Whose responsibility is it?

Education for FlourishingIn their book, Education for Human Flourishing: A Christian Perspective, Spears and Loomis express concerns about the current educational emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge/technical prowess versus the pursuit of truth/virtue in the classroom setting. Are we educating for excellence and flourishing, or primarily to have students possess certain skills and pass high-stakes tests?

As Christian educators we might well agree that our work should transcend state/national standards. We are educating with an eye toward the student’s work/vocation and an understanding that our work is our acceptable sacrifice to God, not simply directed toward success and employment. Historically then, how have we ended up with our current state of education today? The authors believe that the concerns can be summed up in two words – a lack of wisdom and theology:

“Wisdom pursues how knowledge, within a discipline, is coherent, and recognizes how the seemingly discrete pieces of knowledge within a discipline fit together as a unified whole…the study of theology is a unique pursuit of wisdom because it is a study of God – the one who created and makes coherent all the universe.” Quoting Aquinas: “…we should pursue theology because we love God and want to better understand what he has revealed about himself.”

Spears and Loomis point out that the loss of theology as pre-eminent in the Enlightenment Era led to the loss of the connectedness in the disciplines.  This factor in turn led to empirical science being seen as superior to Christian revelation. (Earlier in the book the authors point out that both rationality and revelation are needed in Christian education.) They are concerned that in American education we are increasingly being drawn into a homogenous, technical, information narrowing educational process as contrasted with Jesus’ emphasis on the personal and connected model of teaching people. Given the current information economy, they believe that “schools no longer have the capacity to act as a trustworthy guide in the development of moral dispositions and actions.” If we seek to maximize human flourishing in a holistic manner, there must be space in the educational process for “creativity, complexity, diversity, richness, and multicultural understandings” that lead to human growth and flourishing. Spears and Loomis suggest that much of this responsibility for a high quality information economy falls to the leader of the school.

The authors are particularly critical of their own (departments of education at Christian colleges) in terms of effective leadership, good theoretical work and effective problem solving: “In fact, there have been no significant ideas originating from Christian schools of education for at least several decades…Christian schools of education appear resolved to operate within existing theoretical structures developed by the technical model of the secular academy.” In an earlier chapter, Spears and Loomis suggest that few Christian scholars are cognizant of the present direction of education and may have even lost the capacity to comment on it. At the current time, the authors point to Nicholas Wolterstorff as the only exception to a complete absence of Christians working in the theoretical field of Christian education.

The authors point out that the responsibility doesn’t simply rest there though – it must be shared by practicing educators. These educators need to approach their work “intelligently, integratively, and transforming present informational constraints,” and be “unified in Christ’s passion for human beings and their full and complex development.”

The book provides a helpful section relative to three options for Christian teachers teaching in public schools as articulated by J.E. Schwartz:

  1. Agent for enculturation – teacher views reality as split into sacred/secular, church and state with a high wall of separation, being passively obedient to school authorities, and valuing social stability,
  2. Christian advocate/evangelist – sacred is higher than secular, no split of knowledge and reality, teacher answers to a higher authority, and using school to further knowledge of God and spread a Christian pubic morality,
  3. Golden Rule Truth Seeker – life is integrated with no split of sacred/secular, no direct proselytizing, go where truth leads, honors truth, justice, intellectual honesty, and the quest for truth is ultimately a quest to know God.

The authors believe that the Golden Rule Truth Seeker is the best option for Christians working in public schools – it provides a position to maximize information and overcome the technical framework limitations of public education.

This book is a very helpful critique of the inadequacies of public education today and how Christian education is able to answer the deepest human needs with a holistic education. It rightly challenges those in Christian leadership positions, whether colleges or K-12, administrators or teachers, to understand more clearly the history and implications of the present course of American education. I wish the authors had gone further to present more concrete ways that Christian educators in both K-12 and college could partner together to reach the lofty goal of education for human flourishing. This partnering could include helping Christian educators to better understand how to construct and teach integrated units that get to wisdom and theology with students. The partnership could also articulate how Christians could become “golden rule truth seekers” in their settings. This is where the hard work remains and we desperately need our Christian colleges to begin this process with teachers in training.

Dan Beerens is a K-12 educational consultant and international speaker specializing in curriculum mapping and design, school improvement, teacher supervision and evaluation, and staff development. He is the author of “Evaluating Teachers for Professional Growth: Creating a Culture of Motivation and Learning” published by Corwin Press.

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