Reclaiming Education (or why Mike Rowe is only half right)

The last couple of years has seen a renewed interest in the restoration of vocation and education. There’s a piece over at the Acton Institute, featuring a short video of eminent vocation defender Mike Rowe, that highlights some of the main points: debt related to education is too high, labor jobs go unfilled while people scour the Ivy League hotspots for six figure checks, we’ve lost a proper sense of the good that comes from hard work, etc. These are all valid points, in my opinion, but I think they are missing something. Rowe, and Glenn Beck who is interviewing him, are still defining education in terms of its ends. Without saying it like this, it boils down to: “why get an education if I will never use it in my job.” This idea is just as flawed as the notion that, “everyone should get a college degree to get a better job.”

The latter statement belittles the value of education by making it the standard; college doesn’t afford real advantages in this situation because everyone now has the same advantage. Debt is seen as acceptable in light of the long term pay off, even though the statistics suggest there never will be that perceived pot of gold at the end of the collegiate rainbow. Some have proposed lowering the cost of schooling to avoid the debt debacle, but that doesn’t really solve the problem either. Theoretically reducing the cost of something in order to make it available to everyone, even if some individuals don’t desire to have said service, does not in fact end up lowering the cost. Head over to MyCancellation to see this playing out in the healthcare world right now.

The former concept reduces education to knowledge versus skill sets; but aren’t all forms of gathering skills an education? This is too limiting in defining education as something that only comes from ivory towered academics who write papers and study dead people more than they interact with those who are still living. But if education is, to borrow a phrase from R.C. Sproul, leading people out… then shouldn’t education be anything that moves me forward in life? This is still an insufficient definition of course, but it at least gets rid of the silly idea of “college” being equal to”education.”

In truth, this is a nuanced discussion that I am painting in broad strokes, but I do that because despite the subtleties, both sides of this argument are missing the whole point of education. John Milton said it best I think,

If Milton is correct, and I believe he is, then to treat education as something other than that which restores the Imago Dei to each of God’s created people is to propose a false education.

If I go to school to “get a better job,” I am making God’s design for education into a mercenary endeavor that will never satisfy my deepest longings. I may earn a more substantial paycheck, and I may even enjoy my job, but I will still be disconnected from what education is really all about. On the other side of that, if I avoid education because I don’t see it as pertinent to my vocation, I will be missing a step on the journey that is designed to bring me closer to my Maker.

What I am advocating is in line with Jamie Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project: reorienting our hearts and minds towards their proper end, namely God. Herein lies the foundation to my calling.

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Alarmist? I’m in good company.

I am as sure as I am of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen. – A. A. Hodge, “The ‘Engine’ of Atheism,” Evangelical Theology 1890

Hodge was one of the leading theologians at Princeton near the end of the 19th century. In himself, he is worthy of study (and Mark Noll has some good stuff to say about him), but I’m interested in him for a different reason now. I don’t prognosticate like Dr. Hodge did, but I have to give him credit for being right.

Sarah and I just finished the IndoctriNation documentary, and I wanted to interact with it for a few moments before going to bed.

For those who don’t know, IndoctriNation is a Christian family’s journey around the country (mostly the Midwest and Eastern seaboard), to check out the state of affairs in public schools. The conclusion is fairly straight forward: public schools are a wreck, and for no reason should Christian families send their kids to one (nor should Christians work there). The film highlights that prominent Christian leaders like Franklin Graham will say we need to take the schools back, but a quick history lesson will show that they were never really “ours” in the sense that Graham means. According to Gunn and the people he interviews, Christianity and government-run schools are simply incompatible. He talks with people who worked in the government school system for years, until the Lord made it clear to them they had to leave.

The movie is worth it for the interviews alone. Seriously.

Now, for a couple of points of agreement.

1) I’m glad Gunn really pushed the Salt & Light mentality. I have family and friends who work in public schools, and I know they are attempting to serve Christ where they’re at, but I do wonder if they’ve ever really thought about what they’re doing. I know after the 6 months I worked in the government sector, I was in the wrong place. And it’s not that I don’t get it: education matters, therefore we shouldn’t abandon educating young people. I agree. But how can you be salt and light in a place that you are legally forbidden to spread your saltiness or shine your light? Jesus said,

You, beloved, are the salt of the earth. But if salt becomes bland and loses its saltiness, can anything make it salty again? No. It is useless. It is tossed out, thrown away, or trampled. And you, beloved, are the light of the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden. Similarly it would be silly to light a lamp and then hide it under a bowl. When someone lights a lamp, she puts it on a table or a desk or a chair, and the light illumines the entire house. You are like that illuminating light. Let your light shine everywhere you go, that you may illumine creation, so men and women everywhere may see your good actions, may see creation at its fullest, may see your devotion to Me, and may turn and praise your Father in heaven because of it, (Matthew 5:13-16, The Voice).

This is so important: you cannot be light in a place where you are made to snuff out the flame. I hear pastors and lay Christians of all types say it frequently, “We’re sending our kids so they can share the Gospel.” Unfortunately, that means you are sending them to do something (that requires training) to a place that tells them there is no God (where they will receive their training). I’ve written at length about this in my philosophy of education, so I won’t rehash it here. But I just don’t get it.

2) I was stoked that Gunn (and others like R.C. Sproul, Jr.) brought it back to Deuteronomy 6. This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, and it is a conviction for me every day:

Listen, Israel! The Eternal is our True God—He alone. You should love Him, your True God, with all your heart and soul, with every ounce of your strength. Make the things I’m commanding you today part of who you are. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you’re sitting together in your home and when you’re walking together down the road. Make them the last thing you talk about before you go to bed and the first thing you talk about the next morning. Do whatever it takes to remember them: tie a reminder on your hand and bind a reminder on your forehead where you’ll see it all the time, such as on the doorpost where you cross the threshold or on the city gate, (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, The Voice).

Let it be the first and last thing, every day. That’s powerful, and only reinforces my belief that education belongs first in the home. Even if you don’t feel qualified to teach Chemistry, the Word of God should be so paramount in your thinking that your children don’t know any other way to see you other than through the lens of Scripture. Lord knows I do not accomplish this every day, but man, what an awesome responsibility.

Of course, the movie is not without some faults.

1) While I agree with so much of the film (I found myself saying, “This is what I’ve been saying for the last two years,” quite often much to my wife’s chagrin), I cannot get into the idea that evolution is inherently atheistic. Like any other tool it can be used in that manner (even the Bible can be used by atheists to “prove” God isn’t real), but evolution itself cannot be the starting point. Everyone starts here: god. Capitalize, make it plural, whatever; nothing changes the fact the most foundational belief for every person is what they believe about God.

2) I wish the film had gone on to critique Christian schools. I know, their purpose was fairly pointed, but I worry what will happen when Christians see this film, and then put their kids in a “Christian” school that does all the same things (minus the teaching of evolution of course). Think about it: is evolution really the issue? If Gunn is right and the current model of schooling is based on pagan philosophies which denied the existence of God, and saw humanity as cattle, then why would a Christian school do the same thing? I actually asked someone at ACSI that question, and they deflected the question, got mad at me and hung up without any salutation the first chance they got. I don’t really blame them (I know I can be a pain), but I genuinely don’t get why Christian schools would do the things identical to the public schools while telling parents to pull their kids out of public schools. That’s borderline lunacy if you ask me.

Overall, I cannot recommend the film enough. For the few grievances I might have with it, IndoctriNation is on the money. Christianity, when properly examined through the lens of Scripture in regards to education, is wholly incompatible with government-run education.

I know to many, that sounds like a radical or extremist point of view. Well, if I can count myself in the company of men like A.A. Hodge, men who fear God and love Jesus Christ, then I’ll take any label you want to put on me. Alarmist, included.

The Importance of (Not) Misquoting

“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” – C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

Actually, that’s not true. Despite the fact that I’ve seen the quote on numerous websites and blogs, I have been unable to find the quote within the text of TAM. Now, it is possible that I am simply missing it, but I’ve read it twice now (and spent this morning skimming the text + my notes) only to find nothing. So then I resorted to finding an online text version and conducting a search (taking into account that maybe some variations in wording were possible), but still: nada. My initial thoughts are “he never said this.” I could be wrong, and I hope I am because I love the quote, but thus far the evidence is not working in my favor.

Unfortunately, part of my skepticism is due to my past experiences.

Ever heard this one? “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great,” – Alexis de Tocqueville. I heard this a couple years ago, thought about using it in a blog but couldn’t find it in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I started digging, and found that no one could actually attribute the quote to anything he wrote or said (here’s a decent summary of the “Tocqueville Fraud”). Turns, even great presidents aren’t above the occasional falsifying of a quote if it sounds good.

Or how about this one? “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” – Edmund Burke. Bogus. There are hundreds of variants of this one on the internet, and yet no one ever sources it (here’s another good examination of web forgeries like these). It’s a sentiment that I think Burke might have agreed with, but you can’t put words into his mouth. That’s a terrible way to treat such a brilliant mind.

What bothers me most about this kind of thing is that all three of these examples are perpetrated most often by Christians. While I still hold on to a sliver of hope that the Lewis quote will one day be attributed to him, perhaps through some essay I haven’t read, I will not use the quote to make my point in a discussion. Period. Traditions are fine, but in age where men like these can easily be researched, it’s just sloppy of a Christian to use a quote they cannot validate.

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” It’s hard to do that if you’re constantly perpetrating things that are false.

Who keeps a dead horse?

I know we shouldn’t beat a dead horse, but what do we do when something is still very much alive and bears repeating? Is that the equivalent of beating a living horse? I hope not. That would make me feel awful.

Regardless, I want to bring up something I’ve mentioned before: God’s kingdom. Working at a inter-denominational Christian school, I hear all kinds of ideas. And being in my position, as a Church History and American Literature teacher, I try not to force my own ideas on the students. Sometimes, its unavoidable (and I realize a million other teachers just went, “shame on you!”). But it’s true. No one is a blank slate, but some people are definitely like silly putty. They take a shallow impression of whatever someone gives them (thoughts, words, talents, etc.) and it only sticks until the next thing.

With all that being said, I avoid talking about God’s kingdom, as I understand it. Which is hard when studying the first four centuries of Christianity since they were so resurrection minded. But still, somehow I made it through without trying to create mini-Hadleys. I imagine that was by the grace of God, since I’ve never been known to hold my tongue on something I feel strongly about.

I bring it up because, in some ways, I feel like my students are the less for it. If only they could see God’s kingdom the way I have come to see it. After all, I had to have someone show me another way of looking at it. Don’t they need the same thing?

N.T. Wright explains it like this:

The widespread assumption today that ‘the kingdom of God’ denotes another realm altogether, for instance that of the ‘heaven’ to which God’s people might hope to go after their death, was not on the first-century agenda. When Jesus spoke about God’s kingdom, and taught his followers to pray that it would arrive ‘on earth as in heaven’, he was right in the middle of first-century Jewish theocratic aspirations.

I’ll write some other time on why I think we need to get back to a true theocracy. But for now, I want to think about the heart of this idea: what Jesus taught.

If Jesus taught His people to be something different, shouldn’t we do the same? If God called His people to be the kind of folk who care about justice, mercy and humility, shouldn’t we be that way?

I know lots of people who do in fact sound like this. Some of them are Democrats, and some are Republicans. Some are Federalists, and some are Socialists. But somehow, they all serve Jesus. My students miss this often. They can’t see how someone who doesn’t value their politics can still be a Christian. And not too long ago, I thought the same way.

More and more I am convinced that it is not so much our ideologies that stand in the way, but rather our refusal to consider what God’s purposes might be. What if you don’t go to heaven? Would that cause you to abandon Jesus? What if you die, and then you just “sleep” until Jesus comes back? Are you going to stop living for Him if you don’t get your pie in the sky?

This is what I want my students to think about: do I live a certain way because I think a certain thing? And I think it’s a question we should all ask ourselves.

So I might be repetitive. But I never beat a dead horse. In reality, I’m always trying to point people to a risen Jesus.