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Some Thoughts on Education (5) – Three Educational Challenges: Families, Politicization, and Technology Use

It is my judgement that the biggest problem with education has nothing to do with schools. Given this, hiring better teachers, training them another way, building better buildings, offering other courses, reforming teachers’ unions—I do not believe that any of these things get to the root of the problem. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to improve these things, rather I assert that no reform in any of these areas will fundamentally improve our schools. 

While politicization and technology are significant problems (more on those below), the biggest problem with schools is our families. In teaching, a teacher has the responsibility of a parent without the authority of a parent. This can work well when parents are thoughtful and intentional about where their children go to school and allow their children’s teachers to operate in loco parentis (in the place of the parents). But even in this best-case scenario there remains a tension. There are times I wish I could take a sledgehammer to a student’s phone or X-Box, and I undoubtedly would if it were my child’s (Knetter kids, if you are reading this, take note!!!), but I can’t do this with a student’s. Despite this limitation, I have been blessed in working in partnership with parents in the education of their children and knowing that we are on the same page—I back them up in what is right and true and they likewise back me up in what is right and true. This is essential to a good education.

But lots of parents aren’t involved in their children’s education, lots of families have disregarded God’s instructions regarding the family, and many other families have terrible parenting models that inhibit their children’s development.

This needs to change! Parental involvement is the number one factor in a child’s educational success, so families need to stay together and operate Biblically. For that to happen we need strong churches. For it is the minister that expounds the word of God and it is within God’s written word that we find out what a family is and how it ought to operate. The family is not conventional, it is not something that we have made and therefore can remake. It has a concrete, ontological existence that we must conform to.

This is why I work at the school I work at, a school that cannot function without family involvement, and not somewhere else. This is one of the reasons why I don’t just attend church, I am a member of my church. Education reform must have the family at the center and the family cannot be what it ought to be without the Church.

A secondary problem is that we live in a society that politicizes everything, including education. I know I beat on this drum a lot, but it is worth repeating: A good education is not political. I want all of our children to be conservative and liberal. By that I mean I want all our students to conserve and someday pass down the best of what has preceded them while receiving a thoroughly liberal (that is, freeing) education, one that will prepare them to live as free people. Ultimately, it is more important to me that our students understand and love Jane Austen than who they vote for.

Giving our children a good education will require us resist the temptation to turn education into a tool of indoctrination. Yes, politics will come in into the classroom because training in virtue requires us to think about the ends and means of our corporate life. The ends that we pursue are all generally good (e.g. everyone wants peace and justice); what we disagree on are the means. There are certain means that the Bible clearly prohibits that we therefore need to completely reject. But there are lots of things that aren’t obvious. That’s why we study history. We need to prudentially seek to understand what is most likely to produce the good outcomes that we desire. So, for example, I don’t believe that there is anything inherently sinful about a planned or command economy rather than a market one, but if one studies history one can see that a market economy leads to both greater freedom and prosperity. Recognizing this, along with the limitations and potential liabilities of a market economy, is a part of education. But instead of looking to history to see trends and patterns that elucidate lessons or principles we can prudentially apply to our own specific contexts, what people all too often do in their study of history is take an ideological policy position, and often a rather specific position on something like police reform or gun control or regulation of the environment, and then they bend their study of history to justify it. “Of course we should reform the filibuster, this is the exact same situation Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus found himself in, if he were alive today I am positive that he would . . .” But this doesn’t work because there is no straight line between Tiberius or Pericles or even John Adams to our front-page news. Our ancestors were working in different contexts, with different cultures, different limitations, etc. so there is no way to make a direct one-to-one application from something in the past to something in the present without forcing the study of history into the service of an ideology.

Our goal at Charis is to help students grow in prudence, not to spoon feed them answers and certainly not to indoctrinate them with an ideology. It is prudence that will help them be good citizens and the past is a repository of wisdom. But to be filled with the wisdom of the past students must see history as a well to drink deeply from, not a bulldozer to push through an ideology.

Finally, technology, or more accurately how many of us use technology, is a huge hinderance to education. I remember in middle school one of my teachers saying that we students had seven-minute attention spans because television has commercials every seven minutes and this programming schedule trained us to completely check out after about seven minutes of instruction because we watched too much television When I began to teach the teachers I worked with used to joke that now that students were watching Vine videos, which were all under ten seconds, the attention span of students had been reduced to seven seconds.

It is my judgment that the way most of us engage with digital technology not only undermines education, it undermines our humanity. People train themselves to respond passively to shallow stimuli and to rapidly transition from one trivial thing to another. This obviously undermines one’s ability to read for prolonged periods of time, attend to lectures, write coherent essays, or do sustained work on a math problem, but it also diminishes one’s ability to have a conversation, enjoy a sunset, control one’s spending, work through a disagreement with a friend or spouse, pray, read one’s Bible, listen to a sermon, or commit to formational activities like small groups or Bible studies, etc.

Most of us need to say “no” more often to technology. But I think it is important that we say “no” to it in order to say “yes” to better things. As I tell my children, when I say “no” to technology I am saying “yes” to preventing them from becoming morally flaccid sub-literate shadows of human beings. . . . Well, maybe I only think that and don’t actually say it :). In all seriousness, in the Knetter household we say no to videogames so that we can play family board games, we say no to movies so that we can play kickball or football as a family, we say no to television so that we can say yes to having friends over for a meal, we say no to smart devices so that we can spend time reading books aloud together.

I think that if most people cut their devices in half and reduced their screen time by fifty-percent they would find themselves getting along with family members better, they would feel more content, their attention span would increase while their distractibility and irritability would decrease, and they would ultimately become fuller and happier people.

To sum up this rambling message, to improve our schools the best things we can do are to listen to Christ’s teachings and do what He says, especially in terms of the family, resist the politicization of our schools, even when they promote politics we like, and, like John Connors and Neo and a number of other fictional heroes from the last century, fight back against the machines that seek to control our lives.