Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Joyful Pursuit

During my second year of seminary, I launched a book group that would later be named (by an eccentric bartender named Paul) The Scholar's Table. Our purpose was simple: gather together every two weeks at a pub and discuss history's greatest books.  To date, we have read books as diverse as Plato's Republic and Milton's Paradise Lost to Orwell's 1984 and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Why do such a thing?  Well, I stumbled upon an old year-end note to my fellow member's of The Scholar's Table, and I thought I'd share it with you here.  It gives a glimpse at my love of learning and my continuing interest in education.  Happy reading...

Dear Scholar’s Table,

From Twain and Milton to Thoreau and Tolstoy, from Barnes’ sleeping outside for a year’s supply of chicken sandwiches to the announcement of a new little Barber, 2009 was a year to remember.

I want to thank each of you individually, Barnes, Durkin, Shinnick, Barber, Farmer, and Kell, for a year filled with bright conversations and deep friendships.  Yet I mostly want to thank you for being willing to journey alongside me as we explore the great books of history.  As I grow a year older, it seems to me that the unrestrained pursuit of wisdom is of central importance to who we become as leaders, as fathers, as husbands, and as men.  And this is why.

First, as I’ve graduated from school and entered the work force and the family life, I find myself confused as ever.  As I try to plan out my workweek, I often wonder, what should I spend my week doing?  What is of most importance, and what can be ignored?  And as I sit down at the dinner table and see my daughter throw string cheese and peas across the room, I ask myself, Now what should I do about this? Shall I raise my voice, shake my finger, or throw the peas back at her?  And as I interact with people from another culture regularly, I ask myself, Why is it that after all this time I still have racist attitudes toward Hispanics? How could this really be? 

Everywhere I turn in life, I seek out answers that I can’t simply conjure from thin air.  I need the wisdom of those who have gone before me.  Pursuing truth and wisdom from some of the most able hearts and minds of history sheds light on my path.  As my own ignorance and confusion fogs my view, the light of truth opens new possibilities.  The great authors, of whom He is the greatest, bring not necessarily more intelligence, but more clarity.  True education brings not more complexity, but ultimately more clarity.  Those who pursue wisdom in all areas of life, not just biblical studies, will emerge as capable leaders, fathers, husbands, and men.

Second, people are looking to us for answers.  Our children, our wives, our middle schoolers, our co-workers—they need us to be “shepherds after my own heart who will lead with knowledge and understanding.”  But what so often happens is that we “graduate” and believe that our education is over!  Just when we need to be learning most voraciously, we often times turn to what’s easy instead of what’s right.  After school, the freedom to cut corners is always before us.  But it is just then that people will be looking up to us the most, and need us to study, learn, and to know the wisdom of our ancestors and so provide a wise course for the future.  Fellas, our education never ends!  As corny as I thought learning contracts were, self-directed, life-long learning is a necessity.  It we don’t set the course, others will set it for us.

I will share a secret with you.  What you do with your leisure time determines who you will become. That one I pulled from a lecture by Mortimer Adler---and he’s absolutely right.  It is not primarily your degrees, your grades, your culture or your family background (Kell can argue that one), that determines who you will become.  It is how you spend your free time when nobody’s looking.   This one of the most important factors in determining who you will become.  It’s odd to think that Saturday afternoons set the course of our lives.  But truly, if you long to seek wisdom when nobody’s looking, then that’s what you will become.

Third, and finally, I would argue that the pursuit of wisdom is not only of central importance, but it is a great joy.  I must confess that when I’m reading a book and I come across a line or a scene that permanently shapes the way I think, I completely geek out.  For me, discovering a deep truth in a dusty book that my peers have long thought “outdated” gives me the same pleasure that Sir Edmund Hillary must have got from mountain climbing or Jacques Cousteau from scuba diving.  It is coming to a cool sunrise and knowing deeply that the world is beautiful.  Beauty.  Perhaps that is my real motivation for learning.  God’s world is filled with wonder and beauty.

Friends, I thank you deeply for journeying alongside me.  And who knows what the next year will bring.  A move east, more children, graduation, jobs…the changes will be rapid.  Who will we choose as companions for our travels?  I implore you, even after seminary, choose first the men of God in the Scriptures.  And second, choose not what is most popular, and surely not what is easiest, but choose the path less traveled.  Choose to do hard things.  Choose the wisest guides of human history as your peers.  Keep searching for wisdom through 2010 and into the blazing mid-day of your lives.

Blessings, my brothers, rejoice this Christmas in the Wisdom of God made flesh.

Jeff Haanen

“Get wisdom.  Though it costs you all you have, get understanding.”
-King Solomon

Friday, February 18, 2011

Three Cups of Tea

I just finished listening to an interesting book entitled Three Cups of Tea. The book chronicles the story of Greg Mortenson, a mountaineer from Montana who builds schools, especially for girls, across Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In 1992, Mortenson's sister died of an epileptic attack. To honor his sister, he climbed Pakistan's K2, the world's second highest mountain.  While nearly dying in the attempt, he stumbled upon a small village called Korphe. The kindness of the villagers spurred him to make a promise: he would return to build a school.  Three years later, and wild twists ranging from fund raising in the US and negotiating prices for building materials in Pakistan, Mortenson built his school. 

A dying scientist heard of Greg's work and gave him enough money to endow the Central Asia Institute (CAI). After decades of work, today the CAI has built hundreds of schools. According to the website:
As of 2011, Mortenson has established or significantly supports 171 schools in rural and often volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which provide education to over 68,000 children, including 54,000 girls, where few education opportunities existed before.
The book matters, on many levels. First, his crusade to "fight terror with books" has hit a nerve among peace-loving Americans in the age of "The War on Terror."  Second, education is tremendously powerful (as are all institutionalized mediums for exchanging ideas. For example, in early 2000, wealthy Saudi donors began investing millions in building wahabi madrassas.  A madrassa is an Islamic theological school, and wahabism is an extremist version of Islam. In 2001, the World Bank did a study on these madrassas.  Nearly 20,000 madrassas were educating 2 million pakistani children, 80,000 of whom, the World Bank estimates, became Taliban fighters.  What many desperate children learned in these schools was directly connected to the burning buildings of 9/11.  Education matters.

Mortenson is being hailed as a national hero--he is even up for the Nobel Peace Prize this year.  And Mortenson ought to be hailed for the many great things he has done.

However, he is the quintessential secular hero. He is essentially agnostic, and he built schools that provided a moderate Muslim education.  Noble, yes. But the story of Three Cups of Tea reminded me of how odd Christians are in the world.  Secular people believe that the problem is "outside themselves," thus seeking solutions in "the world", such as building schools. But Christians believe that the essential problem is "inside ourselves"--sin--and the solution is a Savior. 

In my opinion, Mortenson is genuinely a noble man. But there is a something--or Someone--missing at his core.  He has inspired me to lift up my eyes to the hills, and use education as a tool to improve the lives of many.  But at the top of the hill, there is a God who calls out from Zion to all those who are hungry, thirsty, and in need.  Education can change lives, but the Gospel can change the world.  As Milton has said, the end or learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents. Their ruin was not ignorance, but sin.  Ignorance is a plague, but sin is at its center. Schools can be an eternal influence in as much as they bear the Name.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

K-12 Budget Cuts in Colorado

The Denver Post ran a story today entitled "Deep education cuts loom." The subtitle read "The state could slash up to $450 million from K-12 and higher ed."  As Governor Hickenlooper faces a $1 billion budget shortfall, public education officials are predicting major changes to K-12 education in Colorado.  9 News last night guessed that up to 6,500 teachers may be laid off.

Why not cut another place of the budget?  That's tough considering the financial commitments of the state of Colorado.  The $7 billion general operating fund is 97 percent committed to just five areas: K-12 education, health care for the poor, human services, prisons and higher education. Levels of spending on health care, human services and prisons are, to some degree, protected by federal law. The only thing left to cut is education.

There is fear for many teachers and school officials in the days before Hickenlooper's big announcement this coming Tuesday.  But what are parents thinking right now? As pressured public schools already face increasing class sizes and cut funding for programs, parents eager to give their children a quality education will start looking elsewhere.  My guess is that many concerned parents will start exploring options in charter schools and, increasingly, private schools.

What is a Christian to do about this?  For the myriad of devoted Christians within the public school system, they will need to do more with less, a common challenge for all those in both the public and private sectors who faced daunting times in this past recession.  For those within the Christian school movement, this could be an opportunity.  Dissatisfaction with public schools usually means increasing numbers for private schools.  However, administrators and leaders within the Christian school movement would be wise to "mourn with those who mourn."  Christian schools have the curricular liberty to build service events into their school days. Many of these service events and initiatives should focus their efforts on public schools, and scores of students in them whom God so loves.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Teacher Accountability

As I've noted in previous posts, good teachers are the key to good schools.  Budgets, curriculum, facilities--all take a second place to excellent teaching.  A recent article in The Economist entitled "Lessons learned" gave an overview of recent movements set on improving teacher quality.  In 2009, Hillsborough County, Florida, won a grant from the Gates Foundation to transform the way it evaluates, develops and rewards its teachers. The Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia, while being fair to unions, has launched a method of evaluating teachers. An extended quote:
Teachers will be judged on their pupils’ progress, as well as evaluations by a principal and by a peer. Teachers with high ratings, based on three years of data, will have higher salaries. Bad teachers will see their salaries shrink. A struggling teacher will receive further training. If he continues to be ineffective, Mrs Elia will act to remove him.
This particular case is worth reflection.   The elements of reforming poor and mediocre teachers, and thus poor and mediocre schools, are all here.  Teachers are judged on three things: pupil's progress (the accomplishment of predetermined objectives through test scores), evaluations by a principal and evaluations by a peer.  When these three elements are present, enough information over a 3 year period helps determine whether a teacher gets a salary increase or should be sent to remedial training, or fired.

Having been the husband, brother, and son of public school teachers my whole life, I've heard stories of grossly ineffective accountability for teachers. Great teachers go unnoticed but do it "for the love of teaching," whereas ineffective teachers stay put or bounce around the district and never leave because of tenure.

Again, I'm an amateur on the subject, but teacher accountability seems to me the central element in building a successful school.  The administrator's central role must be to hire great teachers, and then to give sufficient accountability to ensure that great teaching is the norm in any school. Budgets, text books, problem cases--all of these must take a back seat to finding and encouraging great teachers.  Those who want to leave an indelible mark on a school district or a school would be wise to follow Mrs Elia's example.