Education in The Benedict Option

Next Dreher moves to a discussion of education. Here’s the short form of his argument: Public education is horrible. Christian schools are really not Christian. Unless they are classical Christian schools that immerse your child in Scripture and the Western classics. If you don’t have a classical Christian school, you should start one or homeschool your child using classical Christian methods. Or else you are a horrible parent.

Maybe I overstate that last part. Here’s what he says of a Christian parent who leaves their child in public schools to be “salt and light”:

It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child. (p. 157)

Maybe I understate that last part.

The thing is, I share his essential critique of the current education system, if not his cultural critique or his solution:

Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is. In general, the mainstream model is geared toward equipping students to succeed in the workforce, to provide a pleasant, secure life for themselves and their future families, and ideally, to fulfill their personal goals — whatever those goals might be. The standard Christian educational model today takes this model and adds religion classes and prayer services.

But from a traditional Christian perspective the model is based on a flawed anthropology. In traditional Christianity, the ultimate goal of the soul is to love and serve God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, to achieve unity with Him in eternity.  (p. 147)

I am a big fan of a liberal arts education. I cringe when I hear so often about the aim of education being primarily workforce readiness. I agree that the goal of education is the development of the whole person, including and especially the soul, and that the outcome of a successful education is not the ability to keep a job but the ability to fully love another. And I agree that for people of faith, a holistic education integrates the religious tradition and theological constructs into the foundation for developing that capacity to love. And, by the way, that education isn’t just the formal K-12 or -16 or -20 but lifelong.

In a religiously pluralistic world, Christians should seek to cultivate ways to educate themselves across the lifespan in this direction and toward this end, and to the extent that they can do so through a formal educational system for children, they should. I would even say that the Western canon of a classical education can be used to develop the skills that orient a soul toward this end.

But as much as Plato and Shakespeare are valuable in this respect, they aren’t exclusively so, and they aren’t even explicitly Christian. So, again, I differ with Dreher on how tight to draw the line around what’s central to the faith. Scripture, yes. Plato’s Republic? No.

I am no education policy expert, but I would offer a third way. An educational system that orients students toward the development of the whole person – not just economic but political, social, relational, physical, emotional – would produce healthier graduates in all senses of the word health who are better prepared not just to get a job but to be active contributors to our common life. Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed focuses on character traits that help kids get along in school and adults get along in life – Grit, Self-control, Zest, Social Intelligence, Gratitude, Optimism, Curiosity. Tough outlines examples of educational systems that, contrary to Dreher’s straw man of schools that just teach memorization of facts, actively cultivate these character traits.

Could a Christian school fully integrate these into a curriculum that is truly focused on the development of the soul? You bet; the similarities to the fruits of the Spirit are strong. Could other faiths do the same? I’m no expert, but I’m betting so. Could a public education develop these skills without an implicit or explicit overlay of religious doctrine? Apparently a few already do.

Dreher’s classical Christian schools could (and should, and probably do) draw on Scripture and the Western classics to develop these traits. Others could use other tools to do the same.

Would the products of such a system be employable, as is the focus of today’s educational system? More so, as employers speak about the “soft skills” as the biggest challenges in filling their workforce needs and economic developers highlight the creative class for the strengths of its entrepreneurs in just these areas.

But more than that, would the products of such a system be marriageable? Would they be good neighbors? Would they have the capacity to love fully? I have to believe so.

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