CategoryChristian Education

What We Can Learn from the Dress Code

As the weather turns warmer, I again hear of some student displeasure with the dress code–this sentiment is as cyclical as the seasons.  Because it is ridiculous that a school should have no dress code at all, I am tempted to tease that we should just adopt school uniforms?  I’d not be serious with this suggestion; I oppose this move because dress codes teach us some very important things.

I will concede that school uniforms have some advantages:

  1. Uniforms instill a sense of professionalism, imitating the business-dress of their possible futures.
  2. They eliminate the hassle of trying to find outfits that meet the dress code and are also in style.
  3. They are cheaper in the long run.
  4. They act as a socioeconomic equalizer.
  5. They eliminate dress codes, that can, given the sexualization of women in our culture, unfairly target girls.

The main reason I am against school uniforms is that, although some learning may improve, a lot of other important things are not learned by the uniformed scholar–things pertaining to Freedom.

Let Freedom Reign

Our culture is obsessed with Freedom.

  • We celebrate it at our sporting events.
  • Our television shows explore themes surrounding freedom, often presenting negative caricatures of traditional authorities, limiters of freedom.
  • Most television talk shows take every possible freedom as an absolute good.
  • The TV news is full of stories about conflicts about freedom, and it is obvious that if you are not on the side of freedom, you are going to lose the argument.
  • In popular movies, one of the defining qualities of the bad guy is often that he/she is a suppressor of freedom.
  • Politicians can win majorities to their positions if they can ground them in Freedom.
  • Remembrance Day used to commemorate the Armistice that brought WWI to a close, but now it seems it is all about the Freedom that was won in that war.
  • Originally established to remember those who died while serving in the U.S. military, the language of Freedom dominates Memorial Day celebrations.
  • The internet, in its very form, perpetuates the values of unrestricted freedom.

It should come as no surprise that some students bristle at the idea of restricting their choice in school attire.  They have been raised in this freedom obsessed culture, bombarded with the idea that Freedom is The Ultimate.  Freedom is the standard by which we judge between good and evil.  Furthermore, starting sometime in adolescence, human beings begin the natural process of moving out from under the authority of parents.  This can lead to the natural assertion of personal freedoms against any form of authority– including that of their school.  Combine this natural adolescent impulse toward freedom with our particular cultural obsession and you ought not to be surprised when the cry “Freedom!” erupts from some junior William Wallace, especially in the spring.

I oppose school uniforms because, in order to learn how to navigate the world dominated by Freedom worship, our children need to be given freedom.  They need to have freedom to make decisions about what they wear so they can come up against the limits of freedom, for freedom can only be good if it is limited.  Without limits, it becomes a terrible and demanding deity.

What’s Wrong With Wearing A Hat?

Some students want to wear a hat to school.  We happen to be in a time where hats are an important accessory in youth culture, but hats break the dress code.  When asked to remove the hat, some ask, “What’s wrong with wearing a hat?”  There is nothing wrong with wearing a hat, but it is, sometimes, improper to wear a hat.  The reason we don’t wear hats indoors in some public places like churches, restaurants, and schools has to do with propriety.  Propriety is the quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals.  It has long been the case in our culture that hats are to be worn only outside.

Standards of propriety are relative.  They change according to place or time.  In some cultures, propriety dictates that head coverings must be worn indoors.  Ours just happens to be one in which it is traditionally expected that one removes one’s hat when entering a building.  Students naturally counter this argument saying that times have changed, and I am holding on to an outdated convention–propriety has moved on.  I respond that this convention is certainly no longer part of teen sub-culture, but propriety is not dictated by teen sub-culture, but culture as a whole.  Even here it might be fading, but it is not yet gone.

There is something much more important at play within the dress code’s prohibition on hats.  It is that we are holding ourselves to an external standard.  The specific standard is not as important as the idea that such communal standards exist.  They exist, and they put limits on some personal freedoms, (a heretical move in our cultural context).

The “no-hat rule” is particularly effective in teaching middle and lower high school students the vital lesson that some personal freedoms are subordinate to community standards.  This norm runs contrary to the teen sub-culture.  Propriety cannot be meaningfully taught where there is no tension between student sub-culture and the culture at large.  If we were to restrict only coon-skin caps and platform shoes, the important lessons of propriety would remain unlearned.  Propriety is about submission to something bigger than oneself.  This is difficult for some adolescents who can’t conceive of anything more important than themselves. The cultural worship of Freedom exacerbates this attitude.  Conveniently, those that most need to learn the principles of propriety identify themselves by bucking most violently against the conventions of propriety.

These students point out that some adults, too, wear hats indoors.  Yes, there are some adults who wear a hat outdoors all day and don’t take them off when they come indoors.  This is not the same thing as donning a hat for a day indoors.  Other adults wear hats because they have not outgrown adolescent rebellion and/or believe that personal Freedom is ultimate.  These are not a justification for wearing hats; they are, rather, the very things we are trying to counter.  In the case of adults sporting caps indoors, it is appropriate to be gracious, but this is not a luxury we can extend to our students.  We cannot turn a blind eye, for we bear the responsibility to move our students through adolescence and to challenge the supremacy of personal freedom.

You can tell students things, and they might learn a little.  You can show them something, and they will learn a little better.  Students learn even better when they teach something. And better still if they do something.  But they will learn best of all if they do something with regularity.  In the morning ritual of getting dressed for school, students practice the idea that there are some things that are more important than personal freedom.  They practice submitting to an authority external to the self.  This is becoming a heresy in our culture.

We want students to grow into adults who understand that personal freedom is a good thing, but not The Ultimate Thing.    Without a dress code, students are in danger of graduating with the idea that freedom is God.  The lessons inherent in the dress code, not just the no-hat-rule, if learned well will lead to their flourishing, and that of society as well.  A school with uniforms does not have the opportunity to teach this important lesson.

Most students have no problem with the dress code, and for those who do, the disagreement usually is the result of a typical adolescent emphasis on personal freedom.  By the time most students reach their last year of high school, they have little issue with the school’s limits on clothing freedoms.  Perhaps this is because they have grown up a little, and no longer need to define themselves against authority figures, but it might also be a result of daily practice making decisions that balance personal freedom and social responsibility.

 

Are students prepared for university?

Education has changed.  I’m teaching differently.  Student’s are learning differently.

How well do the new approaches to learning and teaching prepare students for university?

Back in the Day

When I first started teaching Literature 12 there were provincial exams.  These were content focussed.  One of the purposes of the exam was to ensure students were prepared for the rigors of university.  There was a prescribed reading list of over 40 literary works from the literary canon extending from Beowulf to a poem by Margaret Atwood.  Students were also required to understand over 100 literary terms and devices.  Back in those days, I did a lot of talking and students took copious notes.  Given that the exam scores would be used to rank students against other students, schools against other schools, teachers against other teachers, exam performance mattered a great deal on many levels.  So we worked very hard on exam preparation.  Students created very detailed study sheets on each of the literary works on the prescribed reading list.  These were collated into large packets and students spent hours reviewing this material.  At the end of the process, they knew a lot, and my students generally did very well on the Provincial English Literature exam.

“Nowadays”

I still teach Lit 12, but I do so very differently.  My class looks much more like a graduate seminar than a lecture hall.  Students discuss and unpack the literary works, rather than listen to me tell them what they would notice if they were as smart as I was.  Through this dialogue, students analyze, synthesize, evaluate, propose, inquire, challenge, concede, admire and they connect the ideas they encounter to life and society.  After we talk, we write.  They use their laptops for this task.  Sometimes they journal, other times they write an academic essay or a personal narrative; we mix it up.  My assessment has changed as well.  We no longer end the year with an exam.  We end the year with presentations–students explore a topic of their choice making connections literature, often beyond the material we worked over the course of the semester.

Are students today as knowledgeable as in the days of yore?

Last year, I dusted off an old provincial exam, one of the same exams for which I used to work so hard to prepare my students.  We didn’t review the material in class–students didn’t create review sheets for each other, and they didn’t study for it.  I passed it out one day and they wrote it.  I used to mark the Literature 12 exam, so the marks students got on this test were valid.  I was surprised that their scores were significantly higher than those of students of similar ability from 2 decades ago.  I realize this observation is anecdotal and does not meet the standards of a proper study, but I am convinced of the results.  My students know the literature better now than they did when learning was primarily focussed on content rather than projects and discussions.  With the new approach to learning, students are performing better on exams designed to measure university preparedness.

The beauty is, they don’t just know the content–they have a much broader and deeper understanding of the literature than they used to.   They can talk about it and bring it into dialogue with other artistic expressions and with life and society.  They are better readers and thinkers and moviegoers.  Almost all are reporting great success in university classes.

But not all reports are positive.  One of my students excitedly entered her Literature course at the local university this fall, and dropped it after only a few classes.  It was clear to her that, in this particular university class, the study of her favourite high school subject would involve transferring what she heard in a lecture onto an exam paper at the end of the term.  There is no doubt in my mind that she could have passed this course with an A.  Many of my less gifted students frequently do.

Do modern instructional techniques prepare students for university?

My little experiments shows that if students are expected to know the material well, then they are prepared for university.  If their university courses will expect them to be able to analyze and synthesize information and concepts, they are ready.  If they are expected to evaluate ideas; to challenge assumptions and be able to recognize a strong argument and concede, they are ready.  If they are expected to communicate clearly and effectively, both verbally and in various written forms, they are ready and very well prepared for university.

If students are expected to passively listen to a professor talk for hours, collecting information that will be transferred onto an examination paper, then students are ill-prepared for university.
If, on the other hand, they are expected to passively listen to a professor talk for hours, collecting information and transfer this information onto an examination paper at the end of the term, then perhaps my students are ill-prepared for university.

Does anyone really want me to change my approach to teaching literature?

Laptops in the Classroom

As a teacher with a classroom full of laptops, I had to read the article in my Twitter feed entitled–“Ban the Laptops, Yes.”   This article by Mark Bauerlein cites a study that appeared in Education Next, under the title “Should Professors Ban Laptops?” which suggests that the implementation of classroom technologies, such as laptops, may be detrimental to student learning.

The results were striking—

and disappointing for people who believe

that better classroom technology and implementation

will produce higher student achievement.

I was troubled and confused–troubled because last year the high school at which I teach required every student to come to school with a laptop, confused because, from my experience, laptops are improving student learning.

I read a little further.  The article explains, “The decisive measure was performance by students on the final exam.” Ah, there it is.

I was no longer troubled or confused.

It is clear from the study that the classrooms wherein laptops are causing the problems are the ones in which professors are lecturing and students are taking notes.  In this context, exams are a measurement of how well a student transfers the content of the lecture to the examination paper.  The study shows that technology interferes with this simple process because when students “update social-media sites, order takeout, and watch YouTube videos during lectures.”  It is easy to see why the study concludes that “unrestricted laptop use reduced students’ exam scores.”

This all leaves me with a few questions:

Why are laptops a detriment to student learning, but an indispensable tool for the professors who deliver the lectures, and research and publish their papers, articles, and books?  In the so-called, “real world” personal computers and other digital devices are used by adults all the time–presumably because they are effective tools for accomplishing important tasks. Is it simply that adults are more mature and therefore better able to resist the temptation to watch Youtube videos?

Or is it because the work that adults are doing is relevant and the results really matter, and because the work is challenging, requiring creativity and critical thinking?

Is it because it’s personal–involving the whole person–the unique gifts and abilities of the adult individual?  Or is it because it’s interpersonal, involving collaboration with others?

Is it because it’s complex, varied–interdisciplinary?

Or is it because the responsibility for the success and failure of our efforts rests heavily on our shoulders?

Perhaps the problem is not the laptops, but a pedagogy that lacks all of the things that keep adults motivated to do good work.

In my grade 9 humanities class, we are studying World War I.  One of the students’ tasks is to produce several documentary videos telling the story of the First World War–the causes, key figures and events, and the effects.  Their laptops are vital tools in this project.  They research their topics using the internet.  They write and edit the script for their documentary film using a word processor.  They find out how to properly cite their sources using online resources.  They record their scripts, then create and edit videos on their laptops.  In the process, they give and receive feedback as to how to improve their documentaries.  They then share these videos on a social media platform so that others may learn from their work.  The use of technology isn’t to make learning about WW1 more fun, nor is it a distraction from the learning.  It is a vital tool in the process of completing a complex project where students learn, not only about World War 1 but about research, primary and secondary sources, how to discern internet sources, documentary script writing, plagiarism, providing feedback, voice recording, video editing, and a lot more.

Students are not passive; they are active and motivated to complete a project of high quality–they don’t have time to check in on their social media accounts.  For a student passively listening to a lecture, it’s almost impossible to resist the lure of the distractions.

What is the problem here?  Are the laptops the issue?

If your primary task as a teacher is to cover content and communicate information, and if your students are passively listening and taking notes, then this study shows that it is important that you “should draw back, return to pencil and paper and chalkboards.”

But if your students transform, rather than transfer information; if the boundaries between your classroom and the “real world” are blurry; if what your students are learning will have relevance 30 years beyond the exam. . .

then bring in the laptops!

 

Big Questions and Deep Questions

Here is the studio version of a speech I made at an educational event, Learning Revolution.

Big Questions from Abbotsford Christian School on Vimeo.

In this inspiring “RevIt Up” talk, Trent DeJong describes one way in which a Learning Revolution may come about if educators would consider “deep questions” with their students. With examples from his own experience and a clever sense of humour, Trent is sure to make you think about how we can authentically engage the next generation of students.

 

Is Atheism a Religion?

alikeI recently read an article in which the author insisted that public funds not go to support religious schools. The rhetoric in this article was very much in the “us” versus “them” vein. In essence, “their” views, that is those of the religious, are tainted with the irrational and divisive forces of faith or belief common to all religions, unlike “our” rational and unifying position which is free from dangerous subjectivity.

In the comment section someone agreed saying:

Religious indoctrination of children is nothing less than abuse, and ought not to be allowed let alone publicly funded.

What this commenter does not understand is that there is no way to raise a child without “religious” indoctrination.  Modern rationalism or postmodern relativism, which dominate much of western education are inherently “religious.” Even atheism are in a sense “religious.” So public schools are, in essence, are engaged in religious education.

I said as much in my own comment. Another commenter objected saying:

Atheism is not a religion for the same reason that bald is not a hair colour.

He is right, baldness is not a hair color, but it is a hair style.

There are two ways in which one might use the term “religious.” In one sense, atheism is not a religion–if religion is defined by religious rituals and believing in spiritual beings. In this sense, atheism is not a religion for the same reason baldness is not a hair colour. But in another very important sense, atheism is religious. The term can also refer to the guiding principles that one accepts by faith that shape ones reality and around which one organizes ones life.

These guiding principles revealed in how one might answer fundamental questions about reality. Not everyone is aware of their own answers to these questions, but their lives testify to having answered them one way or another.

Does life have meaning? If so, what is it?

Does human life have value? If so, why?

Do we have a purpose? If so why?

Does the universe have a purpose?

Is the universe friendly, hostile or indifferent?

What’s wrong with the world?

What is the solution to what is wrong with the world?

Is there a God or gods?

Every human being lives out their answer to these questions. Interestingly, many people proclaim an answer to a question, but live out another answer. The answers, stated or lived, are religious. They are religious in that they cannot be proven; they are accepted by faith.

The atheist believes that there is no God on the same, some would argue less, grounds that theists believes that there is.  Both do so by faith; neither can know it to be so.

One may chose not to use the term religion to describe this category, but it doesn’t get atheism out of the category, whatever you call it.

Baldness is not a hair colour, but it is a hair style. Atheism does not engage in religious activities that arise out of a belief in a God, but they do make unverifiable claims about reality based on faith.

There is no way we can have an a-religious education, so the government will always be funding religious education. The question now remains, which religions will they fund.

From Routine to Ritual: Classroom Attendance

AttendanceSo I was thinking of a routine I might turn into a ritual, as per my last post.  I figured I’d allow the brushing of teeth to remain a routine for now.

Attendance!  In every class, I take attendance.  This routine is so routine, there’s probably no one who doesn’t know how this works.  The teacher goes down the alphabetical list, calling out student names and the students say, “Here,” when they hear their name.  It’s a routine; it exists for no other reason that its purpose, and it’s executed quickly and efficiently.

I was thinking that, rather that every student saying the same thing, “Here,” why not have then each reply with something unique?  In my first class, I asked them to reply with their favourite colour when I called their name.  Attendance took a little longer–the breaking from routine generated some excitement, and I found it hard to hear some responses.  In my other classes, I asked other predictable questions:

  • favourite food
  • favourite villain
  • dream job

The next day:

  • Who would you like to have coffee with?
  • What’s one book you’d want on a desert island?
  • In which historical period would you like to live?

Then we got a little more creative:

  • a political or cultural figure you like to hit with a pie in the face, or give a carnation?
  • the grossest thing you’ve ever eaten
  • a job you’d never want
  • your “spirit” animal? Your “spirit” kitchen appliance?
  • What do you do when you are really sad (one word)?
  • one word, most embarrassing moment
  • What movie would you like to be in, as which character?
  • What stupid superpower would you like to have?
  • a characteristic of one of your parents you hope you never acquire
  • In my English classes I can ask, in which dystopian world would you rather live?

Interestingly, these questions generated a lot of excited chatter.  So much that it made it almost impossible to get to the end of the class list.  So we worked on some normative behaviours–“norms” that would improve the ritual.  I asked the students what we might do to have our new mode of attendance taking be meaningful.  They came up with a good list.

  1. Don’t tell your answer to your neighbour until your name is called.
  2. Look at the person whose name is called so you can hear their contribution.
  3. Respond quickly and positively.
  4. Don’t forget to ask Mr. DeJong his answer.

Rituals mean something beyond the activity itself.  What I like about this attendance ritual is that it sets the tone for the rest of the class.  It’s fun and creative.  This fun and creativity are focused and contained. This ritual celebrates the uniqueness of each individual as well as the importance of the communal context; the value of each contribution, and contributor, is reinforced by the norm of respectful listening.  Everyone gets a voice; everyone’s voice is respected.  These “meanings” are at the core of what I am trying to teach in all of my classes–this “mindless ritual” is helping me to do it.

If you have any other suggestions for “Attendance Questions” please send them in the comment section.  I will be needing about 100 of them.

Conversation with a Textbook

Pathways-Banner

You won’t believe what this textbook said.

This is a conversation I had with a few pages of the new edition of  “Pathways,” a Social Studies textbook used in grade 8 classes.  The section was called “Religion and Civilizations.”

Me: Since you are written for use in public schools, it must be a little dicey when you talk about religion given that you are supposed to remain neutral on this sort of thing.  What do you see as the relationship between religion and civilization? 

Pathways:  “Religion is an important aspect of civilization.  In many civilizations, both in the past and in the present, religious beliefs are one way a civilization defines and describes itself.  Religion also influences people’s values and actions.” 

Me: I see.  And why do we study religion in grade 8?

Pathways: “Learning about different religions allows us to understand the civilizations to which these religions belonged.”

Me: That shouldn’t upset too many people, but as a religious person myself, I’d consider this a bit of a limited view.  Religion is more than a means by which we understand others, but I guess you’re limited in how much you can say about religion and still maintain your neutrality.   Tell me, what is your view on why we have religions in the first place?

Pathways:  “Human beings have always asked what we call ‘big questions.’  You have probably asked them, too.”

Me: Yes, I love the big questions.  That’s one of the reasons I like to blog.  But just to make sure we’re on the same page, what do you mean by big questions?

Pathways: What happens to me after I die? What is the difference between right and wrong? Why am I here? Why do bad things happen? How was all this created?

Me: Yes, these are pretty much the same as my questions.  I’ve heard them called worldview questions, and you are right; everyone asks them and everyone answers them (whether they admit it or not).  So what do these “big questions” have to do with why religion exists?

Pathways: “Human beings like to have answers to their questions.  Having answers make us feel more secure.” 

Me: Whoa! I might be jumping ahead here, but are you one of those people who believes the function of religion is to create a feeling–a feeling of security?   If that’s the case, then religion is pretty much a safety blanket for the weak, is it not?  I’ve heard some call it a crutch for those who can’t face “reality.”   Aren’t you supposed to be neutral on issues of faith?  I mean, it is a pretty low view of religion, isn’t it?  Most religious people understand that any security they may feel is merely a by-product of the more important search for truth and meaning–religion itself is actually a product of this search.   I understand I’m not being neutral either, but I think it’s impossible.  Is there no sense in which the big questions that religion answers might be rooted in a search for objective truth?

Pathways:  “But these big questions cannot be answered the same way ordinary questions can be.”

Me: I understand that, but just because they cannot be answered in the same way–or are harder to answer–does not mean the answers aren’t true.  Anyway, you were saying something about the difference between big answers and ordinary answers?  Can you elucidate?

Pathways: “For example, science tells us that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen.  This is based upon creating a hypothesis and then using experiments to discover if our original ideas were correct.  With religion, people have to accept answers that are based on non-scientific evidence. “

Me: I’ve noticed your word choice.  Did you know you consistently us the term “us” when speaking of knowing and the word “people” when speaking about believing?  I thought it was interesting how you distance yourself, and, consequently, your readers from the act believing.   Where were we?  Oh yes, you said that ordinary questions are the ones that can be answered empirically and big questions can’t be answered empirically so their answers are non-scientific.  That sounds bad when you put it that way.  Are you implying they are just sorta made up?

Pathways: “In effect, [people] have to accept them based on their beliefs (faith).”

Me:  You are saying that something can’t be” correct,” unless it is proven empirically: with scientific evidence.  That means the only things that can be true are things having to do with the properties, history and function of matter.  This would make sense, I suppose, if matter was all there is.  Wait, if you think that, you just answered a big question: “Is matter all there is?”  This is not an ordinary question, it’s a big question.  You can’t know if you are correct because this answer is based on non-scientific evidence.  If you are going to be answering big questions, I might accuse you of being religious.  Then what would happen to your neutrality?  Let’s move on.  So how do you explain why we have so many different religions?

Pathways: “Different Faiths, Different Answers”

Me: Could you elaborate?

Pathways: “There are many religions in the world, and each one has different answers to the big questions.” 

Me: Which one is right?

Pathways: “Which one is right? No one religion has the ‘right’ answers, because the big questions have no scientifically provable answers.”

Me: How do you know that to be true?  Isn’t that assertion based on non-scientific evidence?  I think you just answered another big question: Can something be true even if there is no empirical evidence to verify it?  Your answer to this one can only be right if your answer to the last one is right, and you can’t prove that one so you can’t prove this one.  Don’t forget about neutrality. 

Let me ask you something.  Isn’t a religion that teaches to love of one’s neighbours a little closer to the truth than one that teaches it’s OK to kill innocent children?  That doesn’t make sense to me. 

But, I digress.  Your claim to neutrality seems to be a little suspect; you seem to have very clear views as to how we understand the beliefs of others, but you aren’t really admitting when you accept answers that are based on non-scientific evidence.  I’m not sure that you are suitable for use in a public school, because you seem to support one set of unscientifically supported beliefs, over all other sets.  My concern is for the students.  What do you say to a grade 8 student who is thinking about the big questions?  I don’t think it would be appropriate to explicitly discourage them from being involved in religion.

Pathways:  In Canada today, there are many different religions.  If you were looking for a religion to belong to, you could find out what different religions say about the big questions.  Then you could choose the religion with the answers you are most comfortable with, or that fit best with what you already think. 

Me: It doesn’t really matter what religion someone belongs to? At least you are consistent.   You suggest that the choice between religions is to be based on the feelings of comfort each offers or how well they conform to one’s preexisting ideas?  I understand that you think you are being equally fair to all religions, but you are not really.  You are being equally unfair.

People aren’t looking for comfort when they ask and answer the big questions, they are looking for truth–universal and objective truth–because they believe they can find it, just as you believe they can’t.   Given this, people can’t just shop for a religion like they do for a dress–take the one that fits.  (Nearly) every religion says that adherents need to conform to some objective moral standard.  If you are going to respect religion, you must recognize that, the individual conforms to religion, not the other way around.  Your method of selection is legitimate only if all religions were equal.  They can only be equal if your answers to the big questions are right.  But you haven’t proven that they are–because you can’t.

Aren’t you really saying that if everyone had your religion, then we’d all get along better?

Pathways:  “Even if you had a different religion than your friends, that probably would not matter too much.  If fact, you could probably learn something from each other.”

Me: I agree that people of different religions ought to get along.  But I don’t agree that this cooperation is contingent of not taking our religions seriously.  On the contrary, we can only get along if we give each other the freedom to take their faith seriously.  Wouldn’t the picture of true tolerance be a materialist, such as yourself, talking with a Christian and a Muslim over a good cup of coffee, disagreeing, but enjoying the company, the conversation, and the coffee all the while respecting each others beliefs, because, even though they are not scientific,  they are rational.

Wouldn’t this be a better picture to present to the grade 8 student? 

Objections to Christian Education

SchoolMy principal told me of a conversation that he had with a Christian minister who was strongly against Christian Education.  I asked him if he could send me a list of his objections so I could think about them.  And when I think about things, I write about them.

1. Children need to be salt and light in the public school.

The first objection to Christian education is that Christians are called to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16), and by sending our children to a public school we are fulfilling this mandate.  I agree that it is vital that Christians “let [their] light shine before men,” but this injunction is meant for Christians, not the children of Christians.  I’m not saying that children of Christians aren’t Christian (although some would), but I am suggesting caution.  To be salt and light requires the supernatural strength provided by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Children of Christians are often well mannered, respectful, kind and encouraging.  A lot of children are, Christian or not, if have been raised in stable and principled homes.  Being polite and encouraging is not the same thing as being salt and light.  Children of Christians are not necessarily equipped for this task for it requires more wisdom and spiritual maturity than a child usually possesses.

We always take the injunction to be salt and light to be a command for individuals.  This is, how we understand everything, but the biblical default is set to community.  Jesus’ metaphor was to be like a “city on a hill.”  To be salt and light, then, is a command to create communities that spread the light.  A Christian school is this sort of community.  Our light is showing how education ought to be done in our particular time and place if Jesus Christ were truly Lord of all things.

2.  Where will the world be if all Christians pulled out of the world

Behind this objection is the assumption that Christians are to function (as “salt and light”) in culture only as individuals.  This mistake is understandable, since we are incredibly individualistic in our culture. This is one of the very idols that a good Christian education attempts to reveal and combat. We tacitly interpret our world through an individualistic lens. There is no doubt that the world would be in bad shape if there were no Christians, but Christian schools do not cause Christians to disappear.  They are still there.  They are just in schools that proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life.  The Christian school is salt and light in the world, but it is a corporate response, rather than an individual one.  Christian school must, then, be very deliberate in engaging culture–their local community as well as the education community–so as to truly be a blessing to “the world.”

3.  Children who attend Christian schools experience culture shock when they enter ‘real world’

This is a great danger if the purpose of the Christian school is to protect students from the “real world.”  Some religious schools exist for this very reason, because they overemphasize the power of sin in the world.  Other schools are only Christian in that they have morning prayer, weekly chapels and offer Bible classes.  The problem with these schools is they overestimate the created goodness in the world.  There is a third type of Christian school that believes all things are created good, and all things profoundly affected by sin.   This Christian school would explore all aspects of creation, including culture, and celebrate the creational goodness that we find there, but it would also train students to discern evil, not just “out there”—where it certainly is, but also inside our most intimate circles and within ourselves.  A child educated in this kind of school would not be shocked, but would be prepared to faithful living in the world.

4. Science, English, Math… its all the same whatever school you go to… the religion part can come from home and church.

This objection comes straight out of the Modern worldview.   Modernism separates reality into public/private categories.  The public sphere is where reason guides political, economic, educational, (etc.) discussions.  The assumption is that reason is neutral, and out of this value neutral position, we can dialogue on how we can best organize society.  All the non-rational, things, like beliefs, opinions, religion, etc. are relegated to the private sphere.  Society works if these things are kept in the church, the mosque or the bedroom.  The public school is such a place.  Reason directs the curriculum and, in the absence of beliefs, it is value neutral.

Many Christian parents also accept the neutrality of reason and, therefore, of a public education.  The church and the home need add the religion component and the overall experience of the child tips toward the religious.  The problem is that the public sphere is not neutral at all.  Modern rationalism is a belief system that stands in opposition to the teachings of the Bible.  C. S. Lewis puts it this way:

There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.

5. Christian schools inoculate youth to authentic Christian living and foster indifference to the beauty of the Gospel.

This is a danger whenever the gospel is merely an abstraction.   If the church and family do not embody the gospel, the child will probably become desensitized to the “beauty of the Gospel” as well.   At school it isn’t enough to study truth and then leave it in the students head.  A Christian school needs to help student blur the lines between knowing and doing, and not just in extracurricular activities, like “missions trips.”  And not just within the lessons themselves.  The embodiment of the gospel needs to be systemic involveing, course offerings, programs, assessement, discipline, Special Education and Learning Assistance, athletics, awards, councelling, etc.

But the road along which we travel is fraught with perils on all sides.  There are significant dangers in sending Christian children to the public school as well.  One of them is probably not the desensitization to the Gospel by constant exposure to it.  The dangers to which children of Christians are exposed in a public school are pretty serious.  The idea that Science, English, Math, etc. are neutral is one pretty big one.

I think a better approach is, rather than risking these far greater dangers, addressing the “desensitization” issue of Christian schools very deliberately and ask how we can, individually and collectively, embody the Gospel.

6. My Christian school experienced was meaningless for growth for me as a Christian

Perhaps this is true.  Of course I can’t possibly say.  Perhaps his Christian school experience has no bearing on the fact that today he is a pastor.  But there is some pretty good evidence that Christian education in general has a long term effect on the future of its graduates.  The Cardus Institute published a study on Christian Schooling in both the United States and Canada.  In the Executive Summary of the Canadian report, it is reported that

graduates of evangelical Protestant schools not only show more commitment to and involvement in religious rituals and activities compared with their government school counterparts with similar religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, but, despite having been educated among peers from similar religious backgrounds, are likely to be just as involved in civic affairs as all public school graduates, with the exception of protests.

7. The best thing for us is to have our kids going to school with their neighbours, and to put the onus for children’s discipleship back on the church.

My response to this objection is mathematical.  In a seven day period a child spends at least 35 hours at school.  The church cannot possibly compete, and it is a competition if we are talking about the public school.  Even with the most incredible curriculum and leaders, how much can the church do in its few hours a week?  If, however, the church and the school worked together in the discipleship of the children, how much more effective would we both be.  I teach at a Christian high school, and the youth group leaders of the local churches are regularly at the school interacting with students and coordinating with administrators and teachers to discuss how to better serve the children, their families and our Lord.

At the Christian School, young people are meaningfully interacting with Christian adults.  As they work on cars in the mechanics shop, or delving into Shakespeare, or practicing basketball students are being discipled in faithful living and their character is being developed through authentic relationships with Christian staff.  The Christian school is not in competition with the church; the church, family and school work together in nurturing of children.

Christian schools aren’t all the same.  My response to each of these objections is from a particular approach to Christian Education.  For a more detailed description of the three types of Christian schools, read :

Why Christian Education? — Part 1 and Why Christian Education? — Part 2

Legalize Hit Men?

hitmenI was observing an English class at my school as they read the recent post by Betsy Childs entitled “Why We Should Legalize Murder for Hire.” 

Some were horrified at first at the suggestion that “hit men [could] provide a valuable service to society” by helping women deal with “unwanted marriages,” but they quickly understood they were dealing with satire.  Their appreciation of the author’s wit was evidenced by the readers’ giggles and parenthetic comments.

We don’t find out that the author is actually building a parallel between killing one’s spouse and killing one’s unborn child.

The students commended the cleverness of Childs’ analogy when she says that “matrimony severely curtails a woman’s freedom” and that “the better course is to avoid unwanted marriage in the first place,” and “it is her marriage; only she can decide when it must end” . . .

One student pointed out that Childs correlates  adoption to divorce when she says the latter “may be an attractive alternative to murder” but “some woman do not have the emotional and financial resources to go through a divorce.”

The students’ initial reaction to this article was positive.  

How would you take this if you were pro-choice?

I’d be mad.

It wasn’t very long and one student used the word “fallacy.” 

The students continued to ask each other questions:

Stacked evidence?

Not quite.

Faulty analogy? 

Yeah, that fits.

(Faulty analogy: an argument is based on misleading, superficial, or implausible comparisons.)

The students suggested that someone who was pro-choice would not accept the premise that the fetus was comparable to a husband, so this argument is only effective if someone accepts that premise.  They concluded that if your audience was pro-life, Childs’ argument was effective, but if it was pro-choice the argument would be ineffective.

Who is the audience?

Since this article was posted on The Gospel Coalition website, one can assume that the audience was conservative to moderate Christians.  The effect of the article was to reinforce the views of the audience.  In other words, it was preaching to the choir.  

What’s the point of writing this if your audience already agrees?

It was observed that the only effect of the article was to reinforce the view of those who agree that our society “celebrates [the murder of] family members”.  Several students pointed out that this, in itself, is not wrong, but because the tone was mocking this article  would simultaneously alienate opponents and enflame the passions of supporters.

Was this the purpose of the article?

If you get the two sides all riled up you can’t get anywhere.

How can Christians write about this issue that promotes dialogue?

Why Christian Education? (Part 2)

Read: Why Christian Education? (Part 1)

Several years ago, my pastor at the time, and friend, and I had a long discussion regarding Christian Education. He felt that for Christian parents to send their children to a Christian school was dualist (in the sense that the things of Christ are considered separate from the things of life—a sacred/secular dualism). My response to this was that the sort of Christian school that I worked at was founded on the premise that that one can’t separate Christ from the rest of life. He may have been equating Christian schools in general with the sort that arises out of what Niebuhr called Christ against Culture stance (Read more). This view is certainly dualist for its advocates see a separation between the things of this world and the spiritual world ruled by God. My school, and others like it, expresses a rejection of the sacred/secular dualism.

In this part, I would like to address this and some of the other objections to Christian schools.

To my pastor, I argued that if he wanted to avoid dualism, he ought to be hesitant about sending his children to the local public school which operates under the same dualistic philosophy, albeit from the other side. My contention is that the ideas of modernism are still deeply rooted in our culture and foundational to modernism is the separation of the religious from the secular.

Many aspects of North American culture are still largely under the influence of modernism. In a recent instalment of the CBC program Ideas (“After Atheism, Part 3”) producer David Cayley says, “To be modern is to divide the world up into two realms, a public secular sphere in which things are judged rationally according to agreed standards of evidence and argument, and a private religious sphere in which irrational opinion and existential decision hold sway.” Religion was seen as the “source of oppression, obscurantism, and unending war, until the state tamed this unruly power and put it in its place.” This idea, says Cayley, “is in many ways the founding myth of modern society.”

. . . crossing the lines between sacred and secular, between public an private,

Not surprisingly, this modern view of religion is apparent in our modern institutions. In the United States, the idea of the separation between church and state has come to mean exactly this. In Canada, the courts have determined that the “freedom of religion” guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, means that citizens have the right to follow their own religious beliefs, but it does not only mean freedom OF religion, but also freedom FROM religion. In order to satisfy both, religion is relegated to the private sphere. Canadian courts have also said that the Charter applies to school boards. Schools recognize the importance of religion in providing a moral and spiritual framework for life so religion can be taught, but must be done so in a neutral and academic fashion.

There are two problems with this idea, however.

The first is that neutrality is not possible. A neutral stance toward religion is not a neutral stance.  In that the preferment of neutrality is a way of looking at reality in general and all other religions in particular, it is, in essence, a religious claim. To claim that we ought to exclude the religious voice from public discourse is implicitly religious for it is based on a set of beliefs about the world and the human beings’ place in it. My argument here is that the idea of a non-religious school is a myth. The question is not whether or not one should send one’s child to a religious school; the question is, to which religious school will one send them?

The second problem with relegating religion to the private sphere is that religion can’t be private. It is impossible for anyone to enter the public sphere and leave their convictions at the door. This is true of every belief, including those of secularism.

Christianity certainly cannot be relegated to the private sphere. Paul says of Christ, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 15-17).

C. S. Lewis says the same thing: “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” I like how Abraham Kuyper puts it. In his inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University, he said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

My pastor friend was resistant to the dualism inherent in the Christ against Culture type of Christian school, because it limits the Lordship of Christ to only a narrow slice of life. But I think that it is equally problematic for those who believe in the universal sovereignty of Christ to send their children to a school which insists Christ’s authority is to be confined to the private realm. Both are based on false dichotomies: public/private, culture/Christ, physical/spiritual, reason/faith, to name a few.

Christianity, at its core, is an orientation of one’s entire life toward a person—the Son of God and Redeemer of all that is. Every other belief is subordinate to this Truth. Our culture, however, asks us to subordinate this Truth to the truth claims made by a secular religion. I do not hold this against its proponents, for every religion subordinates the beliefs of every other religion to its truth claims. It’s just that the devotees of this modern secular religion insist that their beliefs aren’t religious.

This is why I am a passionate supporter of Christian Education for all Christian families. No education is neutral and all education is religious. For Christian families, the education their children receive in school ought to be one that places Christ at the centre.

There are a few other objections to Christian education that I wanted to address directly. The first is that Christian schools shelter children from the real world. The second is that the Bible calls us to be salt and light to the world, and by sending children to a Christian school, we are, in effect, hiding out light under a bushel. And third, Christian education is too expensive.

First, Christian schools shelter students from the “real” world.

This is an objection that comes from the assumption that all Christian schools are as Niebuhr’s Christ against Culture stance. Hopefully, the awareness of the other two has taken care of this objection, but I will offer one more word. First of all, it is not even possible to shelter students from sin. Sin lives in the Christian school when the first person unlocks the door in the morning. So we have to deal with idolatry and selfishness and gossip and bullying and theft just like every school does. The difference in the Christian school is that it brings the Word of God to every situation in the lives of the children. We don’t just “explore, evaluate, and experience” sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, but “all of life under God.” The selection of teaching materials and library books, etc. is not based on the protection of our students from the evil in the world, although age appropriateness is one of the criteria. These resources are selected for their usefulness to explore as well as discern the world. We don’t shy away from issues around sexuality, violence, justice, nor do we avoid non-Christian thinkers and authors, film makers, or artists. We hold up expressions of faith to the critique of deconstructionists, feminists and Marxists. Our work is not characterized by isolation, but inoculation.

A second objection to Christian education is that Christians are called to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16), and by sending out children to a public school we are fulfilling this mandate. I agree that Christians ought to “let [their] light shine before men,” but this injunction is meant for Christians, not the children of Christians. I would also suggest that even if a child is a Christian, to be salt and light requires some wisdom and spiritual maturity.

Secondly, I suggest that we not limit the call to be salt and light to the individual Christian. North Americans, including North American Christians, are tremendously individualistic. This is one of the very idols that a good Christian education attempts to reveal and combat. We tacitly interpret our world through an individualistic lens. The Christian school is salt and light in the world, but it is a corporate response.

This has been born out continuously at Abbotsford Christian School. Just as an individual Christian teacher is salt and light to their colleagues in their public school, so too is the Christian school salt and light in the field of education. Individuals cannot be salt and light in the same way that communities can, and vice versa. We have something to share regarding teaching practices, employee relations, special education and learning assistance, recycling, bullying, assessment, supervision of teachers and students, etc. We have something to share because what we believe about Jesus Christ is true, not just for Christians, but for everyone and everything. So, we collectively witness to all those involved in education. Our staff is involved in many professional groups relating to their specific field within education. We are also visited frequently by teachers and principals, special education and learning assistance teachers and coordinators, coaches, counsellors, government inspectors and elected officials. Further, our students are involved, as Abbotsford Christian students, in the community. We regularly hear that Abbotsford Christian School is being salt and light in the broader community, by that very community.

I am not saying that Christian teachers ought to be teaching only in Christian schools, as a matter of fact, this is a vital place where the light of the gospel needs to be reflected. I also want to be clear that I am not saying that sending one’s children to the public school is the wrong thing to do. I have heard many stories of Christian children being a blessing in their local schools. What I do want to claim is that the salt and light argument ought not to be understood as a Biblical injunction to send Christian children to a public school.

A third objection is that Christian Education is too expensive. I agree that it is expensive—especially where the schools receive no government grants and the full cost falls to parents. In general, though, I would say that there are many things we can do without, or delay, that are less important than an education that reinforces a transformational and integrative view of life. I see this in our school community. For many, the family summer vacation is camping at the local provincial/state park. The cars that drop off the kids at school in the morning are often older than 10 years. It helps that Christian education is a community project in that the older generations continue to support the school which helps keep costs down. Also, local church congregations and the school itself may have programs available to help cover the costs of tuition for those who can’t afford it.

I wouldn’t be honest if I said that any school executes this model of Christian Education perfectly, because it’s very difficult and we suffer from all those human limitations. Also, it’s hard to discern the degree to which our collective view of the world is acculturated; it’s easier to swim with the cultural current than against it, and to constantly evaluate every part of life through the interpretive lens of the Gospel is hard work. There are many things to talk about – How we celebrate the graduation of our students in a way that reflects Christ’s Lordship? How do we create meaningful interaction between students of different ages and between students and older generations? We also need to continually talk about technology, which is always changing. There are many more.

It is most effective, and most fun, when we engage in the process of discerning and transforming our culture in community, including students. I also find it a tremendous blessing to work with others that have a clear focus—“to be faithful, discerning, obedient and creative servants of God and of neighbour, and stewards of His creation.”

If you are looking for this type of education for your children, you can search for a school in your area at Christian Schools International (http://www.csionline.org/schools).

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