Monthly Archives: March 2015
The dream was bold. Pastor Wilson envisioned a school of excellence for the underserved children in West Dallas—a neighborhood whose schools had long underperformed and left families hopeless and stuck in what has come to be known as the “cycle of poverty.” But what made Pastor’s vision particularly bold, somewhat radical even, is that this school would be Christ-Centered.
This is one of our chief distinctives at West Dallas Community School: we are a decidedly Christian school. Our school community gathers each morning for a brief assembly where we say our pledges, listen to announcements, but also sing a monthly hymn, pray, and recite the Shema, the ancient Jewish creed that commands Israel to love God with their heart, soul, mind, and strength. With one voice we proclaim that the Lord is One God and commit ourselves to love our Creator with the totality of our being. While these practices set us apart from our neighboring public schools, honestly, to say we are Christ-centered is somewhat question-begging, for what makes a school “Christian”?
To answer this, I am going to use the next two blog posts and start in an unlikely place, with the famous playwright, poet, and essayist, T.S. Eliot, who helped me in my thinking around this question. He wrote:
“We can have no clear or useful idea of what education is, unless we have some notion of what this training is for… If we define education, we are committed to the question “What is Man?”; and if we define the purpose of education, we are committed to the question “What is Man for?” Every definition of the purpose of education, therefore, implies some concealed, or rather implicit, philosophy or theology.”
Before we even wrestle with what it means to be a “Christian school,” we have to first ask about the basic goals of schooling in general. I think Eliot is right. The talk of “value neutral” schooling is a myth. Any talk of education, if we are honest, deals with theological issues. We can’t get around this. If we ask, “Why go to school?” we quickly find ourselves wrestling with some fundamental, existential issues. Whether we know it or not, we’re squarely in the realm of anthropology, philosophy, and theology, because if you are going to ask, “What’s an education for?” you have to be committed to that deeper question, “What is a human for?” Anyone serious about education must first wrestle with the essence of human nature and then tease out the implications for the aims and structures of schooling.
For example, if you bend your ear closely to the public discourse surrounding the ills of and possible prescriptions for education, you’ll hear the underlying assumption that the purposes of education are ultimately tied to economic utility: furnishing industry with graduates who can compete in the global economy and contribute to the GDP. Why does this vision of education rule the debate? Perhaps because, as Professor James Smith of Calvin College suggests, “…behind this is a vision of the good life, that understands human flourishing, primarily in terms of production and consumption.”
It seems obvious enough; if you begin with the belief that man’s chief aim, the ideal of human flourishing, is best defined in terms of what one can purchase or accumulate, then you will devise an education system with the intent, more often implicit than expressed, of preparing its graduates to produce goods, generate wealth, and consume products. Clearly, schools committed to the Christian story reject such a reductionist and materialist view of life. As followers of Jesus, our scriptures, creeds, and traditions offer many rich and textured answers to the question, “What is man for?” answers that offer a dramatically alternative interpretation of mankind’s relationship to the world and to one another. Such answers might include that man was created to glorify God or to serve God or to know God, but I prefer centering on the idea that humans were created to worship God.
Not too long ago, Ohio’s Kenyon College invited noted author and professor David Foster Wallace to offer the commencement address. His remarks were quite extraordinary and so well received that within a matter of weeks they went viral on the Internet and were eventually published (posthumously, sadly – a tragic story of depression and suicide) as a thin volume entitled This is Water. In his speech he offered this observation:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship… And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth… Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is… that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day…”
Wallace was not an admittedly religious person himself, and yet he assumes an almost prophetic role, cutting through the warm, fuzzy, commencement address platitudes to confront our often-unexamined lives. Wallace challenged Kenyon’s graduates with the notion that our essential humanity is not defined by what we do (cogs in an economic machine at one extreme or altruistic servants on the other) nor by what we think (human persons as just “thinking machines” concerned primarily with facts, information, and knowledge: embodied versions of Google) but by what we love (that which we pay attention to, what we worship).
At West Dallas Community School, we answer the question, “What is a human for?” by proclaiming, “Humans were created to worship God,” and that leads us to some pretty exciting and distinct purposes and practices of education. Please join me next month to learn more about what makes West Dallas Community School “Christian”.
Head of School