Blog: May 27, 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.

The Lie of Competition

The lie of competition is that it somehow makes us better people, stronger, tougher, more successful. Can it do those things? I am a very competitive person. My heart races, my pulse throbs, my brain is going a million miles a minute – I definitely do not like losing. Is that a good thing? Culturally, in the USA in particular, yes. Interestingly, it seems that authoritarian countries are particularly interested in winning, to show how their form of government is the best, to somehow have bragging rights over other nations. In the USA, there are street parties and loud celebrations and lots of drinking and media interviews. Let’s look at an alternative approach to winning.

The Pyeonchang Winter Olympics were a fascinating set of competitions. The stupendous winner by far was Norway: “Surpassing its own lofty expectations, Norway has delivered the greatest performance in the history of the Winter Games, winning a total of 39 medals, 14 of them gold. A nation of only five million people has crushed all comers, including sports behemoths like Germany and the United States, in the events Norwegians care about the most.” (New York Times February 24th, 2018). Interesting language – ‘crushed’. Pertinent to this conversation is their reaction to their success – they aren’t sure it’s a good thing!! The same article goes on to say: “Marit Bjorgen, after winning bronze said: “Of course we were fighting for gold,” she said. “But it’s great to see the U.S. on the podium. It’s important for the sport.” Could we imagine a US athlete saying that? Or think of the following action Norway took: It has conceived the Alpine athletics version of the Marshall Plan. For seven years, it has invited competitors from all over the world to visit for a weeklong training camp. A separate camp is offered to World Cup coaches. Attendees pay to get there, and Norway covers all other expenses. “We show them what works for us,” said Erik Roste, president of the Norwegian Ski Federation. Of course, this is also the country that “placed a camera on the front of a boat called the MS Nordnorge and ran live footage for 134 hours of nothing but nature, quietly passing by. Half of the country tuned in.”

This is not to say that Norway is good and we are bad, or that we should all become Norwegians. They do give us pause however. What do we believe about competition? That it builds character and fosters excellence? That healthy competition is a good thing? That the person who is not “competitive” lacks moral fibre or some other attribute?

I am not competent to judge what the word competition means in other venues. I think the greatest athletes have actually moved beyond the idea of competition. Simone Biles, the great gymnast with five Olympic medals to her name, said: “A successful competition for me is always going out there and putting 100 percent into whatever I’m doing. It’s not always winning. People, I think, mistake that it’s just winning. Sometimes it could be, but for me, it’s hitting the best sets I can, gaining confidence, and having a good time and having fun.”

I believe I do have some competence when it comes to education and in our schools, competition is a big problem. Let’s think about the ways in which that is so:

  • We don’t notice and/or take for granted academic competition. The Valedictorian, class rankings, the idea of the “best” student. I do not want to diminish the achievement of these students. They have achieved often great things. But it also teaches them to be at the top and thus diminish everyone else. Oh, I hear you cry, that’s surely not so! That’s not what we intend at all. We want every student to succeed. Really? You think so? The vast majority of schools I go into implicitly and sometimes explicitly bell-curve their students – the idea that maybe everyone can get an A is anathema to “rigor” and “standards”. Someone has to get a B, someone has to get a C, someone has to get a D, and someone has to fail at least occasionally “pour encourager les autres”. The vast majority of schools I go into have grading scales that students know they can’t escape – once a B student, always a B student. Faculty will say to themselves and to each other – that’s a B student. Research shows that the same level of work produced by students who are typically A and B students will result in grades of A and B. We actually like, God forgive us, the idea that someone is better than someone else. It is not accidentally that the writer of Ecclesiastes says: “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift  or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9: 11). There is much more to say about this but not enough time!
  • We applaud and honor athletic competition. Nothing gives us more positive emotions than a winning team, particularly if it is football or basketball. “Better luck next time”, we say to the team that came second. “We are the champions” we cry when we have the winning spot and the quarterback is held high and the school/town/city has a parade. Why? Again, I love celebrating success. I love my success being celebrated. But I want to ask about the cost of that success for those inside it and what those outside of it did to get that success. I go into a multitude of schools where coaches are allowed to run practices longer than the School Handbook allows, where children don’t get home in time to eat with their families, where practices and games take up 6 and even 7 days a week, where the Sabbath is not respected, where a student’s desire to have a balanced life is met with accusations of ‘lack of commitment’. I look at a competitive world where club soccer goes 12 months of the year, where repetitive injuries are increasing every year, where the false hope of athletic scholarships to college are resulting in the big business of world series for 7 year olds, where fun and family time are replaced by sports camps, where ESPN touts Little League for 12 year olds on its 14 channels as if a stadium full of screaming adults is an appropriate developmental stage in a child’s life. There is much more to say about this but not enough time.

The Christian school has to take a different way. I think the Christian school has to become a revolution. St. Paul writes: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). In the Christian school, all children are winners, all children are created in the unique image of God, all children can run to get the prize. The Christian school has no bell curves, no club sports, no regular practices or rehearsals that take the child away from the family dinner table, no ignoring of the Sabbath. The paradox will be that we will become more attractive and win even more championships because, as Jackson Scholz said to Eric Liddell, “for those who honor me, I will honor” (1 Samuel 2:30). And our children will be grateful.


“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).

Blog: May 13, 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.

Do We Believe in Family? Prove It!

I recently tweeted some information about the demographic changes that have been happening in the US, but also reflected around the world and particularly in Europe. The Fordham Institute reported that “according to the 2017 National Vital Statistics Report, the out-of-wedlock birth rate in the black community is now 71 percent, a tripling of this woeful trend. The white community has seen its own out-of-wedlock birth rate climb from 5 percent in 1965 to nearly 30 percent today, exceeding the 23 percent crisis levels Moynihan thought were catastrophic five decades ago. Hispanics have seen their out-of-wedlock rate balloon to 53 percent.”

I found the reaction of readers to be interesting. One thought that the family was indeed a key part of how societies stuck together but the rest were less impressed by my horror. Here are some excerpts:

“That’s a pretty old-fashioned view of what a family is. Although research suggests that children in single parent households fare less well than those in two parent families, most of the evidence is for children of divorced parents and the lower socio economic status of divorced, single mothers, plus the inevitable trauma of the breakdown of family life is generally felt to be the largest influence in this – particularly given that research into the life outcomes of children who are born to a single parent are very similar to those who are not. Many people who are single parents – myself included – are not single parents by choice, and the judgement of others about this does not help my children or me. Having said that, my children have been raised in an entirely secular, single parent household and are good, successful people. I don’t subscribe in any way to the idea that a high proportion of single mothers is a disaster for society.”

“I also particularly dislike the breakdown into white, Hispanic and black. What relevance does this have?”

“Quietly disagree with the tone of the breakdown and the assumption that it is a disaster – the old construct of what constitutes a ‘family’ was doomed to failure for a number of reasons – mostly because it was institutionalized through the construct of men and their control of their women and children. The assumptions made were power based in church and state. As this changes, with the inevitable collapse of old state and old church, so does the human relationship structure.”

That 3:1 breakdown of new thinking vs. traditional thinking about the usual family structure seems to really reflect the realities of current society. But I am going to go out on a limb and say that those who are ok with the breakdown of the traditional family (whatever that means – were Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and his siblings a traditional family?) are well-off economically. The data is indisputable that children of one parent families are economically poorer and have fewer educational opportunities than children from two parent families. This doesn’t mean that they are loved less – that’s a whole different topic and ‘love’ is color blind and money blind. It means that if you only have one parent, you are at a disadvantage.

A recent Brookings report penned by both Democrats and Republicans (Opportunity Responsibility and Security) agreed that it was critical “To strengthen families in ways that will prepare children for success in education and work: 1) Promote a new cultural norm surrounding parenthood and marriage. 2) Promote delayed, responsible childbearing. 3) Increase access to effective parenting education. 4) Help young, less-educated men and women prosper in work and family.”

The norm around marriage is that it is rapidly becoming normal to be NOT married.

It is equally becoming more normal to either not have children at all or not to have them through marriage. Sex seems to be a constant.

The conclusion the Brookings Institute comes to? “Marriage doesn’t automatically deliver what children most need—a stable and secure environment with two engaged, committed, and nurturing parents—but it certainly offers the most reliable means to achieve those ends.”

I commented recently on another topic that we should have alumni/ae on our school walls who have been married for 25 years. That was not a frivolous remark then and it has even more poignance in this context. In what ways are our Christian schools supporting, reverencing, and teaching the importance of marriage as they go about sex and health education. It’s obvious that our kids need to know about safe sex since statistically they’re going to be having ex (41% of high schoolers in 2015 and, interestingly, in decline). It’s not as obvious but equally important that they learn about the implications of safe relationships i.e. the relatively poor prognosis of single parenthood and the importance of family. This can’t be taken for granted. Barna reported in 2008 that “Born again Christians who are not evangelical were indistinguishable from the national average on the matter of divorce: 33% have been married and divorced.” We cannot assume that Christians think any differently in practice about marriage than their secular neighbors. Indeed, the group with the 2nd lowest chance of divorce are families that are well-off! Staying married is an economic correlate!

Caveat: In Christian schools, we need to have a deep conversation about how to support marriage, how to talk about marriage, and how to defend marriage. The idea that it is between a man and a woman, while defensible and, for me, personally appealing both theologically and in my own practice, is not necessarily the world that our children are living in. Since we are schools and not seminaries or churches or cultural backwaters, we have to work with our children in real life. Beth Moore’s recent Letter to My Brothers included the statement: “Many women have experienced horrific abuses within the power structures of our Christian world. Families can be both a reflection of the relationship that Christ has with the church as well as a place of deep fear and abuse. Again, marriage is a difficult topic and it would be understandable if schools stayed away from it. But, like sexual activity, it is a part of real life and we must find a way through.

So I believe that God ordained family and that family is the best place for children to grow up – there’s a lot of secular research to support that. I think that schools are places where families come for support – maybe it was different in the 20th century but it is true today. We have to find ways to support families (even odd families like Jesus’ family!) so that our children / students know that this is a healthy way to develop relationships and bring up the next generation themselves. It’s not just about “love” – it’s also about commitment and grit and courage and self-sacrifice and grief, and joy and fulfillment and promise and future. If we believe in family, we’re going to have to prove it.

Blog: May 6, 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.

Moses, Trump, and the Christian School

There’s a conundrum we have. I was working with a Christian school in Florida and listening to Christian radio. It was Thursday April 26th and the World Day of Prayer which has the motto: Informed Prayer and Prayerful Action. Christian radio was talking in somewhat pious tones about what a wonderful ceremony there was in the Rose Garden where President Trump signed a proclamation including these words: “America has known peace, prosperity, war, and depression — and prayer has sustained us through it all.  May our Nation and our people never forget the love, grace, and goodness of our Maker, and may our praise and gratitude never cease.  On this National Day of Prayer, let us come together, all according to their faiths, to thank God for His many blessings and ask for His continued guidance and strength.” He was surrounded by the evangelicals who put him into power and whom he continues to woo with great skill.

Now it seems obvious to me, an English teacher who has spent decades of parsing every phrase of numerous poems, plays, short stories and even novels – often to the dread and dismay of my students – that these words were not written by President Trump himself, as his speeches are clearly not since their cadence, scansion, mood and themes have nothing in common with his actual speech patterns and speech content. This doesn’t matter assuming that President Trump is not a complete hypocrite. I actually do believe that in some fashion our 45th President does believe in God. After all, Pew Research says that 71% of the Silent Generation and 69% of the Baby Boomers have an “absolutely certain belief in God”. Only 38% of Baby Boomers attend church and here is the connection to Moses.

In Genesis 4, God is talking to Moses and telling him to go back to Egypt. In verse 23, God actually gives Moses the words to say to Pharaoh including the promise that God “will slay your first-born son” (the following is with thanks to Dennis Prager and his commentary on Exodus). We know that God does indeed slay Pharaoh’s first-born son in the final plague of the Angel of Death commemorated in the Passover and completed in the death of Jesus at the Passover Feast in Jerusalem. But Moses chickens out and doesn’t include this promise to Pharaoh when they eventually meet up. He tells Pharaoh to let my people go, but he fails to tell him that God’s judgment is on him already. This suggests that Moses believes in God – how could he not with all the evidence of his own eyes and ears and heart? But it also suggests that Moses does not yet trust God and fears (we are guessing a bit here) that Pharaoh will kill him if he goes too far in his warnings. We know that Moses was very keen on staying alive! It took time for Moses to truly trust God. I am struck by this because evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham have compared Trump to Moses – great leaders who are flawed is their idea. There is a kernel of truth in their foolishness. Trump believes. He does not trust. Moses believed. He did not trust.

For the Christian school, we should pay attention to this difference between belief and trust for it is a great and dangerous chasm. In some ways the great creeds have led us a little astray in this with their constant refrain of “Credo”, “I believe in”. We have taken the many Bible verses about believing in God in order to be saved and made them absolutes without any context. This has great danger for the Christian school. If belief is it, then there’s not much to being a Christian and all kinds of actions can be justified. St. James warns us that ““You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19) Much to Martin Luther’s discomfort, he even talks about faith and actions in reverse – you show me your faith and I will show you my actions. His statement that faith without deeds is useless, and that the wrong kinds of deeds lead to judgment leaves no doubt that faith is accompanied by the “right” kind of deeds bearing witness to the love and mercy of God. As Jesus said: ““Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these” (John 14:12) Jesus equally points out that the devil, who certainly believes, does not do Jesus’ works: ““When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

So some thoughts:

  • The motto of the USA is In God We Trust, not in God We Believe.
  • Belief in God at the Christian school is not enough, neither at the Board level, nor at the adult administration level, nor at the faculty level, nor at the student level. Belief in and of itself lacks commitment.
  • Trust in God has far deeper implications and a commitment to lead in Godly fashion:
    • The Board will not talk behind the Head’s back, have factions within itself, use its influence inappropriately, seek favors for itself, fail to act as good stewards
    • The Head of School / Principal and other members of the school’s leadership will not gossip, talk patronizingly about parents, lack courage to move out underperformers, fail to plan and act with courage
    • Faculty will not complain that children are not like they used to be, hang onto old ways because they used to work, fail to collaborate and act as servant leaders
  • Teaching children to trust in God has little to do with holy words and pious sentiments – trusting is hard-edged requiring courage to speak truth in love to power, to take stands that are unpopular, to stand up to bullies even when they are popular, to hold accountable to high standards, to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34)

Trusting does not imply worldly success but, rather, as Dennis Prager puts it: “must mean, first and foremost, that we believe God cares about each one of us and in some way He will ultimately do right by us” (p. 59). We will not be successful with belief only. There’s no commitment to it and a danger that it allows too much. Trust requires full commitment and a leadership that is resurrection centered. In God We Trust.

Blog: April 29, 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.

Does or Should Christian Education Make You Liberal or Conservative?

My wife and I have four children (note: the word “have” is not intended to imply ownership or materialism. Just saying!).  They have a wide variety of opinions about important subjects from human sexuality to politics to social justice to various other causes. They have all gone to Christian schools of different kinds from conservative Catholic to conservative Protestant. Are they conservative or are they liberal?

I am convicted of the importance of interrogating this topic because I am worried that Christian schools get locked into dangerous assumptions about the alignment between following Jesus and secular politics.

For example, an evangelical Christian school might align itself with Republican or conservative values. At the right hand extreme, Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University endorsed Donald Trump and said that Trump reminded him of his father. Interestingly, he also said on January 25, 2018 that you can be a good Christian and vote liberal or conservative.  There are always even more extreme views such as that of Jeff Tyler of Idaho who declared that the Republican Party is a Christian party.

In the center, a Catholic Christian school might align itself with Democrat or Republican values.  In 2011 there were 69 Democrats and 63 Republicans (declared Catholics) in the House of Representatives and 15 Democrats and 9 Republicans (declared Catholics) in the Senate. A majority of Catholics supported President Bush in 2004 and President Obama in 2008. Nonetheless, in general, Catholics lean liberal with 57% of Catholics affiliating with the Democrats and 40% with Republicans. Catholic church teachings include statements such as “we need to confront the often invisible burdens of ordinary workers and their families, many of whom are hurting, discouraged, and left behind by this economy” (U.S. Catholic bishops) and “any harm done to the environment is harm done to humanity” (Pope Francis).

Another approach to Christian education (with its liberal / conservative conundrum) can be seen in anabaptist Christian schools – think, for example, of the Hutterites and the Amish. Their commitment to education was as strong as any of the Protestant reformers and the Counter Reformation Catholics. “Hutterite little schools were in operation 270 years before modern kindergartens were founded by Frederick Froebel in Germany in 1837” (Anabaptist theologies of childhood and education p 121). I might add, for very different reasons too! But the anabaptists had little to no interest in interaction with political society and raised their children separately from the society within which their communities worked. This cultural / community approach to education completely avoids the Constantinian issue.

Some branches of Christianity, then, consider politics anathema, some consider politics/culture as the province of conservative Christian education and some think of Christian education as a means to progressive politics. In some cases, their position is very clear while in other cases there is an uneasy acknowledgement of complexity and thus liberal/conservative views exist together, often uneasily.

For my own family, I did not consider the anabaptist view as relevant since it required conformity to its own civil society (that I was not a member of) and seemed to avoid the issue as a macro issue while embracing it as a micro issue.

Christian schools that are confronting the political implications of their use of the term Christian don’t have that anabaptist option. If we are not withdrawing from society, then we have to determine how we should interact with it.

I think that the solution is both elegant and simple. I think that Christian schools must recognize that Jesus was neither liberal or conservative but the Son of Man and Son of God. He was equally scathing of the Pharisees (conservatives), the Sadducees (liberal), and might well have inspired Shakespeare to write the immortal line “A plague o’ both your houses” (Romeo and Juliet Act 3 Scene 1).

So some thoughts. The following topics are given democrat and republican positions that are then contrasted with the words of Jesus:

On capitalism: Democrats: if you are rich, you profited from the poor; if you are poor, you need help from the rich. Republicans: if you are rich, you deserved it; if you are poor, it’s your fault. Jesus: 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6)

On individualism: Democrats: the individual is saved by the collective. Republicans: the individual is oppressed by the collective. Jesus: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’f31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12)

On the unborn child: Democrats: the mother has the right to decide; Republicans: the child in the womb has a right to life. Jesus: 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. (Luke 12)

On war: Democrats: Educate for peace and kill if that doesn’t work; Republicans: Get them before they get us. Jesus: 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5)

On the environment: Democrats: we are willing to take away your individual rights to preserve the planet; Republicans: we believe in conservation when it is profitable; Jesus: 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. (Matthew 12)

On diversity: Democrats: we include everyone who agrees with us; Republicans: we imprison everyone who disagrees with us; Jesus: 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10)

However you might interpret the words of Jesus, it is pretty clear that Jesus challenges us at every level of our thinking and doing. He goes far beyond the Republicans in his view of individual responsibility and far beyond the Democrats in his view of collective responsibility. Our Christian schools negate his Godhead by watering down what he actually said and turning them into political slogans. We negate his Manhood by diminishing the reality of his experience including death on the cross and turning it into platitudes at cocktail parties. As St. Paul said of him, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. Substitute Republicans and Democrats and you have it in a nutshell.

Blog: April 22, 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.

Deadpool and Jesus: the Christian School Dilemma

Deadpool came out in 2016 as an antihero who seeks vengeance and finds reconciliation only after a bloodbath. It made over $700million and it cost only $58million to make. We can definitely say it was a box-office hit and that millions of happy movie-goers went to see it and told their friends to go. It won’t be long before Deadpool 2 will come out (May 2018) and it will probably have similar success. The antihero is funny, an action hero, straight out of Marvel, and wins his girl in the end. What’s not to like?

But it is a problem for the Christian school. This is not a blog that suggests we should start editing what our children see nor is it an attack on Deadpool. Actually, I sort of enjoyed it myself. The jokes were actually pretty good and there is in me a kind of liking of violence that seems to be endemic in man – remember Cain and Abel? And while there is always the fear that exposure to a particular genre of violence and/or sexuality desensitizes, there is also the well-researched finding that fantasy does not crossover into “real” life in humans who are well balanced.

No, the problem isn’t that the movie industry doesn’t portray Christ-like characters generally speaking and that we should protest Hollywood and not let it into our schools. That’s a different blog. The bigger problem is that we struggle between Deadpool and Jesus in our schools as well. We have to ask the question as to who our hero is in our own schools, how do we identify that person and that group of people, and how do we praise and honor them?

Seth Godin recently wrote: “We like the flawed hero, bad behavior, tragedy and drama in our fictional characters. Batman and Deadpool sell far more tickets than Superman does. If we use social media to attract a crowd, we will, at some level, become a fictional character. Reality shows aren’t about reality–they’re shows. Which means that it’s tempting to become the sort of trainwreck that people like to watch and jeer and root for. Personally, and for our brand as well. Every time DC tries to make Superman more popular, they create drama that isn’t inherent in who he is. Brands fall into this trap all the time. For a long time, people would confirm that they’d rather watch a flawed character, but deep down, they’d like to be Superman. Because his humility, kindness and resilient mental health are a perfect match for his unlimited powers. Unfortunately, as we’ve turned our lives into a reality show, more people seem happier emphasizing their mess. It’s probably a bad idea to vote for, work for or marry a train-wreck. They belong on screen, not in real life. Everyone has some Superman in them. But it takes emotional labor and hard work to reclaim it.”

Seth Godin is a brand expert and if you want to follow one person, I would recommend him. But his words should make us uneasy. What is the Christian school brand? How do we compete with our neighboring schools? How do we attract our families? What brand do we teach our children at all the ages we teach?

While we might feel that we want to be like Jesus, that he is our superhero, that he is the model for our living and teaching, my experience is that we struggle with it as we compete in the “real” world. But what are we struggling about? St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive”. We are resurrection schools. We must represent that in the world. So some thoughts:

  1. We are people of hope. Individual hope and corporate hope. In practical terms, that means we are schools where we believe every student to have resurrection hope as a birthright and God’s blessing as an everyday occurrence. It is not our task to determine who our students are – judgment is God’s job. It is our task to provide hope on a daily basis. With all due respect to our secular colleagues, it is hope that foundationally builds resilience, and APA can only offer tactics, useful but limited. As the great hymn says: If hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use, I’ll seek the seas at His behest, and brave another cruise.
  2. Our heros in our schools are in the unlikeliest places. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with pointing to the gentle quarterback who is a lead in the musical. God has greatly gifted that person too. But pointing those people out can, in isolation, suggest that you have to be a worldly winner to have your name in the school newsletter. What about the average student who is a back row singer in the musical, always shows up on time, and is kind to those around him or her? It is a challenge to know how to praise our students in a way that does not give in to Hollywood and the construct of our society. It is too easy to point out “success” and give little thought to what true success might look like from a Christian school point of view. Sure, we should have alumni who are distinguished on the walls of our school. Maybe we should also have alumni who have been married to the same person for 25 years or more as well. Or always provided for their families. Or always paid their bills. I think about my parents who did those things as more and more like heros the longer I live. In another verse of that hymn the writer says: If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be; Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea.
  3. Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. The Lectionary points us to Psalm 23 and John chapter 10: “I am the good shepherd.” Far from applauding Superman, let alone Deadpool, Jesus is most concerned about the sheep that is lost (Luke 15). Yet we struggle in our schools between the straight A student and the PR student that adorns our webpages when we know that, thanking God for those students, we are sent out to seek the isolated student in the corner, the student who is bored, the student who has no interest in athletics, to bring them in and make them part of the flock. As St. John writes: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” It doesn’t take too much of a rhetorical leap to apply that to my Christian school.

We must struggle with our brand. Is it a Superman brand? A Deadpool brand? Are we so concerned with raising money for new facilities to compete with the school down the road that we forget that our business is the lost sheep? Do we entice parents in with Deadpool or Superman and forget that our business is the lost sheep? Do we parade our super students and forget that God loves each student?

Can we have it both ways? St. Matthew sounds a cautionary note: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

The last verse of the hymn I have been quoting (I Feel the Winds of God Today) sings:

If ever I forget Thy love and how that love was shown,
Lift high the blood red flag above; it bears Thy Name alone.
Great Pilot of my onward way, Thou wilt not let me drift;
I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.

Let us be Good Shepherd schools!

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.

Blog: March 25, 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.

Children Have to Go to School; Adults Choose To

It always occurred to me as a child / adolescent that I had no choice but to go to school. I forgot that elementary truth as an adult until a couple of years ago when I became consumed with finding out why a useful education (whatever that means) had to be so miserable for the children enduring it. I interviewed and continue to interview teenagers who see school as an obstacle race, and I interview parents who tell me that their children – not at college/university – are enjoying learning for the first time for a long time. There are, of course, many reasons why children don’t much like school. There seems to be general agreement that it is not a very pleasant process, even if it is full of very pleasant adults. In 2009, Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist, even wrote a book called: Why Don’t Students Like School?

One of the key reasons that they don’t much like school is that it is compulsory. John Taylor Gatto writes in “Dumbing Us Down” (2002): “It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students’ parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things” (p.11).

Compulsory education is not new. Martin Luther wrote in An die Ratsherren aller Städte deutschen Landes (1524) that every town in Germany should establish schools and mandate education so that everyone could read the Bible. In 1592, compulsory education for boys and girls was first established by the German Duchy Palatinate-Zweibrucken (thank you Wikipedia). In the States, compulsory education was first established in Massachusetts in 1852. For the next 50 years, it spread across all states until it was nationwide in 1918. What happens if you don’t go to school?

Most answers on the net immediately talk about ‘not learning’ as if school was the only way to learn. As Mark Twain said: “I have never let school interfere with my education”. But dig a little deeper and we find something much more somber. One account reports: T.W. was a 13-year-old middle school student. According to court documents, he was jailed twice without the benefit of legal counsel. Back in court in February 2009 after pleading guilty, T.W. was jailed overnight directly because his school reported he had accumulated more unexcused absences….But Rivkin argued in a case he brought in Tennessee that there was nothing in T.W.’s or the other plaintiffs’ files proving in writing, as required by state regulation, that they’d agreed to waive the right to defense. Debbie Jones, T.W.’s mom and a day care worker, said she feels the court’s treatment of her son made his problems worse. Jones said T.W. loved school as a young boy. “I couldn’t pay him to stay home when he was sick,” she said. But at 13, he became reclusive and struggled with classroom learning. He pretended to board his school bus and hid out instead. “He said he felt smothered at school,” Jones said. For all the punitive treatment he received, T.W. never graduated. ( In 2010, over 30,000 children were charged with truancy. In fact, if you are absent for more than 10 unexcused absences, you are likely in many states to be referred to the District Attorney’s office.

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.

But all that good will is not even close to balancing the compulsion of the child. Notice that this is not the typical kind of law that compels a negative. Don’t steal. Don’t shoplift. Don’t be found with drugs. Don’t speed. Don’t go through a stop sign. Don’t bully. This is a law that compels an action – go and do something, something that results in a lot of other compulsions: dress codes, codes of conduct, curriculum expectations, graduation requirements, testing to determine worthiness and whether you will be allowed to do this or that, behavioral rules in the corridor, classroom rules, doing assignments rules, homework compulsions, don’t hand it in compulsions – all with extreme consequences for non-compliance. A zero for homework not handed in can mean it is impossible to achieve an A. Non-conformist behavior can result in suspension or even expulsion, not necessarily for terrible crimes. Suspension from what you are compelled to do. Classroom ‘rudeness’ can result in being forced out of the classroom you are compelled to go to.

The implications of this are pretty staggering. Children and adolescents understand perfectly the dangerous game they are engaged in. It is why they learn how to ‘do’ school, figure out what the teachers want and give it to them, smile politely and become the editor of the school newspaper even though there is no journalistic freedom but it’s good for the resume. The desire of the adults to control what the children and adolescents do is extreme – one Superintendent recently vowed to suspend every student who left school for the 17 minute protest about gun violence in schools. I confess that early in my administrative career, I also was pretty committed to control. Schools even hire people whose job is student discipline. My son went to a school where there was a permanent policeman on duty – a Middle School at that! So the students conform and they play the system understanding that the system is rigged against them.

There are a variety of conclusions or thoughts that one might derive from this fascinating educational experiment that we have been working with for 100 years now. 2018 is the centenary of compulsory education in the USA. The first is to remember that it is an experiment. The second is to recognize that the issue is not whether there should be education, but that if it is compulsory, what are some corollaries that might follow. I suggest some below and I can imagine that readers may well have strong opinions about this too. So, given that the state compels, I think it is worth considering that schools should be obligated to:

  • 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.)

Having a system of education where the state compels attendance at a school should give us pause for thought and result in a deep responsibility therefore for the school where the children arrive. I have little (not no) doubt that we are well-meaning and committed educators. But we know it’s not working exceptionally well and one of the root causes is the fact that it is compelled. We can mitigate that, however, through embracing the five points above and moving our schools into places where compulsion doesn’t seem as nearly as obvious as it does now.

Blog: March 18, 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.

The Environment and the Christian School

I have just finished reading Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild. The subtitle is “Anger and Mourning on the American Right”. I recommend it as a first-class piece of sociology written accessibly and notably without jargon. For a sociologist, that is quite an achievement! Hochschild has an amazing pedigree with books on working parents, on time and working, on the nanny and workers in a global world, on mothers in 3rd world countries who carry babies for women in the west. She works out of Berkeley and would agree that she is a liberal. This book comes out of a desire to understand the Tea Party – as I read it, I found it hard to imagine that it was written before Trump became President but it was. She writes: “You might say I’d come to Louisiana with an interest in walls. Not visible walls…. It was empathy walls that interested me. An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances…Today we need to find new ways to get acquainted across our differences.” She visits with people in their kitchens, attends worship at their churches, eats at their cook-outs, listens to them argue with each other at meetings. She, a liberal, tries to bridge the empathy wall with the Tea Party. I say it again – I recommend it.

She chose Louisiana, if I understand her correctly, because it is an epicenter of oil and gas production, one of the most highly polluted states in the country, and one of the poorest states in the country. The people that she interviewed had been deeply impacted by the massive pollution of bayou and marsh and shore. They had lost their houses, lost their jobs, even lost their lives. They had not benefited as much economically as one might have imagined. They were stagnating along with people like them in other parts of the USA. They felt the American Dream was not theirs and that there were people cutting in line ahead of them who were not as deserving. The paradox is that Hochschild found in her data analysis (Appendix B) that “as the relative riskiness of the county a person lived in increased, the more likely that person was to agree with the statement ‘People worry too much about human progress harming the environment’.” She continues that” Those who identified themselves as male, high income, conservative, Republican, Christian, and strongly religious were also likely to believe that air and water pollution were not a danger.”

Now I am moving to my area of expertise – Christian schools. That last statement made me wonder what, if anything, was being said by those in Christian schools. If we look at Catholic schools, there is significant clarity. Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si (2015) says the following: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” If I am a Catholic Christian school, my way forward is pretty clear – the environment matters, we are to care for the earth, now figure out what that means in practical terms.

But what if I am an evangelical Christian school? What if my major donors are the people that Hochschild discovered – human progress and economic prosperity are key, they believe, and the environment is not as big a problem as everyone says (and certainly not something we want government mixed up in). Not that there aren’t important organizations of evangelicals who take the environment very seriously such as the Evangelical Climate Initiative ( But if my social context and donors are dubious about the value of teaching about the environment, environmental change, global warming (that only 22% of Republicans find convincing), then what is my responsibility? A research paper in 2015 ( showed that evangelical leaders have even become hostile to environmentalism and organizations like Climate Care. The writers of Spreading the Gospel of Climate Change note: “First, evangelicals’ political partners saw Creation Care as a menace for economic conservatives and opponents of environmental regulation, and did not hesitate to let evangelicals know it. Second, the evangelical old guard saw the Creation Care activists as threatening their role as the arbiter of evangelicalism’s political engagement.” Frankly, care of the earth has ranked low compared with issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and religious liberty.

Evangelical school organizations have also not taken any kind of lead when it came to the care of the earth. ACSI, for example, maybe the largest group of evangelical schools in the USA, has an enormous Legal Legislative and Advocacy area on their website. They “identify a broad array of national, legal, and legislative issues”. It is primarily concerned with religious liberty and sex.

What’s an evangelical school to do? CSM doesn’t believe that it makes faith-sense to ignore the Genesis creation narrative and what it means to be the arbiter of creation: “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground”. 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1). CSM believes that it is a central issue for today and schools have a responsibility to struggle with this issue and its aligned issues of business, economics, power, and people.

A recent issue of Christianity Today (January/February 2018) had an interesting article by Thomas Ackerman, a geophysicist and evangelical. He also comments: “the reception I get from my tribe (i.e. evangelical Christians) is worse than the reception I get from other tribes”. He continues: “We should care about creation – water pollution, air pollution, soil degradation. I could list 55 other things. The Christian church leads on none of them.” This is another example of the poor leadership we have currently from the church. But the Christian school can follow the lead of its children who are so closely and intimately tied to the earth in their thinking and actions. It must not be dissuaded by the politics of power and influence. It must not even be dissuaded by its major donors. Christian school leaders must be convicted by their five senses as they examine their neighborhoods, their local forests and streams, their mountaintops, their rivers and neighborhood habitats. We are a creation of God and we are told by God to look after (love) each other and the rest of creation. We cannot either ignore or duck the environment / climate / creation whatever we want to call it. Our children will hold us accountable.

Blog: March 11, 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.

Why Children Don’t Matter in Schools

Yes, I know we all love children and that they are the reason for schools. And yes, I also know that we spend all and sometimes more than all our strength on behalf of the children in our schools. And this is not a rant about the iniquities of the modern or post-modern age – this problem has been with us ever since the industrial revolution demanded that we treat children as objects rather than subjects. We have to ask some hard questions about our practice, about our thinking, about our motivation, about our objectives.

Let’s start with that industrial revolution thought. The question of subject and object is central to the conversation. Why did we have public education growing in the 19th century and eventually displacing private education and home schooling? Because society / industrialists needed workers with very particular skills, and with very particular lack of skills. Before that, education (typically a liberal arts education) was intended to broaden the mind and develop character. It was designed for the leaders of society aka rich people. If you were not rich, you were home-schooled with the kinds of skills that were useful to your family of which you were a key part, necessary to the family economy and necessary to the extended family web of interdependency.

Public education took home schooling and industrialized it in the 19th century while paying little to no attention to the family. Rich people still went to private schools – as they do today – and gained a liberal arts education designed to develop the leaders of the nation. Two World Wars and a broadening definition of human as well as an increasing need for those who were not destined for monotone occupations, a tendency that has accelerated in the last decade with the rise of machine intelligence, meant that public schools wanted to be more like private schools.

However, we merely replaced one tyranny for another. In place of the industrialists, we put in place the financiers and lawyers and doctors and technicians all of whom demanded their pound of flesh and whined like crazy when they didn’t get it. You can see it in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review. University professors bemoaning the lack of “education” resulting in poorly trained students coming their way with ideas above their station. Industry leaders bemoaning the impracticality and shoddiness of the preparation students have as they enter their industries. They want another kind of product.

We compensate by pouring down tests on our children. Entry tests, competency tests, IQ tests, ERB tests, College Board and IB tests, all designed to commoditize the child and ensure a common product.

What’s amazing and wonderful is how effectively our children have fought back. They have resisted being made an object and demanded to be a subject with value in their own right. Some have passed the tests and become part of the machinery of commercialism. Many have obdurately failed the tests, not gone to school, tried a whole bunch of options that seemed more humane such as charter and magnet and democratic and homeschool and private.

What’s not wonderful at all is the sheer waste that this process has engendered. Back in the 1960s, John Holt observed the following in Why Children Fail: “Most children learn more when they are out of school than when they are in. When children who normally go to school get sick or hurt and can’t go, the schools send tutors to their homes so that they won’t fall behind in their work…..from two to three hours a week. It is enough; the children keep up with their classmates and even go ahead for now they have time to read all they want and their reading and other work is not endlessly interrupted by the time-wasting routines of school. (p.240)” I observed the same in my time in schools. Students who were absent for months for all kinds of reasons would return and fit right back in where they had left off. I would say to my colleagues – what did we do in that time? My own children attended a school for three years where the owner stated without any evident sense of hyperbole that it took 2.5 years to cover the K-12 curriculum and that the biggest problem at her school was what to do with the other 9.5 years.

Far from Tiger Moms being right and hammering away at their ‘object’ children in order for them to fit into a societal definition of success, our schools should rethink the subject/object conundrum. Why are children kindergarten geniuses in creativity and virtual dunces by the time they are adults? Why do most children read for fun at home when they are 9 but almost 75% don’t when they are 13 – a question that has been asked since 1984 and has consistently gone down for both age levels? Denise Clark Pope asked in 2003 in her book How we are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out Materialistic and Miseducated Students: “We need to ask … if the model of competition and corruption revealed in the portraits here – the grade traps and balancing acts that oblige students to become school robots or chameleons and to give up personal desires for authenticity and engagement in the name of grades and future success – represents the kind of education we would choose for our own sons and daughters?” She had come to this conclusion by following five students for a year. Why has the amount of free time for children declined by 10 hours a week since the 70s? Why do 98% of college students today say they cheated at high school compared with 20% in the 1940s?

Children have not become more evil. They are not, contrary to current myth, fixated and inseparable from their phones. They have certainly become more narcissistic. They have also certainly become less motivated as they go through school. Is there a connection?

I believe we have to make children matter in schools. I believe we should treat children as subjects, not objects. I don’t believe it’s an either or between the Tiger Mom and the permissive liberal. They are both wrong because both have the wrong outcome in mind. Children want to be useful, they want to learn, they want to have meaningful personal relationships (far more than they want to text), they want to have purpose in life, they want to have dreams and reach at least one of them, they want to have families (though not necessarily like the one they’re in), and they want to have hope. We sell them public relations test scores, the dream of making money, the usefulness of a career (for which we will also give you a test!), relationships that end in ‘good marks’ and ‘being prepared for the next level’.

We can do better.

Blog: March 4, 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.

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.