“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,” William Wordsworth recalled in his long autobiographical poem, The Prelude, of the heady excitement that accompanied the start of the French Revolution. “But to be young was very heaven!” The poem makes clear that in hindsight things would look rather less rosy. The lines above appear in a section whose title drips with irony: “The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement.” At the moment we seem to be living through a different revolution, one with primarily technological and cultural dimensions but that continuously dangles before our eyes the prospect of similarly exhilarating change. Today, though, it’s become increasingly hard to take an enthusiast’s view, particularly if you have school-aged children or work in education yourself. More and more the news coming out about schools — in articles and anecdotes about falling test scores, rising behavioral issues, and plummeting mental health — suggests a reverse of Wordsworth’s maxim: Misery it was in that dusk to be alive, but to be young was very hell!
That might sound hyperbolic at first. But when you tally up enough discrete challenges, the scale of what’s unfolding starts to emerge. Growing up has never been easy or perfect, but at least 20 or 30 years ago it didn’t involve the following: Prolonged school closures, vitriolic debates about masking, and forced virtual learning, often under less-than-ideal conditions. Routine active-shooter drills in 95 percent of American public schools, as well as the mass shootings they are ostensibly designed to prepare students for. Pervasive anxiety about standardized tests, which for some students has become so severe that it requires medication or even psychiatric hospitalizations to treat. Smartphones, social media, cyberbullying, sexting, and instant, sometimes even accidental, exposure to pornography. Social contagion of disorders ranging from anorexia to Tourette’s, spread with stunning efficiency on apps like Instagram and TikTok. A series of destructive viral “challenges” that have sent youth to emergency rooms, jail, and the grave. A veritable tidal wave of anxiety, depression, and suicidal impulses among young people has left parents, pediatricians, and emergency room doctors reeling, not to mention children and adolescents themselves. In 2021, the last year for which data is available, one in every three teenage girls in the United States reported that they had seriously contemplated ending their lives in the preceding 12 months, making the 30th annual CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey report the bleakest to date.
Those closest to young people are also having a tough time. Parents are facing record costs for housing, childcare, food, and other necessities, along with rapidly changing workplace expectations, while trying to steer their children away from dangers both old and new. Schools nationwide are struggling to recruit enough faculty and staff. In an effort to do more with less, some have resorted to four-day school weeks, underqualified instructors, and one very public, AI-guided bus route snafu that left children as young as 5 on buses until nearly 10 p.m. Tens of thousands of teaching positions are still vacant. Teachers who remain often report feeling underappreciated, underpaid, and overwhelmed as fewer hands make for heavier work. Nearly a third are considering leaving the profession next year, giving more momentum to an already vicious cycle.
Through it all, a kind of ambient background hiss bombards Americans of every age. A stream of confused and confusing narratives keeps adding new layers of complication to subjects that formerly avoided public controversy, including, most notably, the definition of marriage, the nature of sex and gender, and the origin story of our nation. The resulting cacophony of claims — as common sense tells even those of us without formal training in logic and the law of noncontradiction — might in their dissonance all be wrong, but they cannot all be right. This cultural static alone would be enough to make the present moment, if not hellish, then at least an especially difficult time in which to come of age.
Way, way, way down on the list of things to potentially worry about right now is high schoolers’ retention of French verbs. But that’s what first struck me as a kind of canary in the coal mine five years ago. I was then teaching introductory composition and literature classes at the United States Military Academy, which gave me a remarkable chance to meet 13th graders from all 50 states and the occasional foreign country. At the start of each semester, by way of explaining what college-level writing and analysis was all about, I’d ask whether anyone took French in high school. Every single time, hands shot up eagerly and one or two cadets excitedly reported that they’d taken AP French.
But then when I wrote the word essayer on the board and asked what it meant — an experiment I conducted at least a dozen times — not once could anyone ever tell me. A common verb, in the infinitive form, had left them stumped. And that in turn left me stumped.
Although an indifferent student of foreign languages myself, I couldn’t imagine forgetting essayer. Forgetting the intricacies of convoluted tenses would be like the mind slowly emptying itself of trigonometry, a process as natural as breathing. But not knowing a common verb in the infinitive less than a year out from AP French is the foreign-language equivalent of blanking on the multiplication table. And roomfuls of bright, smart, hardworking cadets seemed to have done just that.
At the time, I was only beginning to wrap my mind around cadets’ experiences with high-school language arts classes. Many seemed to involve a phenomenon I’ll call The Mysterious Thing That Resembles Learning but Is Not. My evidence for its existence is anecdotal, not scientific. In English classes, it might involve pushing your eyes across words in a way that looks outwardly like reading. But inwardly you are not reading — or at least not for plot, comprehension, pleasure, edification, or any other traditional aim of reading — and you’re also not doing what occasionally happens to even the most devoted reader, where you suddenly realize that your concentration has wandered off and you’d better go back a paragraph or two because you have no clue what you just read. Instead, you’re doing some weird third thing where your focus remains intact, but instead of making sense of every word or letting the images they construct play out as a kind of movie in your mind, you’re deliberately making sense of only some words, the ones that seem important, and more or less ignoring the rest. You’re mining for data, harvesting it in discrete and contextless chunks, which is all you need for multiple-choice tests or a mere regurgitation of keywords. Whatever task would fall just below skimming in the great chain of reading — you’re doing that.
The Mysterious Thing That Resembles Learning but Is Not in many ways remains a mystery to me even now. (How do students develop a sixth sense for knowing which words are “important” as they’re first encountering them? How do they not go mad with all that dead space between keywords?) But one thing I can say for sure is that it’s vampiric. It takes up as much time as actual learning, or more. It takes up as much energy, too. But unlike actual learning, it gives very little, maybe nothing, in return. It just tires people out, wears them down, and then sends them on their way, depleted, empty, unfulfilled. The whole process feels rushed and unfun while it’s happening, too, from what I gather.
By the third or fourth time my essayer question produced silence, I began to wonder if The Mysterious Thing That Resembles Learning but Is Not was taking over French classes, too. Now one might wonder whether it has begun infiltrating everything, to greater and lesser degrees, from offices (The Mysterious Thing That Resembles Work but Is Not) to parenting and beyond.
Essayer means “to try,” and from it comes our English word “essay,” which is, I emphasized to cadets, at root an attempt to ask a question you genuinely don’t know the answer to, or to pose a problem whose solution is unknown to you, and to try — to essaie — in the process of wrangling words on a page to find something resembling clarity or a way forward.
That is what this particular essay is too: an attempt, necessarily partial and incomplete, to understand how most of the fun and many of the people have been squeezed out of education, and whether these might in fact amount to the same thing. And also to think about how Christians — who are called to be as light and salt to the world — can, in ways both large and small, possibly help set things right.
The dilemmas facing schools today can’t be separated from the dilemmas facing American society in general. A thousand hideous flowers may be blooming, but they are all rooted in the same cultural soil. As with real soil, much of what goes on in any given culture is invisible, hidden below the surface of conscious awareness. Culture shapes our views on everything from superficial matters (prevailing fashions, for instance) to our deepest beliefs about reality and morality. Before one can think about what teachers, parents, and young people today might need, it’s worth taking stock of the cultural trends they’re up against.
Education is not coterminous with Christian formation, but for many readers of Common Good an interest in one subject likely means an interest the other as well. Most Christian parents hope that their children will be both educated and formed — that is, that they will grow up to become both literate citizens able to fare well in a changing job market and world economy and mature moral agents who can someday raise healthy families of their own and contribute to faith communities and wider society in a variety of nonfinancial ways.
The bad news for these parents — and for the teachers, clergy, and youth directors entrusted with helping them raise their children — is that several cultural currents are working against this goal in subtle but extremely powerful ways, as James Davison Hunter has shown in his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (2010). Three of the trends that Hunter identifies as counterproductive to Christian belief and formation are pluralism, dissolution, and politicization. I would argue that they are also counterproductive to education — even secular education — insofar as formation and education are both predicated on the ability to teach young people how to read, write, and assimilate a tradition, while also developing their sense of self-restraint.
Pluralism is the coexistence of multiple cultures in one society. For most of human history, Hunter writes, pluralism was “the exception to the rule” and, “where it existed, it operated within the framework of a strong dominant culture.” What is unique about contemporary pluralism, he argues, is that, since the collapse of WASP hegemony and the rise of media fragmentation after the mid-20th century, pluralism now exists in America without any dominant culture. This is concerning, Hunter observes laconically, because “from all that we can tell, social systems require some consensus to survive.”
If rising mortality from suicide and deaths of despair are anything to go by, individuals seem to require this, too — the comfort that comes from subscribing to a coherent worldview that you can reasonably expect your neighbors to share. Young people today no longer have this comfort. Whether they grow up with Fox News or MSNBC playing on the living room television is to some extent beside the point: The fact that both channels exist in their present, highly partisan forms, offering almost parallel-universe accounts of the contemporary United States, is enough to sow seeds of unconscious skepticism about the truth claims of both. This kind of unconscious doubt — about potentially everything — is amplified exponentially by the internet.
Dissolution, meanwhile, describes what happens when the connection between words and the world they point to is shattered, and “the implicit trust that underlies the language of our civilization” shatters along with it. Individuals who cannot agree on the meaning of “woman” are unlikely to agree on the meaning of “eudaimonia” either, and the linguistic chasm between them fosters suspicions on both sides, of one another and of reality.
The third trend, politicization, encourages a “turn toward law and politics — the instrumentality of the state — to find solutions to public problems.” One catch to this approach is that the state’s power is derived in large part from having a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. This makes the state both “a clumsy instrument” and one “finally rooted in coercion” and the threat of violence. The state can restrain Americans in various ways, but it can’t make us agree on anything. It can divide us, especially along party lines, but it has no way to bind us back together again. The state isn’t equipped to restore values, ideals, or consensus because it is a kind of administrative machine, not an organic force like culture. When the cultural glue that can hold us together starts to crack, politics can’t resupply lost ideals of duty, sacrifice, and the common good. Instead, the underlying coercive element is forced up to the surface, and the political arena devolves into the Colosseum, a brazen, brutal, cynical fight for power and survival.
Consequently, Hunter writes, there are truly “no political solutions to the problems most people care about” and, when the state does get involved in our most poignant and human dilemmas, “its actions can often create more problems through unintended consequences, not fewer.” Book bans in schools, for instance, can certainly force libraries to pull specific titles — relating to gender and sexuality, for instance — from shelves. But the odds are good that doing so will only deepen political and cultural divides and that some worthwhile books (possibly featuring keywords that are only objectionable out of context) will be chucked out in the process, too. The odds are nil that book bans will restore a normative picture of gender and sexuality to American culture.
The upshot of these three cultural trends, Hunter cautions, is that Christians today need to “work much harder” and to perform “an act of will much greater than in the past” to overcome the deleterious effects of contemporary culture on belief and character — and again, I would venture, on intellectual and moral development more generally. This is, unfairly, especially true for young Christians, whose intellects, wills, and appetites are still being formed.
So, one starting point for anyone wishing to wade into the messy reality of education today might be sympathy for the young and those entrusted with guiding them — maybe sympathy mixed with a little fear. Even if every teacher vacancy were to be miraculously filled with qualified instructors tomorrow, and even if every family affirmed “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Josh 24:15), it would still be an uphill battle to train up children in the way they should go in the contemporary United States.
As a teacher and a mother myself, I choose to believe that it is still possible to build “on the rock that naught can move,” in the words of an old hymn. But it would be dangerous for Christian parents and educators to try to do so without realizing that the moment children step out the door of their house or classroom — or the moment the world comes in, usually through a screen — they are liable to find themselves on quicksand instead.
The good news is that Hunter has not only mapped out some cultural minefields that Christians might want to be aware of, but also proposed a way forward, which he calls faithful presence.
Faithful presence aims to stake out a middle ground between a defensive stance toward the world (an approach that, if pushed to extremes, risks becoming unintelligible to outsiders or dismissive of them) and a stance that emphasizes Christianity’s continuing relevance (the danger here being so thorough an assimilation to contemporary culture that Christian faith dissolves right into it). In trying to walk a tightrope between these approaches, faithful presence looks to the prophet Jeremiah as a model.
Speaking to God’s people after they had been conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and taken into exile in Babylon, a thousand miles from Jerusalem, Jeremiah delivers a message not of lamentation or vengeance, but of pragmatic hope:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer 29:4–7)
It’s worth noting that this is not an entirely welcome message, from a human point of view. If I were downtrodden and far from home, it would not be instantly comforting to hear that I had better settle in for the long haul — for an exile that would span generations, in fact. I might bristle at the idea that this unexpected displacement, never part of my plan, was in fact part of God’s plan and actually his doing (“the exiles whom I have sent”). I might balk, too, at being instructed to pray for the people who’d taken me from my home in the first place.
But with the benefit of a few thousand years’ worth of hindsight — and the echoes of Jeremiah we find in the Gospels, from Jesus’ exhortation to love and bless our enemies to his parable of the good seed and the tares being allowed to grow up together (Matt 5:43–44, 13:24–30) — we can perhaps begin to see how the welfare of the city (or the country as a whole, no matter how flawed) really is directly tied to our welfare as God’s people. If that is too aspirational, then sheer sociological and epistemological necessity require us to lift all boats, for, Hunter writes, “the very plausibility and persuasiveness of the Christian faith depend on a cultural context in which meaning, purpose, beauty, and belonging are possible.”
Faithful presence aims to foster precisely these ideals, along with truth and fairness. Though it ultimately wishes to extend its influence to the entire community, both Christian and not, faithful presence is intrinsically local and relational. Charity, as Timothy points out, must begin at home (1 Tim 5:8). Consequently, faithful presence can’t do anything at scale, except in a gradual way. Faithful presence must be local, meaning in person and focused on those in your immediate physical vicinity (family, neighbors, fellow parishioners, those in need), both because we are embodied creatures and because that is where — although the internet would have us believe otherwise — our real sphere of influence lies. It must be relational because Christianity, from the Trinity on down, is centered on personal relationships, and because one way we can honor the triune God who creates, sustains, and redeems us is by pursuing his sheep — perhaps most especially the lambs and the lost ones — as fervently as he does.
Faithful presence involves specifically “covenantal” relationships. A covenant is, I would suggest, the opposite of coercion. It is a binding obligation, whether to another person though ties of marriage, blood, friendship, or duty, or to God through faith; it is a contract both reciprocal and enduring, entered into willingly, not out of fear but out of love. Simply hanging in there with patience, persistence, and gentleness when the going gets tough (as it occasionally must with anything so wonderfully complex as persons) may go a significant way toward helping young people cut through some of the noise generated by pluralism and dissolution. Meaning, purpose, beauty, and belonging are not the only words that have lost their meanings. Grace, forgiveness, commitment, authority, redemption, and love — the kind of love that “always protects,” “always hopes,” and “keeps no record of wrongs” — stand in need of revival too (1 Cor 13:7, 5). The more models of covenant that young people can see and experience firsthand the better.
In some ways, faithful presence really just involves doing whatever it is you’re already doing, wherever you’re already doing it, except with a renewed awareness and conviction that ora et labora, prayer and work, really do go hand in hand, and that work done to glorify the Lord, whether it’s cleaning toilets or cooking dinner or teaching chemistry, is itself a form of worship. Within the context of education, faithful presence can, should, and, truthfully, already does happen anywhere. If you are called to be a teacher, it makes no difference whether the school where you work is public, private, or charter; Christian, Catholic, or secular; thriving or struggling; wealthy or underserved. Wherever you are, we are encouraged to trust, is the place where God has sent you.
Faith in God’s providence and ultimate control, however, doesn’t obviate the need to understand why so many teachers today feel like they’re in Babylon, a thousand miles from where they expected to be. And working together with teachers to figure out what it could look like to build livable houses and plentiful gardens right where we each are may well be part of God’s providential plan too.
Faithful presence, with its insistence on seeking the welfare of all, can certainly make the case for private, parochial, charter, Christian, and classical schools, but it cannot in good conscience leave public schools out of the equation. It must seek the welfare of all. This essay would collapse under the weight of any more dire headlines, but anyone who wants to learn about the daily lives of public school teachers should grab a copy of The Teachers: A Year Inside America’s Most Vulnerable, Important Profession by Alexandra Robbins, an award-winning journalist who shadowed three teachers closely for a year, interviewed dozens more, and herself worked as a long-term sub in a third-grade classroom while writing the book. Better yet, you might ask a teacher who attends your church how things are going and listen closely to whatever he or she is willing to share. The problems facing schools today are not equally distributed, and appropriate solutions are likely to be similarly varied.
As someone looking in from the outside at K–12 schools, I tread cautiously in positing that much of what is disheartening teachers at the moment boils down to two major problems. One is that politicization — and the “edtech” that enables it — has left lines of responsibility hopelessly entangled, by taking away autonomy and authority from the living, breathing people in classrooms who could effectively wield that autonomy and authority (admittedly for good or ill) and handing it over to an inhuman administrative machine that can’t do anything with either autonomy or authority, except use it to issue ever more detailed commands and to generate ever more detailed metrics while teacher morale and student performance are slowly ground to dust. The other major problem is that the picture of the human person now on offer in American society — the picture that emerges invisibly and without words, I mean, through cultural structures and narratives both inside of schools and out — is fractured, partial, incoherent, and devastatingly impoverished. Years ago, as a thought experiment, I tried to figure out what I would say if someone stepped into my classroom with an AK-47 and a Kevlar vest and I somehow retained enough equanimity to speak. Who lied to you? is what I settled on. Who told you that the world was not good, or that the world was good but you weren’t and didn’t belong in it? Now those are questions I’d like to ask the children whose despair will land them in the pediatric ER tonight, and tomorrow night, and the night after.
Though not instantly and not without effort, Christians can bring to the table wiser and sounder models of autonomy, authority, and human worth, quite possibly without ever saying a word about Christ.
The push to improve schools through political means started in 2002, when George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law. NCLB was designed to close the achievement gap between rich and poor districts by raising student expectations and increasing accountability. To do so, it mandated annual standardized testing at all grades in order to track how schools were performing, and it required schools to disseminate that performance data to parents. NCLB also included a provision incorporating daily attendance records into the budgeting process, so that schools with more students got more dollars to support them. A successor law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. This all sounds pretty boring and innocuous in theory, but in practice it has generated new problems and unintended consequences, as political solutions to the most poignant, human problems tend to do.
Two decades and uncountable metrics later, the United States has certainly raised expectations — but mostly of teachers, and arguably by adding to their plate expectations formerly assigned to others. Teachers’ responsibilities have expanded exponentially; according to Robbins, they are now also expected to be “unpaid tutors, parent liaisons, book buyers, charity workers, benefactors, therapists, social workers, crisis managers, security staff, and human shields.” The list of people to whom teachers are expected to be responsible has also grown. Parents, administrators, legislators, and students have each started to demand the ability to review and reject teachers’ syllabi, reading assignments, and lesson plans. The same groups (minus, one hopes, legislators) routinely ask teachers to alter grades and test scores, almost invariably upward. Relations between all groups have become more adversarial, filled with mistrust and aggression. Robbins recounts several anecdotes of parent-teacher interactions escalating to obscenity and physical harm, and workplace pressures tipping over into bullying and harassment.
These trends, I would argue, are a late-stage manifestation of politicization once politics has been stripped of ideals. There’s no veneer of gentle persuasion when you’re knocking out someone’s tooth with a brick or threatening to fire them. At that point, it’s just one will against another in a no-holds-barred fight, as the deepest cultural currents — especially the bedrock coercion of the state and the self-interested pursuit of individual maximum gain dictated by market logic — are brought unpleasantly to the fore.
It isn’t at all clear that our expectations of students have risen in the same period. In fact, the opposite seems to be happening. GPAs and test scores are somehow always going up, up, up — but college professors and hiring managers will readily tell you that skills, knowledge, and real-life performance are not. In my field, English literature, teachers have become increasingly hesitant to assign entire novels or other long works, even in AP classes and at Ivy League institutions; when they do, students frequently respond with resistance or confusion. “The bright students are still bright,” is how one English professor at a public liberal arts college phrased it this summer, an assessment that a colleague at Harvard seconded. “The struggling ones are still struggling, but the middle is sinking.”
School accountability, too, has morphed into its opposite and become an exercise in passing the buck. Two elementary education teachers — in two different states and a year apart — each told me that student misbehavior is on the rise as administrators turn a blind eye to infractions and force teachers to do the same. The reasoning behind this lowering of behavioral expectations, both teachers explained, is that enforcing discipline risks raising parents’ ire. And if angry parents transfer their children to another school, government funding will go with them. Hallway safety collapses, so that school attendance figures (and the funding that depends on them) do not.
Prioritizing metrics over reality in this way is a textbook example of putting the cart before the horse. While administrators are pressured to perfect the art of making their schools look as good as possible in PowerPoint slides and Excel spreadsheets, almost everyone agrees that the reality in hallways and classrooms is less rosy. Discipline and actual learning are withering on the vine. No one directly involved in teaching and learning benefits from unmooring cause from effect in this way (although it’s worth noting that some people do profit financially from every new technobureaucratic pseudo-solution). The people who benefit least of all are the students who are being taught — silently and subtly through culture — that their actions have no consequences (or perverse consequences). Even worse off, I fear, are those students who intuit that prevailing metrics in schools and social media are on some level skewed, but who haven’t been given many other yardsticks besides SAT scores and “likes” with which to measure their own worth. I would fight tooth and nail for an A-, too, if I thought my value in life depended on it. I might even vandalize a school bathroom or pick a fight and post a video of it online, if it held out the promise of meeting my fundamental human need to be seen and acknowledged.
I should pause here to clarify that I don’t think that legislators, administrators, parents, or students are evil or that teachers are perfect. As far as I can tell, only a small minority of actors in education are in it for individual gain of one kind or another; they may well be the vampires ushering in The Mysterious Thing That Resembles, etc. Everyone else seems to be motivated more by fear than by malice. The state official banning books, the mother threatening a teacher with litigation unless her son’s social studies grade goes up, and the principal brushing off a child’s increasingly dangerous physical outbursts aren’t necessarily malicious. Presumably, they are trying, respectively, to protect their constituents’ children from harm; to preserve their child’s chances of success in an unpredictable future; and to keep their school’s budget in the black. But the underlying, fearful logic in all three cases is derived from the market (which conceives of life as a battle to maximize gain in a zero-sum resource environment) and the state (which conceives of life as a battle for power), not from God.
I would gently suggest that Christians start to push back against these worldly, fear-based narratives whenever we encounter them — if only, at first, in our own minds. When the world hands us new reasons to be afraid, as it does daily or even hourly, it is worth taking a moment to recall that our God is a God of abundance, not scarcity, who brought forth water from a rock in the desert and from seven loaves of bread and a few small fish fed multitudes. It may be worthwhile, too, to recall God’s message through another prophet, Zechariah, that good deeds are accomplished “not by might nor by power, but by my spirit” (4:6).
The Holy Spirit, notably, issues few blanket injunctions. Even the Ten Commandments were narrowed down by Jesus to just two. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” Jesus tells a Pharisee who is also (as Matthew evidently thought it important for us to know) a legal expert. “This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:36–40). Two important points are hiding in the simplicity of Jesus’ message here. The first is that these two rules for living, though few, are not easy to follow; putting them into practice requires an entire lifetime’s worth of effort, and even then we can expect to need forgiveness dozens or hundreds of time. The second is the astonishing respect for the individual human conscience that God the Son demonstrates here. If you start with love of God and love of neighbor, Jesus suggests, you will — with the help of the Holy Spirit — be equipped to handle everything else.
Our ballooning technobureaucratic apparatus takes the opposite approach. It attempts to externalize other people’s consciences. And in trying to tell other people what to do, it just keeps handing out smaller and more specific instructions on how to do it. Computers may need this kind of feedback, but human beings do not. People — and especially young people — aren’t marionettes to be manipulated. They’re not cash cows to be milked for all they’re worth. They’re not pawns in someone else’s political battles. They are image-bearers. And the part of them that is made in the image of God is precisely the part that schools are ostensibly tasked with developing — that is, the will and intellect: the soul.
One cannot teach the soul’s inner compass to point north with an app. One cannot check whether its aim is true with Kahoot or a standardized test. Learning is relational, and authority these days must be too. Babies learn to speak not because they are objective phoneme-processors, but because they trust their mothers and fathers and their brains light up like Christmas trees at the sound of a familiar, loving voice. Survey after survey has shown that Americans’ trust in both institutions and other people keeps dropping, and the only way to restore it in schools is through individual adults putting in the time and effort to show individual young people that they matter. You simply can’t subtract the human element from education, and be surprised that students and teachers alike are beginning to feel bored, insulted, angry, and depressed or that both want to jump ship.
The right way to get the human element back into schools will depend on particular humans and particular schools. It won’t be easy — to stop trying to govern others long-distance and instead focus on modeling for those closest to us what it looks like to govern oneself. The trick is to do it in a way that is so joyful, so full of the life that is truly life, that it awakens something in the people around us and makes them want to have what we’re having, as it were. (I’ve previously written about two people who modeled authority in this way in my own life. They did so subtly, without words or lecturing, almost by carrying their own little cultural force field around with them.)
Perhaps what parents, teachers, and administrators can do to start is to carve out a deliberate space between recognizing the limitations of the current cultural and educational conditions and making a plan for what to do next — if we simply pause and wait with patience and humility, I trust that the Holy Spirit will meet us there. This will require us to shut out the noise of pluralism, and to resist the temptation to solve problems quickly and forcefully by political, legal, or technological means, long enough to listen for the still, small voice of conscience, just as Elijah had to wait for the wind, earthquake, and fire to pass before he could hear the voice of God.
And then what? It would be imprudent to try to answer that question for anyone beyond my own family, my daughter’s school, and our parish. But let me offer a few reasons to be hopeful.
In some ways, the worse the conditions for teaching become, the more they offer an opportunity to model the kind of self-sacrificing love that Christians were once known for. The early church distinguished itself, in part, by establishing the first hospitals and by caring for the poor. They did it because there was a need and no one else was meeting that need. They did it because Jesus, the embodiment of divine Logos and divine Love, had called them to do so: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Schools represent a similar opportunity for the church now. When the pay is low, the hours are long, the to-do list is endless, the stakes for testing are high, the incentives often perverse or counterproductive, and the tide of public opinion has turned against teachers, the only real reason left to be in a classroom is because you love young people and you are willing to accompany them, even if it means, to some extent, suffering with them under less than ideal conditions. (“Suffer with” or compati is the Latin root of our word compassion.)
One great irony of To Change the World is that Hunter — who popularized the term “culture wars” in his 1991 book of the same name and who can read the cultural tea leaves with a prescience few others possess — is forced to conclude that Christians can’t actually change the world. From a practical point of view, we aren’t in a position to do so. From an ethical point of view, we are called to work for God’s kingdom, not Caesar’s. But Hunter’s observations about what it does take to change the world — namely, a confluence of cultural, social, and economic capital — could provide some parameters for supporting teachers and encouraging more people to go into the field.
Christian colleges, for instance, could prioritize and direct resources to education programs and help change narratives around education. Even if children attend exclusively public schools, as I did growing up, and never once hear the word “God” outside of the Pledge of Allegiance, their souls are still being formed by the attention and instruction they receive in schools and the discipline they observe there. Subsequently, one can build God’s kingdom by teaching an effective chemistry class in a public school as much as by teaching theology in a Catholic one. The chemistry teacher may even make more of a difference, depending on what other models his or her students have in their lives.
Philanthropic groups, too, might think about ways to support those who feel called to teach. In higher education, the supply-demand ratio is very different from K–12 schools, but it’s still given me a firsthand look at how job insecurity and imperfect systems take away time and energy from grading and lesson prep — and how they can even push good people out of education entirely. I know a number of wonderful people who have been edged out of college teaching because there aren’t enough jobs to go around or because the jobs that exist are precarious and underpaid. Personally, I was surprised to find that earning a Ph.D. diminished my income potential, but that didn’t deter me from teaching — until my daughter was born and the calculus changed. I may yet be edged out of education myself someday.
Perhaps there’s even a way to redirect some of those surplus Ph.D.s into grade schools and high schools, where by all accounts the greatest need is for more people, always more people — more teachers, more aides, more bus drivers, more friendly faces to help out in the cafeteria, more hands and eyes and ears and kindly voices to share the work and lighten the load. It seems to me that if someone is willing to undergo the kind of ego-death necessary to work in schools today — in knowing that you may well be undermined, challenged, mistrusted, mistreated, and given the raw ingredients for moral injury by having an important job to do and too little time and support to do it — if someone is willing to take all that on, then the least we can do is to make sure that they receive a livable wage while embarking on that path of self-sacrificial love. Nothing extravagant, more like the kind of economics sanctioned by Ecclesiastes and the Lord’s Prayer — the kind that allows people to provide food and housing for their families. Increased salaries, improved benefits, and subsidized on-site childcare might be good places to start.
For those already in classrooms, there’s no need to wait for structural change to begin the work of faithful presence. If you have students to teach, a subject for them to master, and recourse to the Holy Spirit, you have everything you need to continue the work of what Hunter terms “the creation mandate” today. The creation mandate calls us to begin (like Genesis) with affirmation — with a close look at the world God created and especially the men, women, and children he made in his image, and a pronouncement that, in spite of all our brokenness, creation is still good. Marvelously, miraculously, irreplaceably good.
The creation mandate also entrusts us with the work of cultivating and keeping the created world. It’s worth noting that the creation mandate does not ask us to create anything ex nihilo. Only God can make something out of nothing (and trying to be like him is, notably, what brought exile, sin, and death into the world in the first place). In education especially, our job is not to innovate or disrupt. It’s certainly not to move fast and break things. Our job is harder than that, in that it requires humility. Educators are called to preserve and augment a tradition, and to raise up future generations who can serve as stewards and builders in their turn. Usually this means moving slowly, covering the basics. God made an ordered world, and he also gave human beings the ability to discern and comprehend this order. Mastering paragraph cohesion, or maybe even for some trigonometry, won’t necessarily get us to heaven, but insofar as it gives us practice in understanding and appreciating God’s ordered world, it might point us in the right direction.
“We cannot make a heaven on earth,” political theorist and cultural critic Russell Kirk once said, “though we may make a hell.” Recent years have certainly shown how capable we are of manufacturing hell. Redemption and restoration, when and where it comes through our cooperation with grace, will only ever come as a gift.