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The priority of proximity

3 October, 2013 Neil Powell

The priority of proximity

You might not think that Steve Jobs would have had much advice to offer on whether or not we should encourage people to attend Bible College. But Daniel Finkelstein, writing in The Times, would disagree.  I should make clear that Finkelstein’s piece is on something altogether unrelated to theological education. His is a piece on why the proposed high-speed rail link between London and the north is worth the cost despite growing estimates (worth a read for his take on this alone, by the way). However, it got me thinking. In his defence of HS2, Finkelstein establishes a principle that can be rightly applied to all sorts of questions – including our one on the merits of a Bible college training. Finkelstein argues for what he calls ‘the priority of proximity’. Put simply, we need to maximise face-time if we are to maximise a learning opportunity.

Finkelstein illustrates his point from Steve Jobs’ demand that the Pixar Animation headquarters should not be a series of small studios but ‘one big building with a central atrium.’ Why? Jobs wanted, through architecture, ‘to maximise the number of random encounters’ between employees. Finkelstein quotes Jobs who says ‘there’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by e-mail and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow’, and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.’

Something of this dynamic was at work in two meetings in which I have taken part during the last couple of days. In both, the proximity principle worked itself out. Both involved considerable travel, commitment, time and energy to attend – but crucially, they provided the only context for a quick-fire exchange of ideas and perspectives that combined to produce exciting results. It simply could not have come about through Skype or an e-mail exchange. It was free-flowing interchange between multiple people that produced the desired and necessary results.

So back to Bible College. Why should you learn in community rather than study through books from a distance or through courses that bring you together just on an occasional basis? Quite simply, because of the priority of proximity. The more learning that is done together, the more you benefit. The cumulative impact of numerous, daily, spontaneous conversations (sometimes in the classroom and sometimes through random encounter) provide the perfect forum for learning. If you want to equip people for ministry, build an atrium.

This post was taken from Neil’s blog (title why Steve Jobs wanted you to go to Bible college) and can be found here.

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