Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Church, Christmas, and the Light of the World

This past week more than 2 billion people celebrated a single event which occurred 2000 years ago.  A boy was born to a middle class Jewish family - a boy whom both shepherds and angels called "Savior."  More than two millenia later, a single institution bears still bears the news of the advent of Christ today.  The church is the object of much criticism, and many of it valid.  However, the church is the caretaker of the great treasure of the ages - the gospel.  The gospel of Jesus' birth, death, resurrection and second coming still blazes through the ages.  From the Middle East to Western Europe, from America and now to the Global South, the message is still much alive today.

As Christians celebrate the birth of the Redeemer from the cathedrals of Europe to the favelas of Brazil, from the megachurches of America to the underground church in China, many of them will light the last candle of the advent wreath. The last candle represents "Christ, the Light of the World." Indeed, his light still blazes today in the most unlikely of places.  And if Christ really is, the Way, the Truth, and the Light, then he certainly must be at the center of the educational process.  My alma mater, Valparaiso University, took its motto from the Psalms: "In your light we see light."  Through the light of God, all things become clear and beautiful.

Merry Christmas to all. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Religious Literacy

So, how smart are you?  Take this quiz:

1. Name the four gospels.
2. Name a sacred text of Hinduism.
3. What is the name of the holy book of Islam?
4. Where according to the Bible was Jesus born?
5. President George W Bush spoke in his first inaugural address of the Jericho road. What Bible story was he invoking? 
6. What are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament?
7. What is the Golden Rule?
8. "God helps those who help themselves." Is this in the Bible? If so, where?
9. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." Does this appear in the Bible? If so, where?
10. Name the Ten Commandments. List as many as you can.
11. Name the four noble truths of Buddhism.
12. What are the seven sacraments of Catholicism?
13. The First Amendment says two things about religion, each in its own "clause." What are the two religion clauses of the first amendment?
14. What is Ramadan? In what religion is it celebrated?

How'd you do?  Not so hot?  Don't worry, neither did most of America.  Stephen Prothero, in his book Religious Literacy, notes that Americans are incredibly religiously illiterate.  National surveys show that most Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments, had no idea that "blessed are the poor in spirit" come from western civilization's most important piece of oratory, and most couldn't name a single Hindu holy text. Only 1 in 6 of Prothero's students at Boston University knew that the First amendment guarantees both religious freedom and prohibits the government from endorsing one religion. 

Why don't more Americans know more about religion?  Simple answer: our schools have never taught it to them.  Prothero sees a major problem in the American educational system. We are pumping out students who are nearly totally ignorant on matters of eternal and universal importance.

 Warren Nord asks, "How can anyone believe that a college-bound student should take twelve years of mathematics and no religion rather than eleven years of mathematics and one year of religion? Why require the study of trigonometry or calculus, which the great majority of students will never use or need, and ignore religion, a matter profound and universal significance?" 

Now personally I think math is important, but Nord, and Prothero, make good points. How can we say that we actually educate our youth if they no next to nothing about the most formative ideas and worldviews history has produced? 

"But teaching religion in public schools is illegal!" you might say. President Clinton would disagree with you. In 1999, Clinton's Department of Education sent a memo to every principal in the country saying, "Public schools may teach about religion--for example, in classes on history, music, the arts, or comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as-literature, the role of religion in history--but public schools may not provide religious instruction."  In addition, several rulings from the Supreme Court support public educators rights to teach about religion in the classroom (see Prothero, 138).

Prothero is right in pointing out an obvious flaw in our educational practices in the public sector. I believe, however, he has gone awry in seeking his motivation primarily in making a better democracy, a more informed electorate. Prothero, as a Religious Studies professor, has either consciously or subconsciously bought into the idea that he is "objectively" looking at all religions from a neutral standpoint.  His writing seems to suggest he is ignorant to the fact that he also has a all-encompassing worldview that is not neutral or objective, namely, religious pluralism. The real motivation behind learning about all religions must be the pursuit of truth.

Regardless of this, however, he brings up some important points that all educators ought to heed.  How can we honestly say we are educating our youth when they know next to nothing about the most important, life-shaping ideas and philosophies in our world?  Religious literacy ought to be on the strategic planning docket of public and private educational leaders alike.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Education in Brazil

Sometimes to better understand a problem, we need to zoom in and look at it under a microscope. Other times we need to zoom out and look at it from outer space. Failing schools are endemic within failing educational systems, of which Brazil was almost the worst in 2000. Yet when the then-current President Cardoso took a hard look at what was wrong, he got his country back on track to widespread improvement.

The recent article in The Economist entitled "No longer bottom of the class" explains Brazil's path from a disastrous educational system to a rapidly improving network of schools.  Step one was entering Brazil into the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which quickly showed just how bad Brazilian education really was. There's a lesson here. The first step in change is often gathering enough hard data make people pay attention.

Yet this was just the beginning.  Several reforms had to take place. First, teachers were retiring after only 25 years for women, and 30 for men, which meant many districts had to spend up to half their budgets on pensions.  Other reforms including testing teachers (not students) on both content and pedagogy before they hit the classroom. Yet, returning to my last post, teacher quality once again was central:

Bad teachers are the biggest handicap. In few parts of the world do high achievers aspire to teaching (exceptions like Finland and South Korea have the best schools). Uruguay is the only Latin American country where would-be teachers have above-average school grades. Factor in that the region’s average is abysmal, and by global standards Latin American teachers are themselves very poorly educated. Brazil compounds the problem by training teachers in neither subject matter nor teaching skills (they learn about the philosophy of education instead).
First things first. Do teachers really know their content? And can they teach?  These are what good schools are made of. But second, what about the social prestige of being a teacher?  Why is it, in America for example, that successful young students become doctors and lawyers, but the best of the best very rarely become teachers? In South Korea and Finland this isn't so, and they have some of the world's best students to show for it.

The article also outlines innovative practices like teaching training, attendance incentives for teachers, and incentives for teachers who actually are experts in what they teach. But I would still highlight the role of the teacher.  For those interested in redeeming education, how can we get the most motivated, highest performing teachers who are committed to a Christian worldview in our schools? Schools start and finish in the classroom, and redeeming education must take place first between pedagogue and pupil.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Key to Great Schools

Occasionally on this blog I will post responses on articles published in my favorite periodical, The Economist.  A recent article from the Nov 25 edition commented on education reform in England ("At the chalkface".  Michael Gove, the education secretary, has proposed more school independence to improve education in England, including public funding for schools opened by "teachers, parents, charities and states." This type of plan closely mirrors the current voucher program being debated in Douglas County right now, which is causing an uproar among many who cry violation of the first amendment for providing public funds for religious schools.  Regardless of the outcome of these plans, however, the real key to improving education lies not primarily in school choice, but in who is doing the teaching.

Gove wants to give teachers in state schools more autonomy from state restriction and to focus "the sprawl of the national curriculum, limiting it to certain core subjects." He also was to make "teaching more professional" by requiring trainees to spend more time in the classroom, requiring better degrees, and mandating more professional development. Yet, in my opinion, was the most fascinating part of the article came in the last paragraph:
"On November 29th a study by McKinsey, a consultancy, will show that countries with high-achieving pupils tend to have well-educated and enthusiastic teachers, who are also mostly free from state control."
 What is the key to building a really great school?  It's not having the best technology, the most active parents, or even having the most money, as good as these all are. The research is in: great schools have great teachers. And great teachers generally are free from much bureaucratic control, are bright themselves, and are exude and enthusiasm for teaching. Teach for America was built on the idea that a movement of great teachers could radically change the American Educational System.

For those in school leadership, and especially for those in the Christian movement, the lesson cannot be ignored. Hire great teachers and you'll get a great school.  Redeeming education starts where education happens: between teacher and pupil.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Intelligence Plus Character

My last posting dealt with the obvious lack of congruity between intelligence and character. Chuck Colson, who wrote one of my favorite books, How Now Shall We Live?, wrote an interesting little piece on intelligence and character as the goal of education.
Virtue has always been the goal of a classical education.  But Colson brings up a good point: where are those goals in most schools and universities today?  Perhaps the better question is, What is your plan as an educator to teach knowledge and ethics?

The Shadow Scholar

If you have a few minutes today, read this incredibly entertaining, and depressing, article from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The unnamed author recounts his tale of writing thousands of papers for cheating college students interested in paying top dollar for his work.  He writes:
"In the past year, I've written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won't find my name on a single paper.

I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting...I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else."

Ed Dante (his psuedonym) goes on to recount his experience working for an online company that produces essays for college and graduate students at a price.  In witty prose, he recounts writing 75 page papers in two days, email correspondences with college students whose English prose makes text messaging lingo look like Shakespeare, and making top dollar for writing essays for nursing students, education students, business ethics students, and (my favorite) seminary students.

Read the article. 

It's astounding how pervasive cheating has become in higher ed as well as in high schools across the US.  One must ask the question, "Why?" The most obvious answer is that people will pay. Laziness rules.  But how could literally thousands of our most educated be so comfortable with an obvious ethical volcano? 

Universities like my own alma mater practiced "the honor code," which was supposed to stem student cheating.  But the fact of the matter is that we live in a pluralistic society that has very little basis for absolute ethics. And we live in an academic system that prizes good grades and "achievement" over more foundational matters of right and wrong.

This will be a common theme on this blog. What does it mean to educate? Can a person truly be educated without knowing right from wrong?

I wonder what the shadow scholar would say....

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The End of Learning

   John Milton, in his Tractate on Education, once wrote, "The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright..."  There are three pieces to this quote that I want to highlight: the purpose of education, the redemption of the world, and the knowledge of God.

   Milton understood that education has a purpose. It is not just "what I have to do," as many students would say. It has a goal or an "end". What is that goal? It cannot be to simply make smarter children, or even to make better citizens.  The purpose of education is to "repair the ruins of our first parents."  The reason for education is to reverse the effects of sin entering into the world by using knowledge and acquired skills to engage in redemptive work.  And finally, there is the "how." How do we educate the young to be redemptive influences? The answer: "by regaining to know God aright." A correct knowledge of God is key to restoring the world. 

   There are three elements to the enormous importance of Milton's words and our task as educators in the 21st century. 1. Educate. Teach knowledge and skills. Mere ideas rule the world. 2. Educate with a purpose. The purpose of learning is to restore all the world, from individuals to social structures and even entire cultures. 3. Place God at the center of education.  A knowledge of God is the first and most important step toward a true understanding of His universe. 

   This blog is about Education and Christianity. It is my intention that this could be a resource for Christian educators who seek to carry out their vocations with excellence and love. I hope to gather resources for Christian educators both in the public and private sectors, from K-12 to the university, that allow all of us to become more effective pedagogues and to think more truly about the vocation of education.  I will regularly scan the past for wisdom as well as comment on current events related to education. 

   If it is true that the end of learning really is global redemption through the medium of knowing God, then the end of this blog will be the same.