Closing the Gap

by Eric Cook

“For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”

Psalm 103:14

Not long into my time as a Head of School, I faced a challenging scenario. One of our middle school students was struggling immensely. He worked very hard, but he was spending an exorbitant amount of time on his work. Even when he did complete it, there were gaps in his understanding. Both he and his family were doing their best but felt like they were barely even treading water.

We extended ourselves as a school but did not have the resources to give him what he needed. Though gut wrenching, the lead Upper School teacher and I spoke frankly with the parents about his ability to thrive at the school. We told the family that we did not think we were able to give their son what he needed. Though heart broken, the parents agreed. They went home and shared the decision with their son. He would have none of it! He pleaded to stay at the school and promised to persevere. After talking directly to the student and praying intensely, we decided to let him stay. What happened over the next four years was very formative and instructive, both for our school and for me as a leader. Not only did this young man make it through high school, but he went on to a university that other students struggled to get into.

This story illustrates at least one major flawed assumption I held about my work. The assumption was an overly idealized vision of what classical Christian education actually looks like in the life of students. Many classical Christian educators are familiar with the work of Paul Tripp. Years ago, Dr. Tripp explained an idea that struck me. He called it the “gospel gap.” Tripp said that there is often an enormous distance between the stated beliefs and the actual embodiment of those beliefs in the lives of Christians. He based his observation on 2 Peter 1:8-9, which says, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.” The lack of daily fruit in our lives, Tripp says, is indicative of a blindness that has occurred. We have forgotten who we are in Christ and thus live in a way that is disconnected from the reality of our condition. Thus, the gospel gap.

I think something like a gospel gap exists in our classical Christian schools. The gap I see is the distance between our idealized classical Christian vision and the actual experience of our students and families. My concern is not so much that there is a gap. There will always be a separation between our imagined version relative to what we can actually achieve. There is also no inherent problem with aiming at something that is unattainably high. That is not the issue.

Our idealism becomes a problem when it blinds us to the realities and messiness of teaching and learning; when it makes us cynical, resentful, and condescending to others who are less informed or committed; when our work becomes more about what we know and less about the formation of students; when we use idealized versions of our work to advance our school or pat ourselves on the back. The problem with being overly idealistic is that students and parents, who “just don’t get it,” feel left on the other side of the gap because they have not yet learned what we have. 

No doubt, there is an inevitable void between our ideal and reality, but we expand it by our ignorance, naivete, and pride. Doing so, not only undermines our aims as a school, but it contradicts the very tradition we claim to follow. The gap between our ideals and reality blind us to our own ineffectiveness as educators and alienates the very people we are seeking to draw in. However, by doing some honest self-examination, remembering our calling, reflecting on our own experience, and anchoring our schools in the truth of the gospel, we can close the gap and move closer to reaching our vision.

Portraits of Perfection

In many ways, tools like the portrait of a graduate may lure us into thinking that we have closed the gap by providing concrete character traits for our students to aspire to. However, we must be careful with this assumption for at least two reasons. First, even though the portrait is a helpful way to articulate the aims of the school, it can often be used to fuel the pride of our students and parents. We can so easily overstate the abilities and character of our students to recruit new families and demonstrate success. We not only do it in front of the students, but the community as well. The truth is, that as gifted and mature as some teenagers may be, and as much as they might embrace the ideals we put before them, they are not wise. Even at their best, teenagers are bereft of the life experience and maturity to truly embody the characteristics of a portrait of a graduate. Even though it may be done out of pure motives, misrepresenting the truth about students only widens the gap.

Second, while the portrait of a graduate can be an unhealthy source of pride for some students (and their parents), it can be a crushing weight for others. At the school I used to lead, we often publicly praised a student who was truly exceptional. He could have taught half of the classes he took. He would get mentioned in chapels and prospective parent nights. He was lauded at donor events and sometimes, he even spoke to groups on the school’s behalf. And while the things we said about him were true, it created an overly idealized picture of what the school could take credit for and put forward a vision that was unrealistic for virtually every other student in the school. Students sometimes cynically joked about how they would never measure up. We had to find another approach.

The portrait is an ideal, but it can be a stumbling block if we use it to brag or inadvertently shame our students. Let’s not widen the gap between our vision and reality simply to advance our own cause or pat ourselves on the back as a school. Aiming for the highest good, being idealistic and aspirational, can be inspiring and motivating. Yet, to be wise and effective, we must situate our aims in the day-to-day experiences and struggles of our students. Then, the good we are pointing them towards becomes a noble path they can follow rather than a weight they must shoulder.

The portrait of the graduate illustrates the gap in our schools quite well because the document itself is intended to be idealistic. However, there are many ways in which we often, again, unwittingly, widen the distance between vision and reality. For example, we widen the gap when we:

  • Overestimate the wisdom and abilities of our students
  • Become overly ambitious with our curricular aims and homework
  • Use words that make us sound smart, but do not instruct
  • Aggrandize our own importance as the saviors of western civilization
  • Unfairly denigrate other schools and models
  • Boast about things we cannot and should not take credit for
  • Refuse to listen to families because they don’t understand classical Christian education
  • Assume the most meaningful work will happen in the timeframe we have with students
  • Forget the complex nature of our work
  • Just want some families to go away
  • Become impatient with students and families as they struggle
  • Use inside language knowing that our community doesn’t understand
  • Forget that knowledge puffs up
  • Forget that the most important work in our students is from God and not our own doing
  • Forget our own story, our own struggles, and our own gap
  • Puff up our students by telling them how much smarter they are than everyone else
  • Publicly compare our students who can not only do the thing, but “do it in Latin”

Aiming High or Wishful thinking?

We have all done these things and no school is immune from them. However, we must take some time to evaluate our language, habits, and communication. We must be careful that our idealism does not become mere wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is a sinister descendant of idealism. It is the foolish notion that things are or will be a certain way because we really want them to be so. We tend to do this when we see really good things happening in our lives or at our schools and then we extrapolate a more expansive narrative. This is how idealism can become wishful thinking. As Thomas Sowell said, “Wishful thinking is not idealism. It is self-indulgence at best and self-exaltation at worst. In either case, it is usually at the expense of others. In other words, it is the opposite of idealism.” Learning how to aim at the highest good without turning it into an occasion for pride and boasting is a perpetual temptation. Once again, doing so only widens the gap between our aims and the execution of them.

Closing the Gap 

In our passion and pursuit of the good, many of us have forgotten what it was like to struggle, to be fickle, and resist the good things that are offered to us. We minimize the “gospel gap” in our own lives, often judging ourselves by our intentions and our students and their families by their behavior. We get impatient, fearful, and frustrated with the timing and the receptivity, or lack thereof, from our students. Sometimes our nearsightedness makes us blind to the work God is doing because it is not immediately visible to us.

If you have been at this very long, you have seen some students who do not engage when they are in high school only to develop a deep passion for learning later. Unfortunately, we have seen the opposite as well. Some students are fully engaged when they are at our schools and then are drawn into error and their foundations are uprooted. These realities must humble us and help us return to Christ as our hope in the fruit we desire for our students. Don’t write the students’ story for them. Don’t assume what you see is what they will become.

Tim Keller, in his sermon on Galatians 5, says that the fruit of the Spirit in the life of a Christian is invisible, symmetrical, gradual, inevitable, and internal. The most important sources of growth are not visible. They are rooted in the heart and take much more time than we would like. Nonetheless, we must trust the Spirit to close the gap and make our work effectual. God willing, over a lifetime, our students will slowly approximate the well-crafted descriptions in our portrait of a graduate.

Not only should we be humbled by the inability to accomplish our true aim, but by our own need to mature as educators. The reality is most of us are new to this work. We are still figuring out what classical Christian education is and how it works. And while being new to this work creates some challenges and disadvantages for the movement (e.g., many of us were not classically educated), to me, it provides one very important and obvious benefit. We can extend grace and empathy to those who are learning it for the first time. We know what that is like. Do we really have as much figured out as we think we do? Have we really come to terms with our own limited understanding? Can we use our need to grow to meaningfully engage our students and families? In the end, our idealism needs to be checked by a host of truths that we rarely stop to grapple with.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates says, “…it seems that neither of us knows anything great, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know. So, it seems I am wiser than he in this one small thing, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” Socrates recognized that assuming we know more than we do creates an immense obstacle (gap) to understanding. This truth was renewed for me when I recently attended the Face of God conference hosted by CiRCE. I was humbled by the message to be continually beholding the glory and face of God so that we reflect what we see back to our students. A host of questions came to mind: What do we see when we look at the face of our students? How do we take the good, true, and beautiful and make them real? What do our students see when they look at our faces? Are we reflecting the right things? Are our students drawn closer to what we want for them by being in our presence?

Thomas Merton in his excellent work, Wounded Healer, said, “People of prayer are, in the final analysis, people who can recognize in others the face of the Messiah. They are people who make visible what was hidden, who make touchable what was unreachable. People of prayer are leaders because precisely through their articulation of God’s work within themselves they can lead others away from confusion and toward clarification.” As Merton notes, making real what is only imagined, incarnating the ideals we profess, is the highest calling of every teacher and the surest means of closing the gap (Lk. 6:40).

Tripp’s insight about the “gospel gap” is not just a helpful principle that happens to apply to the issue of classical Christian school idealism. The most important gap we have to bridge is not merely aligning our vision as a school. It is ultimately a gospel gap. What we need is to remember, to see, and to possess the truth of the gospel. Jesus became poor so that we could become rich. He took on human flesh and was tempted in every way like we are. He suffered with us and for us, to bridge the separation and bring us near to God (I Pet. 3:18). Christ died so that the wall of partition would be broken down, the veil was split so that we could have intimate access, nearness to Him. Therefore, Peter and Paul’s boasting was in the Lord. Paul did not “commend himself” to justify his ministry (2 Cor. 3). He told the Corinthians that they were the proof of his ministry, Christ’s letters of commendation.

Embodying these truths prevents us from the pride and folly of idealism and wishful thinking. It helps us extend grace to our students, families, and the stranger. The Psalmist tells us that our Lord knows our frame and remembers we are dust. May He grant us the wisdom to know and remember that we are dust as well. Maybe then we can begin to close the gap in our schools.