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Power, Children, and the Christian School

Malachi 3 begins with the announcement of the Messenger: “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.” You can see that I am here using the King James Version rather than the New International Version because it’s the version Handel used in the Messiah which inspired in part what I want to talk about. And the language is just so delicious! “Behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.” A promise, not a threat. But having said that, now listen to what happens next! “But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire” sung by an alto or a countertenor. It’s an interesting choice of voice by Handel. After all, this is a warning about the power of God, the God who does not change (verse 6), the God who hates iniquity. Those who defraud the workman from his wages, the adulterer, the one who turns away the stranger, the one who does not care for the widow and orphan, they will be tested in the refiner’s fire and be purged of their impurities like gold and silver. I would love to preach on this passage. And Handel’s music suggests discomfort and being shaken into knowledge. God’s power is on display and it is an awesome experience. “Who shall stand when He appeareth?”

I would like to suggest that the subject of power is a key conversation that is kept too much in the spiritual realm (God’s judgement and bowing before the throne – Rev. 7:11 and others) and too little spoken about in the context of relationships within the school. It is too often assumed to be benign or even invisible. I don’t think that anyone pretends it doesn’t exist – the evidence for it is too obvious. It is, however, not spoken about. We talk about community and how to create it. We like to think that we are all working together in the same direction and with the same purpose. Indeed, we talk quite a bit about the power of God working through us. But we don’t spend much time talking about our own exercise of power, what it is, who it is for, and how it should be used, let alone about its impact on our children for whom we are the models. While there is much to be said about the exercise of power between adults in our schools, my interest here is in the exercise of power over children.

Where to begin? From waking up at the beginning of each day to going to sleep at the end of each day, from Monday to Friday and sometimes at the weekends as well, from September to June and even with intrusions into the summer with summer reading, camps, courses, and athletics, adults impact children’s lives directly. My point is not that adults should or should not. My point is that we don’t usually think about what that means or what it should mean in a Christian school. Let’s pick some controversial potential topics:

  • Is bad behavior of children a result of bad decision-making and flawed moral thinking or is it a result of adult structures that force children to make choices where it is not possible to “win” in the adult game of school? For example, Sandra has three hours of homework to do but is also an athlete who has the 2nd basketball practice from 6.00-8.00. She finishes school at 3.00 and uses time from 3.30 to 5.30 to get two hours done. She then engages in a tough two hours of practice. She still has an hour of homework to do at 8.00 but she still has to get home and eat supper. She has now been working from 8.00, the beginning of school, to 8.00p.m., a twelve hour day including significant intellectual and physical activity. She has a choice. She is tired / exhausted and it is now 9.00p.m. She decides to text her friend and ask her for a copy of the notes that she still has to do. Question: Is she cheating?  Certainly, if the notes are worth a “grade” and the teacher discovered that she didn’t do the work, she would get a zero. So from the adult’s point of view, the many exercises of power that resulted in that situation have led to the student “cheating” and being subject to another exercise of power through sanctions.
  • Jonathan is a lover of art. He goes to school every day full of dreams about his artistic future, the paintings that he will make, the places he will visit, and the people who will see his gallery. But in school, the adult exercise of power has decreed that he only needs one art credit in order to graduate. He must take English and mathematics every year to obtain 8 of his credits even though AB Calculus is virtually useless to him since he has no interest in being able to “construct relatively simple quantitative models of change, and to deduce their consequences”. What he wants to do is two credits of visual arts every year since that will actually help him get where he wants to go. His college counselor advises him that this is not what colleges are looking for. Jonathan doesn’t know that the college counselor is wrong. So, to get the time to paint and sculpt, he goes online and pays a person to do his homework. Question: is he cheating?

I could multiply examples a million times from my own personal experience of what children do, particularly but not exclusively starting in Middle School in order to be able to get through a system that doesn’t have any interest in understanding them or, rather, only in understanding them to the extent of being compliant to what adults want. I sometimes wonder what parents in New Testament Israel thought as their children forsook the path ordained for them and chose instead a path that led them to adventure, hardship, and even death in order to follow Jesus.

To be honest, my point is not to argue whether Sandra and Jonathan are dishonest. My point is that we need to examine the exercise of power in our schools as it relates to children and answer some really important questions:

  • Who is our school for?
  • If it is for children, what is the evidence that power is used on their behalf?
  • Who exercises power and why?
  • Is power used to support each child?
  • If power is used in a benign, even loving way, why do children dislike being in school the longer they are in it?
  • If power is used to benefit children’s upbringing, why do children become less creative the longer they are in school?
  • If power is used to promote justice, why do children feel so often that they must disobey in order to survive?
  • If power is used to promote each unique child of God made in His image, why do children feel they are in a machine the older they get?
  • If power is used to ensure the well-being of each child, why do children feel they have to binge drink at weekends and only sleep 5 or 6 hours a night as they get older?

I interview hundreds of children a year and have been doing so for a decade and a half. All of the above are typical responses of the children I meet. At the same time, they tell me about the amazing adults in their schools who do their best to make it work for them and support them and help them to be successful. When we talk about power, the intent is not to slander the people in our schools. They genuinely care and work incredibly hard for their children. When we talk about power, the intent is to ask those caring adults whether they have recently examined their practices of power to see if they make sense from the child’s point of view.

Children are forced by law to go to and stay at school. They are forced to do what the school says while they are attending. It seems to me that the outcome is not necessarily benign, let alone loving and reflecting God’s image. We should ask why.

Surely, the exercise of power in a Christian school should have objectives that make sense to children and support their own development of thinking about power and its objectives. Nietzsche said that power was about the strong dominating the weak. He was all about compelling, even violently compelling. School often seems like a Nietzschean enterprise. Andy Crouch suggests that power that is legitimate is what we might call authority. He calls it blind to say that Christians don’t exercise power because they are all servant leaders. From a child’s point of view, willfully blind. He continues to say that power should be stewarded in order to produce “flourishing”. I think this is helpful. Power makes sense from a child’s point of view when the child knows that s/he is flourishing. In positive psychology, Martin Seligman describes flourishing as Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. Pretty good. How should Christian educators think about power leading to flourishing be described as? Maybe something as simple as power is legitimate when it leads to the following child outcomes:

  1. I am loving and know I am loved (1 Corinthians 13:1)
  2. I have purpose and am moving towards it (Exodus 9:16)
  3. I give back what God has given to me (Matthew 25:36)

There are undoubtedly cleverer ways of thinking about it. Think about it we must. As Christian leaders, how power is exercised must be a top priority. Knowing what its outcomes should be is a responsibility. The Christian school exercises power in many different ways both formal and informal. Let’s take that responsibility deadly seriously. Our children need us to.

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