catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 8 :: 2011.04.22 — 2011.05.05


Upside down education

What on earth does the resurrection of Jesus have to do with how we educate our children?

This was the question we put out to our contributor’s e-mail list for the current issue of catapult, and wow, did we get some great responses!  We got so many responses, in fact, that I decided to divide the topic into two: one exploring general, elementary, middle school and high school education and one exploring college education.

What I’m enjoying about the contributions I’ve read so far is the variety of creative answers to the question.  Some contributors are working within the system to make it better, some home school their own kids, some are creating radical communal alternatives to the status quo from the ground up.  And each and every one of them is thoughtful and articulate about what on earth (indeed!) the mystery of a risen, incarnate God might have to do with our educational structures.

In my own story, my parents’ modeling of faith and love came through to me perhaps most clearly in their sacrificial efforts to send me and my three younger siblings to private Christian schools.  Knowing the experiences others have had from both within and without extremely conservative Christian schools, I always feel like I have to qualify this part of my background.  The schools I went to were excellent — not the fear-driven, separatist, fundamentalist version of Christian education, but the world-opening, culture-loving variety.  In high school in particular, as I was awaking to a love of theatre and art and community organizing and justice, I had teachers who walked alongside me and magnified my sense of wonder with the lens of their own passionate, holistic faith practice.  Of course there’s no formula for this type of education, but my parents were willing to bet the farm (almost literally) to place me in the best possible environment for such encounters.

Via my teachers, my parents ruined me for “business as usual.”  I will never climb the corporate ladder or have a six-figure salary.  In fact, at the end of this school year, my husband and I will resign our shared full-time-job-with-benefits in exchange for the opportunity to grow deep roots in one place and have a go at our community development dreams in Three Rivers, Michigan.  No doubt our parents are concerned about the uncertainty of our income and health care, but in the upside down Kingdom they introduced us to, downward mobility can be just the right direction!  Some friends of ours, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, put it well:

The proper place for an educated person in our society is “up.”  Wendell Berry has some comments on this metaphor.  Observing that “education is the way up” and that the popular aim of education is to put everyone “on top,” Berry wryly notes, “Well, I think that I hardly need to document the consequent pushing and tramping and kicking in the face” involved in getting to the top and staying there.  He muses that perhaps “up” is “the wrong direction.”  We would add that “up” is the wrong metaphor and misshapes the imagination of our young.  Rather than instilling in them a desire to get to the top, to move up, we want to encourage our children to develop a sense of calling and service, including an awareness that this may require a process of downward mobility, a decision not to strive for the top but to care for those who are on the bottom.

(By the way, Walsh and Keesmaat’s co-written book Colossians Remixed [quoted above], along with their lived example, has been one of the most influential post-college teachers in my life.)  Now, I do believe that radically faithful, creative, visionary believers are needed at all levels of our broken, hierarchical society and institutions.  Often, the decisions that affect those on the bottom the most are handed down from the very top, and often those at the top of the ladder economically are the ones with the deepest emotional and spiritual needs.  It’s appropriately complicated.  But, as Berry notes, we do have a problem when everyone is trained to want to be at the top, when the most basic kindergarten lessons about politeness no longer apply, when “up” is valued for its own sake and talk of meaningful work is derided as naïve.

If upward mobility is the dominant narrative in our educational system, advertising and entertainment, then how on earth (for real) can the community of believers counter such a powerful story?  There are a lot of good ideas in this issue, and some more to come in the next one.  I also appreciate Kenda Creasy Dean’s ideas, laid out in Almost Christian, about the critical role of families learning and living out faithful love of God and neighbor together.  Critiquing the pseudo-Christian, distraction-based activities of youth groups, Dean notes a signpost of the problem of educating Christian youth all the way back in Martin Luther’s time.  Luther, who wrote, “If ever the church is to flourish again, one must begin by instructing the young,” created a Small Catechism he intended for use at home.  This catechism, Dean writes, wasn’t just for the purpose of doctrinal memorization; rather

It located teaching out loud in households, not congregations, which had the effect of locating Christian formation in the intimacy of families, where children drew direct connections between religious instruction at the dinner table and the lives of people who loved them.

Affirming the primacy of love and trust (over abstract belief) in shaping young people for lives of Christian faithfulness, Dean writes,

…faith is a way of life, not only a body of information to master, which means that youth groups and church education programs, important as they are for social networks, religious information, and opportunities for spiritual reflection, play second string when it comes to the transmission of faith.  A missional imagination requires the indigenizing practice of translating doctrine and rituals into vibrant public witness.  This takes models, not theories.  Translations require communities that embody the tradition in three-dimensional form, and adults who can connect these traditions to daily life…

And there was that word again: imagination.  It suggests that nurturing our capacity to play, create and envision new possibilities in an upside down, Kingdom-shaped reality might be a worthy lifelong educational pursuit — at school, at home, at church and everywhere.  It may or may not have a dollar sign, or impressive letters behind it, or a retirement fund, but it comes with an endless supply of wine and bread.  And I have to thank my parents and teachers for gifting me with the ability to trust the endless nourishment of such humble elements as these, shared around all kinds of tables, and breaking all of the rules about who is and isn’t worthy to claim honor.

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