West Dallas Community School

Monthly Archives: November 2015

Pointing the Way to a Different Future – Part 2

by wdcs

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The colorful college pennants have come down, no longer adorning the lobby of West Dallas Community School; as much as I enjoyed seeing those banners every morning, I was conflicted. In last month’s blog post I referenced the recent study published by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) entitled Halve the Gap by 2030: Youth Disconnection in America’s Cities. The paper throws into sharp relief the profound sense of youth disconnection (people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor working) in cities across the nation and in neighborhoods like West Dallas particularly. In a prior report, “One in Seventhey question the “college for all” mantra that has dominated educational discourse in our nation for the last several decades, and they are not alone.

The Chronicle of Higher Education and even the former head of the Texas Workforce Commission have expressed concern about some troubling trends. Consider that in 1980, only 43.4% of high school tenth-graders stated that they expected to obtain a bachelor’s degree; that number has risen today to nearly 85%. But expectations and reality are quite a different matter. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that in the state of Texas only 51.7% of students who started college graduated in six years or less. Only one in four community college students earn a degree or transfer to a four-year college, according to the SSRC. As one young man recently shared with me, “It’s easier to get into college than to stay there.”  And then there is the skyrocketing cost of tuition and backbreaking college debt that many young people are carrying today. Cronin and Horton, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, conclude, “There is a growing concern, particularly in our current economy, that higher education might be overpriced and under-delivering.”

Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not advocating we discourage our graduates from pursuing a college degree. We continually cast that vision, from our 6th and 7th graders visiting SMU recently, or our 8th graders touring Thomas Jefferson’s UVA while in Charlottesville week. But I am suggesting we be careful about our messaging. Consider this from the “One in Seven” report:

“Undeniably, all young people need some course of study beyond high
school to enjoy employment security in today’s workplace. But some
young people learn in different ways than those favored by academia or
have career interests that do not require a bachelor’s degree. Many of
the “jobs of tomorrow,” jobs that allow for economic security and job
satisfaction and cannot be outsourced, require some postsecondary
education but not necessarily a four-year degree. In fact, an estimated 29
million jobs in the next five years will require workers who have a two-year
associate degree or an occupational certificate. When teachers,
guidance counselors, and others who work with young people hold out
bachelor’s degrees as the only worthwhile goal, young people receive
incomplete and misleading information. Moreover, many can feel like
failures for not being among the college-going one-third and often waste
time and money pursuing educational credentials ill suited to their
interests and abilities.”

Holding out college as the ultimate achievement, the great prize, risks setting up our students for profound disappointment. Thinking about this pastorally, I wonder about those alumni who return to WDCS and don’t see themselves represented in those pennants. What do we say to our graduates who don’t earn their degree? Are we less proud of them or do we love them any less?  True, they don’t help our “outcomes” as we report graduation rates, but I sometimes wonder if all the measurables and data points miss the real point.

Last month I was visiting with a WDCS graduate whom I had not met before; while his peers are now juniors in college, he is living at home finding community college harder than he imagined.  But recently he discovered a new passion: music. He has learned to play several instruments and not only has he been playing in a band with several of his former schoolmates, he is experiencing the joy of sharing this gift with his church community, by helping to lead worship. Now, will this provide gainful employment? Can he earn a living with this newfound talent?  Maybe or perhaps not.  But aren’t his interests worth affirming? When one elevates college disproportionately, it can easily become a sort of idol and get in the way of God’s purposes in someone’s life. You see, one reason the pennants came down is that their symbolism, with the “College or Bust” narrative that tends to accompany them, can be misguided.

Ultimately my concerns about the “college for all” movement are rooted in our identity as a Christ-Centered school. We have a unique, perhaps increasingly radical, view of education that impacts the way we view what it means to know (epistemology)  and what makes for true human flourishing, and a distinct view of humanity’s ultimate purposes (teleology).

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Too often a degree is viewed simply as a means to economic gain. This is a utilitarian view of education. Knowledge is pursued not for intrinsic worth but for pragmatic purposes.  At WDCS, we take less of a “Knowledge is Power” approach advocated by Francis Bacon and more of a Jewish/Biblical view. In Bacon’s world, knowing is objective, detached, and abstract. What a different perspective from the one seen in scripture, where knowledge is personal, relational, and connected to love. One of my favorite quotes of the late Abraham Heschel is, “The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man learns in order to use.” When education is linked to the GDP, when politicians, pundits and parents talk about education as the ticket to prosperity and competitiveness in a global economy, we unwittingly reduce knowledge to test scores and core competency and allow this perspective to rob education of its joy and wonder. We like to quote Charlotte Mason around here, who said, “The question is not, — ‘how much does the youth know?’ when he has finished his education, but how much does he care?”  More recently Parker Palmer offered this reflection on an epistemology rooted in love:

“A knowledge that springs from love may require us to change, even sacrifice, for
the sake of what we know. It is easy to be curious and controlling. It is difficult
to love. …Education of this sort means more than teaching the facts and learning
the reasons so we can manipulate life toward our ends.  It means being drawn
into personal responsiveness and accountability to each other and the world of
which we are a part.”

Perhaps no one critiqued our nation’s view of education better than the late Neil Postman. Though not explicitly stated, Postman questioned the way in which our schools view knowledge and convey messages about a person’s ultimate meaning and purpose.  In his book, The End of Education, he suggested that our education notion is bound up in idolatry to the gods of “Economic Utility” and “Consumership”:

“It may properly go by the name of the god of Economic Utility.  As its name
suggests, it is a passionless god, cold and severe.  But it makes a promise…
If you  will pay attention in school, and do your homework, and score well
on tests, and behave yourself, you will be rewarded with a well paying job
when you are done. Its driving idea is that the purpose of schooling is to
prepare children for competent entry into the economic life of a community…
According to this god, you are what you do for a living … The god of
Economic Utility is coupled with another god, one with a smiling face and
one that provides an answer to the question, If I get a good job, then what?

I refer here to the god of Consumership, whose basic moral axiom is expressed
in the slogan “Whoever dies with the most toys, wins” – that is to say, goodness
inheres in those who buy things…The similarity between this god and the god of
Economic Utility is obvious, but with this difference: The later postulates that you
are what you do for a living; the former that you are what you accumulate.”

No, the West Dallas Community School lobby isn’t nearly as colorful or festive, but with the pennants gone one’s eyes are now more clearly drawn to the large interior glass pane etched with our school’s mission. It says nothing about college. Yes, at some level one can assume that college is the natural end to a “challenging educational experience” but the vision is grander, loftier, more ambitious.  We want God to have His way with our graduates. There are as many educational and vocational paths as there are people.  Whether it involves college or a post-graduate degree or not, our vision for our students is stated in the last line of our mission statement. We want our graduates to “live purposefully and intelligently in the service of God and man.” 

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Bentley Craft
Head of School