Friday, December 30, 2011

The god of Technology

Occasionally on this blog I will quote authors at length without much commentary. Neil Postman, author of The End of Education, is just such an author. One of the topics he treats in this profound work is the topic of technology. He writes: “But nowhere do you find more enthusiasm for the god of Technology than among educators.” But, a god? What does he mean? Let me quote Postman at length.

“As the discussion proceeds, important distinctions are made among different meanings of “belief,” but as some point it becomes far from asinine to speak of the god of Technology—in the sense that people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it, that they are delighted when that are in its presence, that for most people it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that , in the born-again mode, they will alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits and their relationships to accommodate it. If this is not a form of religious belief, what is?”

Postman is not against technology; he’s simply making the case that people unthinkingly adopt technology without really thinking about its impact. Certainly, the computer and the internet have drastically altered human life. But, as Postman argues,

“Like all important technologies of the past, they are Faustian bargains, giving and taking away, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes more in one way than the other. It is strange—indeed, shocking—that with the twenty first century so close on our heels, we can still talk of new technologies as if they were unmixed blessings, gifts, as it were, from the gods.”

The problem, says Postman, with much of our technology in the information age is that students are overwhelmed by information. It’s not that they don’t have access to enough information. That problem was solved about a century ago. The problem is that our students are inundated, like a watery abyss falling from the skies, with data. Postmas uses the example of “little Eva.”

“For Little Eva’s problem is not how to get access to a well-structured algebra lesson, but what to do with all the information available to her during the day, as well as during sleepless nights. Perhaps this is why she couldn’t sleep in the first place. Little Eva, like the rest of us, is overwhelmed by information. She lives in a culture which has 260,000 billboards [Postman is writing over a decade ago], 17,000 newspapers, 12,ooo periodicals, 27,000 video outlets for renting tapes [does anybody have current stats for Netflix?], 400 million television sets, and well over 500 million radios, not including those in automobiles.”

Postman, I believe, would agree with Tim Keller, pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Chruch in New York City, who said, “The internet is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.” Keller, as one of the few genuine cultural leaders in the Christian movement, tries to stay away from the internet as much as possible, and read books, whole books, instead.
Postman is not arguing against computers in schools, but he is arguing against the “sleepwalking attitudes toward it, against allowing it to distract us from more important things, against making a god of it.”

Postman cites Alan Kay, who is widely associated with the invention of the personal computer. “He has repeatedly said that any problems the schools cannot solve without computers, they cannot solve with computers.” Perhaps this is the reason that many of the sons and daughters of today’s Silicon valley moguls working at places like Google send their kids to a Waldorf school where kids don’t have any computers until 8th grade.

What we really need is technology education – learning about how technology affects the human person and surrounding society. This seems to be the best way to guard against the favorite god of educators – the god of technology.

A Cantankerous Professor

I just finished reading James Kittleson’s classic biography of Martin Luther over Christmas break. Honestly, I was shocked by Luther’s life. Cantankerous and contentious doesn’t even come close to describing the real Luther. Having grown up under Lutheran pastors who more closely resembled Mr. Rogers than any of the reformers, learning about Luther’s exploits, condemning nearly everybody who disagreed with him (often with the most colorful language), made me think twice about the reformation.

Although the book was excellently written and well-researched, I couldn’t help but feel heavy about Luther’s life. First, I should say that I radically admire his courage. Luther took on the entire structure of medieval life and thought in the Catholic Church. From his criticism of the selling of indulgences to his insistence that men are justified only by God’s grace, and not by any works of “love,” he quickly made some powerful enemies. The pope and his emissaries quickly tried to silence this noisy Augustinian monk. But Luther’s conscience was bound to defend the faith as he understood it based on the Scriptures – and he was protected by a powerful German prince which ensured his teaching would continue. Moreover, as a “doctor of the church,” he took his vow to proclaim the truth and expose falsehood seriously. He feared literally no one, and no consequence. From peasant to emperor, if they spoke against the truth of God’s Word, all were fair game. His pen was one of the mightiest forces in Europe.

Having said this, Luther was reckless, arrogant, rude, and often a crushingly negative force, not just to enemies, but even to friends. Take the example of the Sacramentarian Controversy. The controversy was about Jesus’ words “This is my body” in reference to the Lord’s supper. Was his body really present in the bread and wine, or was it merely symbolic? Luther took the view that it was really Christ’s body, while other reformers like Zwingli believed it to be symbolic. Not only were reformers like Zwingli “false brethren” but they were also Satan’s followers. They replied to Luther “These are the words of an angry man.”

This is a fitting summary of Luther: an angry man. He engaged in the most extreme polemics, not only regularly calling the pope the Anti-Christ, but also accusing the mild-mannered and like-minded critic of Rome Erasmus of not even being a Christian because he didn’t agree with Luther on the issue of the freedom o f the will. From the despised catholic hierarchy to the Anabaptists, all were subject to name-calling and public defamation. He didn’t reserve his invective pamphlets for only those who sold indulgences like Tetzel – any and everyone who contradicted Luther has subject to the force of his criticism.

Two things astound me about Luther. First, how was he so sure he was right? How could any one man take on nearly the whole world and be astounded that anybody disagreed? He was once asked by one of his opponents, “Are you alone wise?” If he were alive today, I would ask him the same thing.

Second, was Luther not one of the most divisive forces in the history of the church? As a protestant myself, it’s tough to ask this question. His reforms, I believe, needed to happen. But Luther almost single-handedly tore Christendom apart. German princes pounced on the opportunity to declare independence from the Roman Church and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. And in the decades that followed, Protestants and Catholics fought bloody wars, culminating with the Thirty Years War. And even during Luther’s life, the Turks were marching up the Danube and threatening both Protestants and Catholics. While Protestants and Catholics take up arms against each other over the issue of Jesus’ location the Eucharist, Muslims were sweeping through Europe.

Luther was brilliant. He was insanely productive nearly his entire life. His works have endured the ages, and the political reforms that followed his life changed the West forever. And anybody who reads his life must respect his courage for acting on his conscience, even at risk of his life. But Luther engaged such violent polemics, it’s difficult for a 21st century observer, living in an age of pluralism (and well aware of the perspectival nature of knowledge), to not raise objections to his life. Toward the end of Luther’s life, he wrote that the pope was

“the head of the damned church of the very worst knaves on earth; vicar of the devil; and enemy of God; and opponent of Christ; and a destroyer of the church of Christ; a teacher of all lies, blasphemy, and idolatries; an archthief of the church and robber of the keys-all the goods of both the church and and the secular lords; a murderer of kings and inciter of all sorts of bloodshed; a brothel-keeper above all brother-keepers…”

Well, whatever your thoughts on Luther, since this is a blog about education and Christianity, it’s at least worth mentioning that Luther was first and foremost a professor. His reforms began in the study, and they spread first to the centers of learning and then the church. Luther himself believed that if the universities could be reformed, the church would follow. He certainly wasn’t right about everything. But this cantankerous professor was certainly right about where reform must take root in order to grow. Change the centers of thought, and you can change the world.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Frederick Emmons Terman

Interested in a turning a school around? Consider the case of Frederick Emmons Terman, provost at Stanford University in the 1960s. A Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT, Terman is often credited with making Stanford what it is today. Under his leadership, it went from a top 20 university to being consistently ranked in the top 3. How did Terman make Stanford the elite school of the West? There are at least three clues to his success.

First, Terman understood the times. In a post World War II environment, government was starting to invest major money in scientific research at the world’s best universities. While many university presidents of the East were lamenting government “intrusion” in academic life, Terman saw an opportunity. He decided the sciences were the place to begin building the future of the American research university. He focused building programs in core science, social science, and especially medical science. Under his tenure, he moved the Stanford Medical School from its San Francisco campus to its current location in Palo Alto, much to the chagrin of many doctors in the bay area. But Terman saw an opportunity in scientific research, and investment from organizations such as the National Institute of Health soon numbered in the millions. Terman saw a potential partnership between the university and industry that many traditionally-minded academics scoffed at. Today, those partnerships are the norm in the American research university.

Second, he was obsessed with recruiting the very best faculty. Beginning in the sciences, Terman systematically recruited some of the nations all-stars and rising stars. For example, when balloting took place for election into the prestigious National Academy of Science, he looked at those who just missed the cut. He recruited them, betting that they would be the future stars in science (and also knowing that they wouldn’t be nearly as expensive as current members). He was also obsessed with quantification of teaching and research merit. He devised complex and often times brutally rigorous methods for evaluating future faculty members, as well as current faculty members. He also combined quantification with an extensive peer review system. When recruiting new faculty members, he would scour the country for experts in each field, and ask who was leading the way in research. He also brought prospective faculty members to campus for short periods of time for current faculty members to “look them over” and evaluate their potential merit. Finally, he would often recruit en masse. Although this was expensive, he knew that bringing 3 or 4 top faculty members at a time brought excitement – and rapid prestige to Stanford.

Third, he built what Jonathon Cole, author of The Great American University, called “steeples of excellence.” Terman knew that he couldn’t make Stanford a great university all at once. He had to choose what departments on which to focus his energy. Initially, he chose science. He committed to making science at Stanford a “steeple of excellence.” Because Stanford already had a competitive advantage in science, he started there and built the program until it was one of the best in the country. The idea was simple: quality breeds quality. Build one program great, and it will attract attention, and allow the university to improve other programs with an almost cascading effect. And it worked. As the hard sciences became the core of Stanford, the social sciences, and eventually the humanities, followed suit. Top scholars were enticed by other top scholars to make the move to Palo Alto. Resources followed renown, and soon major donations and the nation’s best students all flocked to the Pacific. Stanford raised, metaphorically and literally, steeples of excellence.

Jonathon Cole wrote this about Terman:

“He was obsessed with quality and recruiting productive, highly esteemed faculty members; he was committed to expanding the research base by attracting government financing; and he knew that having the best faculty would enable the university to draw the best students. He looked for the resources necessary to build highly competitive physical facilities. He maximized the value of Stanford’s location. In short, he provided the leadership necessary to build a critical mass of academic talent in the fields where Stanford had an advantage in recruiting stars or potential stars.”

Want a recipe for turning a school around? Know the times, recruit the best faculty, and focus on your strategic advantages. As simple as it sounds, this is the stuff of great educational leadership.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Problem with Excellence

The Denver Post ran a headlining story this last week about a local Christian high school accused of illegally recruiting athletes to their sports teams. This particular school, one of the three wealthy, large Christian private high schools in Denver, has won numerous state championships in its first years of existence. And many rival high school coaches have been infuriated that some of their best athletes have left to attend this school. Reportedly, after this school’s one (and only) track meet, the illegal recruiting was so obvious they were banned from having any more. After hearing such accusations, the head of school pleaded not-guilty, delcaring, “We are not apologetic. It’s good for Colorado.”

Whether or not these accusations are true is not my interest. What is of interest to me is their school motto: influence through excellence. This motto has raised a $90 million dollar campus in only a few years, recruited nearly 1000 new students…and made schools across the state furious with their recruiting practices. It has also caused several parents and coaches from neighboring schools to question this school’s “Christian morals.” My question is this: is “influence through excellence” a genuinely Christian idea?

The argument for “excellence” as a Christian idea generally goes something like this: loving God with all your heart, strength and soul means doing everything with excellence. We ought to be “first-in-class” in our service to God. Now, apparently the idea of “influence through excellence” means that if we are excellent in what we do, from the classroom to the football field, other people will take a look at our religion and take note. Therefore, we need the very best football team, buildings, and college entrance scores. This will convince people of the truth of our cause.

I don’t think this is true. Let me mention at least two reasons, both stemming from the nature of “excellence.” First, excellence in inherently competitive. For me to be excellent, that means I have to be better than you. If there is no comparison, then there can be no “excellence.” This competitiveness implies I, or my tribe, will excel, and we will be superior to you. It implies a climbing of the societal ladder to the top rungs, whereby we will be “on top” through our achievement.

Second, the motto “influence through excellence” suggests that when we get to the top (excellence), we will be able to have influence on the powerful people in society, whether in government, business, media or education. The strategy is simple: excel, and then influence important people.

The Christian gospel moves in directly the opposite direction.

Consider the incarnation. Jesus, the high King of heaven, the one “who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” took on the very nature of a servant. The “Great I am,” the Alpha and the Omega, humbled himself and took on human flesh. It was the very opposite of “moving up the ranks;” it was the great “moving down.” The Creator himself became a baby.

Moreover, when Jesus was on earth, he did not choose to live among the rich and the powerful. He lived with a poor, Galilean family. Even to the end of his life, he had no property, no treasure, and not even a proper home. Instead of seeking accommodation with the rich and powerful, he confronted the power structures of his day by exposing their evil on the cross.

The Christian gospel suggests a fundamentally different way of interacting with people than that suggested by “influence through excellence.” One is competitive, seeking superiority over others. The other is inherently cooperative, seeking the good of others. One moves its way up in society; the other moves down for the sake of the poor, hungry, and oppressed. One is the way of the world, getting my own. One is the way of grace, giving all as has been given to me.

The idea that real influence comes when we get to the top of the game is deeply flawed. Real influence, according to the gospel, comes when we move to the bottom of the game, leave our own ambitions behind, and start living for the good of others.

This is not to say that the gospel suggests we should do things poorly. On the contrary, we should do everything as if we were working for Christ himself (Col. 3:22-23). Hard work in service of Christ should be the norm. Providing an “excellent” quality of education should be the goal of all schools (as it is a part of my own school’s goals). But the heart of competition, I would argue, is bitter envy and selfish ambition, a worldly wisdom that comes from below (James 3:14-15). And the fruit of this wisdom is “disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:16). Perhaps “every evil practice” might even include take star athletes from other schools.

A good friend of mine preached this past Sunday on Mary’s Song, known as the Magnificat. Mary, the servant of the Lord, burst into song upon hearing God would give her a son: “He [God] has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:51-52). It is a terrible thing to be filled with pride before the Lord of Hosts; but it is a joyful thing to be in need of grace, and to be not to be a ruler, but a servant.

There is a problem with the ethic of excellence for Christians. Christ knows service, not ambition; he knows love of others, not the honor of human kings. Christ is surely a mighty king - but he reigns from a cross.

There will be a great test in the coming weeks. The temptation will be for other Christian schools to glory in the bad press of this particular school. After all, they’ve all lost students, parents, and even teachers, to this school. The test will be in Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who mistreat you.” In doing this will Christians find true distinction.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Economic Development and the Liberal Arts

The key to sustainable development is a liberal arts education. At least that’s what Patrick Awuah, founder of Ashesi University College in Ghana, believes.

I learned about Awuah through a presentation he did in 2007 for TED. He recounts his story growing up in Ghana. Once he had a particularly close call with the military whereby he narrowly escaped with his life. He eventually attended Swarthmore College, a top liberal arts institution, and worked as a program manager for Microsoft for over a decade. Seeing, however, the turmoil in his homeland, he became uncomfortable with the comfort of Seattle, and knew he needed to return to Ghana. What did he do? He founded a liberal arts college.

His reasoning for doing this is straightforward. What, says Awuah, does Africa need the most? Based on his experiences growing up in Ghana, he knew that what Africa needs the most is leaders. But not just any kind of leader. Africa needs leaders who are both ethical and are critical thinkers.

One of the central problems of development, as almost any experienced foreign aid worker will tell you, is corruption. Money is poured in to, for instance, Haiti, and it is usually just as quickly poured into the pockets of corrupt officials. Second, development needs critical thinking. Sustainable development needs idea generators who can think broadly about the complexities of society and find solutions to vexing problems. My good friend David Befus, who has worked for decades in job creation and development economics in the two-thirds world, has said (I paraphrase), “Poor people don’t need more loans. What they need are good business ideas. This is the rare commodity in the developing world.”

Awuah believes these are the very things that a liberal arts education provides. In contrast to a technical education, which provides job training only for a specific job, the study of literature, science, history, math, and philosophy provides the core for both a broad consideration of the world and the pursuit of “the good life.” As Ashesi University College, this core of studies is the foundation then for the specific application of these disciplines, whether it be in business administration or computer science.

Now, I’ve tried for several weeks to get Awuah’s university out of my head, but I can’t. How counterintuitive: there are poor people starving and without shelter, and the best solution to this problem is to take the to 15% of a society and send them to a liberal arts college. Yet it is brilliant…and revolutionary. And this is why.

First, sustainable development needs ethical leaders. All the aid programs in the world don’t work without ethical leaders who actually care about the good of their people. The liberal arts college trains students over time how the great thinkers have grappled with questions of truth, goodness and beauty. At a residential liberal arts college, students are taken out of their context for a period of time (up to 4 years), and are brought into a context that considers goodness, not only job-specific tasks. A liberal arts college can immerse students in a transformative context that has the potential shape hearts and minds.

Second, a liberal arts college connects ethical ideals to specific disciplines. Contrast what most missionaries have done in the developing world. They plant churches (as they should) and Bible colleges for training pastors . Although Bible colleges and seminaries are good, they don’t connect the truth of God with fields like mathematics, science, literature, or history. A Christian liberal arts college can do this, and bring the gospel to bear on broad swaths of human experience. Ethical practice in business, politics, and education, for example, find their source in theology, which is studied in the same context. Although Awuah’s university isn’t specifically Christian, it is making the attempt to connect goodness with professional preparation.

Third, sustainable development needs competent and creative indigenous leaders. The leaders must come from the country itself – yet many of them will have to go a transformation process. This process is what a liberal arts education provides. It’s a process of teaching leaders to think. We in the West should be the first to admit that there are no obvious answers to issues like global poverty or climate change. What is desperately needed is a class of ethical, critical thinkers who engage the interdisciplinary nature of social issues and find solutions that are not readily present. Making connections between disciplines is what the liberal arts graduate does.

Awuah has made me think twice about the nature of Christian mission in the two-thirds world. Perhaps a solid investment in a Christian liberal arts college would be a better use of development dollars than World Vision or Compassion International. Perhaps not. But Awuah has to make us think: what are we doing to form the next generation of ethical, creative leaders? The answer to this question ought to form the foundation of an international development strategy.

Finally, what about the graduates of Ashesi University College? Awuah reports that they have a higher job placement rate than any of their technically-trained counterparts. Broadly-educated means broadly capable of the highest levels of leadership.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Reason for History

It is a subtle wonder to me that more people do not enjoy history. “Boring, irrelevant, just a bunch of dates.” People that say this must either have had terrible history teachers, or never really read a good work of history. Not including the most commonly cited reason for learning history (so we don’t repeat the past), I can think of at least five good reasons why everybody should read history.

First, history is the great idea-tester. Flummoxed by problems in our families or jobs, many of us have had bright ideas sure to change our fortunes. Yet very few of us think, “Perhaps somebody in the past 4000 years of recorded history has had a similar problem. Maybe I should consult them first.” From social and political movements to inventions or even our school systems, the most logical place to look to investigate the validity of our ideas ought to be the past. As the Teacher of Ecclesiastes has said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.” Yesterday is not nearly so different from today as we often think.

Second, history provides us with vision for tomorrow. What safer foundation could anyone lay for the future of an organization than one that has learned from both the virtues and vices of yesterday? It’s no coincidence that many of the great leaders of history have been amateur historians themselves. John Adams and Abraham Lincoln loved history, as have many of their latter-day disciples. It seems to me that if we are serious about changing tomorrow, whether it be a university or a construction company, we would be wise to examine the past in order to track where we went wrong. If we can isolate that point, perhaps we can redirect history to more fruitful ends today.

Third, I believe there to be few powers greater than that of a story. It’s no coincidence that the Bible is a story. People love stories because they can find themselves in the struggles and triumphs of other human beings. In a story, we both think and emote, which is a powerful combination. Many times I’ve noticed that whoever can tell the most compelling story tends to win over a crowd. The story of “where we come from” is probably the most important force in forming the identity of a community. If you have studied history, and can accurately and convincingly “tell us our story”, then you will have a powerful leadership tool.

Fourth, truth is interdisciplinary. The problem with so much higher study (doctoral studies, etc) today is that most professors know everything there is to know about their miniscule slice of the universe, whether it be the Hebrew jussive case or robotic arms. And most professors then expect that everybody else think that their slice of the universe is really the whole universe! The nature of doctoral study, in many ways, pushes against seeing solutions to our world’s most vexing problems as the interplay between many disciplines. Although historians are certainly subject to this malady, history is inherently interdisciplinary. History involves philosophy, science, math, politics, education, psychology, social movements, leadership, and a host of other disciplines. The best historians can see connections between various fields, and thus are often some of the most insightful social commentators.

Finally, Americans don’t like thinking about the past. Our society is always looking to the future. Now, I’m not one to pooh-pooh visionaries. On the contrary, we have an obligation to form a more just and redemptive future. But in America (in contrast to Europe), we have an historical amnesia that is especially debilitating in much of our public discourse. Without a hearty and accessible knowledge of the past, America can’t expect to truly form a more just and robust republic. And more importantly, if Christians don’t understand the past, they are liable to miss the God of history who is moving all things toward his redemptive purposes.

So, next time you’re channel surfing, pause for a few minutes on the history channel. Or better yet, shut off the TV, find a book of history, and embrace the legacy of human civilization.

Affection for Learning

The problem with most schools is that so few students graduate wanting to learn more.

The other night at The Scholar’s Table, we discussed Michel de Montaigne’s On the Education of Children. The French essayist concluded, “To return to my subject, there is nothing like alluring the appetite and affections; otherwise you make nothing but so many asses laden with books.” The problem, says Montaigne, with most education is that through punishment (whether it be the lash of his day, or the “F” of ours), teachers force learning on students. The result? Donkeys laden with books. The real goal of learning must instead be to “allure the appetite and affections.”

Montaigne shares his own experience as a child. When young, he was taught be a tutor who spoke to him in Latin. Because his tutor spoke German, and he French, as a first language, Latin was the common language. Montaigne shares that it wasn’t until school that he learned that Latin was a subject – and a frighteningly boring subject at that, burdened with declensions and vocabulary lists. Montaigne had to re-learn an affection for learning in his adult years.

Montaigne has hit on a central problem in education. How do you get students to love to learn?

My friends at The Scholar’s Table shared their experiences. Christian told us a story. When he was a child his father would play him jazz music. So, naturally, he asked for a saxophone for his fourth birthday. Instead, his father bought him “a cheap recorder.” Devastated, he protested until he got a saxophone. When he eventually got his saxophone, the band teacher told him not to touch it until the next day. He still needed to learn how to use it. Christian said, “That night, I stared at my saxophone case wide-eyed, until I couldn’t take it anymore. I tore open the case, and taught myself the scale that week…That was the beginning of twenty years of saxophone for me.”

My friend Chris similarly told the story of when he became a Christian. Otherwise apathetic to learning, when he became a Christian, he had a deep and intense desire to read the Bible. His desire catapulted him into voracious reading – and even to seminary. However, much of seminary felt like the process of becoming “a donkey laden with books.” His early affection theological learning has now been significantly tempered by formal education.

Peter told the story of his mentor’s son. When in high school, he told his parents (both highly educated), “I’m not going to college. It’s not for me. I’m going to work for Disney.” A bit dismayed, his parents gave way and let him follow his dream. And work for Disney is just what he did. As he advanced in the company, however, he realized there were many leadership issues he needed further advice on. And so he read. He now is a constant learner of leadership principles, principles in which he applies each day.

The key to learning in each of these cases was affection. They had the desire to learn. Without this desire, learning is burdensome, and makes them see future learning as a chore, and not a joy.

This issue is really centrally important for a single reason: we don’t teach students all they need to know in school. This may seem rather obvious, but students leave school with rather spotty knowledge, and much of it will soon be forgotten. (I can’t recall more than 3 classes I took all of high school…and I was an “A” student.) Yet upon graduation and entry into the workforce, they will surely come upon problems they can’t solve on their own. And most of these problems will probably be in “subjects” they’ve never studied. (I’ve never taken a course in marketing, yet that is what I find myself needing to know today as an Admissions Director.) All that will be left will be a problem, and either a student with an attitude that says, “I hope somebody figures that out,” or one that says, “I love learning. I will seek out a solution. It will be a joy.”

All the tests and state standards on the planet can’t make somebody love learning. Nor can a teacher, as much as we’d all like to. So what can we do?

A proposal was thrown around the Scholar’s Table. Wouldn’t it be ideal if we could get to know each individual student well enough that his or her natural affinities would be known, and we could then pour resources and encouragement on that student? For instance, if a student loves saxophone, what if we could adjust his schedule to make half his day a saxophone lesson, and thus bringing joy and love to the learning process? But somebody would say, “No, what kind of a one-sided education would that be? Where would he be in math, English, or science?” A good point. However, as each of us shared our stories, it was some deep passion for a single subject that acted as a gateway to all kinds of learning. For me it was Christian theology, and because I loved learning the things of God, I eventually developed a love for learning about God’s world (the liberal arts).

It seems to me that we must seek each individual child’s gateway to learning. Whether it be saxophone, art, or science experiments, let his or her experience of learning be an enduring joy. And as it stays a joy, make it be a door to all kinds of learning, thus producing the rarely educated individual – one who learns out of sheer pleasure.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Philosophy of Education

My philosophy of education is built on three pillars: the gospel of grace, the liberal arts tradition, and global service.

The Gospel of Grace
The gospel of God’s grace is the heart of Christian education. Schools of Christian learning recognize the need to shape a student’s character as a fundamental goal. Yet most fall short when they only teach values and good morals, even if they’re based on Bible verses. Character formation comes not primarily from teaching good morals, but through the declaration of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When students hear the story of the gospel, the Spirit transforms hearts. When they realize their own need for redemption and God’s grace given at the cross, hearts are softened, and good character begins to be formed.

Discipleship flows from the gospel. The imitation of Christ, which includes the classic spiritual disciplines (the means of grace) such as prayer, Bible Study, solitude, service, and corporate worship, must be common practices for administrators and teachers in a Christian school. As students are taught and mentored by Christ-like teachers, they begin to take on the character of Christ as well.

I understand the Christian school as a gospel-telling community. It is the center point of what we learn in class, how we treat others, and even how we feel (joy is a natural result of the gospel). The ability to freely talk about the gospel is also the fundamental reason for a Christian school over a state school. The contrast between a community of learning that acknowledges no God and one that acknowledges the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is indeed vast. The gospel of grace is why we gather to teach and learn in a Christian school.

The Liberal Arts Tradition
Education is inherently about transferring the wisdom of the past to the next generation. For nearly 2,000 years Christians have studied both God’s word and his world. It was only in the last century that education became inundated with secular humanism , forgetting the rich tradition that formed nearly all of history’s great thinkers and leaders. This tradition is the Liberal Arts Tradition.

The liberal arts include minimally literature, language, philosophy, history, mathematics,and science. They are meant not primarily to train for a specific job, but to give students the knowledge-base and capacity to learn for themselves. The love of learning sets the tone for the school, and the classroom is a place of eager discovery as the mysteries of God’s world are revealed. A liberal arts education is not meant for only undergraduates, but for children and adolescents as well.

A Christian liberal arts school acknowledges the importance of learning, and denies any false dichotomy between being good and being smart. It embraces the truth, goodness, and beauty inherent in God’s world, and prepares students for a wide-array of career paths in service of the Kingdom of God. As we partner with like-minded parents, a quality liberal arts education is our best tool to equip students to impact the world for Christ.

Global Service
Education also looks to the future, to the type of graduate we want to produce. My fundamental paradigm for thinking about results revolves around service. Because Jesus was himself a servant who gave his life for others, so must we form servants who will go into the world and use their careers working for the good of others. The paradigm of service goes beyond service projects,and instead must be a foundational way of understanding one’s work and one’s role in the world.

A basic goal to any educational program must be graduates who serve God and others with their life. Within a school's curriculum, service must be a central component. Within the school, service must be a way we treat other teachers, administrators and even students. Institutionally, schools must become other-centered and work for the common good of the community.

Finally, in today’s globalized world, deeply interconnected by technology, economics, and transportation, students must think globally about their service to others. Cross-cultural preparation for our "flat world" must be a core value in today’s educational systems. Global concern, for both justice and mission, must be the heartbeat of Christian schools, for it is the heartbeat of God himself.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Character Formation and the Gospel

My last blog post touched on the topic of character formation. And ever since I posted it, it’s been bothering me. This is why.

At both Randolph’s private school in New York and the KIPP charter schools, teaching good character is central. It’s no different in public schools in Colorado. In Douglas County, where my wife worked for several years before coming to Front Range Christian, the district claims to teach ethics to all students, such as honesty, integrity and respect. Now, what I’ve observed at many Christian schools is, oddly enough, about the same.

In the Christian school world, there are two terms that are widely thrown around: biblical integration and biblical values. First, “The Bible is integrated into everything we do. It’s not just a class it’s a worldview.” Well, this is valid, if we’re thinking here about Kuyper’s understanding of worldview, as expounded by his disciples, like Francis Schaeffer. However, I rarely find somebody who can really tell me what a biblical worldview looks like in Civics, Spanish, Physics, Phonics, or Physical Education. How does the actual content of what is taught (not just prayer and devotions) change based on your Christian commitment?

But that isn’t what’s been bothering me. It’s the idea of “biblical values.” Christian schools are different than public schools because they teach “biblical values.” My question is this. What just might those biblical values be? After we talk for a while, they usually come down to this: honesty, integrity, respect, and perhaps kindness or love. Nearly the same as the public schools! “Yes, but we can bring God into the equation. We can talk about these values from the Bible. The public schools can’t.” True, but are will still teaching these same values, but now with Bible verses? This begs the question: are they really biblical values, or are they universal values?

As I prepare to teach for one of my colleagues this Wednesday on C.S. Lewis’ view of natural law, it’s become clear to me that these values are available to all people at all times. They’re a part of our consciences, Christian, secularists, Buddhists, and Hindus. C.S. Lewis borrows the Chinese term for it: The Tao. And C.S. Lewis makes a pretty strong case that all people know two things: there’s a moral standard “out there” that we all know about, and we all know we aren’t keeping it.

And so, we’re back to the beginning. How do we teach young people to be good; how do we teach them to be people of character? If we simply teach universal moral laws that we know we can’t keep, the essential effect of this is heaping condemnation on the backs of young people. After all, I, who am an adult working in a Christian school, know that I fail to keep moral standards on a daily basis. The verse from Proverbs has been too much used: “Instruct a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Yes, this is true…generally. However, let’s remember one thing: the book is called Proverbs—it’s filled with proverbial statements on how life generally works. A proverb isn’t a guarantee. And we know that the human heart is a rebellious thing. It wouldn’t be too difficult to find a set of excellent Christian parents who trained their child in the way they should go, and they went the opposite way instead.

My point is this. Most “character formation” in Christian education, from K-12 to higher ed, more resembles the teachings of the Pharisees than the teachings of Christ. The Pharisees were loaded with good morals. They were more moral than all their neighbors. They even tithed everything down to the spices in their cabinet. But Jesus called them white-washed tombs. Although they knew the Bible verses, they didn’t understand the God to whom they were pointing. They took the law and made it into a moral code, impossible to keep. They were essentially using their religious pedigree and upright behavior as evidence that they were just, and the “sinners” were unjust. In short, they taught “morals.”

What then is really unique about the Christian faith? What then is really the basis of the Christian worldview? What then is it that makes a child, or an adult or a senior citizen for that matter, really good? The historic Christian answer is the gospel.

The gospel is the message of the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of Jesus. It is essentially a message of grace. While men and women were guilty in their transgressions, enslaved to evil, estranged from God, stained with impurity, and under the curse of Sin, God sent his own Son as a gift to die for their sins, taking their place at the cross, cleansing their sin, freeing them from the curse of sin, and winning the eternal victory over Satan and Death. Grace is the fundamental difference between the Christian faith and all other religions and worldviews. And it is the only way men become good.

How can we possibly expect young children or young adults to become good by teaching them good morals (biblical or universal), when we ourselves know that we have failed to live up to our very own standards? The Gospel is the heart of the Christian message. The Gospel is our very reason for being. It is our foundation for understanding God, ourselves and our world.

True character formation only happens when one sees the cross. When a child understands the gospel of grace, he will look not to the expectations of his parents, or even to the tenuous moral law imposed by his community, whether youth group or Christian school. He will be filled with grace for others. Integrity becomes a reality because confession of sins at the foot of the cross of grace is a reality. Honesty can become a reality because we have nothing to hide---all my shame is nailed to the tree. Respect—a distant acknowledgment of another’s rights—fades into the background as he understands that Christ died for the person sitting next to him. Goodness becomes a reality as the imitation of the one who gave his life for me becomes a reaction, a way of being. Self-less service is the outflow of a life informed by grace.

The Gospel – not “biblical values” – must be at the center of any Christian community. This is our only hope in becoming good. For in it we see the goodness of the One who gave his life for ours.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Developing Grit

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine highlighted Riverdale Country School in New York City, and their eccentric headmaster Dominic Randolph. Riverdale is a “TT” (Top-tier) private school, whose tuition begins at $38,000 for prekindergarten, and commonly sends graduates to Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Yet when Randolph came to Riverdale, he immediately did away with AP classes, encouraged teachers to limit the amount of homework they assign, and cut many standardized tests for admissions. According to Randolph,the missing piece to the Riverdale curriculum was character.

His curiosity in character development led him to meet with Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and David Levin, founder of the KIPP network of charter schools, primarily for students in low-income urban areas. Levin had stressed character for years in the KIPP movement: walls are decorated with slogans like “Work Hard,” “Be Nice,” and “There are no shortcuts.” Seligman, on the other hand, had written an 800 page tome on “Character Strengths and Virtues.” Their conversations led to some interesting conclusions.

As Levin monitored the lives of KIPP alumni, he notices something interesting:
“the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.”
These traits, not IQ tests or grades on math exams, determined their success.

As Levin and Randolph continued to talk, they wondered about how to turn ideas about character into a feasible program. They were referred to Angela Duckworth, a professor at Penn, one of Seligman’s former graduate students She analyzed characteristics that led to outstanding achievement—and very little had to do with IQ.
“People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word ‘grit’.”

Randolph, at the prestigious Riverdale Country School, noticed that although many KIPP graduates had “grit” through challenging circumstances, the kids at Riverdale we often sheltered from failure, and thus from the most important learning opportunities.
“Riverdale parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from the exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst [a Riverdale teacher] put it: ‘Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents.”

Randolph further explained, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

Developing grit through failure – this is the single most important character trait for many successful people, and what must be taught if students will truly make a difference. How is this done? KIPP Infinity developed a “character report card”; Randolph worked with teachers on dual-instruction methods – teaching content alongside of character traits in every lesson. Each school developed a method for developing clearly defined character traits such as “grit.”

Here are my three questions. First, do most schools make any real attempt to teach character, despite district-wide values to teach things like honesty and integrity? By “real attempt” I mean, Is there a scope, sequence and method of evaluation? Second, are schools who are teaching character (Christian schools included) complacent with negative traits (don’t hit, don’t fight)? Are they also teaching positively those rare characteristics, like grit, that lead to truly successful lives? Third, what is the basis of character itself? Is it “what makes me successful?” and if so, why not choose other traits that will ultimately hurt other or at least leave them behind (competition, ambition, etc)? Is perseverance taught actively, or only passively? How about emotional and social intelligence.

Far too often in faith-based schools, character is simply passed on from parents and not intentionally taught in the curriculum. And when it is taught, “grit,” “zest,” or “curiosity” often are pushed behind being simply nice. Or, on the other had, we say we teach "biblical values" but what exactly those values are, and how you instill them in kids, is rather absent.

Perhaps we should develop lessons to instruct students in “grit”, right between math and reading (on in the lessons themselves). Perhaps the ethic we ought to teach in faith-based schools is how to be successful through dealing with failure.

Monday, October 17, 2011


In this blog in the past, I’ve emphasized the need for strategic planning within institutions of education, and beyond. And as I’m concluding a small booklet on strategic planning for Spanish-speaking leaders in Christian ministry, I’m once again convinced of the importance of quality thought before action.

At the conclusion of George Steiner’s Strategic Planning, he cites the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián, a priest from over three centuries ago. This quote nicely summarizes the necessity of strategic planning for the modern organization:

Think in anticipation, today for tomorrow, and indeed, for many days. The greatest providence is to have forethought for what comes. What is provided for does not happen by chance, nor is the man who is prepared ever beset by emergencies. One must not, therefore, postpone consideration till the need arises. Consideration should go beforehand.

You can, after careful reflection, act to prevent the most calamitous events. The pillow is a silent Sibyl, for to sleep over questions before they reach a climax is far better than lying awake over them afterward. Some act and think later—and they think more of excuses than consequences. Others think neither before nor after. The whole of life should be spent thinking about how to find the right course of action to follow. Thought and forethought give counsel both on living and on achieving success.

Gracián sounds a lot like Henry David Thoreau, who once said, “Men tend to hit what they aim at. Therefore, though you should fail immediately, you had better aim at something high.”

I think I’ll join Thoreau and Gracián, and practice the lost art of aiming before I shoot.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Training or Teaching?

In John Milton Gregory's introduction to The Seven Laws of Teaching, he argues that there are two purposes to education: (1) the development of capacities, and (2) the acquisition of experience. For example, my daughter Lily is still in need of education. She is adorable, but her body is small (and she still can't walk), she can't speak, and she can't shoot a three pointer. She needs to develop capacities. In addition, she knows how much her daddy loves her (how could she not?), but she doesn't know anything about Shakespeare, algebra, engineering or Spanish. She still needs the cumulative experience of others. The development of capacities and the acquisition of experience are the building blocks of education.

Thus, the art of education is two-fold, argues Gregory: “the art of training and the art of teaching.” Training brings a child to full development, whether it be mental, physical, or moral, through the transfer of capacities from a model to a pupil. Teaching, however, is the business of transferring the experience of the race to students, whether that be history, math, science, theology, or philosophy. Yet since “the experience of the race” is obviously beyond any one student to grasp, it the first and most central goal of teaching “to stimulate in the pupil the love of learning, and to form in him habits and ideals of independent study.”

Stephen Krashen, a language acquisition expert at USC, pointed out in a recent lecture the difference between training and teaching. In an effective, yet crass example, he said, “The most clear example of the difference between training and teaching is the difference between marijuana education and marijuana training. The former, many would argue is a necessity. I don't believe many would support the latter.” To educate, Krashen might argue, is more than just training somebody to do a task. It is giving them the knowledge to evaluate situations for themselves and make good decisions.

The Seven Laws of Teaching is precisely about how to pass on the knowledge of the race—the task of teaching. Gregory believed, “Having learned the laws of teaching, the teacher will easily master the philosophy of teaching.” He thought that teaching and training were both necessary – knowledge and capacities are instrumental in the educated person. Teachers should keep both in view as their seek to mature their students. Yet teachers must have more in view than “do this task that I do” (training). Teaching (thinking based on the wisdom of those who've gone before you) must consist of the formation of mental habits which frame a person's decision making skills for the rest of his or her life.

Schools debate this constantly today but only in different language. Many would say that training students for the 21st century world is the core task of education (ie, the P21 movement). Our kids need 21st century skills to compete in this global economy. Yet others would say, No, we need students with a set of core knowledge that is the inheritance of the human race. This is the real thing (ie ED Hirsch's Cultural Literacy and the core knowledge movement). Shall we train them for tasks or shall we give them knowledge for higher thought?

My answer would be: yes. We need both. As I've argued earlier in this blog, the educated person must have both a liberal arts knowledge and be able to navigate people and organizations. They are both central. But I think there is an interesting process by which a select few people become “hyper-competent” (my own term). When thinking about great leaders like John Adams or Mahatma Gandhi, Teddy Roosevelt or Nelson Mandela, each of them had a broad education, and a continuing desire to learn more as their lives progressed. Yet through difficult circumstances and trails, they were also “trained” to lead organizations, armies, and movements. The foundation was broad liberal arts-knowledge, the edifice and roof was training for a task—and the interior was decorated with a love of learning.

Teachers must give knowledge to students with an eye to what kind of habits they are forming in the student. In this dual purpose of education – development of capacities and acquisition of experience – we must begin our discussions of what it means to teach.

John Milton Gregory

The posts on this blog claim a central truth: great schools are the result of great teachers. But what is a great teacher? And, for that matter, what is great teaching?

There have been few more influential and important books on great teaching than John Milton Gregory's The Seven Laws of Teaching. John Milton Gregory was one of the great educational leaders of the 20th century. Born in New York, he was taught in a public school and became a teacher himself at age 17. Three years later he entered Union College in Schenectady, New York to become a lawyer, but upon graduation entered into the Baptist ministry. Yet his passion still was still in education.

In 1852 Gregory became the head of a classical school in Detroit and quickly became active in the State Teacher's Association. His knowledge of educational affairs led to his election in 1858 to the State superintendency of public instruction, for which he was re-elected three times. In 1864 he entered into a new phase of his career and began his effort organizing the University of Illinois. His career primarily consisted in establishing one of the great public universities in America.

Gregory published The Seven Laws of Teaching in 1884. The work has had an enduring impact, especially for teachers now in what's known as “Christian education.” It's succinct style and authoritative prose have been the source of pedagogical wisdom for generations of teachers.

This is the first of a series of blog posts on Gregory's work. Perhaps he can give us insight into what ultimately makes a great teacher...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Global Schools Revolution

A recent article in The
Economist makes a strong case that we are undergoing an international schools revolution. This has been made possible through data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). They track student achievement at the OECD, a rich-country club, and the 2009 results, reviewed my consultants like McKinsey, are being used my educational leadership throughout the world. Their conclusions? There are four important themes: decentralization, a focus on underachieving individuals, a choice of different sorts of schools, and high standards for teaching.

First, decentralization. Take the case of Ontario. In 2003, instead of centralized reform, they encouraged schools to set their own targets and then get them experienced teams to help them get there. Even if this meant extending the school day, and especially focusing on lower achieving pupils, schools were given autonomy. Ontario’s results have made them the international leaders in decentralized reform efforts.

Second, focus on under-achieving pupils. Take Saxony, Germany as an example. They kept the selective gymnasium for the academically minded, but cut the Hauptschulen track (for the lower third), and raised expectations. When they opened up to external regulators for results, this combination of autonomy and accountability was powerful. Berlin is following suit.

Third, choice in schools is proving its muster. Even England, following America’s charter schools, is launching several Free Schools under Michael Gove’s (the Conservative education secretary leadership). The article argues “Diversity of supply in schools concentrates minds on what kind of teaching is best, particularly in challenging places.”

Fourth, and most fundamentally, high standards for teaching are at the center of all reform movements. Countries like Finland and South Korea recruit only elite graduates, and pay them accordingly. Mr Gove is planning on giving “golden hellos” to teachers in the science and languages, typical areas of teacher shortage. Regardless of one’s particular strategy, the best teachers make the best schools.

As an administrator at a Christian school, I can’t help but see the need for the following. (1) Recruit only top graduates to teach, and pay them competitively. This has to be the foundation of any reform for education. If a Christian school can’t afford to do this, then change plans until it’s possible. Ramp up your resource development department, seek income from summer courses or businesses. But this must be done. And professional development programs must be the most central element to any school.

(2) Learn from what the rest of the world is doing! This is rather obvious, but too many Christian schools focus only on what other Christian schools are doing (if they look outside themselves at all), and don’t take best practices from a global field. This needs to change. Charter schools like Aspire and online academies like Kahn Academy can teach us much. Let’s listen and use it for the kingdom.

(3) Talk to your local school board or representative and unashamedly promote tax credits and vouchers. School choice changes entire educational systems, and private Christian schools add to that mix. Send them this article in the mail, talk to them in person and show them the date, and don’t apologize for being a “private school” (even though our message is a public as can be). We make global education better.

(4) Finally, help underachievers! Look to the KIPP program, or other charter programs that have lengthened the school day and school year and produced amazing results. Christian schools can’t just accept those without problems. If it’s anybody’s responsibility to help those who are struggling, is it not ours, the People of God who were themselves given grace?

(5) Accountability! Tests like the ACT and Stanford Achievement Tests are a good start. But what about accountability in professional practice and administration. Independence is good, but we all must seek professional communities from whom we can learn.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Great Books

When John Locke quotes an author at length, it’s worth reading twice. In Locke’s
book Some Thoughts Concerning Education (perhaps the most forgotten classic on education), he quotes an unnamed author on the critical importance of great books. I read this quote every so often at a group I meet with every other week. We discuss the classics at a local pub, and use this quote as our “reason” for gathering. Since the thoughts contained within this quote are so important for the practice of education, I will quote it at length:

The study, says he, of the original text can never be sufficiently recommended. ‘Tis the shortest, surest, and most agreeable way to all sorts of learning. Draw from the spring-head, and take not things at second hand. Let the writings of the great masters be never laid aside, dwell upon them, settle them in your mind, and cite them upon occasion; make it your business throughly to understand them in their full extent and all their circumstances: acquaint yourself fully with the principles of original authors; bring them to a consistency, and then do you yourself make your deductions.

In this state were the first commentators, and do not rest till you bring yourself to the same. Content not yourself with borrowed lights, nor guide yourself by their view but where your own fails you and leaves you in the dark. Their explications are not your’s, and will give you the slip. On the contrary, your own observations are the product of your own mind, where they will abide and be ready at hand upon all occasions in converse, consultation, and dispute.

Lose not the pleasure it is to see that you are not stopp’d in your reading duty by difficulties that are invincible; where the commentators and scholiasts themselves are at a stand and have nothing to say. Those copious expositors of other places, who with a vain and pompous overflow of learning poured out on passages plain and easy in themselves, are very free of their words and pains, where there is no need. Convince yourself fully by this ordering your studies, that ‘tis nothing but men’s laziness which hath encouraged pedantry to cram rather than enrich libraries, and to bury good authors under heaps of notes and commentaries, and you will perceive that sloth herein hath acted against itself and its own interest by multiplying reading and enquiries, and encreasing the pains it endeavoured to avoid.”

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Unique School

There is a unique school started several decades ago in New York that deserves attention. Let me tell you about The Doulos Academy.

It was launched nearly a decade ago as a classical Christian school. Built upon the historic Christian faith as outlined in the Apostles and Nicene Creed, it was a model for education based on the classical tradition developed and perfected by the Western tradition for nearly two thousand years. Depending on the Christian liberal arts tradition, students begin to command language at an early age. Their curriculum is based on the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the expanded Quadrivium (Math, Science (Astronomy), History, and Fine Arts (Music)). And, of course, the Queen of the Sciences, Theology, is at its heart. The pursuit of goodness, truth and beauty were weaved into every classroom and every lesson.

The first headmaster of this school realized, however, that knowledge was not an end in itself. Education always needs an end that looks beyond itself. After a personal spiritual retreat, and much consultation with mentors, a new ethic was born that was hard-wired into the curriculum: service. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.” If the highest ideal of human life is that of the Servant King, then the young must too be shaped into servants. And so the phrase “classical Christian learning for the common good” became its motto.

As they collectively took a look at the streets of New York, they realized that much needed to be done. Buildings were in disrepair, plants were dying, and crime was in the streets. Poor families were the norm, pollution was commonplace, and corruption lived in governments and businesses. Yet faculty and students alike saw not only the need, but the inherent beauty of the city. Image-bearers walking the streets, art in unlikely places, and joy amidst hardship. This city was worth saving.

Problem-based learning was integrated into the curriculum. Students began to make the connection between the liberal arts and their contribution as servants to their community. Physics projects resulted in new bridges, Spanish classes resulted in tutoring recent immigrants, math resulted new formulas for bringing technology to the developing world. And how these students spoke. They were articulate, persuasive, and always kind – their community saw this private school as a new family member, not a separatist enclave.

Over time, the thoroughly rigorous curriculum and the community service began to turn heads in the community. Many low-income families wanted to send their children to this school but could not afford to. And so the headmaster determined to seek creative funding solutions. In addition to tuition and fundraising (which was quite successful in winning support even from secular organizations when they saw the good they were doing in the community), the board sought two “third sources of revenue.”

The first was through business income. When they launched the school, they moved into a historic Victorian building on the corner of Augusta Ave and Martin Luther King Blvd. It was a three floor building with red-brick and arches – a perfect fit for a school that seeks beauty. The second and third floors were made into classrooms and a library. The first floor was for business. Nearly 80% of the first floor was rented to “strategic tenants,” tenants with both a social conscious and a Christian commitment. Businesses included a small pharmaceutical research lab, a karate studio, a dance studio, a fair-trade shop, and two restaurants. The income from these tenants went directly to a student scholarship fund. The other 20% of business were run directly by parent volunteers from the school. A coffee shop, an athletic performance training studio, and a tech start-up (run by both parents and students) brought in another source of revenue, thus off-setting the cost of tuition.

The second source of income was borrowed from the Cristo Rey Network. Students in grades 9-12 take one day per week and work at internships and jobs throughout the city. From law firms and large corporations to Broadway and Good Morning America – they employed these students one day a week. Over 50 corporate partners were recruited to employ students. This experience gave students a real-world context to put into practice their liberal arts training, and their salary paid a hefty portion of their tuition, thus making this school available to nearly all who wanted to attend. For those who did not need the tuition assistance, they worked at foundations, homeless shelters, and non-profits.

With high school students being gone one day per week, adjustments had to be made. School weeks were 4 days per week, but the days themselves lasted from 8am to 4:30pm, and 9am-12pm Saturdays, thus satisfying all accreditation requirements. And after the administration and faculty finished a week-long conference on how American students are falling behind their international peers, they moved to a year-round schedule with only 6 weeks off for the summer (of which the facility was still being used for their Summer Institute for Learning). In addition, faculty, not having teaching responsibilities one day per week, were given 3 day weekends every weekend, with the agreement that Mondays (the day student’s worked) would be used for intellectual pursuits – primarily reading and writing. This made the high school faculty known throughout the city for intellectual distinction.

And thus this classical, Christian liberal arts school—urban, accessible, and service-oriented—was born. And, of course, originally, it was born as a K-8 school. But from the inception, administrators knew that parents would want a high school. If would not suffice to send your children to a non-classical school after having been immersed in the classical Christian tradition. The capstone of the curriculum – rhetorical studies – needed a high school. But after much reflection, administrators realized the colossal challenge of launching a high school. With the need for athletic facilities, a performing arts center, science labs and art studios—and the acute need for well-paid faculty, many of whom would be males needing to support their family—they realized that the whole project would not work. A multi-million dollar capital campaign could build the buildings, but it could not pay competitive salaries over the long haul. In a country where most Christian schools pay their teachers 60-80% of what public schools pay their teachers, they knew they needed more than 40-80 students graduating per year. They needed one thing more than any other: scale.

And thus a movement was born.

Doulos Academy planted a K-8 school. But they did not stop there. In year three of Doulos Academy they began talking to churches and parents within a 15 mile radius about their model of education. Excitement was in the air. Within the next 4 years, 3 other K-8 classical Christian schools were planted: The Arete Academy, The Alcuin School, and the Bronx Classical Academy. Working in dynamic partnership – sharing ideas, faculty, students – not one but four schools were launched…all feeding into a single 9-12 school. With this many other schools as feeders, the problem of scale was all but solved. There were enough students to allow teachers 2-3 preps (not the oppressive 4-5 so common in other small schools), and a competitive salary. The New York Classical Academy (9-12) was born.

Three years ago, the lead administrator at the Doulos Academy was speaking at conference in Buenos Aires about what they had done. This model caught the attention of a recent graduate from UCLA’s graduate school of education – a native Argentinean with a burden for both truth and justice. He created an open source software program that allowed teachers and administrators to share ideas, curriculum, and instructional strategies globally. This information flow gave him the confidence to start in Buenos Aires what had previously only been done in New York. He launched his own K-8 school – La escuela veritas –later that year. Last month he reported that 2 other schools were in their start-up phase.

After hearing about these plans in Buenos Aires, students and faculty members back at the New York Classical Academy, began brainstorming ways to spend their summers. Students said to themselves, “Why don’t we spend summers teaching English courses and launching new schools and businesses in other cities?” They now have plans to work with a school in Guatemala City and one in Bangkok over the summer. Faculty, this time around, followed students. They began to brainstorm ways to bring teacher training and administrative support to schools in need across the globe.

The leader of the Doulos Academy is now nearing retirement, and passing off the reigns to a younger leader. But for this blog post I was able to do a brief phone interview. At the end of our conversation, he told me with a quiet conviction: “I never thought my career would turn out like this. I was simply a kid who had been changed by the gospel, and loved both the world of learning and the world of service. Look at what God is now doing through us. Beautiful. Just beautiful.”

Monday, August 1, 2011

Why Teach for America?

What exactly is the draw of Teach for America? I’m sure you’ve heard about the near exponential expansion of our generation’s peace corps. Teach for America is a two-year teaching program that sends top college graduates to teach in low-income and low-performing schools. It was recently reported that 10% of ivy league graduates applied for Teach for America (and not all were accepted). Highly selective and highly driven to “reform education,” Teach for America alumni are not only in positions of influence within public education, but in public policy, law, and business. Yet my question remains: Why Teach for America? What has drawn so many multitudes of talented young people into this program?

Hailed as the “civil rights issue of our generation,” Teach for America’s purpose is essentially “to close the achievement gap.” Young students in low-performing schools never have the opportunity to succeed in life if they’re stuck in a bad school. So, through employing and recruiting the best teachers, Teach for America aims to close this achievement gap, allowing the poor to rise to new opportunities in college and beyond.

The draw of Teach for America is primarily an issue of social justice. A generation that longs for justice sees in education a means to achieving equity (note: the concept of equity is central to all of Teach for America). Why do we teach? To bring about social change and social justice. This has caught the hearts and minds of many of the most able young people in America.

Now, before I offer my incomplete critique, I should say that I heartily support Teach for America. Getting more talented young students to teach in inner city schools instead of sit in Wall Street offices is inherently a good thing.

Having said that, Teach for America is based on the philosophical premise based on equity. We must ask ourselves a simple question: what if this was achieved? If the achievement gap was closed, and every student performed exactly the same on standardized tests and in college entrance exams, would this be a good thing? When we look at it like this, it seems that this vision of using education to bring about universal social equity is based on a subtle socialism. Whether or not we could prove this is beside the point: education is the engine for social change. It is, in their view, the primary redemptive force.

What is left out of this equation? I would posit that what is missing here is any discussion of truth. Is it not interesting that what is taught receives a back seat (in motivation at least) to the social outcomes it provides? In a pluralist society in which even the concept of truth is suspect, one must step back and rethink the widespread draw of a movement like Teach for America. How is it that throngs of quick-minded young people, many of whom have had an elite education themselves, will throw themselves into a social cause with relatively little discussion of the state-shaped curriculum taught in public schools? Here, it is not teaching what is true that matters, but it is teaching in service a better (more equal) democratic society.

Contrast this with the Christian vision. Christianity is a story of universal history chronicling the words and activities of the one true God and His purposes for mankind. At the culmination of this story is the Christian gospel, the story of the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and second coming of Jesus. This story of good news has the power to transform an individual – to redeem from death, to regenerate, to “break the curse” of sin, and to give hope. The gospel then transforms men and women, and puts them on the path to goodness.

Yet the Christian faith is more than pietism. It is universal history, and as such, it gives a complete picture of both the natural and supernatural world. When fully understand, it is believed to be the landscape for seeing all things, from the intricacies of plant life to the artistry of literature. It is not just religious truth, it is the truth about all things.

And when this goodness and truth are combined in an individual, all of human life, both public and private, become, in a word, beautiful. God is able to turn even the destructiveness of sin in beauty, and as such, his covenant people move through culture and human life creating things of beauty. Indeed, secular people do this as well. But the Christian does this as witness to the beauty of God himself; he does this as an image-bearer and sub-creator reflecting the mind of the maker (to steal a phrase from Dorothy Sayers).

Goodness, truth and beauty overflow from the Christian gospel. There are the things that must be taught. This is what ought to captivate generations of young scholars and leaders who seek to form a better world. Using education as a pseudo-Savior can never really satisfy either teacher or student. For education to be truly powerful, it must look beyond itself.

I envision a different kind of movement…a movement I will blog about in my next post.

Making College Cheaper

A recent column in The Economist attempts to tackle the problem of college tuition head on. Citing Derek Bok’s opinion of higher education (“Universities share one characteristic with compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty: there is never enough money to satisfy their desires.”), Schumpter offers at least two examples of individuals working to bring down the exponentially rising cost of college.

First, Vance Fried, of Oklahoma State University, believes it is possible make a first class undergraduate cost $6,700 a year rather than the $25,900 charged by public research institutions or the $51,500 charged by their private peers. First, separate the funding of teaching and researching. Researching, yes, is a public good, but undergraduates, who mistakenly think they’re paying for their own education (not independent research projects) should not have shell out the cash for expensive laboratories and tomes of research about the jussive use of Hebrew verbs. Second, increase the student-teacher ratio. Successful classrooms are more dependent on the quality of teacher than the size of the classroom (many K-12 experts would agree on this as well). Third, eliminate or consolidate programs with few students. Let the market determine, as least in part, what is offered. And finally, cut administrative costs. Private research universities “spend $7,000 a year per student on ‘administrative support.’” Perhaps the assistant dean of amphibious marine biology isn’t really necessary after all.

Second, Shai Reshef, an educational entrepreneur, has sparked a new idea to make college not just cheaper, but free. His University of the People offers a free higher education online (not counting fees for applications and correcting exams), aimed to help those in the developing world who otherwise couldn’t afford college. How does he do it? First, he’s recruited an impressive cadre of 2,000 academic volunteers who will proctor online courses for free. Second, he utilizes “courseware” on the internet (whether it will remain free, is another question). Resher’s university is not yet accredited, but with the increasing amount of top-notch material online, his idea may just take hold.

College should not be as expensive as it is. In an industry that has raised its fees 5 times higher than the rate of inflation in the past 30 years, something has to give. Especially for those young graduates who are now finding that (a) an undergraduate degree is now like a high school degree was 30 years ago – you need masters to be really competitive, (b) jobs are harder to come by in this economy, and (c) debt sucks. Young people will eventually get wise and decide on forgoing the perceived prestige of a $200,000 education and simply look for a program that gets them what they need.

It’s time for higher education to get the shakedown it deserves.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monks, Monasteries, and Missional Education

My last post focused on cultural change that the early church’s educational
institutions helped to spawn. The social status conferred by paideia was, however, not a luxury that the cultural icons of the middle ages were afforded. These icons were, of course, monks, and the educational institutions that they bred were the precursor to the modern university: monasteries.

Of the monks who built monasteries across the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, and Frankish world, none became more famous than St. Patrick. It is said that Patrick was the first to take the call to “teach all nations” literally, as his teaching extended even to the barbarians beyond the frontier of the empire. Records indicate that Patrick helped to establish 365 churches and monasteries, including the storied monastery of Iona, which was the launching point for the evangelization of Scotland and England.

Monasteries were the centers of learning in medieval Europe. Latin was taught to the young as a foreign language, and consequently, writing skills, a technology otherwise nearly unknown in the barbarian West. They also functioned as scriptoriums, where the great biblical and classical texts of the West were copied and preserved. In Irish monasteries, young Anglo Saxons were “welcomed in the cells of Irish monks, where they received food and the books they needed at no expense” (Hunter, 59).

Monasteries were both centers of learning as well as outposts for evangelization. Their ministry focused on regional and local aristocracy, based on the idea that if you convert a king, you convert a country. Barbarian kings such as Clovis of the Franks, Ethelbert of Kent, and Edwin of Northumbria were among the most important converts to Christianity.

In Christianity, the pagan kings saw a more advanced civilization, and converting to Christianity was often just as political as spiritual, both a blessing and a bane for posterity. The advanced learning and culture, embodied in agriculture, law, architecture, and scholarship, was a significant motivation to choose Christ over the plurality of gods.

Monks built monasteries, which were both centers for learning and for mission. Where are these types of missional schools today? This past week I had a conversation with a friend at Denver Seminary, who outlined his understanding of a missional education. “Locate your school’s objectives not in students themselves, but in the greater mission of God in the world.” As a curricular application, he suggested having NT students present the argument of Romans to non-believers instead of only seminary professors. Mission can exist as a part of the curriculum. A good idea to say the least.

Yet when I look at monks and monasteries, I see a civilization that brought scores of influential leaders to faith through providing a “more advanced civilization.” Simply stated, their education was the best, and so the barbarian kings changed their minds.

Until we can produce schools that are centers of learning, schools that make surrounding schools seem barbaric in comparison, a widespread missional education can’t happen. Quality is missional. The door to “teach all nations” will be open not for a pious but substandard curriculum. Instead the flowering of learning in the lives of missional educators on the fringes of unbelief in a pagan, urbanized West—this flourishing of learning can and has changed culture in the past. There is no reason why it can’t again today.

Monday, July 18, 2011

To Change the World

James Davison Hunter’s recent book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World is an intellectual tour-de-force, and deserves to be read by any Christian interested in the task of culture changing. His interest is in examining how cultures change, and he takes to task the common view: get as many individuals as you can to change their “worldview,” and cultures will change one person at a time. Instead, as a sociologist he posits a more “social” view of cultural change, noting the interplay of ideas, institutions, cultural elites, and wealthy patrons. This is not the place for either a summary or a critique of Hunter’s work (I believe ultimately that the critique is extremely useful, whereas his solution, a “Theology of Faithful Presence,” is unfortunately weak). I hope to provide further posts on Hunter’s work. But it is worth mentioning the central place of scholarship and institutions of learning in cultural change (Chapter 5: Evidence in History).

Hunter notes, “In this story [of early church growth], educations was exceptionally important, for much of the spiritual and cultural creativity of the church resided in the establishment and transformation of the schools of that time.” Schools were established in all the major urban centers of that time: Rome, Alexandria, and Carthage, among others.

There were three factors related to their influence: (1) quality and quantity of intellectual output, (2) institutional strength, (3) care for the poor. First, by the end of the second century, thinkers like Origen developed a form of higher learning which combined higher learning from the Greco-Roman world with the unique insights of the biblical tradition. Thinkers like Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria challenged the central ideas of their day, and established a rich intellectual tradition that posited Christianity as not only one choice among the pantheon of Roman religions, but as the religion: both intellectually tenable and inspiring.

Second, the educational system of the Roman empire was the paideia—a system for educating the young involving a formal curriculum including grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Initially, this system served not only to educate, but provide the wealthy elite with a way to inherent and maintain power. Those in possession of paideia were trusted with influence. Yet over time, as Christians began to take the seats of learning, paideia became commonplace for bishops; and eventually the church absorbed paideia into its catechesis.

Third, Christian bishops rejected an aspect of paideia, which made sharp dinstinctions between urban and rural, citizen and non-citizen. The Christian bishops became “lovers of the poor,” and eventually came to represent not only the wealthy, but the community as a whole. For example, Basil (329-379) exploited his status as a local noble and gained “tax exemptions and personal immunities for the founders of poorhouses.” Care of the poor and disenfranchised caused pagan Roman rulers to grow green with envy (Julian the Apostate wrote a scathing critique of how the “Galileans” show compassion even for the pagan poor!).

These three factors are worth reflecting upon for Christian educational institutions today. First, and not stated above, are they located in the cities, the centers of cultural influence, or on the periphery? Centers of evangelical influence are today in Colorado Springs and Wheaton, IL, and the headquarters of the Christian classical movement is located is Moscow, Idaho. A movement toward the center will have to be a core element of Christian educational entrepreneurs who desire “culture change.”

Second, do Christian scholars and teachers interact, on a whole, with the center of idea creations, as the early church fathers both understood and challenged Greek philosophy? This is surely a mixed bag. In some fields, like philosophy, Christians have made headway in the past two decades. But in film, art, and in “public education,” Christians have been a small minority. The quality and quantity of Christian intellectual production among K-12 educators and, overall, in higher education (with the exception or seminaries), hasn’t made sufficient progress to bring about widespread cultural change.

Third, what is our curriculum? The Christian paideia has experienced a renaissance in the past two decades, but there are still only around 220 Christian classical schools, and only 1.5% of schools nation-wide could be called “Christian.” Public schools, which tend to follow a secular curriculum based on state standards produced by politicians, comprise 97% of how young people in America are trained to think. Though there are clearly good people within the public school system, the Christian classical model has produced cultural giants for hundreds of years—and they do acknowledging “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” For cultural change to happen, we need to build a network of reproducing Christian classical schools and universities that can be the incubators for superior learning.

And finally, these schools need to be accessible to the poor. This is surely the greatest challenge, as all Christian schools today must charge tuition. The challenge will be for creative young, Christian entrepreneurs to create models of Christian education that aggressively drive down the price of education without sacrificing quality.

Urban. Intellectual. Institutional. Accessible. With these four elements in place, Christians could indeed begin to change the world.