Sunday, August 31, 2008

Academic Platypus

Observations on the State of Christian Education and Suggestions.

I am, in large part, a product of Christian education. For the last few years, I've been giving back to the system at a small private school. My experiences on both sides of the desk have begun to coalesce lately, and so I offer the following as a provisional and tentative sketch of what I've learned.

Christian education, at its best, revives the old ideal of the university; where all the disciplines meet under a common uniting principle to shape students into integrated physical, emotional, and spiritual beings. However, experience, studies, and anecdotal evidence have suggested to me that this ideal is rarely reached. There are several factors in play that seem to me to hinder many Christian schools in their attempts to offer an excellent and truly Christian education:


1. Lack of a clear philosophy of Christian education. It seems to me that many churches decide that something is wrong with the state of secular education and therefore set up Christian schools. Well and good. These schools, however, only become shallow and underfunded apes of the state schools apart from a clear understanding at all levels of what a Christian education ought to be. Without an ordering ideal to make a Christian school distinctive in its view of what exactly education is, and how students learn and grow as spiritual beings, all that is produced is a secular school managed by people who happen to be Christians and offer Bible classes along with the promise that the school is "safer" than the local government schools. If the school is well funded, it becomes merely a safe-haven for rich kids. If the school is poorly funded, it becomes merely a safe-haven for less wealthy kids. In each case, the students are quicker than the adults to pick up on what's going on and many become jaded with both Christian education and Christianity itself. There is no coherent idea to inspire them and explain why they are in a Christian school rather than a government school.

2. Over saturation of an area's market for Christian schools. I've counted at least three or four Christian schools in my area and I know for a fact that they are all in competition with each other for a limited number of students. This leads to rivalries between the schools and backbiting that undercuts a Christian school's mission. It is also wasteful from a market standpoint. Yes, competition is good to a point, but aren't all Christian schools of the same denomination/general movement in the same game? This competition often leads to underfunded and under-attended schools that cannot provide a quality education of any stripe to their customers.

3. Lack of funding. I had a colleague who asked: "How can a teacher press his students to strive for excellence when the desks the students are sitting at are falling apart?" Christian schools claim to strive for excellence but often can't pay for it. A Christian school can't build up a highly qualified and united faculty willing to stay long enough to really make an impact on children's lives if they pay them around $30,000 in southern California. Since many Christian schools can't afford to pay their staff even a modest amount, the turnover rate for the faculty remains high. Students need continuity and relationships with their teachers in order to flourish academically. When they have five math teachers in three years, they become jaded and recalcitrant, feeling that the faculty does not care about them. For their part, teachers need to be able to spend several years in the same school, teaching the same classes, in order to develop their teaching abilities to their full height. This is incredibly hard when their classes change year to year depending on loss of faculty and number of students. It is impossible if they are forced to leave after only a year or two because they cannot make a decent wage to care for their families.

In addition to high turnover rate, a lack of funds also means that the faculty is frequently under-qualified, unable to acquire further education without great personal sacrifice, and mostly composed of women who are second income earners with kids who benefit from reduced tuition. The first two are undoubtedly problems. The third is only a problem in that Christian schools are chronically gender imbalanced and the teachers' kids don't contribute a share of resources to the school equal to the slots they fill. Most importantly, kids have a hard time believing in a school they know is a shoddy fourth-rate, and will often extend that judgement to the religion that sanctions it.


1. Make sure that all staff, faculty, board members, parents, and students are exposed to a strong and coherent philosophy of Christian education. I recommend Cardinal Newman's The Idea of a University, Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth, and C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man as a place to start. If anyone can recommend additional readings for the beginner, let me know.

2.Be aware of what other Christian schools are in the area before you start one, and of the cost of establishing a Christian school. Does your church feel the call to get in on Christian education? See what else is out there first. Why hinder the work that fellow Christians are already doing by pulling away needed students, dollars, and faculty from their efforts? If your church does go through with it, make sure that everyone understands that starting a Christian school is significantly different from any of your other ministries. It will take an immense commitment of cash at the outset and at different times during the school's maturation. Also, if your church starts a school and wants administrative control, it needs to be fully committed financially until the school can run itself as a well-grounded academic institution. If the church doesn't have the needed resources, or wishes to allocate them elsewhere, then it needs to get things started and then step aside and allow the school to administer itself. Much trouble is caused when a church wants to provide only limited support, or none, while still requiring the school to be absolutely submissive in policy and procedures to the church. If your church does go in all the way, remember that you still need to work with and listen to the people you hire; if you've hired good people at the outset, trust them to make good decisions and put some faith in their understanding of what's required to do their job.

If you are on a church board that already oversees a Christian school or are a Christian school administrator, consider if your school can really afford to provide high quality education to each of its grade levels. If there is not enough money to properly staff grades 9-12 and provide all the programs and curriculum needed, consider closing the high school and reopening it one grade at a time as finances improve. It's a hard call to make, especially when real people's jobs are in question, but if the result of keeping those grade levels open is to convince kids that Christianity is about justifying third-rate education and fourth-rate facilities, then it just might be worth closing those grades down. Knowing that my job could be downsized at any time, this is the hardest of the suggestions I've put forth, but I think it holds true when a school or grade-level has deteriorated beyond a certain point. What is that point? I'm honestly not sure, but administrators, faculty, students, and parents all seem to know when it has been reached at a particular school.

3. See what God might lead your church to do with those funds instead. Your church might want to take the money that would be used to set up a new school and instead use it to partner with one or more of the Christian schools in the area. Believe me, they can always find a good use for your dollars. If the church board doesn't think it wise to just hand over money, then perhaps they can set up a scholarship fund to help financially burdened families, or a yearly grant to Christian schools that meet certain standards. The church could also agree to help support teachers in Christian schools who are living near or below the poverty line.

Wrapping things up.

These are all just thoughts and they are open to revision and correction. I intend to stick with Christian education and, in light of that, I want to be the best Christian educator I can be, and that means being informed on and developing a deep understanding of the issues that are at the heart of making it a reality.

One final word. Most of this article has centered on questions of finances. I think the most important question we can ask regarding Christian education at this time is "how much do we value it and how much are we willing to pay for it." Knowing the answer to that question as individuals and as the broader Christian community will make the answers to much of the issues raised above clear.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lewisian Platypus

Lines quoted by Lewis in "Surprised by Joy" from Euripides:

"Oh God, bring me to the sea's end
To the Hesperides, sisters of evening,
Who sing alone in their islands
Where the golden apples grow,
And the Lord of Oceans guards the way
From all who would sail
Into their night-blue harbors —
Let me escape to the rim of the world
Where the tremendous firmament meets
The earth, and Atlas holds the universe
In his palms.
For there, in the palace of Zeus,
Wells of ambrosia pour through the chambers,
While the sacred earth lavishes life
And Time adds his years
Only to heaven's happiness"

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XXV

Odds and ends as summer wraps up.

My big "thinking book" for this summer was "The Closing of the American Mind" by Allan Bloom. Yeah, I'm coming to this one a little late, but I was just a kid in the '80s when it was written. I undertook it as a sort of intellectual archeology, since it influenced people who have influenced me. Even if it's a little out of date, (and when has that ever stopped a Torrey student?) it's still worth the read just to uncover some of the ideas and problems that shaped the way we were taught. Hopefully, I'll be able to continue that archeology by digging into a bit of Strauss later in the year.

In prepping for my American History class, I also undertook to read "1776" by David McCullough. My grandmother sent me the illustrated edition for my birthday. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read and all the reproductions of historical documents were fun to play with and will be useful in the classroom.

Finally, I'm also prepping for a lecture on Gothic literature, and so I've been reading through my "Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe". Poe's easy to underestimate, and I fear that I underestimated him for too long. Yes, he doesn't have a terrible lot to say, but the ways he finds to say it are powerful and engaging, and all the more so since they pass so easily for gloomy, middlebrow fluff. It reminds me a lot of Hellboy in that. Speaking of Hellboy, I finally got out to see "The Golden Army" the other day! It was fun. Nothing life-changing, but just plain fun. If I can gather my thoughts, I may sit down and write a review... We'll see.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Return of "Thus Spoke the Platypus" Part XII

Now on the fortieth day, the great strength of Utnapishtim failed him and his foot stumbled, and Utnapishtim cried out. Then a great wind came from the East and drove a wall of sand between him and his pursuers, and Utnapishtim rose up and ran. A while later, his strength gave way again, and he stumbled in the way, and cried out with a loud voice. Then a great fire came across from the West and burned between him and his pursuers, and Utnapishtim rose up again and ran. When darkness came, his great strength was at its end, and he stumbled to the ground, and let out a great cry. Then a storm came from the North and the springs of the earth were opened and Wheels of Og's chariots, and the hooves of his horses, and the feet of his footmen were snared in the mud. Then Og lost Utnapishtim in the midst of the storm and great was the wrath of Og in that day when he lost Utnapishtim in the heart of the storm.

Then Utnapishtim found a tree and laid himself beneath it to die. And Wisdom spoke to Utnapishtim out of the storm: "Utnapishtim, wisest of men, man of the reed house! Now has Utnapishtim become a dog by the side of the road? Now has Utnapishtim become a dead dog?

And Utnapishtim spoke to the storm: "Now surely Utnapishtim is as a dog by the side of the road, now surely is Utnapishtim as a dead dog, for Og has come, and moved Utnapishtim from his place at the crossroads. How will men learn of Wisdom now? What wind can reach them in their stone houses?" And Utnapishtim put his face in the dust as one who dies.

And the voice of Wisdom answered Utnapishtim from out of the storm: "Indeed Og has come and driven Utnapishtim from his place at the crossroads, but who is Utnapishtim, and who is his father, and of what clan is he that Wisdom should need him? At what school did they study together that Utnapishtim knows all his secret thoughts? Does not the wind blow wherever it pleases? Will it not blow through every crack and chink in their stone houses? Will it not knock their houses down if it so wishes!"

And Utnapishtim had no answer and was silent. Then the voice of Wisdom left him, and Unapishtim lay beneath the tree as a deadman.

In the morning, the storm lifted, and the sun shown down, and life yet stirred in Utnapishtim. And Utnapishtim raised his head and cried out: "Ah! That Wisdom did not slay me, for shall I speak to Wisdom and live?" And he turned his face from the sun and lay down again to die, but Wisdom sent the animals of Utnapishtim to him, his raven and his dove, and they brought food and drink to him so that he ate and drank and was refreshed. So Utnapishtim arose and cut a branch from the tree to shield his face, and set out for his mountain, and each day his animals came to him with found and drink and so refreshed him.

Now this is the song of Utnapishtim that he sang at the rising of the sun between the mountain and the lake:

Out of the past does Wisdom speak, and out of the wasteland does it sing!
Seek ye the ancient way, for daylight is coming and will show the path.
O leave man's city and go out with anxious feet, for Wisdom comes with the dayspring.
The font of all our yesterdays, the font of our tomorrows: out of the same ocean
do they spring!

Now Utnapishtim will take a wife and father children,
For the Hope of men will come!
O that Wisdom would become a Man and speak with me!
For I love you, O Wisdom.
For I love you, O Wisdom.

Utnapishtim does not crown himself. Nay! He will fling his crown away!
For what can compare with Wisdom, who possesses us, and not we Wisdom?
Utnapishtim makes his crown an offering though it is but a paltry thing.
A coronet made all of thistles and water rushes, with faded water lilies!

Now Utnapishtim will take a wife and father children,
For the Hope of men will come!
O that Wisdom would become a Man and speak with me!
For I love you, O Wisdom.
For I love you, O Wisdom.

Join me in my merry dance! To the City of Man return, in the train of holy Wisdom!
Love Life, for Life is stronger than death. Love Love, for Love is stronger than the grave.
Oh Life, and death, and Love, and grave, we bring you into our city.
In the train of holy Wisdom each has as much good as each can hold!

Now Utnapishtim will take a wife and father children,
For the Hope of men will come!
O that Wisdom would become a Man and speak with me!
For I love you, O Wisdom.
For I love you, O Wisdom.

Thus Sang Utnapishtim