Blog: April 8, 2018

A Blog is an opinion rather than an article. While CSM teaches through its articles and books, the CSM Blogs are efforts by CSM consultants to struggle with difficult ideas in Christian education and move to some kind of clarity. Please read any CSM Blog in that light.

Is Mandatory Education Christian?

Two weeks ago, I blogged about the difference between children being forced to go to school by the state while adults had a choice. I was asked by a reader what I thought about this in relationship to Christian education. I said I would blog about that after Easter – here it is.

In the sense that Christian education is provided to ensure that state mandated education was able to be provided in a Christian context, there is no difference in my opinion. As Christian educators, we recognize that, whether we like it or not, the state has decreed that children must appear in class for several hours a day and that we might as well make the best of it and at least ensure that our children’s educators are Christian, their influences are largely Christian, and the curriculum including the hidden curriculum is Biblically integrated.

But what about parents, Christian or otherwise? If the state did not mandate anything, would we still be “compelled” to educate our children? In several ways, this question makes no sense:

  1. Children will learn whether we like it or not – they are learning machines who must learn from the moment of conception to the moment of death. Indeed, death might be the gateway to the most profound knowledge of all. Whether they are compelled to or not, they are going to learn.
  2. Given that humans are social, the ability to live and work and love and entertain together implies that there must be a transitioning of knowledge from old to young, norms that must be passed on, rules of interaction to be understood and so on. Indeed, there is often nothing the young enjoy so much as listening to the stories of the old, particularly those true stories that implicitly teach about mistakes made, lessons learned, insights gained. Education of the young by the old also seems to be a process that is unstoppable.
  3. Since our closest relationships are within our families (genetic and otherwise), passing on the skills of the previous generation has always been a practical way to ensure that the young would also be able to ‘make a living’ and sustain their own families in turn. Apprenticeships, learning the father’s trade, being inculcated into the domestic economy of the mother, past centuries have always seen the passing on of skills. Indeed, some of our most interesting stories of the past (including Jesus) are of children who were called to something other than what their parents did causing their parents no little angst. This leads to
  4. The reality that each person has a purpose. As Christians, we might say that we are called to a pathway for which we have been prepared from before time began. Without meaning, it is becoming abundantly clear today, there is only depression and suicide (now the 2nd leading cause of death amongst children and teenagers sadly). Frankl paid homage to this truth in his observation of concentration camp inmates in The Search for Meaning.

So learning is ordained by God, it seems, as an inevitable part of being human as children learn naturally, live in social settings, belong to families, and seek purpose in their lives. You could take the word God out and this would still all be true biologically, socially, economically, spiritually.

But learning is one thing and education is another. As I wrote two weeks ago: “In other words, if you don’t go to school, the state has the right to put you in court where you are not guaranteed counsel, to put you in shackles, and send you to a detention center. It has the right to contact Children’s Services and potentially remove you from your family. In Canada, the family can be fined up to $1,000 and the student jailed for up to 30 days. Those are very very big sticks! On the other hand, every adult that goes to the same school chooses to. No-one compels those adults to seek employment at the school, whether a teacher, administrator, support staff, bus driver or any other position. Those adults are typically highly motivated to help the children in the school and often make great efforts to ensure that each child is served. That is a good thing.”

The position of the parent thus becomes paramount. Even the United Nations recognizes the critical nature of the parent. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states in Article 18: “States Parties shall use their best efforts to ensure recognition of the principle that both parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child. Parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.”

It also seems pretty clear that the Bible gives the parent responsibility in the upbringing of children. Indeed, the commandment with a promise declares that the child should honor their father and mother “that it may be well with thee…” (Ephesians 6:1-3).  At the same time, the complementarity of roles means that the father (who in Roman times had the right to kill his child or sell them into slavery) was not to “exasperate” his child (Colossians 3:21), a distinctly Christian view, not the pagan view at all. This I think is imp ortant.

The state in Roman times gave the father almost unlimited power over the child. But Jesus said: let the children come to me and he laid his hands on them and blessed them (Luke 19:13-15). The transformation of the relationship between children and parents in the Christian household is profound, as was the relationship of husband and wife (representing the body of Christ), the slave and the slave owner (think Philemon), and so on. It is not through compulsion that we come to be part of the household of Christ but through love. Where does that put us?

I think it suggests that God made the child to learn; the parent has the prior right to determine the context for that learning; the compulsion of learning is a secular idea, not a Christian idea; for the Christian family, love is far more powerful than compulsion which does not lead to relationship but only to compliance. (Note: the word “rod” can certainly imply compulsion but as Psalm 23 notes, its primary function is to lead the sheep from the front, not drive them from behind).

I therefore think that my conclusion stands for Christian schools, maybe in spades, as it does for other kinds of school. Schools should exemplify:

  • Trust, not fear, children and adolescents (it is interesting that many educational fear mongers were childless: Plato in The Republic, Augustine in The City of God, Calvin in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Hobbes in Leviathan, and Rousseau was an absentee and neglectful father of Emile)
  • Involve children and adolescents in the governance of “their” schools (it is both surprising and illogical that institutions dedicated to preparing children to live in society provide them with no experience in democratic values and practices)
  • Provide curriculum that responds to children’s and adolescent’s interests (why does it make ‘sense’ to teach curricula that we know is tedious, unfitted to the way human beings actually learn – not all at the same time, at the same pace, in the same way, with the same material – and of a volume that results in anxiety and dishonesty?)
  • Encourage students to use the skills we teach them in the schools in which they live (what is the point of teaching critical thinking, curiosity, questioning when, at the same time, we refuse to allow them to exercise those skills in the most powerful way possible, in their own lives at school?),
  • Do what we tell our students they should do – act with integrity, courage, and conviction (isn’t it embarrassing to listen to ourselves speak as we justify the cruel things we inflict on children as things we are ‘forced’ to do because we would otherwise be less successful as businesses, or our parents wouldn’t like us, or we might stick out from our peer schools? The answer to that question, by the way, is yes.)

Christians, more than anyone else, should be suspicious of force and compulsion. They / we, more than anyone else, should speak up on behalf of love, leading from the front, engagement, and not frustrating their children.

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