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.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Strategic Planning - A Class for the IDEAL Institute

Tonight I begin writing class lectures on the topic of strategic planning for the IDEAL Institute at Denver Seminary. I do not propose any complex, convoluted methodology, nor do I expect to accomplish much by way of innovation. I simply will lay out my story. I will tell the tale of a young student, filled to the brim with ideas and visions, ye emptied like a tin can of the ability to accomplish those visions.

I will speak of the problems we find in both ourselves and our organizations.
Motion, but no progress; everything urgent, nothing enduring; leadership characterized by the random and reactive, and not the intentional and the wise; the presence of frustration that “I’m the only one pulling here” and the nagging doubt of whether we are doing anything of lasting value.

I will tell also of the benefits that are crowned upon the thoughtful planner. Much action in one direction, which leads to visible results; the urgent being redefined around the truly important; greater effectiveness through measurable results; and the joy of building a system designed for many to work together to accomplish a single, God-given end.

I will declare also the God who plans. The God who planned the story of salvation before the beginning of time (Eph 1:9-10); The God who plans for the good of the broken-hearted (Jer 29:11), and the God who calls us to plan and conform our plans to His (Pro. 16:3).

I will define the words “strategic planning” as a guide for future action, a process clarifying organizational aims, a philosophy of contemplation of the future, and a structure for an organization that forms the basis for an organization’s actions. It is a map and a bridge to tomorrow.

I will also warn of the potential arrogance of planning an uncertain future, and not to trust in man’s bravado, but instead to trust in the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

I will lay out two simple models for strategic planning. The first model is “Simple Strategic Planning for Individuals and Small Groups.” This model, which works for individuals who simply want to become more effective, or for leaders of small groups, simply lays out a simple purpose for your action, and sets three conceptual levels of plans: objectives, strategies, and tactics. Objectives are enduring, and form the basic result areas deriving from your mission. Strategies are creative ways to accomplish those objectives based on the best information available to you. And tactics are objective, measure, and time-sensitive tasks that make their way onto your calendar. Upon forming the plan, one must implement the plan and review it each quarter and year for accountability and evaluation.

I will also propose a second model: “Simple Strategic Planning for Small and Medium-Sized Organizations.” This model, as opposed to being the territory only of an individual, involves all the stake-holders in an organization to ensure ownership. It too involves the formation of a clear purpose, objectives, strategies and tactics. But it is formed through several group meetings, whereby brainstorming and strategy formulation is a joint venture.

I will also implore my students to become organized themselves as I hand to the “A Simple Guide to Personal Time Management.” Strategic plans are nothing if they are not implemented in every day’s work. From annual plans, one’s personal calendar must be shaped by strategic monthly, weekly, and daily priorities, not on the tyranny of the urgent.

And I will pray with my students as I endeavor, with fear and trembling, to outline spiritual side of strategic planning, which calls for a quiet heart and a desire to pray daily. Ultimately, the plans of the Lord endure forever.

This I plan to do for my Spanish-speaking students at IDEAL, most of whom are bi-vocational pastors or lay ministers in immigrant churches in Denver. Indeed, what a privilege it is to teach. What a delight it is to learn. What a joy it is to serve.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Wisdom and Eloquence

If there is a more important book on Christian education than Robert Littlejohn and
Charles T. Evans’ Wisdom and Eloquence written within the last 20 years, I have yet to discover it. In Wisdom and Eloquence, Littlejohn and Evans lay out a “Christian paradigm for learning,” based in large part upon the experiences of Littlejohn’s Trinity Academy in North Carolina.

The book, which has been nominated for several awards, is a clear, succinct, and compelling case for a Christian classical education. Arguing that “wisdom and eloquence” are the purpose of education (based on Augustine’s writings), Littlejohn and Evans lay out the historical importance of a Christian liberal arts education, pointing out the failings of John Dewey’s progressivism on the public school system, and making the case for a form of education that has endured for nearly 2500 years.

Spanning the philosophical and the practical, Wisdom and Eloquence brings at least three weighty contributions to the conversation on education. First, it outlines the liberal arts curriculum, including the planning processes, the curricular priorities, and the teacher requirements necessary within the Christian classical school. Covering the Trivium (Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric), the Quadrivium “Expanded” (Arithmetic, Geometry, Natural Sciences, and Music), and the True Sciences (Theology and Philosophy), Littlejohn gives readers a practical outline for a classical education. Tested by millenia of experience, and adapted to our modern situation, the liberal arts curriculum outlined in Wisdom and Eloquence is being imitated by the best classical Christian schools in the country.

Second, because Wisdom and Eloquence is written by a deeply experienced leader, it is devoid of the “heavenly musings” of most involved strictly in the humanities. Instead, it gives practical principles to everything from student behavior and co-curricular activities to admissions and the central importance of strategic planning for the effective operation of any school. In sum, after reading this book, one knows “what to do.”

Finally, it firmly establishes the classical Christian school as an intellectual and educational force within the world of 21st century education. Although there are elements that need to be addressed later (i.e. Is this education only for the wealthy “free man,” or is it truly for all?), Christians of all stripes should pay close attention to this movement. If modern public education is really built on the three-fold foundation of skepticism (not faith), evolutionary psychology (not redemption of sinners), and subjective values (not eternal truth), Christians need a response.

To my knowledge, this book is as good a response as a contemporary American Christian has produced to date.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Education Reform

David Brooks recently wrote an interesting Op-Ed for the New York Times entitled Smells Like School Spirit. He criticizes Diane Ravitch, one of “the nation’s leading educational historians,” who once was a great proponent of the charter schools, accountability, and testing of the educational reform movement. She now is one of it’s most vehement critics, arguing, according to Brooks, “There is no education crisis. Poverty is the real issue, not bad schools. We don’t need fundamental reform; we mainly need to give teachers more money and job security.”

Even though she makes some good points about the “humane” and relational nature of teaching, Brooks believes she goes too far in throwing positive change movements under the bus. Even though many of these schools are high on accountability (testing) he cites Whitney Tilson who “ has pointed out, the schools that best represent the reform movement, like the KIPP academies or the Harlem Success schools, put tremendous emphasis on testing. But these schools are also the places where students are most likely to participate in chess and dance. They are the places where they are most likely to read Shakespeare and argue about philosophy and physics.”

Brooks also points out that cities like New Orleans have multiplied their number of charter schools and “choice” (vouchers for private schools) since Katrina “Since 2007, the New Orleans schools have doubled the percentage of students scoring at basic competence levels or above. Schools in New Orleans are improving faster than schools in any other district in the state.”

The point of the article? “The real answer is to keep the tests and the accountability but make sure every school has a clear sense of mission, an outstanding principal and an invigorating moral culture that hits you when you walk in the door.”

For the Christian, we must ask two things. Within the Christian School world, is there proper accountability to ensure that schools excel? Unfortunately, the independence of far too many Christian schools has led to lower standards. Second, however, we must ask “From where does an ‘invigorating moral culture’ derive?” Brooks says that the best schools have, “a willingness to infuse the school with spiritual fervor.” I’m not sure where that spiritual fervor would come from for a secular person. For the Christian, however, that “fervor” forms the bedrock of a holistic education, founded in Christ, focused on students, and directed toward service.