Salt, light, law alive – a starting point for educational reform

Pretend for a moment that you’re writing a Maths test. After struggling through it you come to a question which seems easy to answer and you breathe a deep sigh of relief that at least you’ll get these three marks. The question reads, “Bob has 39 slabs of chocolate. He eats 26 of them. What does Bob have now?”

Your answer? Brilliant! 39-26 is, indeed, 13. And you have guaranteed yourself 3 out of 3.

But suppose for a moment that you’re a a Primary School student who has never been very good at Maths, who has never had a regular, dedicated teacher, who feels anxious and ill-prepared before getting a paper full of questions in a language which he or she barely speaks at home. Suppose you miraculously remember that your uncle who is always in trouble with your aunt for eating too much chocolate because he has something called diabetes and you write that answer down confidently – what mark would your very inspired answer earn you?

And how would you feel … when your teacher asks you how you could have been so stupid, when your classmates laugh at your way of thinking, when you mom shakes her head in despair at yet another failure?

John Holt in his book in his famous book on education reform entitled “how children fail” writes:

When children are very young, they have natural curiosities about the world and explore them, trying diligently to figure out what is real. As they become “producers ” they fall away from exploration and start fishing for the right answers with little thought. They believe they must always be right, so they quickly forget mistakes and how these mistakes were made. They believe that the only good response from the teacher is “yes,” and that a “no” is defeat.”

The spin doctors in our country will tell you that our Department of Education is victorious in year-by-year overcoming the legacy of apartheid. Last year, for instance, we had a 78% pass rate for Matric which sounds fabulous but in reality that 78% is calculated from the approximately 50% of children who have made it all the way through from Grade 1 to their Grade 12 year. So we’re actually looking at about 42% of our young people who have not been labelled throughout their schooling as stupid, as failures.

And – of the 78% who passed – only 30% obtained university exemption. How many of that 30% can afford financially to take their hard-earned place at a tertiary institution?

Despite the fact that we spend about 6% of our GDP on Education, we are ranked almost last in the world in Science and Maths and also close to last in terms of our overall quality of education.

We are failing our children but, in the Good News, Matthew 5:13-20 proposes a way forward through three familiar images.

The first image is that of salt-seasoning. Jesus says to those who follow him,

Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

Educational reform does not begin with overhauling the Education system. It begins with people like you and me realizing that, as Christ followers, we have a unique flavor to offer society and, in particular, our youth and children.

As Christians we should stand up for and assert:

  1. the value of every individual – especially every child from whom we learn how to enter the kingdom of heaven, regardless of race, gender, language or sexual preference, socioeconomic class, or learning disability;
  2. the transforming nature of God’s redemptive love – including for the drug addict, the gang leader, the social outcast, the bully, the school slut sitting in our kids’ classes with whom we do not want them to associate;
  3. how all are called to love and care for each other and be active citizens in the Kingdom of God on earth. For John Wesley education at its best was a life-long process guided by the Holy Spirit towards personal and social holiness, and it was the best possible tool for evangelism, for training in godliness, and for the betterment of society. Learning may have started with the ABC’s but it didn’t stop until it had encompassed the growth of a whole person – morally, culturally, spiritually, as well as physically and intellectually – until each person had discovered what it means to be the full human beings that God intended us to be.

That’s a completely different paradigm to the competitive climate in our classes, to the culture of labelling and judging and ranking others, to our emphasis on regurgitating facts and meeting expectations rather than engaging with the world with curiosity and wonder.

But most of us have, as the Americans say, drunk the Kool-Aid; we’ve bought into a broken system which left most of us feeling bored, anxious, unworthy and tell our own kids how important it is that they fit in, shut up, settle down, and do what is expected – or they’ll never find a decent job, never be able to support a family, never make anything meaningful of their lives.

John Holt says:

We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions — if they have any — and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.

And that’s where the second image of light-bearers comes in for, quite frankly, while we might acknowledge that we as Christians have an alternative way of looking at the world that can enrich our children’s experience of it, most of us abdicate any form of personal responsibility to the Christians in government, in school, in the teaching profession.

Yet Jesus said to those that he was teaching,

If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – SHINE! Be generous with your lives.

One of the most prevalent issues in the children failing at school is a lack of parental involvement. During my years as a teacher I have listened to parents state categorically that due to the number of hours that their children are at school, teachers have primary responsibility for teaching not only skills like reading, writing and arithmetic but also for instilling the necessary values and for helping them with their problems. I’ve seen a father attack his son physically for failing a term though until the parent-teacher conference at which he received his son’s report, he had never once enquired as to how his child was doing or responded to requests that he come in and see me. I’ve heard tired, frustrated single moms admit that they would rather work longer shifts to pay for aftercare than have to sit down and help their children with homework at the end of a hard day.

And yes, within the church as we’ve appealed for people to help with our youth and children, some of us have laughingly said time and time again that God only calls special people to teach, that we don’t have the patience, and even that we come to church for some quiet time with God and don’t want to be bothered by our kids while we’re worshipping.

But just like salt that is useless if it loses its flavour, what is the point of having the light of Christ within us if we hoard it to ourselves? What is the value of being knowledgeable, if we will not pass that knowledge on? What is the purpose of attaining degree after degree if we’re not going to make a difference in the life of someone who is still learning? What is the significance of mastering a skill but being unable to master our impatience, our irritation, our dismissive attitudes towards young people?

We may not all feel called to be teachers. We may not possess the information or the ability to help someone with a Science project or to tutor an extra Maths class but we all have valuable life experience and a light that we are commanded to shine, to shine generously.

Surely, we can find an affirming word to offer. A smile for the child seated in the sanctuary. A question that we can answer. A story that we can share. A prayer that we can offer. A book that we can pass on. A skill that we can transfer. A half-an-hour that we can read to or be read to by a child who has been written off as slow or stupid. A garden from which children can pick flowers. A kitchen in which boys and girls can bake and share something delicious. An errand we can send an unsettled child on. A space beside us which a young person would fill if they knew they were wanted.

You see, one of the distinctive of the Gospel is that  a little seems to go a long way. Faith as small as a mustard seed is enough to move a mountain. A fisherman becomes the foundation of the church. 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes feed a multitude of people. A pinch of salt flavors the whole pot. And a light, unless hidden under a bucket can illuminate a life.

We all have something to offer our children, our young people, so rather than empty excuses, may God show us how to be open and generous with our lives.

The final image is of God’s law alive.

Jesus cautioned his listeners:

Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.

John Holt, again, says that “We ask children to do for most of a day what few adults are able to do for even an hour. How many of us, attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us, can keep our minds from wandering? Hardly any.”

And for most of our children – “our” meaning the children in our community, the children in our church, the children who are regularly in our presence – there is a huge disconnect between what we say as adults, what we actually do, and what we tell them to do.

It is a disconnect that contributes to their failure, their anxiety, and their confusion. It is a disconnect that leaves many adolescents questioning the authenticity and the value of our faith. It is a disconnect that leaves many, as soon as they are old enough to make their own decisions, walking away from the church and telling their friends for years to come about the hypocrisy that overshadowed any sense of God’s love for them.

If we want our children to grow up into honest, open-minded, compassionate individuals then they need to experience honesty, open-mindedness and compassion in the way that we deal with them. If we want them to take on the God-flavours and the God-colours of love and forgiveness and justice, then we need to offer them love and forgiveness and justice. If we want to cite God’s law at them to keep them from getting a tattoo or to teach them respect for the elders, then we’d better be prepared to talk about God’s commandments regarding sex, and drinking, and divorce. If we’re going to insist that they keep to the right and narrow way, then we have to make sure that that’s the way in which we’re walking. If we want them to know the Lord’s prayer, we shouldn’t be looking to send them off to a Christian school, we should be praying it with them, regularly!

Yet because they are children, they are expected to listen and obey rather than imitate and interrogate. We tell ourselves that one day, when they’re older, they’ll understand the nuances and the reasons why we could not always live up to what we said they should, that it’s in their best own interests that they just do what we say and not what we do to spare themselves some of the heartache and pain that we’ve experienced. But in making light of God’s law or of the innate ability within each human being – young and old – to know the difference between wrong and right, we simply make a mockery, a fool of ourselves; we invalidate our witness, we damage our credibility, and we distort our children’s capacity to trust us and, in turn, to be trusted.

***

This Education Sunday, I believe that God calls us not simply to partner with government or schools or teachers in improving the quality of our education but that in the images of salt, of light, of God’s law alive each one of us is being personally invited:

  1. to begin valuing our young people, our children as God’s unique and precious creations;
  2. to start considering what good thing we have to offer them;
  3. to honestly evaluate how our personal example brings them nearer to a loving God who calls us into a fulfilling life or pushes them further away.

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