No Neutral Ground.
By Richard Bacon
Copyright 1997 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

Why We Need Commitment to Christian Education

The word that strikes the eye as one scans the titles of books on education in any public library is crisis. Crisis in the Classroom is the title, not of one book, but in substance at least, of several. That is remarkable, because according to the writers of these same books, schools occupy neutral ground. They carry out their business in a supposedly trouble-free area where partisans on all other issues — like the religious, political, social, economic — can join in a common effort for the education of tomorrow's adults. This neutral ground of common facts and a common future is declared, in the next breath, to be sacred ground, for here everyone can get together, indeed must get together with complete understanding and support. Still crisis? Yes — a dollar crisis, a learning crisis, a human crisis. For exactly what must we be doing in these schools?

The Crisis of Reason and Personality

A century ago the champions of secularism said, "Let us teach children the undoubted results of science and scholarship. Let us discipline them into accepting a body of facts." The teachers proceeded to force concepts into the heads of little children, concepts that could be hooked together in logical fashion. The concept began to dominate the thing. Live leghorns were brought into the classroom to illustrate the concept "chicken." The producer of eggs was then analyzed in terms of bones, muscle, fat and feathers to yield the further notion of "bird." You see what happened. Children were not introduced into God's highly diversified world of fascinating creatures; but God's creatures were used to illustrate the abstract classifications of men. It was human thought that was glorified. It was the human power of conceptualization the children were being asked to adore, not God and his creation.

The result was a colossal bore. Spartan discipline had to be used to keep the youngsters in line. Silence was the rule and rote memory the method. School was a prison house and the inmates became an intellectual slave-gang. Natural interest in the world around the children was systematically destroyed and their minds mutilated.

In this stultifying world of the schools a reaction was bound to set in. Academic theorists came forward to champion the freedom of the child. Let the child do his thing. Let him develop his own projects. Let him progress at his own pace. Let the school be child-oriented rather than curriculum centered. Let the teacher be the stimulator and helper of the learning child rather than the domineering force-feeder of a mass of facts and concepts. So the pendulum swung here and there from the ideal of comprehensive knowledge of the world to the ideal of the freedom of the child; from a heavy handed emphasis on the content of the curriculum to anxious concern about the progress of the individual child.

There can be no doubt that the swing from the body of facts to be mastered to the liberation of the child's mind was, in fact, a release from bondage. Initially the innovators were more successful than the traditionalists. Educators were amazed to see the results of a method which allowed children to follow the bent of natural curiosity. To think that a child would investigate a period of history of his own accord or make his own natural-history collection of eggs, or leaves, or shells! Unheard of!

A universal characteristic of nearly all schools, Christian and secular, past and present, seems to be a heavy preoccupation with order and control. One of the severest and most impartial means of control is, of course, the clock to which the bell is wired. It insures that things happen not because the teacher wants them to happen or because the students want them to happen but because it is time for them to happen. A scholar examining the curriculum of a given school arrives a few minutes early to discover a cluster of children are standing with intense fascination around a turtle. The bell rings. "Now children, put away the turtle," says the teacher. "We're going to have a science lesson." The lesson is on crabs. Inflexible order prevails over the learning process.

A similar incident took place in my Senior year in high school. It occurred just after lunch on November 22, 1963. Teachers everywhere were registering the same complaint: "I can't get the children to concentrate on their work; all they want to do is talk about the assassination of the President." The idea that children might learn more from discussing this event or that, like most adults, they were simply too obsessed with the horror of it to think of much else, did not occur to these teachers. It simply wasn't in the lesson plan. The lesson plan, logical, unemotional, compulsory, overruled the convulsions of a stunned nation in mourning. The children were shut off from the humanizing influence of this awful event in God's lesson plan.

Combine this concern for order as an end in itself with the secular pretense of religious neutrality in the classroom, and you have the perfect formula for failure. Lightning and thunder are simply and exclusively natural phenomena to be reduced to scientific equations. Let no one think that God's majesty is revealed in the voice of thunder or the flash of lightning. With a bit of high school science equipment you can make your own thunderstorm. Hooray for science, for man's control over nature, for his reduction of all things to that which is rational and conceptual. You are an emotional fool if you let go with "ooh's" and "aah's" over the turbulence and fireworks in the sky. Until reality outside is streamlined into data you can feed into the sum total of human knowledge, it isn't fit to wonder at.

The secular humanist's dilemma is always and forever that their humanism must oscillate between the pride of human reason and the pride of human personality. For if you shift from sacrificing the child to the sovereign curriculum to sacrificing the curriculum to the sovereign child, you will be not much farther ahead. As Christian people we shall have to learn to see through this educational impotence of secular humanism. It leads inevitably to the dullness and apathy that characterizes so many graduates of the public schools. They seem to have missed completely the fascination and excitement of living and learning as God's creatures in this world. The end is intellectual death, a total blackout of the goals of life, which are, in a unique fashion, the goals of education.

It was a sad, sad student who wrote for a fine arts magazine published by a junior college the poem called "Insignificance." It goes like this:

With little trace this body fades to death
No revelation comes to meet this end.
The throat, so dry, belabors parting breath,
Blood spurts from wounds it failed to defend.
The dimming eyes and leaden hands will try
No more to seek deceptive sanctity.
The body stills; its mouth so dry, awry,
A corpse to fertilize eternity.
This minute precedent in Laws of Things,
Is produce raised in sixty years of toil
While those who preach had cried for rights and wrongs,
The fact stood . . . ideologies to foil.
The rule of nature has no consciousness,
So change from life to death is meaningless.

It is this profound pessimism that comes out, not uncharacteristically, at the end of the process of an education on which the nation spends billions of dollars. But may I ask, what else can secular humanism produce with its cult of human science and human personality? What but a world empty of God, a world made anxious by confrontation after confrontation between sovereign individuals and sovereign nations none of whom wish to be subject to laws not of man's making?

The Crisis of Individualism

Secular humanism confronts us in our day with two major educational philosophies — collectivism and individualism. The first is the system the Marxists are "perfecting." It is completely at the service of an atheistic state that seeks in every way to produce men and women who will carry out policies without openly asking questions. Conformity to the ideology of the state is the sole guideline for educators, and individual initiative among students is regarded as deviationist. The aim of the system is mass manipulation and the result, for all but a few heroic non-conformists, is intellectual slavery.

In the West we have the individualist version of secular humanism. "In our society," said Sterling McMurrin, "education concerns first the well-being of the individual pupil and student, his capabilities for a productive and happy life in which he can pursue an interesting and satisfying vocation" (The Schools and the Challenge of Innovation, p. 7). The student must be equipped to make a living and to take part in the social, political, and cultural activities of the nation. Any goals beyond this are up to himself. The system must ignore such first-order questions as the nature and destiny of man, problems of authority and freedom, the place and task of the church in society, the absolutes of Christian morality, the possibility and reality of the forgiveness of sins. Its highly prized religious neutrality (in fact, it is an unblushing secular humanism) forces it to abstain from taking positions considered controversial. Meanwhile, many teachers in the public school system surreptitiously or openly scorn Christian answers to society's needs and have no sympathy whatsoever for a plurality of schools.

The Biblical Necessity of Nurturing

It is in this context that we are asked to listen to the Word of the Lord. The Bible puts things in perspective. In numerous ways it posits the necessity of nurturing our children. The heart of Christian education, in biblical language, is education of the heart. The prayer of the saint is consistently, "O Lord, give me a heart of wisdom." It does not hesitate to say that the fear of the Lord, awe and reverence ("trembling in your trousers") before our Creator, Lawgiver, and Redeemer, is the first principle in gaining any real wisdom (Proverbs 9:10, Psalm 111:10). Wisdom has to do with the practical insight that can guide human conduct, with the goals of living, the perils of life, the behavior of a believing man as a member of a community of believers. Wisdom, certainly, rather than the mere accumulation of theoretical knowledge, must be the goal of Christian education.

To understand the child, the Christian school is concerned, rather more than other schools, with opening his eyes to the world in which we live. That world is both the product of, and stage for, the works of God. These works of God form the basic materials for the testimony of Scripture. The Bible, therefore, consistently turns our attention outward to that world which God created. It directs our mental processes, not first of all to conceptual activities of other people, but to the creative activities of God. It points outward and upward and all around to what God in his wisdom is doing, for example, in nature. A Psalm like Psalm 104 is filled with "ooh's and aah's" over the diversity of God's creatures. "O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures" (verse 24). Nor are the Psalms infected by a narrow pietism that sees only the works of God, but they celebrate in the same breath the cultural achievements of man. The composers gaze in awe at the sea around them and the Leviathans that cruise and tumble through its waters for their amusement; but no less at the human creations that sail over its surface (verses 25-26).

One of the most remarkable compositions in the Bible is Psalm 8. This is not the place nor the time to offer a detailed introduction to the Psalm, but I cannot help showing you the unity of its theme. The Psalmist is struck by a paradox of sorts. On the one hand man is but a thing of dirt — why should He who made the splendors of the skies bother with this little fellow? On the other, this tiny dirt-man occupies a unique position in the world. He has been given (note, he did not usurp it) the job of being the cultural architect and manager of this planet! Talk of trust! The paradox of man's misery and majesty, so important to the business of education, would seem to threaten the unity of the Psalmist's witness. But have no fears. The Psalm opens with the same "ooh's and aah's" before the marvelous name of God which we heard before. Skyscrapers and hydroelectric systems do not for a moment obscure the name. They serve rather to enhance the name of the One for whom human beings work. It is the privilege of the Christian school to articulate the unity of the theme, and to express the wonder of it, in its day-by-day association with the children of the covenant. Secular humanism might be attracted to the contents of that Psalm; in fact, it can neither grant the derivative status of man nor the beauty of the name expressed in the combination of divine and human works.

I come now more explicitly to the scene of human history — that to which our social and historical studies provide an introduction. Again, neither the fixed curriculum can be the norm before which all else in the school must bow, nor the sovereign pupil in his freedom. But both curriculum and child have their focus in the works of God in history. After Psalm 104 comes Psalm 105 with its even deeper and more full-throated appreciation of the accomplishments of the Redeemer-Creator. In Psalm 105 we are confronted with a double sequence of events, in all of which the God of Israel is the chief actor. There are, on the one hand, God's judgments which strike down the self-inflated opposers of His will. These enemies may be the Egyptians or the Canaanites. But His judgments also come down on Israel itself. When Israel breaks faith with its Lord, He pours out His anger on His own people. On the other hand, there is the record of His saving acts by which again and again, Israel was rescued from its enemies. The two-sided history of judgment and mercy is not a matter of good fortune and bad, but a drama shaped by the interaction between a holy partner and an unholy one. The character of God shines out in the midst of human effort and human failure. History itself is education — "Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him" (Deut. 8:5-6). "And consider. . .the discipline of the Lord your God, his greatness, his mighty hand, and his outstretched arm, his signs and his deeds" (Deut. 11:2-3).

Just as history itself disciplines God's people, so the telling it educates their children. Again and again in Scripture, monuments are erected at historical sites to instruct later generations. The environment itself was made into a means of education. From these givens we may infer the importance of history for the Christian school as a subject of instruction; certainly the importance of the history of redemption which is the core of world history.

This concern brings me to the church. A field that is almost totally neglected in the public school is the church in its day-by-day struggles, services and mission. What opportunities for education the Christian school possesses in its close association with the Christian church! Every Sunday most of its pupils attend worship; every Monday the children come back to school with a whirl of new impressions in their heads. A baptism occurs — can the children explain this sacrament to each other in Bible class the next day? A sermon is preached — can youngsters write essays on the impressions they received of the service?

The glory of the Christian school is its freedom to explore the works of the Lord in nature, history, human culture, and in the world about us. Its importance lies in the fact that this exploration and the nurture that goes with it have a goal — the goal of preparing students, in the manner of the school, for living a full-orbed Christian life.

Now what of that Christian life that the school teaches?

1. It is first of all a life of faith. Not a life which includes faith as an element, but a life which as a whole expresses faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a life composed of religious activities alongside of non-religious activities, but a life in which God is gratefully served and honored in all activities. It is a life with the style of a steeple — it points away and beyond itself; it is a life in which discipleship, self-denial and cross-bearing are expressed in a cultural context; a life of trust in the Lord in all circumstances, of joy in the Lord in all situations. For this kind of life, the school is the training ground.

Of course this life is much easier to describe than to live, in school or outside of school. Who of us, parents, teachers, or pupils, is equal to this religion with so many "all's" in it? Who of us is prepared to give up everything when the call comes? Yet this is the life called Christian; and for this we train our students.

2. But there is more. That Christian life is also a life in community. All schools, make no mistake about it, all schools induct their trainees into some kind of community. The public school under government direction is concerned with inducting students into the life of the nation. Our schools induct, or ought to induct, their pupils into the life of the Christian community. That community is not limited to one ethnic group; it cuts across ethnic lines. It includes people of many national backgrounds. Nor is it limited to the members of one denomination. It includes the members of many denominations. It includes all those whose allegiance is to Jesus Christ as Lord and whose life is aimed at service for His kingdom. That community is called the communion of saints. One of the reformed catechisms teaches us that its members are sharers in all of Christ's gifts, including the gifts of knowledge and wisdom He bestows; it also teaches us the obligation of employing these gifts readily and cheerfully to the advantage and salvation of the other members of that community. The Christian school trains its students for this kind of sharing, a sharing that goes far beyond the boundaries of a single family or congregation or denomination.

3. There is more. The Christian life is life-in-community that works at culture in the name of the Lord. Christians do not isolate themselves from society in ethnic or cultic ghettoes. Nor do they immerse themselves in their national society as if it were already sanctified. But they work at the renewal of that culture, its use of natural resources, its literature and art, its politics and economics, in the spirit of anticipation, not negativism — the spirit of those who anticipate a new heaven and a new earth. What alternative do such people have but to operate schools that serve as the training ground for the children who will, in some fashion and by the grace of God, have a share in reshaping the culture in which they live?

Training children, in the manner of the school, for living the Christian life; this life lived as a life of faith and in Christian community; this life as a life of community that toils at the transformation of culture, the whole of it governed by a vision, no doubt a partial vision, of the Kingdom of God — this is the purpose of a Christian school.

It is my hope that in the coming decade, more and more Christians will become convinced that there is no neutral ground with the secular humanist. We do not take the necessary steps to educate our children apart from the state schools because we wish to have a ghetto. We have seen the bankruptcy of the myth of neutrality. We have seen that those who maintain that there is neutrality in education or any other field have already surrendered the ground to the enemy. We will educate the children God has given us in the manner of the Christian school — and we invite all farsighted parents to join with us in this sacred task.