Homeschooling


Lucifer FallsAs a homeschooling family, every year we’re confronted with the  task of buying curricula for various subjects; math, reading, grammar, and… science. As a homeschooling family involved in the local coop, there are, um, certain expectations revolving around the science curriculum. If you do it with the coop group, for example, it is a pretty standard, “creationist” science orientation. (And yes, I’m fully aware of the problem placing “creationist” and “science” right next to each other in the same sentence.) If you DON’T have your kid do their science with the coop, it’s assumed that you’re doing  creationism at home. At the very least, something Intelligent Design-ish.  But to actually teach evolution? If you’re going to do that, you might as well forget homeschooling altogether and just stick your kid into your local secular, democrat, hegemonic public school.

The Gorge Trail runs at the base of the glen.

The Gorge Trail runs at the base of the glen.

An anecdote: a few weekends back I spent a spectacular day at Robert Treman State Park in New York, which houses two glacial glens and some breathtaking gorges and waterfalls. You cannot but be stunned by the power of water and time and what it can do to rock.  I commented something to this effect; my 8 year old gets my drift and asks “how old is all this daddy?” Before being able to answer, the wife cuts in “oh, sometime between Adam and Noah, honey.” Well, yeah, that puts it in a context that the kid can understand and is still sufficiently vague enough to allow for a LOT of time. Fine, but when I pointed out that the glens were formed over a number of ice ages over two million years, well before “Adam,” I got the cynical “well, who knows if the earth is even that old anyway.”

Sigh.

Look, having been brought up fundamental Christian and who yet still is somehow wired to find elements of the sacred in the natural world, I have had a long struggle with evolution. But I can say this; I’m more unimpressed by religious responses to Darwin and evolution than I am by  evolution itself. Let me be clear: I take Darwin’s understanding to be a reasonably close approximation of how life has developed, and natural geological physics to be an equally fair approximation of the formation of planet earth as we now live in and experience it. In my own religious and academic development, I have gone from the combative creationist to the reluctant Intelligent Designist to a rather apathetic “science is science, and Bible is Bible, and ne’er shall the twain meet” approach. Now, not only do I find all three of these standard Christian “reactions” wide of the mark, but in reality irresponsible theologically as well as scientifically.

Part of the reason I’ve turned my back on these three so-called Christian/religious opposing positions is that I’ve come to realize that these, in fact, all give assent to the materialist skepticism promoted by the leading lights of neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought (namely Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Jay Gould) who have argued that religion, theology, and evolutionary science are fundamentally irreconcilable with each other. On this, Creationism, Intelligent Design, and “separatists” agree with their hostile critics, thus ceding the defining terms of the debate to their opponents. I no longer believe this starting point is even true, and as a result, I have to pull the rug out from under pseudo-scientific Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the separatist wall between church and scientia.

What this means is that I’m not signing off on a classically Christian fundamentalist oppostion curriculum for my school to teach (as homeschooling principal and Chair of the School Board) and I’m not signing off on my kids getting pseudo-science from the local coop (as the concerned, diligent parent). For the purposes of basic elementary education of my two kids, though, separatism is probably the best approach; teach Bible, teach science, and teach them both right and on their own disciplinary terms. In the meantime, during expeditions such as we love going on, I need to work on an evolutionary theology to make room for science in the concept of the sacred, and make room for the sacred in natural, scientific, evolutionary history. As a result, I’ve started a most fascinating powder-keg of a book by John F. Haught entitled God After Darwin. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. I’ll report back with some results as I make some headway.

Those of us who homeschool our kids through various conservative and evangelical organizations, curricula, worldview, and social networks know that we can’t be letting the liberal elite and the secular state determine our kids’ education and resulting secular enculturation. But what happens when we see those selfsame forces at work in our church? Why, homechurching of course!

Report: More Kids Being Home-Churched

Jacob wrestling with Angel of the LordSo tonight I’m giving a talk at our county public library on Judaism. I have the honor of distilling a 3,000 year old religious faith and tradition into one hour. (guffaw!)

The word is out, too. By this, I mean that apparently the chairwoman of the regional homeschooling association has learned that I’m doing this and is all excited. She got talking with some of the other homeschooling moms, who also got interested, and then they approached the wife to say how excited they are over this, began talking about having me offer classes in the homeschool co-op on world religions, give talks on the subject of Judaism and Islam and so forth at their monthly meetings, etc. Good vibes, for the most part. But… I got the “It will be so awesome (I’m thankful that I didn’t hear “wicked awesome”…) to hear someone talk about Judaism and these other religions from a Christian perspective. This is sooooo what we need!”

Wellllll….. I’m not sure how to take this. Or rather, I know exactly how I’m supposed to take this, and it kinda scares me a little bit. See, in the various circles I’m in (specifically the homeschooling one here), when the subject of world religions comes up at all, it’s always in the form of comparative apologetics. Religion X is compared with Christian doctrine and theological formulations (not Christian history, not phenomenology, symbolic imagery and iconography, ritual practices, and so on, unless it can be contrasted with Christian”orthodox” theology, doctrine, and practice), and the result of these comparisons and contrasts is as one would expect in sectarian education: We’ve got it right, and they’re off-base.

Ehhhhhh. That’s not what’s happening for this. But I feel the pressure from a demographic that is significant in the life of my family. I am there to introduce Judaism as a vibrant, living, beautiful religious faith and tradition to non-academics. I am not there to proselytize, criticize, denigrate, or even simply point out how Judaism differs from Christianity. To those informed in either tradition, the differences between them will be transparent. In fact, I have no plans to even mention Christianity except in historical context, and since this is only an hour, it will pretty much be a passing mention as a first century Jewish sect. (Rather like Josephus does in his work, actually.) Any real discussion of Judaism vis a vis Christianity will take place during the open Q+A session after the talk.

To the extent that, as Christian, this presentation will be “a Christian perspective” on a world religion, I think that Christians will – or should – recognize much in the Jewish concepts of God, the Book, and Israel. I strongly believe that serious interfaith dialog absolutely has to begin with establishing commonalities between them. I am making these the focus. And this is the aspect that I can envision frustrating my Christian, apologetically-oriented homeschooling folks potentially in the room. Evangelicals typically emphasize difference, and indeed are often afraid of having similarities in religion even pointed out, let alone discussed and engaged.

Not that there’s any shortage of “Christian perspectives” on world religions. They’re a dime a dozen, and in fact this has been going on in “orientalist” scholarship for several centuries. It’s easy enough to find. What I think makes this so exciting for these folks is the idea that it’s one of their own, someone they trust, and who they regard as being a competent authority on the subject, who is doing it. I’m more likely,launcelot.jpg perhaps, to be taken seriously than, say, a rabbi coming in to do exactly the same talk. So I welcome the opportunity. I just hope that the bridges that these types of events can potentially construct, that I seek to build, are open to everyone, and that others don’t plant a funny-looking old man demanding answers to the “questions three” before allowing others, who do not share their perspective, to cross.

Hollis Schoolhouse in New HampshireLast week I wrote a bit of my personal, experiential observations of our local homeschool coop. So tonight I’m looking to make good on the promise I made that I’d write a follow-up that was more analytical and reflective. So be warned: this is more of an essay than the last piece, but I think it’s a useful exercise for me and perhaps for others as well.

As a preface to my analysis of Homeschooling, I should state up front what I feel the business of education is, or perhaps more accurately, what I believe it ought to be, whether it is college and university education, graduate education, or grade-school education. At the end of the day, my evaluation of education draws most of its inspiration from Wendell Berry, who has not really written systematically about his educational philosophy (so far as I know), but who nevertheless has plenty to say about it scattered throughout his writings. My thoughts on it, likewise, are directly related to my work in the academy, which is to say that it influences what I do in my teaching on the one hand and that my subjects of study shape the reasons I teach at all.

Like Berry, I see the education of young people as being centered on developing the creativity of the individual person in a way that encourages responsible action in the local community and the larger society as a whole. Education needs to embrace a role that leads students develop their humanity in relation to other people and to the physical land where they live. What we teach should be somehow connected to where we are in life (geographically and otherwise) and to where students are. Berry would say that education’s primary role is to instill knowledge that is experiential, relational, creative and imaginative, democratic, local in its orientation, and fundamentally interactive with the natural ecology of where we live. Just so. To the extent that education is individual-centered, I maintain that this individualism (in the classic liberal sense of developing the full potential of the student) is, nevertheless, rooted in the local community in that the “potential” is precisely the ability of the student to contribute to the life of the community through his or her own gifts, place, and so on. Finally, the purposes of education needs to encompass the concepts of goodness and wholeness, which is to say that we need to teach our young people the ability to judge what is good and whole.

Wendell BerryMuch of contemporary education, however, focuses on the development of “skills” that will make people productive not in their own local community, wherever that may be, but in the global industrial and consumer-capitalist economy. I agree again, here, with Berry, who argues that schools – by which Berry means public schools – are “mind dominated” by outside forces (the global industrial/capitalist doctrine) that essentially dictate what students are to take away from their education. In my work in New Testament, Judaism, Greco-Roman religion, Early Christianity, and Islam, scholars know this kind of imposed “mind domination” by the terms of “cultural hegemony,” stemming from work of Antonio Gramsci. Cultural hegemony is the essentially the ability of those in power (from small communities to global industry and national governments) to package thoughts. It is the ability to control “knowledge production” by packaging the hegmonic power’s ideology into the distillation and dissemination of culture. (more…)

hsadventures.jpgIt has been quite a while since I’ve blogged on homeschooling (actually, a while since I’ve written much of anything substantial), but the time seems right for it here. For the past 2 months, while the missus was keeping us afloat with her holiday job, I’ve been juggling orals, prospectus-writing, grading, attending class, entertaining family for Thanksgiving and visiting family for other Christmas-related activities. But the big consumer of time was keeping the homefires burning, especially the homeschool activities. For us, this involves a “co-op” one day a week (for the uninitiated, a homeschool co-op is pretty much school electives in actual classes taught by homeschool parents), gym class on another day, AWANA for the kids, Ballet for one of them, swim lessons on another day, and the three R’s, science, history, and, yes, Bible-history (a.k.a. “western civ in antiquity”) etc every day.

In all this, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the whole homeschool phenomenon, the stereotypes that go with it, and rationale for it. Most of my “token thoughts” here are based on homeschooling as I experience it and observe it. I know, though, that there are many homeschooler and unschool families who do not fit the mold that this will show, and I hope that some of you folks will comment on your own stuff on this site.

1. In Christian evangelical homeschooling, it is definitely “mom-centered.” It was hilarious how so many of the moms had no idea what to do or what to say when I was anywhere in the area. Usually I was ignored by moms who have kids the same age as my own. One one occasion I was noticed working with another kid and one woman, after looking a bit shocked, snickered and said to me “oh, you must be the token homeschool dad.” Hence the title of the entry here. I find this pretty fascinating; most of these women are your standard and typical evangelical-borderline-fundamentalist moms who feel simultaneously that the world is out to get them and especially their kids, and yet are clearly uncomfortable around men, who they will readily assert are the absolute, biblical heads of their households. I’d have thought that my being around would show a bit of support to the more paranoid, that they’re not in this homeschooling endeavor alone, but it didn’t really seem to be the case. Not every woman there, though, was so standoffish; for the most part, I got on well with many of the teachers whose own kids had come and gone from their homes and who were now in college or in their own careers. Among these, I was heartily welcomed and encouraged to consider teaching for the coop next year. Which brings me to…

2. Because my wife has been involved with these groups now for three years, most of the moms have heard of me, or at least heard of what I do. I’m an academic, a scholar, Ph.D student, teacher at the University, etc, and my field is ancient religion, Bible, and Christianity in general. Which is, to most people in these circles, fascinating, because they think that my kids will get the best apologetically-oriented treatment of Biblical history out of all of them. Well, maybe, but when I’m actually around these folks, it’s a mixture of paranoia and curiosity. See, the Coop exists to help homeschooling parents (read: moms, in this case) teach things that they don’t feel qualified to teach. Science, for example, or advanced history classes, or classical ballet, music, and so on. Greek and Latin are very popular with high school students (or at least with their parents who sign them up for them). Obviously not everyone has a facility for these things. But “Bible” and “Bible history” are not offered. The Bible is an open book; anyone can do it, and for certain folks in these environments, no one, NO ONE, not even Sunday school teachers, will be teaching their kid Bible except for the homeschooling mom in the home, unless it meets the “kid tested, mother approved” criteria of evangelical, conservative, borderline-fundamentalist interpretation. Only way to make sure your kid is getting the Bible taught “right” is to do it yourself. Knowing the Bible, its history, and the history of periods it describes, is not necessarily a prerequisite.

I think it would be a hoot to teach a “How to Read the Bible” elective to the high school kids in the Coop. I may yet volunteer to do so, but I know that most likely it wouldn’t run because the parents would be afraid of it. Which brings me to …

3. I don’t think I’ve ever been around a group of more paranoid people in my life. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought that these folks are afraid of getting caught doing something illegal. (They’re not in any danger whatsoever.) I think this has something to do with the way I was received by a lot of the people in the Coop. I’m an outsider, even though my kids are there. I’m a dad (and it’s no secret in this particular group that there are MANY dads who simply go along with the moms on the whole homeschooling thing and refuse to allow the moms/teachers any curriculum budget), I’m an academic, I’m in “religion,” I go to a “liberal” church, and I had critical comments to make about the organization’s affiliation with the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) during a casual conversation with some other moms and teachers. The HSLDA traffics in paranoia (kinda like the Bush Administration, come to think of it) and fosters the prevailing notion that everyone outside the walls of the Coop building is out to get them, and that only the HSLDA is equipped to protect you from the public school truant officer. With this mentality, it’s no wonder that anyone who isn’t an insider in the organization (and I’m technically an insider!) is not to be trusted. I think this is a sad state of affairs, because the public school system (here, at least) is very accommodating to the homeschooling crowd and even has offered special needs services for students to whom it would benefit, only to be flatly rejected by the Coop boardmembers because no public school people are allowed on homeschool premises for member families.

4. On the positive note, I will say that at least in the subjects covered in the Coop, I’ve run into some of the brightest and inquisitive young people I’ve ever met. They are genuinely eager to learn, whether it’s Chess, Dance, Public Speaking, Chemistry, or Calculus. There’s even a darn good debate team. I honestly can’t sit here and say that the quality of what these kids are learning is inferior to what they would get anywhere else, public or private. Neither did I experience the ambiguous reception I felt from the moms; apparently this didn’t rub off onto the students, because I felt like they REALLY liked having me around, which is why I’m tempted to offer that “How to Read the Bible” class. And the stereotype that homeschool kids are social introverts is (again, at this place) totally off-base. These kids act their age, which is a good thing.

I think I’ll make this the first part of a three-part post. Next up will be more reflective on the entire homeschooling phenomenon, and the last one maybe I’ll do a post on Why I Homeschool at all (although I kind of covered this in my very first post for Aedificium way back in February of last year; other entries to the subject in the Homeschooling Tag cloud to the right). And I’m very anxious to hear, in comments, from anyone who does NOT homeschool within an evangelical framework, as well as why you do so, as well as from folks whose experiences are closer to my own.

In the spirit of “10 Reasons Why Men Should Not Be Ordained,” I give you “10 Reasons Why Public School is Better Than Homeschool,” which I discovered in my email inbox today. Hope the HSLDA doesn’t come after me.

Why Public Schooling Is Better Than Homeschooling ~
Scott Ott

1. Most parents were educated in the under funded public school system, and so are not smart enough to homeschool their own children.
2. Children who receive one-on-one homeschooling will learn more than others, giving them an unfair advantage in the marketplace. This is undemocratic.
3. How can children learn to defend themselves unless they have to fight off bullies on a daily basis?
4. Ridicule from other children is important to the socialization process.
5. Children in public schools can get more practice “Just Saying No” to drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.
6. Fluorescent lighting may have significant health benefits.
7. Publicly asking permission to go to the bathroom teaches young people their place in society.
8. The fashion industry depends upon the peer pressure that only public schools can generate.
9. Public schools foster cultural literacy, passing on important traditions like the singing of “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg…”
10. Homeschooled children may not learn important office career skills, like how to sit still for six hours straight, skills which are easily transferred to careers in self-service gasoline stations, church boards, or Congress (second part of this by Benedict)

Nana’s 19th-century Family BibleRegular readers of this blog (and of others where I’ve left comments) know that we homeschool our kids and also that while I support teaching religions in schools I’m not so keen on teaching “The Bible.” (I have a feeling this could be a longish post. You are forewarned. 😉 ) And now, suddenly, I’m confronted with the necessity of choosing a homeschool curriculum that includes, of course, “The Bible,” for my second-grader.

Homeschool parents know that the three big clearing houses for educational supplies and curricula are Evangelical and/or Fundamentalist in orientation. Some of them, such as Bob Jones Press (representing the Fundamentalist wing), write their own stuff. Logos is another one that is very focused in its stuff, not necessarily following the Fundamentalist curriculum (it does not, in fact) but in its very particular conservative Reformed/Providential emphasis. Logos does not market itself as a “home school clearinghouse” so much as it does its “classical-Christian” educational program, but with a decidedly conservative evangelical slant toward providential history and historical biblicism. The third, and biggest, player here is Veritas Press. Officially, Veritas is “unaffiliated,” and they carry everything from Penguin Classics to classical apologetics. It is, however, very much an Evangelical outfit that places the Bible at the center of its educational philosophy and markets its material specifically for Christian schools and for Christian homeschools.

So, here’s my dilemma, and it is largely the same dilemma I have with the idea of teaching the Bible in public schools. The reason why I can’t support teaching Bible in public schools is primarily because in the public, government supported schools, the curriculum is written and backed by the state, which would be tantamount to officially endorsing, in fact officially creating, a state-sponsored, official interpretation of the Bible. Not only would this be unconstitutional, but, especially in the current political climate and in the US’s role in the global economy, it would be especially dangerous and undesirable. No thanks.

Even supposing that such a curriculum could be written that was as value-neutral and non-sectarian as humanly (heck, even divinely) possible, there is the issue of Who is going to teach this? What criteria of qualification to teach the Bible in a public school will satisfy the parents and students? It simply won’t work. Churches can’t even agree on a Bible curriculum. Fundamentalist parents would never permit their kids to be taught Bible by a biblical scholar of any denomination that isn’t Fundamentalist in its outlook no matter how conservative or pious that scholar might be. Evangelicals committed to an Evangelical worldview and interpretation of the Bible would be only slightly more accepting of the same figure. But even here it would be rather out of the question to accept a completely secular Bible teacher who is unaffiliated with any church and/or trained in a “secular” university. Mainline Protestants, as well as students whose families are not committed to any flavor of Christianity (to say nothing of Jewish or Muslim students) will reject a bible teacher from Bob Jones or Liberty. It goes both ways.

This brings us back to “Christian schools” and “Christian” homeschools and the curriculum. Christian schools largely arose in reaction to political decisions to not include (or no longer include) Bible in the public school curriculum. Over time, these schools became the training grounds for kids (again, see yesterday’s post) to combat rising tides of secularism and moral deficiency in the broader American culture, and the solution to this in Evangelicalism has been “more Bible!” and, especially in Fundamentalist schools, hyper-isolationism. So the schools continued to emphasize the centrality of the Bible in every aspect of the curriculum, and the curriculum for the Bible became the centerpiece of the entire endeavor. But here the problem is fully illustrated; the only Bible curricula out there for primary and secondary education are defined, written, supported, and distributed by Evangelical or Fundamentalist clearing houses and distributors like CBD, Veritas Press, Logos, and Bob Jones. It may not be the State, but the impression is that if you’re going to do Christian ed, you have to do it this way or it’s not Christian. There are, of course, much smaller places that do in fact have more mainline Bible curricula, but these are primarily geared towards Sunday Schools and not for large-scale, institutional Evangelical primary and secondary education.

For those of us who homeschool, who are Christian, and who are (at best) highly suspicious of the Evangelical agenda and of its particular spin on history and biblical interpretation, this creates an ethical dilemma. Indeed, homeschool teachers, by definition amateurs in most of the subjects in the curriculum (if not completely ignorant!) are more or less at the mercy of the defined curriculum they settle on, or, if done in a local cooperative network, on whatever the board of directors settles on. If you as the parent of a homeschooled child do not agree with the cooperative’s adopted curriculum for the Bible component, or don’t like the choices available to do it on your own, and lack the competency (or the time) to draw up your own curriculum, well, good luck to you.

As someone who emphasizes the need for local, community-oriented education and economy and who tries to resist our dependencies on large-scale, institutionalized forms of education and economics (see some of my earlier posts), homeschooling is perhaps the best option we have. Part of good stewardship is being a good steward to our children, and not simply to our land our our heritage. Small, local cooperative networks of homeschooling has tremendous potential to offer an education to our kids that advocates the kind of ethical education that is lacking elsewhere. It is, by necessity, local community oriented. However, I have not seen this, despite its potential. From what I can see, homeschooling goes either in the direction of individualism, whereby individual families insulate their kids from anything that could contaminate the indoctrination they are giving their kids, while coopting the word “education” in the process. Or it takes the approach of parochialism, where similar and largely like-minded homeschool parents band together in a kind of wagon circle to protect what’s inside from outside influences, including the influences of “formal education” that Christian schools have adopted from public schools. In such groups, I’ve learned from experience that it’s their way, or the highway. Their Bible curriculum is nothing short of the gospel, as defined by the experts in Christian education. Take it … or leave it. This isn’t local, community oriented education at this point. It’s ghettoizing indoctrination.

Now, I’m a classical historian, a biblical scholar, and historian of religions by training, was “brought-up-born-again,” an active member of a left-leaning mainline suburban church, and a certified lay minister in my denomination. Beloved wife is a former public school elementary teacher, private tutor, current Sunday school teacher, church elder, and chair of the children’s ed committee at said church, and she’s also a leader in our local SBC evangelical church’s MOPS and AWANA groups. If ever there should be a couple who could figure out a good history and Bible curriculum for kids, we’re it. What might this look like?

I don’t know yet, but we’re working on it. In the next few days, maybe, look for a post on some criteria that such a curriculum might contain. And as always, I’m happy to take suggestions.

Christian FlagSome thoughts after writing sections of a paper on eschatological discourse in the Bible, Talmuds, and Qur’an all night…

Class discussion today was interesting, to say the least. Topic was American fundamentalism, and we came at the topic from two directions. One, politics and the media, and Two, the role of education in “the culture wars” over “family values.” Combination of things that came up got me thinking about a whole bunch of related topics.

First of all, I should just say that while I realize all to well the baggage that “born again” carries with it, as a symbol or metaphor it’s pretty darn good, and it’s a shame that this element of what Jesus was getting at is tarnished by so much judgmentalism and hypocrisy and especially of the triteness it connotes these days.

David James Duncan recently wrote that he was raised a chosen person, although it was not of his choosing. That’s an equally fitting description of so many Gen X and Y’ers who were like me, being born and brought up born again. I’m all for preserving and passing on the family and community faith. Of course. And in the context of today’s class, several students, God bless ’em, realized that for kids like this, the culture wars (such as they are today) aren’t being fought on fair turf. They’re being fought precisely on those kids who are being brought up born again. Born again/evangelical parents are not out in the trenches to fight for what they think is “the Christian worldview” (which is just as well, because I can’t even find THE Christian worldview, but that’s a post for another day). They’re putting their kids in the trenches; just look at Ron Luce’s Battle Cry. But it’s also evident in the educational process. We have “Christian Colleges,” like the one I went to way back when, a very typical, “this-is-your-father’s-evangelicalism-style” Christian college in Massachusetts. We have “Christian schools”, high schools and elementary schools, middle schools and preschools, out the wazoo. And they’re all evangelical schools, designed by and for evangelical parents and born again students. (And yes, I’m labelling here, knowing perfectly well that Parochial School are also Christian schools, but the “Christian School” label has been so coopted by Protestant Evangelicals with their heads up their … never mind.) And homeschool coops and individual homeschool families are pretty much radical vanguard of getting bona-fide Christian (read: evangelical) education that will ensure that our kids come to think the same way we do, or at least think the way we want them to think about our religion and our values.

Then I had one of those moments. How come we don’t have any “mainline” or “progressive” or (heaven forbid!) “liberal” Christian institutions of learning? There are Catholic ones. There are Evangelical ones. There are colleges and universities (perhaps most of them, in fact) that were founded by and affiliated with mainline denominations (like Methodists or Presbyterians) but who are no longer connected with their denominational ancestry. What is the deal here? For those of us who are uncomfortable with Evangelical hegemony over the role Christianity (and religion in general) could or should play in our society, why are there no other options for Protestants, or Jews, or Muslims, or whatever?

I have some thoughts, but I’m interested in hearing others’. Start things off; I’m going to bed, but will check in tomorrow and probably write a follow-up or two.

The Old School HouseAfter a great weekend of hiking, bird watching (and squirrel-watching), and just visiting with my folks, my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, as well as my own family, I’m finally getting back to the Aedificium.

I kind of need to fess up a little. I’ve got a TON of things on my mind these days, ranging from school life to food production and consumption to money and economics to the education of my children and my own students to the state of the Christian faith to domestic politics, social justice, and foreign policy of our own nation. In between my work, my family, various church activities, and, when we can get away to do it, my walks in the woods, I’ve been blogging and returning to Wendell Berry.

I’m currently engaged in a project on concepts of “imperial” vs. “indigenous” or “local” education, and in the course of reading I’ve come across this gem, from Mr. Berry’s essay “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear:”

“The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” — which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.” (emphasis mine)

There is so much in this quote that I almost don’t even know where to start, except to say that the first reaction for this educator and former librarian (a.k.a., “industrial and capital information specialist”) is a defensive one. The entire information industry (and make no mistake, it is an industry) depends on job-training and research. But the defensiveness is short-lived for me. Library schools no longer teach students knowledge-management, but information management, and even while I was in library school I could see how dependent the library profession was on the technology industry in all its various guises. To an extent I think that this has to happen, but the thing is that this technology industry has infected elementary schools.

As an archivist and librarian, my emphasis was always less on the technology and the information industry than trying to carve out a space in the institution a space for those materials that preserved and promoted a kind of ethical history of whoever I was working for, and how the institution’s history fits into (or did not fit into) the kind of “moral tide” of its community and of the nation. Which is to say, of course, that for institutional librarians and archivists, the selection of “information” to manage is a political, economic, and ethical act.

As an educator, I have long held to the belief that Berry articulates here, that education’s proper use is to enable cultivate an ethic of responsibility in the lives of young people (and of older ones as well). But again, expressed this way, teaching is a political, economic, and ethical act. If educators are to be entrusted with the responsibility to teach “young people to put their lives in order” and to “know what things are more important than other things,” we have to realize the subjective nature of the educational endeavor. It is an awesome responsibility, and if teaching is taken seriously, as it is in my household, it should scare the living bejeezus out of those of us who have it as a calling.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, as a Christian, I am constantly evaluating two things; first, whether or not Christianity, as it is currently preached, practiced, and understood by millions in this country, is compatible with the educational goal of enabling citizens (and not just “Christian Citizens”) “to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible,” and second, if it’s not, then Why not? and What can we do about it? What went wrong, and where? Isn’t the entire heart of gospel ethics rooted in this call? In the life and teachings of Jesus as well as the Prophets?

William Sloane Coffin, Jr., in the “Quote of the Moment” pane up on the top right,” noted that while he was not particularly optimistic, he was full of hope, and I have to admit that this expresses my own position on the issues I raised in that last paragraph. I am a cynic about Christianity’s ability to contribute to economic, political, social, and cultural responsibility as it is currently preached, practiced, and understood. I’m not especially optimistic that its current dominant “manifestation” here in the 21st century can adjust itself to meeting that responsibility either. But I have hope, because I’m seeing numerous individual, community, and even church efforts that share this hope and are beginning to live radically different expressions of our faith that do live out the radical ethic of Christ, one that we educators can employ in our mission not to inform, but enable.

Teachers, let’s get to work.

Detail from The School of AthensToday’s education is a farce at best, and a tragedy at worst. Millions of students spend their hours, days, weeks, months, years, semesters, etc., reading, listening to lectures, writing papers and other tasks, all of which meet with hostility and resistance. Don’t believe me? Just look at the crazy phenomenon that teachers at every level of education get praised and complimented when they can actually get the attention of their students and really motivate them to do their work. Or just look at the current presidential administration’s mandate to improve education by presenting a system of rewards and demerits for teachers who can’t get their students to pass the three R’s. The huge majority of students think education is just a bunch of obligations to meet and tasks to do to just get on with life, or even just to start life. Our technocratic and plutocratic society has been enormously successful in killing the natural spontaneity of curiosity and discovery (what the Greeks called Eureka!) and in dulling the desire to know.

It bugs me that my students, who are basically adults, feel that they “owe” me a paper of at least X amount of pages. For example, I’ve had students in courses where I was trying to teach how various societies, cultures, and civilizations searched for meaning and significance in their existence and how the questions the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans asked are still the main questions of our own society. Instead of making an effort to understand the significance of this, my students were always more concerned with how much was “required.” Rather than spending their efforts reaching for the values implied in the course, or trying to express their own experiences in word or writing, students were constantly trying to “earn” both my approval and a quantitative/qualitative grade. Some were even willing to sacrifice their health and growth for it.

No wonder there’s resistance to learning. When students are constantly being told to “do better”, “get a higher grade”, etc and have a difficult time “measuring up” to arbitrary standards of demanding bosses, etc., there’s no room for teachers to act as guides in the student’s search for knowledge and understanding. This is why I tell my students that their grade doesn’t matter to me nearly as much as it may to them, and why every student could get an A in the course if they would just reach out and take it. I’m just a guide in their “quest for the grail,” not the holder of the grail itself.

I think another part of the problem is that education tries to offer solutions without posing questions first. The least used source of question formation and information gathering in the classroom is the experience of students themselves! While I can talk on and on about love, hate, fear, joy, hope, despair, life, death, etc., and how societies dealt with these life-experiences in history, my students are half-asleep in boredom or take notes that they’ll never look at again. Why? Because students today haven’t had the opportunity to make their own experiences of these emotions and values and life-responses available to themselves and allow real questions to be born from a personal source. And the reason for this, of course, is we live in a society that diminishes these responses to life-situations as an indication of weakness and hostility, and no one wants to take the risk to become vulnerable and make it known to himself, his colleagues, or his teacher that some of the most central questions of his or her life are still being left untouched.

The only way to somehow get to the point of allowing the student to become vulnerable enough to use his or her own life experiences as a source of questions that need answers is to have the teacher to create the space necessary to do this. The teacher needs to be the one to create space enough to forge a mutual trust between the teacher and the student as people who want to learn from each other, to become present to each other, not as opponents, but as those who have the same struggles and search for the same truth.

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