Education & the Benedict Option
My friend and reader Ryan Booth writes:
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. – Proverbs 4:7 (KJV)
I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about education in a Benedict Option system, and my thesis is this: the difficulties of education in church and school are not separate problems and should not be treated as such. They are the same problem and require a comprehensive solution, radically different from current models. I believe that the current academic framework, our very idea of “school,” is something that must be completely re-imagined in the context of the BenOp. I don’t know exactly what that looks like yet, but I have some ideas.
We don’t need to go over all the ground we already know. We know the problems. In the church context, that means the lack of catechesis in our churches, the spiritual ignorance of those in the pews, the vacuous “youth groups,” the absence of family devotions, the fact that so many Sunday school lessons amount to “be good and obey your parents” or some other trite waste of time, etc. We send kids off to college and they completely lack both the theological knowledge and the spiritual framework and discipline to be anything that overwhelmed by the culture, or as you quoted Rieff in your March post on education, “the Anti-Culture.”
In the context of school, I think most of your readers engaged with this topic know just how toxic the public-school environment is. My own daughter just finished 7th grade at a magnet school in Baton Rouge that has very high academic standards and achievement. That didn’t stop a boy from threatening to tie her to a tree and hurt her. In 6th grade, she hadn’t even finished two weeks of school before 8th grade boys were asking her for oral sex. As a dad, it broke my heart that she had to deal with that at eleven years old. This past year, a friend of hers came out as lesbian, and my daughter didn’t celebrate along with the rest of the school, which led to other kids ridiculing her. (The lesbian girl and my daughter are still friends, and my daughter said nothing negative—just didn’t join in the celebration.)
She legitimately doesn’t know any other real Christians in her school, other than one nominal Catholic. I told her that maybe she should be friends with the Muslim girls, because they at least believe in something greater than themselves. She laughed. “Dad, (Muslim girl) has dedicated herself to being the sexiest girl in the school, and she’s pretty well succeeded. And (another Muslim girl) is a total rebel and doesn’t obey any of the teachers or listen to what anyone tells her to do.” In other words, they have been just as conformed to the Anti-Culture as everyone else.
So, since homeschooling is not an option for me, I will be paying to send her to a Christian school. This school was founded right after Baton Rouge schools were desegregated, and it grew very quickly after that. So, like many private schools, it came into existence so that upper-middle class kids wouldn’t have to go to school with “those” kids. There’s no doubt that there are plenty of people at this school who worship state championships and academic awards instead of Jesus Christ. I’ve people say that there are “Christian cliques” in the school—not exactly a ringing endorsement.
And yet, I believe that this badly flawed school is my best option for my daughter. There are believing kids there that she can make friends with, every teacher has made a profession of faith, and I feel that she has a decent shot at coming out of high school as a believer in Jesus Christ. For that, I am going to make big sacrifices to pay a total of about $50,000 over the next five years.
As a Christian community, we have to create something better, because schools such as this are really not going to work for BenOppers (is there a better name for us?), even those of us who can afford them. As you put it in your March post on “missionary schooling,”
And not just public schools: private and even some religious schools can have cultures outside the classrooms that are just as toxic and antithetical to Christian values. I think parents who send their kids to private or religious school thinking that they are protecting their kids from the destructive popular culture may well be whistling past the graveyard as effectively as parents who tell themselves that their kids will be “salt and light” in a destructive school culture.
The American model of a “Christian school” is destined for utter failure, for a number of reasons. These schools are run as businesses, and the cost serves to make them places for the children of the upper-middle class to make social connections. They are fundamentally modeled after public schools, and their goals are thoroughly worldly: to get students into the best universities with the best scholarships. Thus, the goals of private schooling and the goals of Christian schooling will increasingly come into conflict, as de-accreditation and social disapproval of orthodox Christianity remove the current social and career benefits that are associated with Christian schools.
Furthermore, we know that the academic model that all modern schools are based on is poor. Rod, you’ve read Glenn Reynolds’ book, so you’re very much aware that a teacher standing in front of a group of 20 or so students to lecture is a poor method of teaching students in the 21st century. Simple information delivery can often be more efficiently accomplished on screens, and teachers can then coach students more individually. That means that the most efficient and effective way to educate students may no longer be in the groups of 20-30 that schools have traditionally put them in—and we need to look for a better model.
Homeschooling is not an option for me or for many other families, and I think it’s a bad choice for many who do homeschool. Even for families such as yours, where homeschooling is easily the best available option, it is less than ideal in several ways.
Homeschooled kids don’t get the benefit of learning from the experiences of other Christian adults. They don’t get the benefit of growing up with friends who share their faith, which becomes more important as kids get older. As children grow, they have a natural desire to explore the world around them; suppressing that completely doesn’t prepare them for the difficult task of living in the world without being of it. As a homeschooled child myself, I know the feeling of wondering if there are other people out there who think the same way that you do. I know the social difficulties I faced when I ended up going to a regular high school in 11th grade.
There are also a great many families who try to homeschool and simply fail. I see these kids in my learning centers on a regular basis: kids whose parents couldn’t discipline them to actually make them do the schoolwork, kids who are three or four grades behind in math by high school. Now, public schools have kids just as behind, so I’m not picking on homeschoolers here–just pointing out that homeschooling isn’t always effective.
Many of the co-ops that homeschoolers send their kids to are pathetic academically, and a lot of homeschooled kids are simply special snowflakes who couldn’t make it in school, and the parents are dedicated to pretending that their kids are learning more than they really are. In other words, homeschooling culture has its own flaws.
Don’t get me wrong—I write all this as someone who is grateful to have been homeschooled for five years. I think homeschooling is currently the best option for many families. But it’s not ideal, nor is it an adequate solution to the needs of a BenOp community. Homeschooling, in its purest form, isn’t communal at all.
We have to start over by examining the goals of education. I know many Christian parents who are very focused on getting their child into the best university so that they can get the best degree to get them a job that will pay a high salary. In other words, the focus is completely on the false idol of material success. Or it’s on the self-validation that comes with a “my child made the honor roll” bumper sticker.
No, the primary goal of Christian education has to be discipleship. And I don’t think there’s any reason to separate church education from academic education. In a BenOp community, those two things should be very tightly connected, if we even think of them separately at all.
The goal is to nurture and mentor the young into becoming disciples of Christ. The process of becoming a disciple doesn’t just mean that a child is taught something in a class. One can be taught that Jesus said we should love our enemies, but the academic exercise is nothing when compared to actually seeing that put into practice by someone.
Jesus didn’t just tell us how to live. He showed us. And he showed us by first showing 12 men. And he showed them by living with them in community. Then the twelve were ready to show others.
My point is that discipleship isn’t something that can truly occur in a classroom setting, and that is true whether we think of it in terms of a school classroom or a Sunday school. I think of Barnabas, who not only took Paul to the apostles in Acts 9, but also, in Acts 11, “departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch.” Paul lived with Aquila and Priscilla. He discipled Timothy and Silas the same way.
So, any real model for Christian education must first be relational and, in some sense, communal. It needs to focus first on the glory of God, and the first goal should be spiritual growth, which isn’t something that can be learned from a book.
So, what does BenOp education look like? First of all, all the students are Christians who want to grow in their faith. The education center (I don’t really want to use the word “school,” but I suppose that it’s necessary) is open to all in a particular faith community and is funded by donations not tuition, so that no one is excluded on the basis of ability to pay. After spiritual growth, the next goal is the development of the minds of the students to best enable them to live meaningful lives in the community. That means, for example, that an appreciation of the arts might be prioritized over things that might improve one’s college prospects. Those university degrees will become less useful for BenOppers anyway, as corporate pathways become closed to “Christian bigots.”
I no longer think it advisable in any sense for Christian parents to send their kids off to live at secular universities, so I can’t see that as being a goal of BenOp education. How can Christian parents send their kids into a satanic indoctrination camp and see that as Christian parenting? And there are often no practical benefits. Of those who go to 4-year colleges, 40% will drop out and even those who graduate will have huge student loans—and often end up in jobs that they could have had without a degree (like the 300,000 waiters and waitresses working in America who hold college degrees).
But, of course, BenOp communities should be centers of education, just as monasteries were in medieval times. For one thing, educated Christians are often more successful in evangelizing others. Yes, God will use “uneducated men,” (Peter and John, according to Acts 4), but Paul was able to use his training in rhetoric to great effect, quoting Greek poetry and impressing others with his erudition to the extent that Festus claimed that much learning was driving him mad.
That’s just as true today, when so many of our best missionaries, apologists, and evangelists are highly educated. Medical missionaries are an obvious example. We cannot succeed in becoming a light to the world if we fail to pursue knowledge and understanding.
So, that pursuit can’t just be something that stops when someone turns 18 or 22. The artificial distinction our modern society has created between the time of life for academic learning and the time for work is a terrible model for us to follow. Work should start much earlier than 22, and learning should extend throughout life, just as both of these did in medieval monasteries. This view of education should be at the very heart of the BenOp community, so a community should plan for secular and spiritual education for all its members.
Vocational education will likely involve BenOppers concentrating on specific fields. Look at immigrant groups: you see Indians dominating the US hotel business, Vietnamese owning over half of our nail salons, etc. The skills necessary to success in these business is shared in families and in tightly-knit immigrant communities, and the same thing will happen with BenOp education. We will find cultural spaces in which we are allowed to operate, and we will be successful in them due to the mutual support structures we’ll build. That is a dhimmi option to be sure, but it doesn’t seem so bad to me, because I’m not going to make an idol of material success or worry too much that Christians have to quit working for Chase bank (because the only people who can get promoted there are those who declare themselves to be LGBT allies). That is to say, the fact that orthodox Christians will end up working more with each other (instead of with secular co-workers) should largely be considered a positive thing, as fellowship strengthens spiritual and communal bonds (see again the Apostle Paul and Aquila and Priscilla).
Lots to think about here. I think that schools will be the main institution of the Benedict Option for most people. And I think one big conceptual barrier to overcome is determining the extent to which a particular Christian school is truly countercultural. I’d say that most people who send their kids to a Catholic or Protestant school tell themselves that the school is meaningfully Christian, counterculturally so. I don’t think this is true, though.