Starter Conversation

Dear C,
Everywhere I turn, spiritual formation is the topic of conversation in Christian schooling circles. Always, however, from the point of view that schools are missing the boat by neglecting spiritual formation of students and that the faith dropout rate of students can be laid at the feet of the schools. After twenty years in Christian ministry and education, I am becoming skeptical that schools can or should try to take on the spiritual formation of students. Any ideas?

— R.

Dear R,
I tend to share your skepticism. I would add the nuance that academic training in a Christian context IS spiritual formation. But parents and ministry and school leaders often want something else. I’m not sure they believe that smart Christians are really spiritually better off. So, the spiritual formation or character education program — even Bible classes — is a way to dumb things down for a few hours a week so we can really “get at the kids’ hearts.”

It’s a huge bias. Try to convince a group of parents that one of the main reasons that kids lose their faith in college is not that they are too smart, but that they are not smart enough!

So, what can a school legitimately do? We can teach students to study the Word, and occasionally preach it to them. Parochial/liturgical schools might administer sacraments. We can pray. We can practice self-denial in the context of our academic and social responsibilities. And we can serve others. What else is there? I would guess, if you had this conversation with someone, they would say, “Yes, yes, I know that, that’s all good, but I just don’t feel like we’re getting to their heeeaaarrrts!” And then you say, “What does that mean?” And then they blame you because their kids are acting like teenagers, but especially like the teenagers with whom their parents let them spend every unsupervised minute of every weekend.

The battle is against the bias. CS Lewis, Harry Blamires, Frank Gaebelein, Frances Schaeffer. More recently, educators like Bruce Lockerbie, Doug Wilson, Robert Littlejohn, Richard Riesen, and John Seel are fighting the fight. Who else?

— C

Dear C,
Thanks again for your input on my question.

The caution about not overstating as well as the thoughts about how the church has historically approached spiritual formation were very helpful.

A Christian school meeting several years ago got me pondering the role of schools. An administrator painted a picture of what a “graduate” should look like – the list heavily slanted toward spiritual outcomes – while at the same time admitting that schools were at least 3rd in rank of spiritual influence on students, after parents and church.

I politely questioned the emphasis at the time, but received no satisfactory reply. Since then, I have been thinking, observing, and wondering.

Whenever I bring it up with other educators, I get dismissive responses – “Yes, it’s ultimately the parent’s job, but we do have a role—we are, after all, ‘in loco parentis.’” I can agree with that, but “having a role” and making it a concrete objective are two very different things.

I’ll spare you the process, but I have pretty much concluded that Christian education is ill- served when we make spiritual formation of students anything other than an organic by-product of participating in a community of faith centered on academic endeavor. When we say we are about the spiritual training and nurture of students, we either are misrepresenting ourselves or losing sight of our true mission. I also concluded that I had probably stepped over the edge from an alternative, but reasonable position into outright heresy, since it was hard to find others clearly saying the same.

Then my Nov. issue of First Things arrived and Gilbert Meilaender has a review of Stanley Fish’s latest book. As part of the review, Meileander draws some pretty clear distinctions between what Christian education can and cannot do. I would do him a grave injustice to try and summarize, but it certainly resonated with me. Of course, he is talking about college education, but I think much of it still applies. So, if I am off into deep heresy, at least I’m not feeling quite so lonely!

On Thursday I went to a Christian school conference for the day. The last time I went (several years ago), I was very heartened by the emphasis on academic excellence, raising the bar, the value of challenging the mind. I reported back: “They are singing our song.” This time, I heard over and over ideas similar to “if it doesn’t have an immediate spiritual application and impact, it is worthless.” Even from a college professor. It was discouraging but it is the only logical end if our job is a spiritual one.

There are 1000 facets to this whole discussion and nuances too fine for my reductionistic tendencies. But I would love to see this discussion taking place in the ranks of SCL. Have we just bought into the latest “ x” for the undeniable spiritual anemia of students? I was also intrigued by Ken Myer’s comment in Peter Leithart’s article in the ISI Journal when he wondered if the classical Christian school movement would lose its bearings and be drawn into a utilitarian view of producing cultural change agents. Aren’t these important questions for us to be asking ourselves?

— R

Dear R,
One of the problems with the confusion on this topic is that it subjectivizes what we do, and I think it feeds the consumeristic mentality that we often find ourselves battling with parents. Many Christian parents don’t look to their churches as the most profound spiritual influences in their lives—lots of people I know say that they didn’t learn to be Christians in church, but individuals in college or someplace taught them to be Christians. So when they think about their kids’ faith, maybe we’re the new Campus Crusade.

Would you mind if I circulate your thoughts and see what kind of responses we get?

— C

Giving Birth to the Counter-Culture

I am glad to be invited into this conversation, but I need to make it clear up front that I am the Christian leader of a school instead of the leader of a Christian school – I head up a Classical Core Knowledge Charter School. While I know many might be curious about what I can add to this conversation because of the limitations that I have a public school, I do believe that the formation of the child’s spirit plays a central role in the mission/vision of our school.

My emphasis on formation, however, is implicitly shaped through the story offered through exposure to the Western tradition as discussed by the teachers and staff in the school community. Formation is also reinforced through the distinct nature (i.e., rituals and traditions) of the community.

While I started my teaching career in a private, Christian school, I subsequently decided to see if I could make an institutional impact in the public school world. Four years ago I became principal of an urban charter school. When I first looked at the academic standing of the students that registered to attend my schools, I realized that these kids had been truly let down by the district-run public schools. I would have to ensure that academic excellence was a central component of our school’s culture if these kids were going to have a chance of becoming well-educated, virtuous citizens in their community.

Part of my hope for the project came from the fact that I myself had grown up in these neighbor- hoods and was able to escape as a result of great mentors who stepped into my life. Solid educational opportunities ultimately enabled me to get into and graduate from a very strong college in the Northeast, something that had not been done in my family to that point. As I reflected on my journey, I tried to look for other examples of success in the black community that ran counter to the current malaise in urban public schools that we read about weekly. I was overjoyed when I started to read about amazing work that the American Missionary Association (AMA) did the Southern blacks following the Civil War. The AMA, out of the Northeast, sent groups of teachers to establish schools and to teach and acculturate the children of freed slaves into new possibilities that didn’t exist for them before.

By 1866 there were about 1,400 Northern white teachers teaching black children in 975 Southern schools. The classical education that these teachers brought, provided a solid foundation in the English language while also exposing students to the broad range of stories in the Western tradition. Through these stories, former black slaves were able to gain a perspective on their situation that they had never had before. With this perspective they gained a new sense of hope and courage to face their situation as newly freed citizens.

One of the success stories from this period was Mary Jane Patterson, whose family emigrated from North Carolina to Ohio before the Civil War. Patterson graduated from Oberlin College in 1862 and became the first Principal of Preparatory High School for Colored Youth—later renamed Dunbar High School—in Washington, DC. While most women were not allowed to take Latin, Greek, and mathematics in college, she insisted on taking these courses and brought her strength and determination into her job at Dunbar. Having this kind of person shaping the standards and traditions of the school in its early years undoubtedly had something to do with its later success. The school continued to attract high-achieving black leaders. Three of the school’s first ten principals had graduated from Oberlin, two from Harvard, and one each from Amherst and Dartmouth.

Over the entire 85-year history of academic success in this school, from 1870 to 1955, most of its graduates went on to higher education. This was very unusual for either black or white high school graduates during that era. It is also important to note that not only did Dunbar students go on to college, but many of them became successful, ground- breaking leaders. The first black man to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy came from Dunbar. The first black enlisted man in the army to rise to become a commissioned officer also came from this institution. So did the first black woman to receive a PhD from an American university. And the first black full professor at a major American university. The first black federal judge, the first black general, the first black Cabinet member, the first black senator elected since Reconstruction, the doctor who pioneered the use of blood plasma, historian Carter G. Woodson, poet Sterling Brown, and Duke Ellington, all attended Dunbar High.

What is amazing to me about this story of academic success and student formation is that they did this during a time when there were supposedly no doors open to blacks in the broader culture. Because of their excellence, though, they opened doors that previously did not exist. These stories stand in stark contrast to the low academic standards prevalent in many urban centers, and at Dunbar High School today.

To recover some of the academic and moral excellence that arose in the black community in the last century, I focused first on hiring excellent teachers who knew their content more than their educational psychology. But their intellect alone would not be able to do the job. Like the AMA teachers, the teachers I hired would also need to be living examples of moral excellence so that their students could see the qualities that we sought for them to acquire. I also worked very hard to develop strong rituals and traditions in the school community that reinforced a sense of “we” versus “me” while also providing for regular opportunities to publicly celebrate the embodiment of our core values in particular students.

I realized, despite all of the effort to build a haven of academic excellence, I needed to make sure that we were truly helping our students to become “fully human.” Glimpses of success in this area became evident in conversations with sixth graders as they debated some of the moral issues in The Prince and the Pauper or when seventh graders discussed what it means to be “authentic” in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

I truly believe that the various works from the western tradition that we exposed our students to did make a great impact on many of our students, if not all equally. For once they were able to see a world beyond the videos of BET and the Hip-Hop music that permeates their iPods. For once, they could let down their cynical and jaded attitude toward the world and explore questions of truth, beauty, and goodness in a setting where it was cool to be somewhat intellectual.

One of the best indications for me of the formative impact we had on students took place with the enrollment of new students. As these new students came on board the existing students felt it was their responsibility to acclimate the new students into
the unique culture that they had helped to build at our school. While I would love to say that massive cultural changes took place within the doors of my school, they did not. But I am very proud of the tremendous progress that I saw in the young men and women, and amongst the staff and students who worked so hard to build a counter-culture in Washington.

Leading in the Little Things

Most Christian school missions say something about training students to become servant leaders. As we train our students and teachers to strive for excellence, school leaders can model a biblical servant’s attitude by simply paying attention to the people around us. In the busyness of our daily jobs it is easy to forget what our families and students rely on us to provide. Time is the most valuable resource we have and the most valuable thing we can share with those we lead.

I have built one opportunity to model servant leadership into my morning routine. I work with grammar school-aged children so I choose to stand in front of the school each morning to supervise drop-off. I shake my students’ hands, call them by name, and wish them a good morning. I can encourage students, tie a few shoes, notice a lost tooth, and remind forgetful students to turn in their homework. Usually, the type of morning a student has had is evident on his face and in his demeanor. Taking a moment to give a hug and a word of encouragement is a highlight of my day. I never know when it will be the highlight for one of my students or will encourage a parent watching from a car.

Assemblies and programs are always squeezed into busy and stressful days. During one of these events, a young girl with a profound hearing loss sang a beautiful song in front of our student body. Her mother arrived late. I found her crying in the back of the building, devastated that she had missed her child’s courageous performance. I asked her to sit back down and arranged for her daughter to sing again. It was a small act on my part that impacted a family and our student body. The girl’s grandparents sent me a thank you expressing their shock that the program was rearranged for their granddaughter.

I am always surprised by the thank you notes I receive from parents who appreciate the time taken in what I would consider my less significant duties. Adjusting a microphone, giving words of encouragement, or calling a student who has been ill are gifts that require only the awareness that someone needs them. Parents who entrust their children to a school whose leaders model a servant’s attitude notice the care with which their child is treated. It is the evidence that our mission is more than just words.

Reading Toward Greatness

I love books! I love the feel of them, the smell of them, the way they look on the shelf, and, most of all, the joy of learning something that feeds my mind and soul. Before I married and acquired a mortgage, I spent a ridiculous amount of money on books. I adopted the philosophy of Erasmus: “When I get a little money I buy books;and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” I had a quote in my class- “ room by Samuel Davies, “The venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me and relieve me from the nonsense of the surviving mortals.”

Beyond my personal love for reading I am very cognizant of the central role that reading plays in education. Mortimer Adler, editor of Britannica’s Great Books, was distressed that reading for understanding is not taught in schools. “There is nothing more important that our schools could do,” he said, “if our schools have as their main function the preparation of young people to go on with a life of adult learning after they have left school.”

Neil Postman, in his famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, demonstrates the educational, social, and epistemological implications of moving from a text-based culture to an image-based culture. Text-based communication, the primary means of communication before television, requires reading. And reading requires deliberation, contemplation, reflection, and reason. It primarily engages the mind, as opposed to images, which target the emotions. Reading also requires that one be quiet and methodical. Images demand little, if anything, from us intellectually. In fact, Postman says, images are predominantly meant for entertainment and not for instruction, which is why they are literally killing us intellectually.

Reading is also educationally valuable in that it requires activity and skill from the reader. Adler says, “… the most important thing about reading, as about learning generally, is that it must be active, not passive.” To use an analogy from Adler, reading is like tunneling. Imagine yourself on one side of a mountain and the author on the other. You both work hard to meet in the middle to find understanding.

The Great Books are over everyone’s head. That is one reason why they are great. Do not expect to breeze through Milton or Dante. Reading many books is not the point. Thomas Hobbes once said “If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.” Reading well is better than reading swiftly.

And there is, of course, great spiritual value in reading. Paul told Timothy that study is the path to legitimate spiritual leadership. Reading is not just about schooling. It is theological. Cultivating a love for reading in children is perhaps the most important thing one can do to induce lifelong learning. Our efforts may bloom into a love for reading that leads to a skilled, passionate ransacking of the Bible.

Rewarding Reading

In educated circles, we hear a lot of doom and gloom about literacy and literature. When I log on to Amazon or browse through Borders, however, there is no lack of books, new and old, popular and esoteric. I’m more often overwhelmed by the choices than discouraged about the decline of the publishing industry.

So, in the interest of great reading, here are some tips that may help you make rewarding choices this summer.

Permit Yourself

A friend of mine grew up in a home in which readers were considered lazy. Even though she loves to read, it took years to overcome the feeling that reading for pleasure was a waste of time. This may be an extreme case, but we all face competition for our time. Newsletters, journals, and magazines scream at us from the coffee table and kitchen counter that we are falling behind on current events or professional development. Ninety minutes with Jane Austen or Steven King can seem like a luxury to which we are not entitled.

Move Away from the Screens

Most of us are educators and therefore more aware than many of the huge amounts of time wasted by our students in front of televisions, video games, and the internet. Still, I am surprised by the amount of time that I can lose watching late-night re-runs or jumping from link to link on the internet (not to mention the occasional Guitar Hero binge). No matter who is in the room, screen time is not really family time. They won’t miss you if you sit in the next room reading while they watch a bald guy with an earring try to give away a million dollars.

Read Interesting Things

Last year I bought the latest, critically acclaimed translation of Don Quixote, determined to read it through for the first time. About 300 pages in, I felt trapped. Despite the charming and historic qualities of the book, I was losing interest— and I felt guilty. It surely reflects my lack of taste and intelligence to bail out halfway through a masterpiece. We need to remind ourselves that some reading is required. When we read for leisure or for improvement, it’s okay to read books that truly interest us.

Use Your Friends

One of my closest friends is a voracious bookstore browser and reader. He’ll buy anything and try it. So, I often rely on him to steer me to authors and books that I might enjoy. Whether friends or an internet chat room or a book club, spending time with others who love to read is one of the best ways to find the books that we will find most rewarding.

Put a Poet in Your Pocket

Once upon a time in the dead of winter in the Dakota territory,” writes David McCullough, “Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat down the Little Missouri River in pursuit of thieves who had stolen his prized rowboat.” After several days, Roosevelt caught up with and got the draw on his quarry with his trusty Winchester. He then set off to haul the thieves cross country to justice. They walked forty miles, across the snow-covered Badlands, to the Dickinson jail. What makes the adventure especially notable is that during the trek, with criminals at the end of his rifle barrel, Roosevelt also managed to read Anna Karenina.

I am reminded of this story when I hear people say they haven’t the time to read. One report cites that the average American man reads just one book between his graduation from college and his death and that sixty percent of adult Americans have never read a single book in their adult lives. Alvin Kerman, in The Death of Literature, argues that reading books is “ceasing to be the primary way of knowing some- thing in our society.” We are no longer a people of ideas, curious about the world and eager to learn.

We live in a culture today that values image- oriented entertainment over knowledge and goodness, politically correct distortions over truth, filth over righteousness. Those of us in the Christian community often think we are immune, but our values and those of our children have subtly changed over the past couple of generations. For the sake of entertainment and self-esteem, we have become satisfied with mediocrity and self-centeredness, yet we still demand the benefits that hard work, sacrifice, and the search for truth provide.

Students and parents often complain about homework loads, yet students can recall with vivid detail hours of TV shows they’ve watched during the week, and I hear of the hours spent “IMing” and “Facebooking” friends. We seem unable to sacrifice amusement for anything more worthwhile.

Entertainment, wrote A.W. Tozer in 1955, is not evil in and of itself, but our devotion to entertainment as the major activity for which and by which we live is. He asserted that the abuse of a harmless thing is the essence of sin. For centuries the Church stood solidly against worldly entertainment, “recognizing it as a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from moral accountability.” More recently Christians seem to have given up the struggle. We have capitulated to the god of Entertainment.

Television destroys books. It murders academic skills. It eats away at positive character traits. It even compromises family relationships (How many families have a TV in every room?). TV pushes us away from relationships, including our most important one with our Heavenly Father.

So, let us model for our students the advice from the Psalmist to “turn our eyes away from worthless things.” To carry a book with you wherever you go is old advice and good advice. John Adams urged his son Quincy to carry a volume of poetry. “You will never be alone,” he said, “with a poet in your pocket.”

Summer Reading: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Ravi Zacharias once said, “If a storm could be embodied, it would have been embodied in Oscar Wilde.” Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde was a brilliant writer who defied convention. His turbulent and scandalous life turned heads and raised eye- brows throughout the world. Yet he captured the imaginations of thousands of readers with his penetrating analyses of the human heart.

Of all of Wilde’s famous work, the most brilliant is his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The story revolves around a young man who, upon seeing a portrait of himself, wishes he could trade his youth and beauty for a life of excess and extravagance. In Faustian style, Dorian trades his soul for his youth.

The life of the character Dorian Gray paralleled that of the author. In addition to various addictions, Wilde was most widely known for his openly homosexual relationships. Yet, he was a man in turmoil about his own soul. He once wrote, “Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.”

Wilde and his most famous character demonstrate their relevance to me in the lucid depiction of the human condition plagued by sin. Wilde reminds me that
our souls will not be concealed forever, that every soul has a face. We may escape the physical damages of sin, but we cannot escape its rendering effects on our souls.

It appears, despite a short, intense life of depravity, God used the penetrating questions Wilde raised in Dorian Gray, and he converted to Christianity on his death bed. He penned these words two years before his death in 1900:

And every human heart/that breaks/In prison-cell or yard,/Is as that broken box/that gave/Its treasure to the Lord,/And filled the unclean/leper’s house/With the scent of/costliest nard./Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break/And peace of pardon win!/How else may man make straight his plan/And cleanse his soul from Sin?/How else but through a broken heart/May Lord Christ enter in?

The Reading Road to Writing

Since ancient times, imitation has been the best teacher of quality communication, whether speech-making, preaching, negotiating, or any kind of writing. We read for many reasons; to learn what we do not know, to improve our character, to transcend time and place, even to escape reality. But no nobler purpose exists for reading masterfully written, high quality literature, than as a model for writing.

In a former life, I served as Honors Director for a Christian university. The capstone project and final requirement for graduation was the Honors Thesis. This paper was to be the culmination of a year’s research and writing, overseen by a committee of three faculty, one of whom served as primary advisor. I served as an additional reader for all theses, and I read some very interesting papers on topics outside my own discipline. However, I often found myself wondering if the writing was really honors quality.

On one occasion, I read a thesis that was totally incomprehensible. Upon consulting the faculty advisor, I discovered that he too found the paper unsatisfactory, but because of his junior status he was reticent to challenge the quality of the paper, since this student was well thought of by other members of the department.

When I asked the student to show me some examples of other papers he had written over the years, I found them all to be beautifully “processed” on high quality paper, with attractive fonts and formatting. Each paper bore a single red “A” or “A+” with no other marks or comments. I concluded that over his college career, no one had actually read this student’s writing. Now I had the unenviable responsibility of rejecting his thesis as substandard, denying his graduation from the program—an awful experience for both of us.

Why had this student received so little help with his writing in college, not to mention his previous high school and earlier learning experiences? My conclusion, from 25 years in K-12 and college education is simple and stark: writing is the most difficult thing to teach and, as an educational culture, we have forgotten how to do it.

While visiting my parents’ home last Christmas, I found a little book on composition that belonged to my grandfather, copyright 1907. The book was structured to teach students how to write exposition, biography, criticism, argument, description, and narration, through modeling high quality examples of each of these by authors like Stevenson, Huxley, Eliot, Lamb, Chesterton, Copeland, Hawthorne, Dickens, Conrad, Longfellow, Scott, Irving, Poe, Thoreau, Kipling and Austen.

As teachers, we would do well to take our cue from William Faulkner who wrote: “Read, read, read. Read everything…and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”