodied Creation in the world we inhabit

Module 6: Biology: Responsibly steward God’s Breathing Creation as the living world

PART 3: Let Us Make Man in Our Image

Module 7: Anthropology: Faithfully live as God’s Reflector

Module 8: Sociology: Uprightly demonstrate God’s character in your human relations

Module 9: Government/Law: Peacefully and Justly govern under God’s Authority and Mercy

PART 4: Let Them Have Dominion

Module 10: Economics: Generously share God’s will for Prosperous Societies

Module 11: Literature: Meditatively engage the meanings and mysteries of masterpieces written by God’s image bearers

Module 12: Fine Arts: Creatively design on God’s Behalf

But, as we said, learning goes far beyond the classroom. Students gaze at the stars above the Blue Ridge mountains to explore the splendors of space. An opera house in Venice is the ‘lecture hall’ for their investigation of music, art, and drama. Les Miserables and Hamlet acquaint them with the poets of old. They materialize theory in the marketplace where they feel Kant’s imperative, realize Maslow’s hierarchy, and utilize Smith’s free market. They pray on mountaintops, meditate in cemeteries and worship in historic cathedrals. 

In all this, they catch the narrative of God’s grand story while coming to understand the common human calling of all of His Image Bearers.

Personal Kingdom Calling - During The Practicum (Phase 2) portion of our Bachelor’s degree, students discover and pursue their personal kingdom calling through an emphasis designed uniquely for them, preparing them through hands-on experience for a lifetime of excellence in the marketplace.

What we’ve discovered is that calling is less about what you do and more about who you are - and then what you do flows out of who you are.

Our approach is integrative, helping students discover their passions, gifts and strengths and guiding them as they choose the field in which to hone their skills. They look at the marketplace asking the question “based on how God has made me, where can I best add value” instead of asking the incomplete “where can I make the most money?” The pursuit of occupation is not isolated, but part of an integrated, inspirational, and challenging learning and living experience with friends, mentors, and teachers focused on living, serving, leading, and working well.

This phase is all about skill development, and our conviction is that this content is best learned in the marketplace - so the professionals do the teaching and the marketplace becomes the classroom.

In short, through both phases of the program, our common human calling integrates with students’ personal kingdom calling as they develop the character and skills necessary to be wise, mature, and productive adults.

HUMAN CONTACT - cohorts for personal and pedagogical impartation, practice, and pursuit 

Taking our cue from a long-lost educational strategy, we revived the ancient master-disciple model of instruction used so effectively by many of the world’s finest teachers, like Plato, Aristotle… and Jesus of Nazareth. The idea was simple: learning takes place best in small communities that afford the intimacy of sustained interpersonal contact between teachers, mentors, coaches, and peers in settings not limited only to the traditional classroom. The benefits are felt immediately. The teachers, mentors, and coaches have:

  • The concentrated and continuous time with each student required for cultivating his/her personal maturity.
  • The relational environment of earned love and trust needed for speaking truth into the life of each student.
  • The platform for merging conceptual insights and practical implications in contexts beyond the classroom.
  • The opportunities for daily observation of each student’s success or struggle with wedding life and learning.
  • The possibilities afforded by unforeseen providences for modeling and enforcing important life lessons.

In other words, this model gives us the chance to do more than simply teach human content; it also allows us to impart that content. And this, we discovered, was crucial. For the present generation of students is already craving this kind of communal learning experience – but the higher educational establishment has not (yet) made the shift. The result: the “most connected” generation in human history is, ironically, the most lonely generation in human history – both personally and pedagogically. They crave mentorship, relationship, companionship, partnership, and fellowship. In other words: Intimacy. They want their learning to relate to life, their teachers to relate to them, and their faith to relate to reality. In short, they want to be mentored, not lectured.   

In our model we prioritize the ‘together’ factor as essential for human learning and flourishing. We eat together. We play together. We read together. We travel together. We cry together. We serve together. We worship together. As a result, we grow together… and learn together… and share the highlights and hiccups of our humanity together. And in the process, we all became more human together. 

But none of this would be possible without one more crucial component.

HUMAN CONTEXT - our residential student homes blending new and veteran students for character formation and discipleship

It should be clear by now that the human content of our curriculum and the human contact of our cohorts could never have come together as they did in the cold, sterile, impersonal classrooms and dorm rooms that populate our college and university campuses today. For that to happen, we’ve discovered that learning must return to the ideal incubator that God himself designed for the ‘hatching’ of wise, mature and productive adults – the home. Why? Simply because residential living is the only setting on earth in which the distance between learning and living is almost non-existent. For example,

  • In a home – but only in a home – applications can replace assignments… and learning can be about living.
  • In a home – but only in a home – courses can build character… and correcting can include caring.
  • In a home – but only in a home – grades can measure growth… and homework can consist of housework.
  • In a home – but only in a home – instruction can nurture identity… and teaching can be about training.
  • In a home – but only in a home – underachievers can get understanding… and virtue can make valedictorians.
  • In a home – but only in a home – students can become like siblings… and professors can become like parents.

In short, if education aims to enrich the student’s humanity, learning must be carried out in a context capable of exercising every facet of the student’s life. Life will, by itself, bring the potential and reality for friction and conflict. We encourage the students not only to overcome their differences but learn how to appreciate and serve the uniqueness of each person as part of the rhythm of daily living. That is, ‘human’ learning encompasses more, though not less, than ‘head’ learning. Where can one learn hospitality skills? Gardening skills? Conversational skills? Home management skills? Financial skills? In a word, life skills? The only human setting with a millennia-long record of success in teaching these skills is the oldest and most basic institution in human history – the home. 

Only by returning to a home-like setting can we hope to see a renaissance of wonder and curiosity in students, the key ingredients for a uniquely human education. Only the home, with its all-encompassing reach, can turn run-of-the-mill students into passionate lovers of God, creation, self, and neighbor. Only there can human children become human adults. For the home is the habitat God himself devised to effect this transformation.      



So could it be that the key to recovering our humanity is to once again… see learning as part of the Laboratory of Life by integrating Human Content (curriculum for our common human calling and practical apprenticeships for our personal kingdom calling) with Human Contact (cohorts for personal and pedagogical impartation, practice, and pursuit) in the most Human Context (our residential student homes blending new and veteran students for character formation and discipleship).

Seems so, since we’re not dealing with trees or tigers, but Humans! Perhaps it’s time to ponder anew and pursue what that means.  

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