Education, Reform and Shalom: Something to Consider

kids in class circa 1900

One thing that I am very proud of is my family – and not only my immediate family. My extended family, like my immediate family, is filled with brilliant, creative and wonderful people. One person in-particular consistently points me toward great articles and challenges me to think outside the box. I’m certain I’ve never told her that – or thanked her. Nevertheless – she has done it again by pointing me toward an insightful article from The Atlantic.

FINL0001The article, by Anu Partanen, is entitled What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. It is insightful as well as challenging. Partanen points out that Finland’s success is counter to most everything we do in the US.

For instance, Finland has no standardized tests. Instead Indian Schoolteachers are trained and given the responsibility to “assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.” In fact, in Finland “all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.” If a teacher is not a good teacher the principal deals with that situation. Oh – and a person must have a master’s degree to teach.

One thing further, there are no private schools. The reason for this goes back to Finland’s understanding, years ago, that their system needed reformation. So, according to the article, “Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.”

I am certain that a lot of counter arguments can be made about Finland’s system (of course their results seems to shout down most arguments). What stands out to me isn’t so much their results but the “main driver” within their systems. From my perspective, what is driving their system (equality) sounds a lot like Jesus’ call to love neighbor – or shalom.

I think a lot about the mission of shalom and or love of neighbor. Primarily because I believe it is the clearest way Christians are actually Christ-like. Years ago a pastor in New York helped me to understand the concept of Biblical Shalom (loving neighbor). He said, “It comes down to this. If I want my kids to be safe, well feed, well-educated, healthy, free from harm, I should also want it for my neighbor’s kids as well.” In fact, not only should I want it but I should also work toward that mission. That is part of what Jesus calls His people to do when he calls them to love their neighbor.

Finland’s education reform is a powerful example of loving neighbor (whether intended or not). Their reform is something that the US needs as well. Inequality is clearly seen in education (just visit a large city like Saint Louis). However, there are a lot of people trying to do something about it it is in the US – although not in an overt way.

As I read this article in The Atlantic I could not help but think of a number of efforts that are being made by Christian men and women in relationship to public schools. There are churches that provide tutoring and after-school help. There are churches that give meals for kids and their families on the weekends. Churches are trying to partner with public schools by doing painting, landscaping and providing school supplies. Churches offer ESL to help immigrants and refugees. There are also private Christian schools (including where my kids attend) that are making efforts to bridge the gaps as well. Some churches are even trying to establish charter schools in partnership with public school systems in depressed areas in an effort to break the grip of poverty and inequality.

Believe it or not these efforts aren’t so much about proselytizing as it is a concern for children getting a good education. In effect, it is the mission of shalom. Christian people have been about this sort of thing for a very long time – a very long time. 

It is a mark of Jesus’ people to step into places of brokenness and attempt to bring mlk_smilewholeness and hope. The clearest example of that is in Jesus himself. Just look at the way that Jesus treated people (but take note that he overturned tables and drove out people out to ensure justice at the Temple). But it has also been that way throughout the history of the church. Look at Mother Teresa, The people of LeChambon during WWII. And of course, the fact MLK was not only an African-American working for Civil Rights but also a Christian and a pastor.

There are a lot of examples of churches across the US that have realized the need to do something about inequality in education. There is much more that can be done. Partanen’s article presents a challenge – and not just to the public education system in the US. The challenge comes to the local church as well – in whatever setting. Churches and Christians should ask what role the Christian community can play in furthering equality in education. They should also be asking about ways Christ’s people can help bring reform and then do it.

I am certain that is something worth considering.

OtherResources

http://m.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

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Taylor Swift as A Countercultural Icon & Shaping the Moral Lives Part 2

*This is Part 2 of a blog I started Yesterday about Shaping the Moral Lives of Kids. It may be helpful if you read this article first http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-01/taylor-swift-as-counterculture-icon-for-teens-commentary-by-amity-shlaes.html

While I am grateful that Swift is “systematically pro-parent and pro-family” the reason that this article grabbed my attention has more to do with how the moral lives of emerging adults have been shaped or not shaped, as the case may be. It is not provocative in the least to suggest that moral habits, imaginations and characters of emerging adults have been shaped more by celebrity, media and popular culture than by values of their parents, their church, and their community. But it should be provocative.

In his book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, Christian Smith, Professor in the Department of Sociology at Notre Dame, points to recent research from the National Survey on Youth and Religion. From conducting hundreds of interviews since 2001 they point out that an alarming number of young adults do not have a what may be considered a moral center. It isn’t that they do not know what is right and wrong – good or evil  – necessarily – but it becomes an issue of moral relativism and or situational. While it may not be right for me I can’t say it is wrong for someone else. And – while I may not want someone to steal from me – or cheat off my exam – it is not necessarily wrong. It is difficult for them to define what is right and what is wrong.

This has a profound impact on their morality. This works itself out in many ways, not the least of which is the abuse of alcohol, drugs, consumerism, and sexual promiscuity. While this may not seem like anything new under the sun – there is a reason to be concerned. For these emerging adults these over indulgent practices are the norm.

The fact of how much influence the wider culture has on writing the scripts for what is normative in the lives of emerging adults is well known. Yet, Smith points out that these young men and women are deeply marked, shaped, and taught by what they perceive or have been directly or indirectly taught is the “norm.” For instance, why doesn’t it surprise us that a university student will be exposed to overt alcohol use – even when the majority of undergrads are still underage? Why doesn’t it seem odd that the university is a “normal” place where young men and women push the limits of sobriety and sexuality? When and how did it become the “norm”? It doesn’t matter where you went to school. It doesn’t matter if you were determined not to take part in any sort of the party life – you still expected to meet it and that is considered the “norm.” The trouble is, intoxication (whether from alcohol or drugs) and sexual promiscuity, according to Smith, are what is expected. In other words, there is nothing morally wrong with this picture. There is no right and no wrong – it is relative.

When was the last time you thought that being wasted was okay – just part of what people do multiple evenings a week? It is a normal part of what people do – a sort of “social lubricant.”

While we want to believe that we are independent thinkers and making decision based on our own desires – that we are the “captain of our own fate” – it seems to be that, at least for emerging adults – that decisions are heavily influenced by what has become a cultural norm. The trouble seems to be that some of the most important cultural cues are either gone or they have shifted. In essence there once was a sense that drinking may have its place but always in control and not to excessively. But if Smith is right that has slipped and the norm now, for many in his study, being intoxicated is a part of living. It is part of the norm. The same is true for sexual behavior. Both are seen as recreational.

The question arises for me – and perhaps for others – how are we as a community to “stop the madness.” Is it good and right for people to spend their lives running after money, a solid buzz and sex – especially when they’ve been shaped to believe that it is the normal thing to do – a normal part of growing up? Is it good and right and culturally responsible to abdicate the shaping of the moral lives, imaginations and character or children to people other than parents? Rather, should that role be given over to government who are legally bound to say or do nothing controversial (which doesn’t form character and kills imagination and virtue). Or – should the shaping of the moral life, imagination and character be given to the broader culture which seems to be ongoing?

Of course – this is a straw-man argument at the same time someone – somewhere – taught that during adolescents – it is the norm for kids to push away from parents – and parents ought to take a step back. That’s supposed to be norm – and we are supposed to follow the norm. It is to be expected. From what I can tell parents are supposed to be engaged in the lives of their children – until the parents are laid in the grave. Granted the relationship has to mature and grown but it is not normal for their to be a wholesale rejection of the parents role in the lives of their kids during adolescence. There doesn’t have to be an antagonist relationship between parents and their teenage kids.

As thankful as I am that Taylor Swift is pro-family / pro-parent isn’t it strange that is news worthy? Why is it not the norm? It should be strange and outrageous that anyone would be anti-family / anti-parent. But they are.

I hope I’m right about this. I hope I’m right about parents staying engaged in the life of their kids. I hope that Taylor Swift is able to influence the young women of our country in  great ways. The last thing I want is for my sons and I to have a bad relationship. It could happen – but it doesn’t have to – it isn’t the “norm.” But the truth of the matter is that a lot of our families are being shaped more by what culture mandates as the norm than by what is true and good and right. More of our young women are being shaped by what Taylor Swift says and does than we’d like to admit. But at least Taylor seems to have it right. And for that – I’m thankful.

Check out the article: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-01/taylor-swift-as-counterculture-icon-for-teens-commentary-by-amity-shlaes.html