Russell and Duenes

The Nature of Education Means Education Is Spiritually Unique

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Touchstone coverEducation is not like other things in life. If the politicos of Podunk, U.S.A. decide to put up a Nativity display this Christmas, they will of course be promoting something decidedly Christian. Yet the local chapter of the Atheists Association, despite its protestations, is not much harmed by it. Teaching the Scriptures in the local public school, however, is another matter, and a moments reflection shows why. It also shows why the atheist group will likely get more hot and bothered by the public school problem than by a ceramic Jesus on the steps of City Hall. They realize that education is unique among human endeavors. Would that more Christians realized it.

One Christian who clearly does is Ken Myers, one of the most perceptive and insightful commentators on culture generally, and the founder and host of Mars Hill Audio. In the current issue of Touchstone magazine, Myers discusses a book called Poetic Knowledge, which “refers not to a knowledge of poetry but rather to ‘a poetic (a sensory-emotional) experience of reality.'” Importantly, he prefaces his remarks by noting that “the work of education is at root the transmission of culture – of a body of knowledge and a way of situating ourselves in the world so as to seek understanding and live well.” Though Myers does not say so (no doubt he believes so), this “living well” presupposes a standard of what constitutes better or worse ways of living. Myers adds that “[o]ur schools thus transmit the cultural values of individualism, progress, and relativism,” yet I’m not so sure about the relativism part when it comes to actual practice. Sure, secular schools officially decree that they inculcate no standards about which ways of living are better or worse, but in practice, this cannot be true, for some kinds of cultural values for living and acting – for “being” in the world – will be transmitted, as Myers observes. This is the nature of education.

Myers is certainly right about the “individualism and progress” aspects of education when he says that “we tend to think of schools as places where individuals acquire dispositions and skills to live out their idiosyncratic dreams and remake the world to satisfy their desires.” Indeed, we teach them to become little technocrats who can then bend the natural, political and social world to their wishes. Little Michael Bloombergs. Education in the government schools has largely instrumental value, namely, helping one “get a good job,” which itself becomes mostly a means to the radically individualistic end of “being happy.” All of which needs to generally conform to the pragmatic, politically-correct, statist-leaning ideals of the modern world as well. This was reinforced by a “Frontline” episode I watched recently called Dropout Nation. The show followed four troubled teenagers through their lives at an inner-city Houston high school. There were many notable aspects to how the school teachers and administrators handled these students, but an overweening emphasis came across that these kids simply must finish high school and go to college or their lives were going to be ruined. So these administrators were standing on their heads for the students – trying to play the part of parent, counselor, psychologist and social worker – all because the students “gotta go to college.” Yet what does this tell the students about the nature of education? About themselves as human beings?

Myers quotes James K.A. Smith, who says that “[b]ehind every constellation of educational practices is a set of assumptions about the nature of human persons – about the kinds of creatures we are.” To which Myers adds: “Pedagogical models also convey a set of assumptions about the nature of the cosmos – about the kind of world we inhabit and about the ultimate origins of its order. How we teach, how we approach the conveying of knowledge, is shaped by assumptions about the nature of human knowing and the shape and source of human well-being.” This is phenomenal stuff, and articulates the reality of what education is and does better than I ever could. But it should at least give the lie to any notion that the “education” of human beings can be a kind of neutral conveyance of facts and ideas, simply to be spit out upon standardized tests. I suspect that those who rule the roost of public education know this better than their Christian counterparts. All education operates from some understanding of what is true, what is good, what is just, what is beautiful, what leads to human flourishing, and therefore, proceeds accordingly. This is true across all subjects, not just the humanities.

What is so great about Myers’ argument is that it takes the uniqueness of education down to the very level of pedagogy, that is, to the methods of teaching themselves. These also are not neutral. Sitting kids in classrooms, in rows, where they are largely indoors for 6-7 hours a day, having them interact more with computers than with the natural world around them, and generally giving them 50 minutes of this and 50 minutes of that each day (at least after elementary school) says something about how we conceive of human beings, human aspirations, and the purpose of human knowledge. It is not enough for Christian educators to parrot most of what the secular schools are doing, and simply “teach it from a Christian perspective.” For the “perspective” is often as much in the pedagogy as in the facts being taught. There’s a worldview being conveyed in the methodologies.

Yet I wonder how many “educators” are seriously willing to re-think the whole educational enterprise from the ground up. Perhaps there are more of them than I think. I hope so. It is one of the needs of the hour. Christians, of all people, ought to be the ones doing such re-thinking. We have wisdom from God and the illuminating power of His Spirit. We also have the history of education, most of which in the western world was conducted by Christians. Moreover, we believe that the education of our children has an eternal purpose, of which “getting a good job” is only one feature, and likely not the most important one. I hope there will be more who see the cause of Christ and the glory of God as the central, indispensible components of education. Not of Christian education. Of education.



Written by Michael Duenes

May 28, 2013 at 6:43 pm

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