School Life, Social Struggle, and Christian Education

Spiritually speaking, the deadly thing was that school life was a life almost wholly dominated by the social struggle; to get upon, to arrive, or, having reached the top, to remain there, was the absorbing preoccupation. . . And from it, at school as in the world, all sorts of meanness flow; the sycophancy that courts those higher in the scale, the cultivation of those whom it is well to know, the speedy abandonment of friendships that will not help on the upward path, the readiness to join the cry against the unpopular, the secret motive in almost every actions. . . It would perhaps not be too much to say that in some boys’ lives everything was calculated to the great end of advancement. For this games were played; for this clothes, friends, amusements, and vices were chosen.” C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 108.

I’ve been reading Lewis’ spiritual autobiography recently and found his words about his school experience quite similar to school experiences today. It astounds me the similarity of man between the ages, no matter where man lives or what language he speaks. “School life” is vicious. It is a microcosm of the world to which our students will enter upon completion of their high school diploma. Could school be done any differently? Please know I’m not here concerned with public education, but distinctly Christian education. I have strong beliefs about the efficacy of public education, but this post in not the place to share them.  My focus here is where I minister, in Christian education.

Sadly, many Christian educational settings are not too unlike Lewis’ description of his own school life experience. As Dean of Students, I would say from my experience “social struggle” is the chief vice of school-age students. In various ways the kids are trying to arrive and remain at the top. To do so, “all sorts of meanness flow.” What these kids reportedly say to one another in hallways, at lunch tables, and the ever more evil world of social media astounds me. Actually, I said that poorly. While astounded, I am more profoundly broken for them. People are used as a means to an end; relationships change like the pop charts. Can we do education better?

I say, “Yes!”

I could be naive. I’m still in the early stages of my career in education and still have much to learn. I’m absolutely willing to do so. But, what my experience has suggested so far cannot be ignored. The school environment must be a carefully constructed community where all the members share the same goal and believe the same means are essential to reaching the goal. Let me break that down. Here’s a few ways I think the social struggle can be addressed in Christian education.

First, parents must be engaged and involved. This is critical. It’s easy for a school to say, “We believe in the parent’s role . . .” I’m suggesting something more than mere statement of parental desire. I’m suggesting a parental contract. When I make phone calls home to parents, I desperately hope the parents will say “Oh, you need not worry. We will handle this when they get home.” Yes! If what the school assigns for consequences is as bad as it gets, let’s face it, the battle has been lost already. The Bible assigns parents the role of educating, moralizing, and encouraging their children. We teachers, ministers, etc., are called to supporting roles alongside parents (Dt. 6:6-9). This role-relationship should not be flipped. When parents lapse in their involvement in their children’s lives, the community should come alongside the family encouraging the parents in their endeavor in raising their kids, supporting where necessary and confronting where necessary. It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a community to keep a family together. Without parents, even Christian schools will begin looking curiously similar to their non-Christian counterparts.

Second, limit the size of the student body. This is a new area of emphasis for me. However, what I’ve seen in a school of 750 has been hugely influential. In short, there reaches a point where there are too many kids to educate well. Let me define “educate” here. In this instance I do not have in mind the instruction of facts about various subject matters. I’m referring to biblical education which does include facts, but much more than mere factual knowledge. I understand education to be wisdom rooted in God’s word, in the world he created, in the story He has written through the ages. So, to educate children will require more than teacher’s knowing their subject matter sufficiently. To educate biblically will involve teachers willingly entering the world of those they teach. It will require learning names, stories, likes and dislikes. Teachers will need to teach facts about their subject matter, but also give wise counsel in life, laugh with students about life’s joys, and, when necessary, cry with them about life’s pains. Education will need counseling and discipline. And, to do all this with five classes of twenty or more students is near impossible. Teachers will struggle with truly engaging with the students learning in ways where constructive feedback can be given. Life will simply not allow discipleship to happen in every kid’s life. No matter what, some will fall through the cracks. However, that is not necessarily true if the numbers of kids are limited. If the class sizes are capped and enrollment limited, true education can happen. Maybe the commitment a school makes is to a certain student-teacher ratio. However it occurs, the numbers are limited and focused attention is given to every student.

Third, carefully construct your educational philosophy. Not all educational programs are the same. In a distinctly Christian education, the goal of the program is to show the unity of creation in Jesus Christ. It is imperative that the glory, majesty and mystery of Christ is the foundation upon which every independent subject matter is investigated. Having a curriculum plan that in its’ structure forces divisions between subjects, no matter what the print says about “unity” or “seeing Jesus in every subject, kids walk away catching a compartmentalized world rather than a unified world. Curriculum must be structured where connections are made between people, ideas, dates, places, etc. One better would be to do education in such a way where our connection to our ancestors is emphasized. By doing so, the novelty of modern society fades. By better understanding our fore-bearers, we can learn to address common problems by looking back for sure answers rather than proceeding in ignorance.

Fourthly, and finally, be very careful the significance athletics plays in the school community. As an employee of a school with a strong athletic program, I see how easily it is for the athletic programs to take center stage. No matter what the world says, success is not measured in wins or losses. Success is measured in the degree to which men strive to look like Christ. And, it is my opinion, striving to look like Christ is difficult in athletics. I’m not arguing it cannot be done. I’m sure some sports are easier than others. But, some sports foster attitudes rather incongruent with with Christ. Furthermore, once you commit to offering athletics, you must adequately support those programs. Financial obligations can be steep. What happens if the balance of bucks begins tipping in favor of athletics? The primary task of the ideal Christian school is discipleship, education, and Christ-likeness. Any school can call themselves Christian, offer a fine athletics program, and mention Christ in the classroom. But, is that reflective of the call of Christ? It seems the call of Christ is sold-out, absolute commitment to the values of His kingdom. In our world where athletes are worshiped like modern-day gods, Christians should wade carefully into those waters.

The other option is not so great. We can keep having nominal Christian schools produce nominal Christians. We could change nothing of the way we do things and keep giving the majority of our kids away to the world. Why should we be shocked? If we’ve mirrored the world’s way of education and emphases, except we allow prayer, why are we shocked our students largely think like the world and have worldly emphases?

The picture I’m trying to paint may not be popular. People may argue against any of these points. That’s okay. I’m not writing a treatise on what ought to be done, only what my perceptions are of what is being done. These perceptions of Christian education have been formed through years of being a student, then teacher, and now administrator in Christian educational circles. I think we can do it better. I think we can do distinctly Christian education provided the above for pillars are agreed upon.

 

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