Applying Education to God-Given Talents
—“Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” (Pr. 4:6).
For two years in middle school, I failed French just about as miserably as anyone can fail a class. To me, the subject was like a conversation I was entering late—a conversation with judges and superiors—and no amount of explanation ever helped. Whatever I managed to gather in those many hours of class is as much forgotten as words once overheard, never comprehended, and never heard again.
Fifteen years later, while I was sharing tea with a friend / Spanish tutor who had been preparing me for mission work in South America, I simply spoke—just spoke what I needed to say—in Spanish; and nothing in that foreign tongue hindered the themes that needed to go from me to her. That was years ago, and today I am a Spanish teacher.
The first effort was a failure because it attempted to satisfy an immensely complicated (and flawed) agendum. The second was a success because, set free from a cold curriculum, I relished the Godly gift of communication with a friend—a connection between souls.
Mere conversation impassioned me; the immensely complex process of language acquisition settled in my heart like dew; and my only regret was that I had never experienced this before. In fact, very few young people are given the chance to peruse a spiritual adventure if it were to infringe on their school’s forced agendum. We teachers confine students to the classroom to answer to a man-made list, whipped up by some impressive software.
To have a Christian education is to trust God’s design: what function of the Body of Christ does He wish us to serve? As we naturally come to answer this question by exploring our aptitudes, our passions (even from a young age), we conform to His will—and Wisdom comes. With this much, we need no more.
To be guided in his God-given interests, the youth is most likely to find productive and happy exercise. Since a Christian community requires a dispersion of talents—in worshiping, nurturing, feeding, ministering, singing, dancing, writing, pondering, fixing, speaking, building—why can’t the Christian youth explore an area joyously, become an apprentice to a master willingly served?—not cooped up and separated from society, but part of it! Why not—especially if it be the student’s desire? It will be like money in his pocket.
As soon as possible, it is best for the youth to explore the facets of society and how his aptitudes may fit therein. What had worked for me in my twenties would have worked for me at twelve. Mozart absorbed directly from those adults around him, and his early successes were not unusual for his time. Louis XIII sang and played the violin at the age of seventeen months (again, not unusual). In her essay, “The Myth of Childhood,” Shulamith Firestone notes how before the 18th century, precocity in children was fairly common because they were integrated into the world (to discover how God planned for them to be a part of it), not pulled away from it and controlled by man. Most notably, she writes, “In the orthodox Jewish milieu in which I grew up, considered anachronistic by outsiders, many little boys still begin serious study before the age of five, and as a result Talmudic prodigies are common.” In fact, the reason why so many twenty-somethings lean towards relativism is that they have never exercised to exhaustion, never attempted to master, their God-given talents. For eighteen years they have been floating in an unappetizing soup of arbitrary goals. It never really matters if they achieve them or not, quite frankly.
Modern education asks young people to be like the wicked, lazy servant who was “afraid and went out and hid [his] talent in the ground.” Trying to satisfy every “standard-based objective” is akin to hoarding wealth—serving only to satisfy greed. Cramming a list of facts just to satisfy dry goals (regardless of the student’s interest) essentially ignores the proclivities that God had given to the individual. High-stakes testing rarely serves the students, and instead stands as a supposed mark of how much the teacher taught the student. It is vainglory to say, “We teachers made children smart! Look at our test data!” It is akin to a pastor saying, “I made my parishioners morally good!” It should come as no surprise that many schools and the “children” in them fail miserably.
Notice in the following biblical passages where Wisdom is to be found and what she calls the unwise to do:
1. Wisdom raises her voice “on the heights along the way, where the paths meet . . . . Beside the gates, leading into the city, at the entrances, she cries aloud.” (Pr. 8.2-3)
2. “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn out its seven pillars. She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her maids, and she calls from the highest point of the city, ‘Let all who are simple come in here!’ she says to those who lack judgment. ‘Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of understanding.’” (Pr. 9.1-6).
Wisdom is in the open, calling over the paths of the entire community. Students, of course, trapped inside a building, apart from the community, cannot hear her voice. Wisdom invites the simple to come, to travel, to eat, and to drink. Students, on the other hand, are confined (literally and figuratively) to the sterile cafeteria for eating. No matter how much he loves to draw, play music, sing, dance, write, create, sort, etc. (and nearly all children are drawn to some delightful work of their own for the sheer, God-given pleasure—not a grade), the student must conform to a curriculum which attempts to improve test scores and thus fails to follow the interests of the student. How is it logical that the student should bend to the curricula and not the curricula to the student? This calls for students to be slaves. Wisdom calls for her pupils to be free.
Let the student choose what to learn, even how to learn it. He will invariably choose something because he wants to be useful and wants to be with others. He wants to use his gifts. Let the ten-year old who is fascinated by lemon batteries follow an electrician as long as his heart desires. Give the water-rat ample opportunities to accompany fishermen, marine-biologists, surfers, plumbers, window washers—and let them put him to work. Let him who wants to sit and read just sit and read. And when any of them want to change what they are doing for something else, let them with impunity. Find alternative options for education, or homeschool and help the students exercise the aptitudes that captivate them. Why not create true learning centers, open to all walks of life, free of price and without grades? These will be popular for no other reason than the need to be with others while being free to choose. (Just look at community theaters where participants devote many hours and receive little or no pay.) Even subsidizing all this, it would be much cheaper than what we currently spend. And if ever the student’s work be commercially viable, then all the better for his education; he will learn dollars, cents, taxes, math, investment, charity, alms. Through a diligent study of his God-given aptitudes, the student will come to know all that he needs to know to function in a society. It has been thus for thousands of years before now and worked far better too.
Sadly, however, this has changed. Instead of letting Providence dictate what should be known, groups like The National Council of Teachers of English do not hesitate to prescribe what a student should know, and the prescriptions are reliably abstract and boring. They define standards as “what students should know about language and be able to do with language.”
To start, no man-made document can encapsulate what language can do, and to say what someone should do with language poisons the greater need we have for language in the first place. I never would have learned Spanish if my tutor said to me, “We cannot talk about what matters to you until your conjugation is 85 percent accurate.” We cannot even accurately count how many words a person possesses in his vocabulary, so how can we quantify a person’s expression in such an obtuse way?
Many imperfect speakers of foreign languages have traveled, lived, and worked in foreign lands, happy to sacrifice their strong control of the mother tongue for what their pilgrimage had given them in turn. No one, with the possible exception of Shakespeare, has ever been a perfect master of all the facets of language . . . but not even he could speak Greek.
In other words (and this is nearly undisputed amongst educators), if it isn’t to be found in the state or national standards, then it shouldn’t be found in the classroom. According to testing-based educators, nothing aside from completing the daily objective is necessary or even desirable. Anything inadvertently learned is merely trivial. Here is just one example of an “assessment limit” from which an English teacher is expected to draw his daily objective: “To Determine the significance of plot, sequence of events, cause-and-effect relationships, and events that are exposition.”
Just imagine if a pastor, using the Bible as his text, were to start off with this “assessment limit” as his sole objective and considered it a success if his parishioners, by the end of his sermon, could “plot the sequence of events and label foreshadowing in Chapter X, Verse Y by writing a brief constructed response.” [This is actually a par-for-the-course daily objective!] Teachers are instructed to enter from this angle, though we should enter from the opposite, just as the good shepherd does. These objectives are abstract, boring, unimpressive—as boring as a list of grammar rules that no one remembers after the test. The reason why some people use good grammar is that they have been enticed enough to memorize how good usage has portrayed glorious images to them in the past. The reason why Christians believe is that the Holy Ghost has touched them, spoken to them, entered into them; not because they want to look good or pass a test. The current schooling approach is the opposite of poetry (as defined by W. H. Auden)—memorable speech—and is, therefore, antithetical to what it hopes to teach. If standardized testing works so well, why don’t we standardize sermons? Why don’t we require a certain score to become a Christian? Why does a beautiful service look so different from a “beautiful” lesson plan? It is because God moves in the world playfully, delightfully, masterfully and asks us to be part of it, to bring our gifts and talents to do His work. And what a blessing it should be!
When I taught Literature, I used to think that if I were to read to my students a moving passage from a great poem, that the theme would redound across the classroom like a dominical bell across vast acres. Or if, when permissible, I could read Scripture to students, I imagined that it would take root in their hearts. And I erroneously thought that every student in my class could be reached (or should be reached) by this impassioned reading. Yet, almost invariably, such attempts fell flat. The reason is that now, after so many years, school has shriveled up what aptitudes might otherwise have been receptive. I made the same mistake as the education planners by saying what students should have learned.
Those young adults in my classroom (in a low-income area) at some point in their lives had experienced learning, they did have God-given talents, and they did want to be part of a community—but as for the one-standards-fits all school, the students had checked out. Many hated the place, because it never allowed them to explore their God-given wisdom for any purpose. Instead they are told to shut up and passively memorize something that God did not give them a reason to memorize.
And it is likely that had they come to me about a great poem or Scripture, or if they had seen the material themselves and had been enticed by it (as it is with self-motivated readers), then the theme would forever stay set in their hearts. For even the expectation of mine that they should know something makes it very likely that they will do just the opposite.
One might say, “If you only taught all the objectives, then you could teach some exciting stuff! The curriculum is just the basic building blocks. Data and computers are so powerful these days! Just use the data to track the students and hit them in their weak spots.”
First, many marks that appear high actually mean nothing. In city schools, many A’s are given to students who merely behave well. We teachers are often told to “help” on statewide projects “as much as necessary.” Cramming material for high stakes testing is perfectly acceptable—even lauded—although anyone who has ever crammed knows that the material is immediately forgotten, even with the most successful students. And then there are failures that even cramming, covering up, and cheating cannot mask. There are abounding examples in terms of gaps of knowledge: that is, what the students should have learned and didn’t, or did learn but immediately forgot. Any honest high school teacher will agree.
How could it be so bad? Some teachers begin to hate the students who cannot complete the required tasks, and students mortally hate their teachers in turn. I have seen tables flipped over due to frustration, verbal attacks on teachers and principals, a multitude of ear-buds for the oblivion they bring. I myself have felt debilitating frustration. Yet, somewhere there must be a breech in our understanding, because we know through our faith that God put his Son on the cross for the sake of the very least of us. And any person on earth who can speak a language has been blessed with Godly intelligence immeasurable by all our science. Between our science and God, we should know whom to trust.
Second, even if the proud, “successful” student can twirl around metaphors, syntax, and logarithms with ease, if the greater feeling be missed, then it is all for naught. A student must know how a Godly gift fits into a Godly community. Technology, to name one field, has been too long divorced from ethics. And what shall it profit a student, after all, if he shall gain entrance to the Ivy League and . . .
X.J. Kennedy once wrote about the magic of poetry: “It is dangerous to dismiss what we do not logically understand.” How can educators ever look at the testable confines of this world and foolishly surmise that we are in control of knowledge?
The problem with traditional schooling will only grow worse. According to Time Magazine, humankind could become immortal through digitalization; learning will be as easy as eating; DNA should be modified (according to James Watson, Nobel Prize Winner) if it can make our lives more comfortable; sadness and remorse for sin could be clicked away with a mouse. And then, what need have we for faith anymore?
To bypass thousands of years of the human experience to rely on computers, to me, is a horror. And as a teacher, I have seen this horror already: what the organic-digital connections are not yet quite achieving, we educators attempt with our curricula, our planning, our schools. Many educators only wish they could crack open the heads of young people and start fiddling around inside. (And if not willing to admit it, they show it by saying, “We don’t care how you feel about what I have to say, just as long as you listen!” It doesn’t matter to them if God wanted them to listen to something else.) We attempt to program our students, only wishing that we could program them even more. If we could, we would.
I believe that children are forced to conform to a school curriculum that matters to them as little as, say, Old Icelandic grammar matters to most of us. Their worth, their intelligence, their future, their dignity depends on conformity to a man-made plan. And the more they fail, which they are bound to, the more we attempt to program them. The more we program them, the more they fail. Curiosity in children (or those who are child-like with their curiosity) is the last refuge of spiritual hope.
Of all the themes that I have seen, felt, touched, tasted, and breathed, the premier is God’s love for us. There is too much goodness apart from corruption; there is too much nature beyond the city; there are too many good conversations beyond an ugly agendum; there is too much of His love expressed in Word and Deed for me to doubt. There is too much that exists away from the pedantic classroom. Too much that tests will never understand, and I’m thankful that I’ll never have to pass a standardized test to receive His love.
Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialect of Sex. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1970.
Kennedy, X. J. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1979.
National Council of Teachers of English. NCTE / IRA Standards for the English Language Arts. 20 July 2010. Web. 20 May 2011. http://www.ncte.org/standards