Jeff Haanen




Education and Christian Faith


As soon as Christians bring up the topic of faith and education, they quickly divide into two camps. On one side are those that argue passionately for educational equity, and see the foundational expression of the Christian faith in public education as one of equal access and “closing the achievement gap.” Here, justice is the issue.

On the other side are those in Christian schools and home schools who see the integration of faith and education as a plain matter of teaching Bible, theology, and the “Christian worldview” as the centerpiece of the educational experience. For them a version of “Christian education” is the answer. Here, truth is the issue.

Yet what I find disturbing is that these two groups rarely talk to each other. And instead versions of name calling usually take place. Those committed to public schools will call Christian school and homeschool families “separatists,” – they’re ignoring the needs of their community and instead living in a “holy huddle” instead of being “salt and light” in the world. And those in the Christian school and homeschool world look at those in public school with disbelief: how could you let a secular government raise your kids? Don’t you know there’s no such thing as a neutral education?

And because parents have made these decisions for their children, their most precious of treasures, any suggestion that they have made a wrong or “unChristian” decision is most likely to incur rage rather than rational discourse. For this reason, nearly every pastor I’ve ever spoken to about this issue refuses to bring it up. Why incur the wrath of moms on both side when I can just avoid it all together, and say, “Well, it’s a personal choice.”

What we lack almost completely is a view of faith influencing the practice of education itself.

Let me try to explain with an illustration. Last week, a well known Christian advocate for educational equity came to Denver and gave a conference at a church. She spoke about her organization, the needs of low-income students around the US, and the idea that access to a quality education is a moral issue – an issue that all Christians that care about justice should support and act upon. What followed were illustrations of Christians in after-school mentoring programs and families moving into low-income neighborhoods to send their kids to underperforming schools. Her argument was supported by biblical verses about justice.

Then the issue of prayer in public schools came up. Shouldn’t kids have the right to pray in school? What about before sports games? But after some discussion, the presenters (and pastors) agreed that Christians shouldn’t just be interested in praying in school – they must simply serve the needs of their community, which, again, meant educational equality.

What was never even brought up was how the Christian faith should influence the actual teaching and learning process. Because we’ve so largely accepted the idea that the gospel belongs in the private sphere (home and personal life, or in this context, homeschool and Christian school), we’ve by and large accepted the idea that speaking the gospel in a public school context is either rude or possibly illegal, and utilizing the gospel as a framework for understanding our work in public education is simply inappropriate.

So what are you saying? That public school teachers should share their faith in front of the classroom – maybe quote a few Bible verses before literature class? Realistically, any Christian teacher that did this would get a barrage of phone calls from parents – and possibly a severe reprimand from her principal. This path won’t realistically work in a pluralistic society.

But I am saying that in a republic that protects freedom of religious expression, there ought to be freedom for Muslims, Christians, Jews, secular humanists, Hindus, or those with modern scientific worldview to openly express their beliefs. Teachers could obviously not lead prayers, but neither should they feel forced to lie about the reasons why they act, think, or speak as they do. Stephen Prothero’s book Religious Literacy cites the huge need that public school kids have for just understanding what religions believe – and several Supreme Court decisions that have protected the teaching of world religions in a public school context.

This alone would be a huge step forward. Right now, people of any explicit faith tradition feel afraid to even share what they believe openly. Instead, a dark cloud of silence rests on most public schools – and students leave schools largely ignorant of history’s most influential movements, ideas and beliefs.

But this is not what I’m arguing for. We need to begin a conversation (or, more accurately, continue from centuries past) about how the Christian faith can and should influence our actual practice of education within a pluralistic society. I see this happening on two planes: (1) placing religion back in the category of knowledge and (2) exploring the subtle, “subversive” ways in which Christian doctrine can influence how and what we teach – and so better serve students and communities.

First, teachers need to ask the basic question, Can claims about God, the supernatural, or even ethics in general be true or false in the same sense that there are true and false answers in calculus or chemistry? In the science labs, teachers expect students to have the right answers, but in literature and “religious studies” it is personal opinion that reigns supreme. Even though the vast majority of school districts would say they want their students to be people of “character” or “integrity,” when teachers try to define exactly what those are – and then teach students about a clear right and wrong, like a mathematics answer can be right or wrong – they are generally left with little institutional support.

A hard question to ask is this: Did Jesus rise from the dead? On Sunday, Christians would say, “Oh, yes. Absolutely.” But when pressed in a public school context, many of those same teachers would say, “Well, that’s what I believe.” But the question remains – did Jesus rise from the dead in the same, plain historical sense in which Caesar crossed the Rubicon or Pompeii was buried in ashes by a volcano? By raising these types of questions, public school teachers can at least highlight the historical claims of the Christian faith, and begin to usher religion back into the category of knowledge – something that can be either true or false. Something that students should all investigate for themselves.

This first strategy I see is one that will largely raise the tension level in many classroom settings. But the second strategy I think can be more covert and “subversive” – but also more of a widespread blessing to people of many backgrounds and beliefs.

My friend Bill Kurtz, the CEO of Denver Schools of Science and Technology, has built a network of public charter schools that are some of the best in the US. And he has done this in part by bringing his underlying Christian faith to bear on how he sees the human person, the human condition, and his motive for serving. So, for example, he believes students are made in God’s image but are fallen and in need of restoration. And so on Wednesday mornings all students at his schools gather to both praise students who have lived out the schools values and to hear public apologies from students who skip class or don’t “do their best” – one of the school’s core values. Restoration is a part of their school’s culture.

He also believes that each student has great potential, black and white, rich and poor, quick learner or slow. He shares this belief with his co-workers from many faith backgrounds – but it is nonetheless significant that he is animated by a hope that each student has value and each student can succeed and attend college. Such an overt and pervasive hope is indeed rare in public education. But he brings this hope ultimately from the story out of which he is living. (It is a hope which has led him to launch 8 schools so far, with 6 more planned in the next 8 years.)

Here both Christian school / homeschool and public school teachers need to begin a more robust conversation about faith and education by asking how doctrines like creation, incarnation, justification, original sin, and eschatology influence everything from how we evaluate the critical thinking movement to how we structure our lesson plans. (This, by the way, is needed just as much in Christian schools as it is in public schools.) This is the mostly untested, untried arena of Christian faith and education in a pluralistic setting. And here Christians ought to be unafraid to venture, because we believe (for there is no knowledge without belief, said Augustine) that the Christian faith is the best revealer of reality – for all people at all times and in all places.

Here is the great conversation we must begin between Christian faith and education. Here is a project that brings us beyond offended parents, fearful teachers, and cultural assumptions that say we must choose either justice or truth. Here is a better way than either crusading for our religious rights or passively adopting the assumptions of secular humanism. Here is the needed cultural space we must create between church and school – a space that is more faithful to God and a better servant of our neighbors.


Writing About Bill Kurtz, CEO of Denver School of Science and Technology


Recently Christianity Today published my essay on Bill Kurtz, CEO of Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST). (Read the complete essay here.) Having learned about Kurtz only this last Fall, his work was relatively new to me. As a charter school leader, and one who had spoken at both Q Cities Denver and at the Center for Faith & Work, I thought I should investigate his story to see if I couldn’t learn something about how he integrates his faith and work.

As we sat down at Udi’s in Stapleton on June 18 for a brief lunch interview, Bill was kind, humble, and self-effacing, not exactly what I expected from a successful charter school executive. We spoke for about 45 minutes on the challenges of public school education, his motivation & leadership style, and the secret to DSST’s success. I went home, typed up the interview, and got working on the article.

Little did I understand sheer magnitude and far-reaching impact of his work.

As I began to research DSST in local media, I discovered DSST is consistently recognized as one the nation’s top charter schools. Students are 75% from minority groups and 45% low income – and DSST ranks consistently as one of the top 5 schools state-wide on student academic growth. Average ACT scores are 24.6 (Denver Public Schools are 17.6), and 100% of seniors in school history have been admitted to a 4-year college.

Ed News Colorado has called DSST “the crown jewel of Denver’s high school reform efforts.” Another organization, A+ Denver, cites 10 years of failed school reform in DPS, with a single exception – DSST. Kurtz has even been to the House of Representatives in Washington to share about STEM schools in the US. He even got a $1 million donation from Oprah for his school – a pop icon with more power than the president, according to Kurtz.

As I was writing the article, I puzzled over the question: how did he do it? How did he produce not just one, but now seven schools with such stunning academic results?

Bill consistently attributed DSST’s success to their school culture. He says they have built a “values-based institution,” one that lives DSST’s ethics – respect, responsibility, doing your best, integrity, courage and curiosity – on a daily basis. In the article, I wrote about their morning meeting, a 4-times-per-week gathering of students and staff to “recognize student achievement, acknowledge the school’s values, praise service to others, own up to mistakes, and pledge to put forth their best effort each day.”  In contrast to free-floating relativism or legalistic rule keeping, DSST lives a set of ideals – and these ideals shape DSST culture.

What interested me was how his understanding of the gospel shaped his engagement as a public school leader. Not only did he build his schools on concrete moral ideals, but he encourages staff and students to live out their part of “the human story.” Kurtz says, “Everybody wants to be affirmed for their unique gifts and talents, and everybody wants to make a significant contribution to the human story.” Underlying his desire to serve is this aggressive hopefulness that comes from understanding that human history in a story – with a divine story-teller – that has a good ending. Hope permeates his schools. And it drives him to do great things as an educator how has found an “opportunity for me to live out my vocation, serving the needs of others and building strong communities.”

Here’s how the article begins:

Ten years ago, a subtle desperation filled the aging halls of Denver Public Schools. In 2003, only 55 percent of Denver high school students graduated on time; that number dropped to 46 percent in 2008. As minority and low-income populations rose, achievement tumbled. Denver, along with cities like Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Oakland, became a “dropout epicenter.”

Despite noble efforts from teachers, issues like drug abuse, gang activity, and pregnancy fostered a “what’s the point?” attitude among students. Even many of those who did graduate wouldn’t go to college or be prepared to compete in a global workforce that was rapidly outperforming American students, especially in science and math. America’s high school students were falling behind, and Denver was near the back of the line.

But ten years ago, when most saw hopelessness, Bill Kurtz saw opportunity.  (Read the rest of the article.)


Interview with Bill Kurtz


June 18, 2013

What motivated you to serve in public education?

I always liked working with kids and I always liked challenges, and it seemed to me this is one of the biggest challenges our country faces. Also, it didn’t seem to me we were doing very well solving it. It was a great opportunity to serve and tackle something that interested me and work with people at the same time.

Why then public education?

It felt like the right opportunity to have an impact and, again, in a place where very few people were having the kind of success that we needed to have for kids and our communities.  It felt like an opportunity to solve a much bigger problem. Not that private education isn’t good. But this seems to be the core…obviously most kids in this country are educated in a public school.

What is the biggest challenge in public education today?

Ah, the biggest challenge is finding great people. We’re going to hire about 120 people this year. That’s a lot of people. We look for incredibly high quality great people. There’s not enough of those in public education today.

Why not?

I think there’s probably a couple issues. One is people generally think of public education as a place not where you can have success. I think a lot of people are turned off by that. I think people generally people want to work in a vocation where people can be successful, where they can make a difference. I think the general perception is that that’s not possible [in education], particularly in large cities.

So, I think that’s been a challenge. And I think compensation is always an issue. I don’t think our best and brightest  people see teaching as a way to support their family and provide the kind of income they want for their family. So it doesn’t draw the same kind of people that other professions would.

Is it more challenging in a charter school?

Not necessarily. In Denver it is because people don’t get pro comp, which is challenging a bit. But in general I would say no. It’s true in all public schools I think.

So what motivates you? You have six schools and four more planned?

So we have six schools, and one that will open next Monday and three more that will open in the next couple years. And we’re adding four to that. So we have seven open and we’d be adding seven more. We’d have a total of 14.

What drives you? That’s a lot of work.

What drives me is the opportunity to serve. We have something that is by no means perfect. We have plenty of issues and challenges that we have to get better at, but it’s an opportunity to serve and you have an opportunity to impact lots of students in a lot of families and a lot of student’s lives. We could just sit back and do one or two schools, but I think we’re called to do big things and I think we can do big things. I think it will be challenging but I think it’s worth the difference we can make.

Was there a moment you felt called to do this? Did something happen?

No, I don’t think there’s a moment. I think there’s an opportunity that presented itself, that was open for us that we had the opportunity to walk through. We were in a position to make a decision…

You and your wife?

No, we as in the team at DSST public schools. Gretchen is a very supportive partner, but she has her own work, which is probably good.

So, I saw you testified in front of congress in April, right? What was that experience like?

It was interesting. I don’t find it particularly hard; I think the work we do every day is hard. It’s a great privilege and opportunity to share the work we’re doing. Washington is a very interesting place and you can see quickly how challenging it can be. Members of congress go from one hearing to the next with very little information. Maybe a few of them are experts, so you know it’s…they have to know a lot or the conversation is very challenging. It’s a different world…

Have you read D. Michael Lindsay’s book Faith in the Halls of Power? You are in the halls of power. How do you express your faith in the halls of power? Or at least among leaders in [Denver]?

I think in general we express faith through our work …kingdom building work. It’s an opportunity to live in the world and be of the world in ways that can have a big influence on other people. You know, I think we’re called to enter the world and be a part of the world around us. So I think we have a huge opportunity to express that and to serve and to be a part of the larger community and bring that faith perspective to our work.

What’s your perspective of Christians who choose homeschooling or Christian education as opposed to public education?

I think schools are incredibly personal decisions for every family. I think it’s a challenging decision, there’s no perfect educational opportunity. I think every parent needs to make their own decision. It’s hard to judge parents because they know their kids the best. So I don’t think there’s a right or wrong decision.

So how would you answer a Christian who says “Public education is a secularizing influence?”

I think that there’s tremendous opportunity to experience the world God has created in public education. No schools share all the values of a particular family. Even Christian schools struggle with that. There are different views of the values people have. So I think that families have the opportunity to set the course of their own values and the opportunities to lives those values in lots of different places is really important. Public education is, in many ways, a cross section of society and I think we’re called to be in society and we’re called to be a part of that and influence it. I think there’s lots of challenges and opportunities.

How would you describe the culture of your schools?

The culture of our schools are …we would say we’re a values-based institution. We live a set of values, and we create a culture that is based on a view of the human condition that our organization subscribes to which is that everybody wants to be affirmed for their unique gifts and talents, and everybody wants to make a significant contribution to the human story. We think that…

Do you use that language of the “human story” in your context?

We do.

What does that mean in your context?

It means that there’s’ a larger story that I think is a part of the work that we do and I think people want to connect to that. People want to make a contribution that moves our world forward. Everybody has desire to connect to that in some way.

How have your schools been so successful. What’s your secret?

One, I think it’s the culture we create around a view of the human condition. Also, I think it’s significant that we have a clear goal for each of our kids, and it’s to send them to a four year college, and I think that clarity of goal is really important. I think we hire really great people who both educate students and who live our values outside of the classroom, which give our kids a grounding in what we think are important.

Can you tell a story of a particular student, one student, who was really influence by your school?

Well, we have a number of kids who have actually come back and taught in our schools. Our first graduating class is joining us this year, many of whom would probably have not gone to college if they hadn’t come to DSST. They went to college and were successful and have now come back to help others become successful.

That’s one the best stories we can tell, students who have gone and lived our values and now are back and want to live those values in a whole new way.

What impact have the schools had in the community?

I think we’ve had a pretty big impact. We’ve had an impact first and foremost on what people think is possible in public education. We’ve had the opportunity to change people’s minds around what’s possible, regardless of somebody’s ethnic background, economic background, academic background…that we can create schools that can help all kids succeed. I think that’s been the biggest contribution we’ve had.  I don’t think there was that was that implicit belief in public education in Denver before we came and I think that’s changed a lot.

I think our commitment to a values-driven culture has had a big impact on public education in Denver. People have started to think differently. It’s hard to do as well as people want to do, but I think people are starting to think differently about the kind of schools we can create and how a culture can help young people ideally grow and thrive beyond just the classroom.

What does your average day look like?

My average day is 80% in some sort of meeting. I spend a couple hours in a school every morning and then … well, mostly meetings. With my school leaders, my senior team, board members, external fundraisers, donors, Denver public schools. Most of my job is helping facilitate other people doing their jobs.

Ultimately, my job is to hire great people and to give them the vision and the values and the tools they need to be successful.

What does a great teacher look like?

A great teacher is…very similar to kids…Giving them a vision for their own learning and then giving them the tools to be successful in every endeavor. I see teachers as leaders. They really are leaders.

What’s your leadership style?

My leadership style? I would say, in the best sense, it is creating a vision for people and giving people a context  for their work and helping them think about why we do what we do. And then finding great people who I can them empower to be great. I would say I expect a lot of people. I expect them to be reflective – I’m very reflective. I expect people to be the chief learners in the organization. Things are moving very fast. People need to be learning just as fast.

Do you facilitate that learning?

I think leadership is a personal endeavor. I think you need to want to grow yourself. It’s really hard for somebody else to grow you as a leader if you don’t want to grow yourself. So I think it’s important for you to have ownership over you own desire to grow and learn. If you have somebody who’s eager to learn I think connecting them to that resources

Speaking broadly about education now, what do you think education reform looks like?

Well, I think we need to be clear about our goals. We’re not very clear about what we’re trying to do. We’re not clear about our academic goals and we’re not clear about our social/development goals. When you’re developing anything, if you’re not clear about what you’re trying to develop, it’s hard to do it well. I think it’s important that we be really clear about what we expect kids to be able to do. I would advocate that we give kids the chance to go to a four year college. They may not go, and that’s fine. But I think it’s the chance to go to college… If they choose to do something else, that’s great. But our public education system is not set up to do that today.

So it’s structural?

Well, it’s a set of expectations. The expectations of society and what we expect of our education system is the first problem. I think schools by no means are the ultimate formers of character, but they should certainly play a significant role in that. And I don’t think our schools do that today.

What does DSST do to shape student character?

Well, we create a values-driven culture. Embedded in everything we do. We’re not big on creating a character education class. We believe you walk in the doors and living in our culture is character education every day. So we expect our kids and ourselves to live our values and those values are going to trump our own self-interest at times. And that by creating a community that lives a set of values deeply, that is the best character development you can have.

I think schools in general are really hesitant to put forth a set of values they think are important and live them. I think, generally speaking, schools put forth rules that they expect kids to follow, and usually don’t even do a great job enforcing those. I hope every expectation we have are tied to one of our values.

What are your core values?

Respect, responsibility, doing your best, integrity, courage and curiosity.

How does the gospel influence your view of education in general?

I think in general it’s a great opportunity for me to live out my faith and build the kingdom. Obviously public education is a secular space, but everybody brings their own faith perspective to it and I think this is an opportunity for me to live out my own vocation and my own calling to build that kingdom.

What counsel to you give to Christian teachers? How should they express their faith in public education?

I think everybody chooses to do that differently. I think everybody has to come to their own understanding of what that means to them. But I think in general there are opportunities to share that when appropriate and I think there are opportunities to conduct themselves and show that by action. I think the strongest witness in many ways is to live your faith and to demonstrate the love of God through you own work. That’s a place to begin with.

So why STEM education? Why not art or literature?

Because I think it’s the greatest need we have today in our country and it’s the greatest opportunity we have to build opportunities for young people to both make a difference in our society and to earn a living wage and to connect them to future opportunities. So I think there’s an incredibly robust need for STEM education and to connect them with opportunities in the marketplace.

They still take language and history?

Yes, it’s still a liberal arts program. They get 6 years of science in high school – so they take more science, for example, and each student has to finish with at least pre-calculus. So it provides an opportunity for them to explore those more, but we have great history, great English, great arts.

What was it like meeting Oprah?

It was a really fun experience. I think it wasn’t the fact that we met Oprah as the fact that people knew that we met Oprah. It was all people wanted to talk about. So, Oprah has a reach that is way beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in my life, in terms of being a pop icon. Much more than the President – I’ve met the President.

Oprah has more influence than the President?

I didn’t talk to somebody probably a year or two after where that was not one of the first questions I got. … It was remarkable. And of course all the women on my team knew it happened before it happened. But this was not just another TV show. It was Oprah.

So what would you say to the evangelical community? What is the Christian’s responsibility to engage public education? Is education just a personal choice – along with homeschool or Christian education – or is it the “next moral issue” as the Teach for America people will say? Is it particularly important? What should the CT community do?

Yes, it’s an important issue for me. I think it’s one of the greatest issues that our society faces. I think that we ought to be engaged in that public marketplace. It’s very important. I mean, just from a civic perspective, in the last 10 years we’ve gone from 1 in 8 schools being high poverty school, high concentration of poverty kids in a school, to 1 in 5. In the United States – a 60% increase in high poverty schools in the last 10 years.

There’s a problem with the civic fabric of our country. We’re going to be a majority-minority country in 2040. Our schools are becoming more segregated, and literally the civic fabric of our country is being torn apart…unless people engage these kinds of issues. And public education is one of the most significant institutions of formation in our country. It probably impacts the most people in this country as it relates to the formation of young people. If they go to schools that are not educating them, that do not provide the kind of values that I think are important to a civic society, are going to schools with kids that look just like them, with no experience of the diversity of the human family – we’re in serious trouble. We’re going to have very little in common despite the fact that we’re an incredibly diverse society.

So yes, I think we all need to be called to this issue – it’s an incredibly important issue. And anybody hunkering down and hoping it’s going to go away – I can’t see it going away, short of people getting engaged and getting their hands dirty and becoming part of a much larger solution.


The Music of the Universe


Rarely do I finish a book and exclaim, “I have never even thought about most of these ideas.” Yet when I finished Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake, I was dumbfounded. Although a bit heavy in quotations in some spots, this book opened a new world to me. That new world was the unity of knowledge. Christians often teach about not dividing sacred from secular and integrating the Bible into all of life, but most of these efforts amount to very little other than applying obscure Bible passages in strange ways. Caldecott, a Catholic theologian at Oxford, has given Christians interested in education a new vocabulary for “Christian worldview.”

The book is about the classical Liberal Arts tradition of the West that “once offered a form of humane education that sought the integration of faith and reason, and that combined the arts and the sciences, before these things became separated, fragmented, and trivialized.” For Caldecott, this tradition can only be recovered by going back to the sources (ressourcement). The most important source for Caldecott is not Boethius, Augustine or even Socrates and Plato. It is Pythagoras. Pythagoras? The right-angle triangle guy? That’s what I mean by “I’ve never even thought about that before.”

Caldecott introduces the book by quoting Pope Benedict at length. His book The Spirit of the Liturgy attempts to connect prayer and action, the soul and the exterior world, society and the universe, into a single harmonious whole. The ordering of the soul is deeply connected, of all things, to the mathematical ordering of time, space and matter. I’ll join Caldecott and quote Pope Benedict at length:

“Among the Fathers, it was especially Augustine who tried to connect this characteristic view of the Christian liturgy with the worldview of Greco-Roman antiquity. In his early work ‘On Music’ he is still completely dependent on the Pythagorean theory of music. According to Pythagoras, the cosmos was constructed mathematically, a great edifice of numbers. Modern physics, beginning with Kepler, Galileo and Newton, has gone back to this vision and, through the mathematical interpretation of the universe, has made possible the technological use of its powers.

“For Pythagoreans, this mathematical order of the universe (‘cosmos’ means ‘order’!) was identical with the essence of beauty itself. Beauty comes from meaningful inner order. And for them this beauty was not only optical but also musical. Goethe alludes to this idea when he speaks of the singing contest of the fraternity of the spheres: the mathematical order of planets and their revolutions contains a secret timbre, which is the primal form of music. The courses of the revolving planets are like melodies, the numerical order is the rhythm, and the concurrence of the individual courses is the harmony…

“But a further step was taken with the help of the Trinitarian faith, faith in the Father, the Logos [the Son], and the Pneuma [Holy Spirit]. The mathematics of the universe does not exist by itself, nor, as people now came to see, can it be explain by stellar deities. It has a deeper foundation: the mind of the Creator. It comes from the Logos, in whom, so to speak, the archetypes of the world’s order are contained. The Logos, through the Spirit, fashions the material world according to these archetypes. In virtue of his work in creation, the Logos is, therefore called the ‘art of God’. The Logos himself is the great artist, in whom all works of art—the beauty of the universe—have their origin.”

Let me try to summarize with my pea-sized brain: All of creation and thus all knowledge finds its source in Jesus, the Logos, the great bridge between God and man. He creates the world through an great ordering of all things (Genesis says God created order from chaos). This order is mathematical and constant, and the universe itself is set to a kind of rhythm that resembles a cosmic song. This “great edifice of numbers” carries with it a serene simplicity and unity that can only be called beautiful.

Western civilization lost its connection to a cosmic order at the Enlightenment. All was separated and dissected when, at the same time, it lost its faith in God. God became relevant only to one’s personal values, but was dethroned as God of the Universe. But in this vision of the world – this old vision – the natural world is the overflow of the Mind of the Maker. God is Lord of both the individual as well as the universe. Caldecott is trying to re-infuse meaning into education by recovering an ancient view of the world’s unity in Christ.

Like I said, I’ve never even thought about most of these ideas. I think this book will require several blog posts…

This post appeared originally on Redeeming Education.


A New Liberal Arts

Several years ago, Liz Coleman, the president of Bennington College, gave a talk at TED about “A New Liberal Arts.” At a conference usually reserved for technology whizzes or scientists, she gave a convincing argument for the worth of a liberal arts education in an age where hyper-specialization is seen as the apex of human endeavor. Yet what was most compelling to me was her central idea: the liberal arts must be intentionally focused on thinking about and solving the world’s biggest problems.

Here’s the idea: in today’s world, not only do we need people who can think in interdisciplinary ways, but we need people using the best tools of thought from history (literature, science, history, economics, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics) to be intentionally engaged in solving difficult problems. From climate change and education reform to international conflict and malnutrition, Coleman doesn’t believe the technician can solve these problems alone. They need broad thinkers, and they need a moral vision.

Now, I significantly disagree with several aspects of Coleman’s vision. For one, she’s staunchly secular and anti-religious. In her talk, she even spoke about their new research center at the center of campus as a kind of “secular church.” She sees no place for religion in the academy, and this, I believe, damages her argument in a religious world. Second, her form of education is avowedly political. Without God, she needs an ultimate purpose, and for her that is the state. Considering 20th century history, I’m not sure how she could be so adamantly political and unflinchingly believe in the virtues of even democracy, whom Churchill has even said is only “the least bad form of government we have.” As one who sets her heart on the state, Coleman would be wise to at least admit the truth: the secular academy is her church, and secularism is her religion.

But setting this aside for the moment, I’m more than fascinated by this model of education. Here’s why. First, Coleman believes that directly connecting a human need or real-world issue to a liberal arts curriculum super-charges thinking. For example, her freshman all have to sit in on “labs” focused on some issue, such as education or health care. In class, when they read Whitehead’s The Aims of Education, they apply it’s lessons to the national education reform debate. How many times have each of sat in class and wondered why we have to learn this? For students at Bennington, it’s clear: to change society. This means syllabi and pre-fabricated papers take second place to real critical thought on the toughest problems of our day.

Second, there is always a criticism that education is an ivory tower, disconnected from “the real world.” Not here. In this new liberal arts curriculum, the core ends are not only mastery of a subject, but instead the mastery of using that subject to benefit the common good. Conversations on literature and history take on new significance when you’re required to do a semester of “field work” dealing with real problems like poverty, governance, or disease.

Third, this new liberal arts curriculum, I believe, is deeply missional. Now, it’s obvious Coleman would never agree with me on this. I’d probably classify as a nutty fundamentalist in her eyes. But having this outward focus in a liberal arts curriculum I believe is resonant with God’s activity in the world. In contrast to most Christian liberal arts curriculums that only do mission trips and service projects, this re-centers the curriculum itself around the pressing issues at hand. For example, instead of going to Central America to build a school, they would analyze the issues of public education in Central America as well as the challenge of development education in their actual courses. God is in the business of bringing, in the words of the Lausanne Covenant, the whole gospel to the whole world. Solving problems like climate change or corporate corruption as a part of a liberal arts curriculum saves The Great Conversation from being stuffy and elitist. It focuses the liberal arts where Milton says it should always be focused, “on repairing the ruins of our first parents.”

[This article was originally posted on my education blog Redeeming Education.]

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