Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Communcation Flow

Recently I published a short article on how to market schools in Independent School magazine entitled "The Communication Flow: Increasing Enrollment Through Strategic Conversation." Here's an excerpt:

Enrollment drives the financial health of independent schools. When I began as an admissions director several years ago, this point was emphasized to me numerous times by our head of school. “Get more students,” he declared, “and we can solve our financial problems.” After I kindly brought up the realities of our competitive market, the global economic downturn, our stressed budget, and our declining enrollment trends for the past five years, he once again echoed: “Get more students.”

Not deterred, I started hunting for a cost-effective, systematic, research-based, yet highly personal, method for turning the tide of our admissions woes. After talking with several mentors and doing a bit of research, I stumbled upon a solution that is both simple and highly effective: a good conversation. In enrollment management, we just call it a “communication flow.”  

The Challenge — Bad Solutions to a Narrow Market
To fully appreciate this solution, we have to step back and consider the enormity of the challenge facing independent schools. As an admissions director at a K–12 school who came from higher education, my sympathy for enrollment officials in mid-sized private schools has grown exponentially. First, many schools face declining or stagnant enrollment, and are thus charged with recruiting more students without spending any more money. “We can’t spend more money on better facilities, new teachers, improved academic programs, or marketing or advertising,” the leadership will declare. “After all, our budget has been shrinking. But, we need more students. Go and find them for us.” This is no easy task.

Moreover, the market for independent education, at least where I live in Colorado, is incredibly narrow. Faith-based schools like ours compete for families who (1) share our beliefs, (2) are wealthy enough to afford a private education, and (3) see the value of independent education. When you crunch the numbers, this is an awfully narrow slice of the total population. Most marketers are like a bachelor who buys a new suit, finds the best singles bar in the city, meets a girl, and proposes marriage on the first date. (This is what most schools do when they ask prospective students to enroll after a 45-minute tour.)

The typical solutions to an enrollment challenge often fall short. (Read the rest of the article)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lesslie Newbigin on Education

My favorite theologian, Lesslie Newbigin, on education:

In any discussion on the nature of society and of our vision for it, education must have a central place. Societies exist, cohere and flourish in so far as they embody a reasonably coherent understanding of existence within which they can make sense of their personal lives. Education, the its broadest sense, is the initiation of new members of society into this tradition. In contemporary British society the tradition into which young people are initiated in school and college is the set of assumptions which have controlled Western society since the Enlightenment. In a minority of homes – Christian, Islamic, Jewish and others – children are initiated into other traditions. In so far as these are at odds with the tradition into which children are initiated in school and college, they obviously fight a losing battle. Even in homes where the parents are committed Christians, it is hard, to the point of impossibility, for children to sustain belief in the meta-narrative of the Bible over against that understanding of the meta-narrative – the picture of the origins and development of nature, of human society as a whole – which is being offered to them at school. It is possible to maintain the telling of the biblical story in the privacy of home and church, but in so far as this story contradicts the meta-narrative of the schools, young people are placed in an impossible situation. The question ‘which is the true story?’ must ultimately be faced.

For the sake of the well-being of civil society as a whole, I believe that Christians have a duty to share with those who hold other beliefs, whether religious or secular, to create a public educational system which will train future citizens to live in mutual respect and mutual responsibility while acknowledging their differences in fundamental belief…But this pluralism cannot be sustained if one of these belief systems, namely ‘secular humanism,’ uses its present hegemony to exclude from the curriculum of public education the belief system which is embodied in the Bible. It is only the gospel which enables us to affirm both that the Sovereign Lord of all has made his will and purpose known in Jesus Christ for the whole of our life, private and public, and yet at the same time, not in spite of this but because of this, to affirm that God has ordained a space in which disbelief can have the freedom to flourish.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Classics in Theological Education

The following short story is from a personal journal entry on November 29, 2007, half way through my seminary experience.

Imagine you are a recent college graduate on the hunt for the perfect seminary. One day you arrive on campus a starry-eyed prospective student to behold a community buzzing with activity. Students are madly rushing to class and engaging in furious theological debate. You ask your tour guide what all the commotion is about, and he simply says, “It must be the faculty.”

Your curiosity peaked, you open the double doors to the academic building and take a peak into one of the classrooms. Standing along the back you notice that the professor seems to be dressed oddly, and is using an interpreter. “Who is that teaching?” you inquire. “Augustine of Hippo. He heads our theology department. John Calvin was recently added to our faculty as well. The students just love them.” You shoot back a quizzical look at the tour guide and continue the tour, not knowing whether to check his pulse or your own.

The next classroom has a much different flavor. Two monkish looking teachers are sitting in the corner with a small he Brd of student around them. “And who is teaching this class?” you ask. “Catherine of Siena?” “No, she's actually on sabbatical. Our current professors of spiritual formation are Ignatius of Loyola and Benedict of Nursia.” You shake your head, blink your eyes, and pinch yourself to make sure you're not dreaming.

Fluttering with excitement, you nearly run down the hall to the next classroom. Within you see Blaise Pascal teaching apologetics, with C.S. Lewis on deck as a guest lecturer. Astonished you fly down the hall to see Martin Luther King Jr. teaching theological ethics, and next door you see Gregory the gey team teaching a course on leadership. “What kind of a seminary is this?” you wonder. You pull out the course schedule to see if all the teachers are of this caliber, and you discover that Martin Luther teaches Greek exegesis, Ben-Hadad the Hebrew Scriptures, Plato and Thomas Aquinas teaching philosophy, Eusebius teaching early church history, Will Durant medieval and reformation history, Mother Teresa lectures on urban ministry, and the Apostle Paul teaches intercultural ministry along with his assistant William Carey.

Overwhelmed you shove the list back into your book bag, get a glass of water, and plop down at chapel. Yet before you can ask your tour guide what's going on, dozens of oddly dressed Jews come singing and dancing into chapel. “You're going to love this,” your tour guide quips. As scores of bearded men, who you discover to be Levites, pile in, you behold King David himself leading worship. The harp and lyre, the melody and lyrics, the commotion of prayer lift your imagination to a height that border exhaustion. After worship, Barnabas (from the mentoring department) introduces the preacher, none other than John Chrysostom – golden mouth himself. Enraptured by the legendary rhetoric and passion of the prince of preachers you near the point of complete elation.

Marching out of the chapel, you pull your tour guide outside and fanatically inquire, “What kind of a place is this? How do you keep these guys under control?” “Oh, don't worry, our President has a way with words. Actually, many even call him the Word.”

“I have one last question. How do I get into this school?”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Private Schools for the Poor

One of the Millennium Development Goals is universal primary education. Despite a rise in attendance, 72m school-age children are still not in school, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southwest Asia. Governments strive to meet the challenge of a free education for all, but a recent article in The Economist points out “A free education is something that many parents will pay to avoid.”

For instance, in India between a quarter and a third of students attend private schools. In Mumbai, parents are itching to get their kids into Mary Immaculate Girl’s School, which charges $180 a year. Considering there are free options across the street, this has made many reconsider the proper path to universal education.

Throughout India, as state systems expanded, quality slipped. Many teachers failed to show or to correct basic errors in student work. Contrast this with private schools in Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda. Here parents are choosy customers – and they care more about the quality of teaching than the glamor of facilities.

Can fee-based schools ever serve the poorest? Perhaps not. Many non-profits are skeptical of private schools and prefer to reform public schools instead. Nevertheless, for those interested in caring for the educational needs of children across the world, involving local parents as a system of accountability (they vote with their dollars) seems to me like a better solution than more large grants to the state.

Friday, March 16, 2012

School Architecture

Buildings shape your soul.

That may be hard to believe, but I think Stratford Caldecott, in his excellent book Beauty for Truth’s Sake, has convincingly made the case that architecture is under girded by distinct understandings of the world. And in the modern world, due primarily to materialism and utilitarianism, beauty has been mostly lost in our buildings. And with this loss in beauty, “ugliness” has warped aspects of the human soul.

Again, that may seem extreme, but Caldecott is worth hearing on a few points. The first relationship that he explores is the vertical and the horizontal in architecture:

“One way of describing what happened to architecture is that the vertical dimension was devalued, or else that the link between the vertical and the horizontal had disintegrated…. These two dimensions are integrated in the human body, which, as the medievals rightly perceived forms a “microcosm,” a compact representation and sampler of the cosmos as a whole. We stand upright, and this very posture hints at our potential role as a mediator or high priest of creation.”

Human beings stand upright, and, unlike most animals that stand horizontal, the vertical dimension of humans makes us unique. Thus, because humans are taller than they are wide, tall buildings tend to strike us as beautiful. "Humane architecture" proportionally connects the vertical and the horizontal. Or as Caldecott puts it:

“In general, buildings that are flat tend to strike us as drab and ugly, awhile buildings with peaked roofs, with triangles and curves that connect the horizontal with the vertical, are felt to be more beautiful.”

This is fascinating to me. My last apartment was flat and had normal 8ft ceilings. In my current home, the ceilings are vaulted, and they come to a peak at more than 20ft in height. Immediately when people walk in, they comment that our home is “beautiful.” Caldecott argues that this is because it resembles a human body, the most beautiful of all created forms.

He goes on to describe which materials are perceived as the most beautiful:

“The materials of which we make our buildings are just as eloquent. Traditional materials such as wood, stone or clay speak an immediate connection with the earth. On the other hand, concrete and cement by their very nature represent the brutality of modernism—the reduction of the world to particles in order to force it into shapes of our own devising. The shaping of concrete is done from the outside, by the imposition of mechanical force, rather than from inside by growth or natural accretion.”

Again, I had never thought about this before. Materials that have a connection to the earth – stone, wood, clay – are always more “beautiful” than concrete and cement. They resemble the created order and not the harsh imposition of force by humanity on a building.

These changes in architecture have a deeply philosophical basis. At the Enlightenment, the influence of the divine on architecture (not only on churches, but on schools and public buildings as well) was diminished, and utilitarian and human ends became ultimate. Caldecott says:

“In modern times, with the rise of rationalism and materialism, the transcendent or vertical dimension was neglected as we concentrated on mastering the world around us…One these attitudes and assumptions had sufficiently penetrated the popular mentality, architects began to create buildings that reflected the modern understanding of man and the world; that is, machines for living in, spaces designed to facilitate efficient motion in a horizontal plane.”
“Spaces designed to facilitate efficient motion in a horizontal plane…” Does this not sound like nearly every school you’ve ever been in? Certainly all K-12 schools, and a good many colleges and graduate schools are seen as only spaced to put bodies for “getting things done.”

I think we’ve all had the experience of being in a majestic building and feeling in awe. Or we’ve been in a wood cabin and felt deeply “at home.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, we've all felt what it's like to be molded by our surroundings.

Schools and churches should prioritize beautiful buildings. “But they cost so much!” Yes, they do. So save up, and build them when you have the resources. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that space is neutral. It’s not. And neither are buildings.

The buildings we reside in form our souls.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beauty for Truth's Sake

Rarely do I finish a book and exclaim, “I have never even thought about most of these ideas.” Yet when I finished Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake, I was dumbfounded. Although a bit heavy in quotations in some spots, this book opened a new world to me. That new world was the unity of knowledge. Christians often teach about not dividing sacred from secular and integrating the Bible into all of life, but most of these efforts amount to very little other than applying obscure Bible passages in strange ways. Caldecott, a Catholic theologian at Oxford, has given Christians interested in education a new vocabulary for “Christian worldview.”

The book is about the classical Liberal Arts tradition of the West that “once offered a form of humane education that sought the integration of faith and reason, and that combined the arts and the sciences, before these things became separated, fragmented, and trivialized.” For Caldecott, this tradition can only be recovered by going back to the sources (ressourcement). The most important source for Caldecott is not Boethius, Augustine or even Socrates and Plato. It is Pythagoras. Pythagoras? The right-angle triangle guy? That’s what I mean by “I’ve never even thought about that before.”

Caldecott introduces the book by quoting Pope Benedict at length. His book The Spirit of the Liturgy attempts to connect prayer and action, the soul and the exterior world, society and the universe, into a single harmonious whole. The ordering of the soul is deeply connected, of all things, to the mathematical ordering of time, space and matter. I’ll join Caldecott and quote Pope Benedict at length:

“Among the Fathers, it was especially Augustine who tried to connect this characteristic view of the Christian liturgy with the worldview of Greco-Roman antiquity. In his early work ‘On Music’ he is still completely dependent on the Pythagorean theory of music. According to Pythagoras, the cosmos was constructed mathematically, a great edifice of numbers. Modern physics, beginning with Kepler, Galileo and Newton, has gone back to this vision and, through the mathematical interpretation of the universe, has made possible the technological use of its powers.

“For Pythagoreans, this mathematical order of the universe (‘cosmos’ means ‘order’!) was identical with the essence of beauty itself. Beauty comes from meaningful inner order. And for them this beauty was not only optical but also musical. Goethe alludes to this idea when he speaks of the singing contest of the fraternity of the spheres: the mathematical order of planets and their revolutions contains a secret timbre, which is the primal form of music. The courses of the revolving planets are like melodies, the numerical order is the rhythm, and the concurrence of the individual courses is the harmony…

“But a further step was taken with the help of the Trinitarian faith, faith in the Father, the Logos [the Son], and the Pneuma [Holy Spirit]. The mathematics of the universe does not exist by itself, nor, as people now came to see, can it be explain by stellar deities. It has a deeper foundation: the mind of the Creator. It comes from the Logos, in whom, so to speak, the archetypes of the world’s order are contained. The Logos, through the Spirit, fashions the material world according to these archetypes. In virtue of his work in creation, the Logos is, therefore called the ‘art of God’ (ars=techne!). The Logos himself is the great artist, in whom all works of art—the beauty of the universe—have their origin.”

Let me try to summarize with my pea-sized brain: All of creation and thus all knowledge finds its source in Jesus, the Logos, the great bridge between God and man. He creates the world through an great ordering of all things (Genesis says God created order from chaos). This order is mathematical and constant, and the universe itself is set to a kind of rhythm that resembles a cosmic song. This “great edifice of numbers” carries with it a serene simplicity and unity that can only be called beautiful.

Western civilization lost its connection to a cosmic order at the Enlightenment. All was separated and dissected when, at the same time, it lost its faith in God. God became relevant only to one’s personal values, but was dethroned as God of the Universe. But in this vision of the world – this old vision – the natural world is the overflow of the Mind of the Maker. God is Lord of both the individual as well as the universe. Caldecott is trying to re-infuse meaning into education by recovering an ancient view of the world’s unity in Christ.

Like I said, I’ve never even thought about most of these ideas. I think this book will require several blog posts…

Swarthmore's Strategic Plan

I’ve just finished reading Rebecca Chopp’s new strategic plan for Swarthmore College. To most this will seem like snooze material. Yet leading large, complex organizations with highly intelligent people, most of whom have competing agendas, is no small task.

In the Strategic Plan, Chopp writes in lucid prose and begins with the challenges facing the liberal arts. She addresses issues like rising costs, student diversity, and global engagement in the 21st century. From here she clarifies the school’s most important values that guide their activity as an institution. She then calls the key points of the plan “recommendations” instead of “objectives”, the term most universities use. Each recommendation has several parts (read: goals) that will guide Swarthmore in the upcoming decade. Pretty straightforward.

But this is what I love about what Chopp has done. First, she engaged in a lengthy but defined process of listening. She formed councils on the strategic planning process, on mission, vision & values, and on admissions, access and affordability. All the key stakeholders were in these committees. Thus, when she would eventually present the institutions key values and “recommendations,” there was widespread buy-in. After all, it was all their ideas.

Second, she re-enforced her listening with collaboration. After she had written the plan, she presented a “draft for comment.” Banish the idea of a headstrong leader charging in and saying “Here we go. Follow me!” Instead, she spent several more months receiving additional ideas before it was set in stone. People we given a chance to voice their objections before the plan was finalized.

Chopp must have read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. Senge argues that shared vision is the most powerful organizational force, and that the role of the CEO is to understand and then articulate the vision that is already within the company. No more “my way or the highway.” Instead, it becomes, “Let’s create a new company and a new world together.”

What a good way to lead.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The New American University

After reading about Fred Terman several weeks ago, I sent a letter to Jonathan Cole, author of The Great American University and professor at Colombia. My question was this: Who are the great university leaders of our generation? Six weeks later he graciously sent a reply. At the top of his list was the president of Arizona State University: Michael Crow.

Crow has been noticed by many in higher education for his big idea, which he calls The New American University. By way of introducing the idea, in an ASU promotional brochure, Crow comments, “Do you replicate what exists or do you design what you really need?” For Crow, the university is not about doing research in a never-ending spiral of footnotes (replication), but in looking at the big problems of the world and creating useful knowledge.

The New American University (an idea Crow hopes will catch on past ASU), is defined by eight “design aspirations.”

1. Leverage our Place. By embracing the physical, cultural and socioeconomic location of ASU, new initiatives and partnerships are built around the needs of Arizona and the Southwest in general.
2. Transform Society. Social needs form the objectives for research programs, and have thus inspired new institutes and projects ranging from biomedical research and sustainability to health care and K-12 education.
3. Value Entrepreneurship. Here entrepreneurship extends far past the business school, and is encouraged in every field.
4. Conduct Use-Inspired Research. If your Ph.D. research has no apparent use in the modern world, then it might be better to look elsewhere for graduate school. Since 2003 investors have devoted over $100 million for new ventures from ASU Techonopolis alone. Research has a practical goal at ASU.
5. Empower Our Students. Here access triumphs over elitism. From partnering with the American Indian Community to launching the American Dream Academy, an institute that helps to instill the value of education in both parents and children, ASU works to give unprecedented access to higher education, as well as empowering students from all walks of life to succeed.
6. Fuse Intellectual Disciplines. ASU has gone crazy in the past decade creating over 20 new transdisciplinary schools and institutes, such as School of Sustainability, School of Earth and Space Exploration, the Center for Biology and Society, and the Arizona Institute for Renewable Energy.
7. Be Socially Embedded. ASU now has dozens of partnerships with local hospitals and schools throughout Arizona that make ASU a genuine agent of widespread social change.
8. Engage Globally. From MBA partnership programs in Shanghai to studying abroad at the Technológico de Monterrey, ASU engages the needs of the world.

Like a previous post about A New Liberal Arts, the idea is simple: our communities, states and nations have needs, and we need to reformulate higher education around engaging those needs. Liz Coleman at Bennington is doing it primarily among undergraduates and the liberal arts. Crow has transformed ASU from a top ten party school to an engine of useful innovation.

There’s much that could be said (and has been said) about Crow’s efforts to build a new model for higher education. But what really interests me is the deep connection between thinking and action, between the needs of the world and the intensive intellectual process required find creative solutions to meet those needs.

I’ve said this before, but Christians need to really pay attention to these voices. Given, these are both highly secular institutions. But they are in many ways shaming Christian educational leaders who are simply replicating what “bigger, better” schools do and haven’t deeply thought about creating academic programs that are focused on solving the big problems of our day.

I do genuinely think higher education will have to move in the direction of The New American University. Exponentially rising tuition costs have cornered many in the university. Students are laden with debt, and administrators must answer more and more to a public that demands a quality undergraduate experience.

This model is missing a key factor, however. God. And because God is missing so is the both the unity of knowledge and the keys to answering the biggest questions about human existence. But this model puts many Christian universities to shame who claim to be about God’s mission in the world but many times amount to little more than, in the words of a skeptical friend of mine, “pay your fee, get your degree.”

Christ calls educators to serve the needs of others. Michael Crow seems to me to be one of the great Cyrus’ of our generation, serving the needs of others and even the purposes of God, perhaps while not even knowing it. I wonder how many Christian institutions of education will notice this model and have the courage to refashion their own schools and universities around this model. Or perhaps some will not simply replicate this model and will instead design what their communities really need.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Reason for Christian Schools

I’m often interested in hearing the reasons why parents bring their kids to a Christian school. One of the most common is the negative influences on their child at a public school. Parents don’t want their children surrounded by peers who are drinking, using drugs, using foul language, or perhaps engaging in premarital sex. More importantly, they don’t want their child bullied or picked on by other students.

As a parent, I can fully understand this perspective. I have a three-year-old and a one-year old. Nothing makes me more worried, or even potentially angry, than thinking about my daughter coming home and either being bullied or picking up the sinful behaviors of their peers. As a parent I’ve been entrusted with the formation – intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical – of my kids. I’ve been charged by God to put them in an environment where they will thrive and flourish.

There is, however, a problem that can develop out of this mentality. When the focus is on “what other kids might do to my child,” it becomes assumed that the problem is “out there.” The problem exists in other kids, in the public school, in their teacher, or whatever other external influence that might negatively affect my child. Regardless of what the external problem is, over time it becomes assumed that I must protect my child from an evil world.

This, however, is not a Christian view of the world.

For the Christian, the fundamental problem is sin. And sin is not only “out there”—in the structures of society and in other people—it is within me. Augustine’s concept of original sin (based on Romans 5), means that all human beings adopt a sin nature from Adam, and they simultaneously choose to embrace that sin. As a matter of fact, the starting point for the whole Christian life is the confession, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I am a sinner. And so are my children. The problem is not so much “the evil world” that will hurt my child, the problem is the sin inside them that threatens to disintegrate their personalities before they can ever grow.

GK Chesterton once was asked by a newspaper editor what he believed to the world’s biggest problem. Was it warfare, poverty, pollution, education, government corruption? No. To the question of “What’s the biggest problem in the world?”, Chesterton famously replied, “I am.”

This is the answer of a Christian who has fully understood the human problem, and has seen the problem deep within his own heart.

When a school community adopts the first view, that the problem is “out there” and we need to protect our kids from “them,” it can often lead to not only sheltering kids, but making them think that “they are bad and I am good.” This can lead to a pharisaical religious superiority that condemns others for their sex, drugs and rock & roll lifestyle, and almost completely ignores the greatest sin living in their own hearts: pride.

On the other hand, when Christian parents fully understand the gospel, that I (and my children) am a sinner and Christ has atoned for my sins at the cross, they base their life and beliefs on grace. We as a family have been given a gift we didn’t deserve, and this informs how we interact with other students and their families. A quick willingness to admit our own sin is the result, and we look at others as more righteous than ourselves.

I can understand the desire to put quality influences in the life of your child. This is certainly important for any Christian family. But Christian schools (just like churches for that matter) are filled with people who have problems. We can never fully protect either ourselves or our kids from bad influences, because the bad influence starts with the sin living inside of us!

The real case for a Christian school, in my view, is that it’s an environment soaked by the gospel of God’s grace. The gospel alone has the power to transform lives. Secular knowledge alone can’t transform either the human heart or society. When the gospel is integrated into every aspect of learning and community life, it has power to allow children to flourish. It is, in the words of Paul, “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Bible Made Impossible

I recently published a review of Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture for The Denver Journal. Here's the first paragraph:

It’s not often that a professor attempts to dissolve the edifice of evangelicalism with a single book. But that is essentially what Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at Notre Dame, has tried to do with his latest work The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2011). Perturbed with popular use of the Bible in American evangelicalism, Smith decries modern “biblicism” (defined below) as not only irresponsible, but “impossible” – a theory that doesn’t work in practice. He endeavors to show readers the flaws of biblicism and then make a case for a “truly evangelical” reading of Scripture. Although peppered with helpful insights, The Bible Made Impossible falls short of its lofty goals, and leaves readers looking for solid ground amidst the shifting sands of academic criticism. (Here's the rest of the article...)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Prison University Project

Several months ago I was driving to work and overheard a program on NPR about “The Prison University Project.” In San Quentin Penitentiary, ex-cons and felons, (incarcerated for crimes ranging from drug dealing to murder) have the opportunity to get a liberal arts degree through a unique program launched in the mid-nineties by a UC Davis professor. An extension site of Patten University, prisoners with at least a GED or high school degree can earn a two year liberal arts degree, with classes ranging from US History and Algebra to English Composition and philosophy. At least in one US prison, inmates trade in dope dealing for Kant, integrals, and civil war history.

So how does one pull off a university extension site behind bars? Well, the teachers are nearly all volunteers, all with at least a masters degree in their field. Because the government outlawed Pell Grants for inmates in 1994 (a “disaster” according to the Prison University Project (PUP) website), all funding is through private foundations and donors. Students must apply and be accepted into the program, with the criteria being centered on how bad a student wants to improve themselves and grow. Classes are held primarily in evenings, and students do homework throughout the week.

What’s the need for such a program? For one, the recidivism rate among inmates is a major problem. With 2.6 million prisoners in the US, it's problematic when inmates often learn in jail how to become better criminals. If one wanted to improve himself, the typical opportunities in jail are either work programs or GED programs, which give ex-cons just enough education to get a minimum wage job upon release and be eventually drawn into “more lucrative” affairs on the street. The Prison University Project offers are real alternative – a way to earn an accredited degree and a shot at a brighter future. Moreover, a liberal arts education gives students the ability to adjust to several different jobs upon re-entry, and not only in narrowly defined technical jobs that may or may not be available when their parole is up.

But does this program really work? Who’s going to hire an ex-con to work at their corporation, even if he has a liberal arts degree? Bard College launched a similar program in an attempt to answer this question. In contrast to PUP, the Bard Initiative offers four year degrees, and produced graduates in fields ranging from computer science to comparative literature.

One student at the Bard Prison Initiative, Anthony Cardenales, graduated from the program and was eventually hired by a company called WeRecycle!. Cardenales had a unique set of skills that made him a perfect fit for WeRecycle!. First, because he was just getting out of jail, he was highly motivated to work hard, even on the floor as a materials handler. Failure was not an option for Cardenales, and his work ethic eventually pushed him up to management. But what was unique about Cardenas is that he combined a work ethic with a liberal arts degree, which gave him the critical thinking skills and higher reasoning ability needed to solve company-wide problems. In contrast to either those who will do menial labor yet are not capable of leadership responsibilities, or those with a college degree who won’t “get their hands dirty,” Cardenales brought together both skills because of his unique background.

I’m drawn to programs like PUP for many reasons. First, here is a form of education that is really changing lives. Students who are admitted have both the direct need and the motivation to change. Also, PUP is also solving a fundamental social problem in America: the recycling of prisoners through the US prison system. Graduates of programs like the Prison University Project are given the tools to truly “make it” on the outside. Yet, what is most beautiful about these types of programs is the dynamic harmony between the life of the mind and social justice, between what Bertrand Russell deemed the “heaven of philosophy” and the suffering of mankind. Here is an opportunity for the intellectually, and often introspectively, oriented individual to use his or her skills for the good of another. This is a great opportunity for those on the outside to walk along side of another human being and see them transform over time to become a contributing member of society.

Here’s my question: when is somebody going to start a program like this in Denver?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A New Liberal Arts

Several years ago, Liz Coleman, the president of Bennington College, gave a talk at TED about “A New Liberal Arts.” At a conference usually reserved for technology whizzes or scientists, she gave a convincing argument for the worth of a liberal arts education in an age where hyper-specialization is seen as the apex of human endeavor. Yet what was most compelling to me was her central idea: the liberal arts must be intentionally focused on thinking about and solving the world’s biggest problems.

Here’s the idea: in today’s world, not only do we need people who can think in interdisciplinary ways, but we need people using the best tools of thought from history (literature, science, history, economics, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics) to be intentionally engaged in solving difficult problems. From climate change and education reform to international conflict and malnutrition, Coleman doesn’t believe the technician can solve these problems alone. They need broad thinkers, and they need a moral vision.

Now, I significantly disagree with several aspects of Coleman’s vision. For one, she’s staunchly secular and anti-religious. In her talk, she even spoke about their new research center at the center of campus as a kind of “secular church.” She sees no place for religion in the academy, and this, I believe, damages her argument in a religious world. Second, her form of education is avowedly political. Without God, she needs an ultimate purpose, and for her that is the state. Considering 20th century history, I’m not sure how she could be so adamantly political and unflinchingly believe in the virtues of even democracy, whom Churchill has even said is only “the least bad form of government we have.” As one who sets her heart on the state, Coleman would be wise to at least admit the truth: the secular academy is her church, and secularism is her religion.

But setting this aside for the moment, I’m more than fascinated by this model of education. Here’s why. First, Coleman believes that directly connecting a human need or real-world issue to a liberal arts curriculum super-charges thinking. For example, her freshman all have to sit in on “labs” focused on some issue, such as education or health care. In class, when they read Whitehead’s The Aims of Education, they apply it’s lessons to the national education reform debate. How many times have each of sat in class and wondered why we have to learn this? For students at Bennington, it’s clear: to change society. This means syllabi and pre-fabricated papers take second place to real critical thought on the toughest problems of our day.

Second, there is always a criticism that education is an ivory tower, disconnected from “the real world.” Not here. In this new liberal arts curriculum, the core ends are not only mastery of a subject, but instead the mastery of using that subject to benefit the common good. Conversations on literature and history take on new significance when you’re required to do a semester of “field work” dealing with real problems like poverty, governance, or disease.

Third, this new liberal arts curriculum, I believe, is deeply missional. Now, it’s obvious Coleman would never agree with me on this. I’d probably classify as a nutty fundamentalist in her eyes. But having this outward focus in a liberal arts curriculum I believe is resonant with God’s activity in the world. In contrast to most Christian liberal arts curriculums that only do mission trips and service projects, this re-centers the curriculum itself around the pressing issues at hand. For example, instead of going to Central America to build a school, they would analyze the issues of public education in Central America as well as the challenge of development education in their actual courses. God is in the business of bringing, in the words of the Lausanne Covenant, the whole gospel to the whole world. Solving problems like climate change or corporate corruption as a part of a liberal arts curriculum saves The Great Conversation from being stuffy and elitist. It focuses the liberal arts where Milton says it should always be focused, “on repairing the ruins of our first parents.”

Monday, January 9, 2012

Knowledge and Suffering

Vernon Grounds, the former Chancellor of Denver Seminary, quotes atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell to conclude his short work Evangelicalism and Social Responsibility. As an educator myself who, like Grounds, cares deeply about social justice, I thought it fitting to include the quote on this blog:

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

“Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.”

This morning I read a headline in the Denver Post about 550,000 Haitians still living in tent cities without running water or sewer lines two years after the earthquake. One father of two young girls said, “It’s hell.” As we educators continue to pursue truth and knowledge that lift us and our students to the heavens, let us never forget of the suffering of mankind. And as we plunge back to earth, perhaps we can take something from the silver lining that will alleviate the pain that makes a mockery of what human life should be.


“You are worthy to take the scroll
And to open its seals,
Because you were slain,
And with your blood you purchased men for God
From every tribe and language
And people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God
And they will reign on the earth.”
-Revelation 5:9-10

On this blog I often consider the purpose of education. Why teach? What are we trying to form in students? To find an answer to these questions, it’s helpful to think about the more fundamental question, What is the purpose of the human race?

As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out in Foolishness to the Greeks, purpose and meaning are always connected to final outcomes. For example, if I see a machine making Coke bottles, I know it’s purpose: to make bottles. But if I see the machine sitting in a corner with a piece missing, I have no idea what its purpose is.

In the same way, the purpose of humanity is connected to its final outcome. And the final outcome of the human race is outlined in Revelation. Now, the book is interspersed with songs and poems, sung primarily by angels, but also by the “twenty-four elders” and “the four living creatures.” The elders and the four living creatures sing the song written above. To me, it’s interesting to look at the types of things people and will be doing and saying in eternity, especially as I think about what I should be doing and saying now.

The song above has at least important ideas: gospel, global mission, service, and dominion. First, the gospel is eternally on the tongue of both men and angels: the Lamb has been slain and has purchased men for God at the price of his blood. Second, people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” are at the wedding feast of the Lamb. It is a multi-cultural event. Third, men who were once far from God and estranged from him are made to be “a kingdom” and “priests” who serve God. Priests intercede on behalf of others, and service is, it seems, an eternal activity. Finally, men once again are restored to the role of being kings on the earth who reign, and thus steward the entire created order and oversee its restored state.

As we consider models of Christian education, are the elements of gospel, global mission, service and stewardship over the earth included in our curriculum? The songs of angels and redeemed people offer us clues to a true formation for students, resulting ultimately in worship.