Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quick - what do you expect I will address in this post? Will it be (yet another) deep and theoretical English lesson? A keen spiritual insight, perhaps taken from Augustine again? Are you skimming this post, getting a quick "Czecherboarding news fix" and then back to your daily life, or are you preparing to read deeply and enjoy this post? Either way, your expectations for the post are already setting your attitude towards reading it and even the way you do read it.

Lately, I have been alerted in a new way to the power of expectations. As a teacher, I have been told that my expectations for students will actually affect their performance in the class, that having low expectations for them produces correspondingly low grades. Maybe I don't call them "stupid" (let's hope I don't!), but if I start thinking, "they're not college material", or "they're just not writers, you know?" - well, then, they'll act like that. Already in my classes I've taken steps to ward against low expectations. On Monday, I met my classes for the first time and told them that I had high expectations for them - and, more importantly, that I knew they could fulfill these expectations. On Tuesday, I noticed that only about one-third of my students had submitted their Introduction Quiz (ungraded) and caught myself subconsciously lowering my expectations. Oops. Better keep those expectations high, I tell myself.

English aside, however, I have been thinking about another set of expectations: the expectations for believers raising support for overseas ministry. Eight months ago, I hoped to leave for the Czech Republic in August. I expected to raise my full support - as most of you know, more than $2000 / month - in time to go this fall. Rather idealistic, of course, but I personally knew people who had raised support in a similar amount of time and so hoped that my own experience would be no different. My experience was obviously quite different - in part due, perhaps, to other expectations.

At the same time as I began raising support, I began paying more attention to others who were doing the same thing - and I noticed the startlingly-long amounts of time required. One family has spent 3 years raising support, another 4 - and neither is quite finished. More discouraging still, a third family devoted two years to raising support, gained fifty percent - and then decided that (given the lack of finances and their budding family) they could no longer remain in full-time missions. And I wondered, Will this be me in three years? Will I be raising support forever . . . or even have to quit? A scary thought, indeed.

I think perhaps that in recession-bound America today there is an expectation for missions support: that most missionaries will require two years (and even more) to raise sufficient funds before they can depart. It's normal, we tell ourselves, and it can even be a period of great spiritual encouragement and growth. Certainly it can, but it can also be physically and emotionally grueling and delay important ministries overseas or here in the US. For missions schools, the expectation of a two- or three-year deptuation is even more difficult. A school is, of course, responsible for normal ministry demands: bringing glory to Christ and introducing others to Him. A school, however, is also responsible for educational demands: providing its students a consistent education that will serve them will as they go on to a job or to college. In order to uphold this responsibility, the schools require missionary teachers - such as myself - and when the teachers cannot come for the school year, there is a gap in the school's ministry.

The situation for schools, then, stands like this: although most of us expect missionaries to take 2-3 years or more to raise support, a school has great difficulty in waiting that long for its teachers to arrive. Imagine a woman applying to be your child's new high-school English teacher. Perhaps they're a great teacher, perhaps they graduated with all As from college and excelled in their student teaching and have a body of stellar references. However good this woman is, she could not tell the school, I really want to work for you, but I can't be there for another two years. The school would say, Forget it! and hire somebody else. In my situation, there are classes that I was scheduled to teach that now require a long-term substitute (usually a student's parent, from what I understand) because I was not able to raise enough support to go. As you think and pray for me, then, please do not picture me arriving in Prague in 2012 or 2013. Picture me instead leaving this January, which is when I would like to leave if I raise the requisite support. My support is currently still at 41%. I need another $1300 / month before I can leave.

If I am expecting to leave in January, will I go? Perhaps. I intend to work that way (I have several contacts to follow up on this week, and more to work towards in the coming weeks - please pray!) For now, that's all I can say. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

As a teacher, I thought I would devote today's space to an pedagogical hot topic: the valedictorian who called in her speech for educational freedom, ideologically, from exterior control. Most of us, at first glance, assume this sounds great. After all, we believers are vastly outnumbered in the public sector these days, our political and religious stances all too often help up to public scorn. Her ideas, however, overlook one of the fundamental roles of education: to train students in the beliefs and traditions (for my philosophical readers, the metanarratives) of their community - whether social or religious.

For those of you unfamiliar with the speech, the valedictorian Erica Goldson writes here that the educational system in which she grew up does not challenge its students intellectually; it does not even train its students in practical skills. According to Erica, the foundational emphasis of contemporary education is that students are "are trained to ace every standardized test. " As students take tests (and more tests, and more tests), they develop not into free-thinking adults but into "great test-takers". At the bottom of all this is "an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated" and, ideologically, instills in its students "the inhuman nonsense of . . . materialism". What Erica sees in high-school education is not an intellectual challenge or practical life preparation but an ideological threat, in which students are taught to work for money and "to mindlessly accept other opinions as truth.".

So far, the deepest problem with Erica's speech is its rather hysterical tone and exaggerated claims. A valedictorian speech need not be an academic paper, and the over-the-top tone is - as many commenters have pointed out - quite typical of an 18-year-old writer. The real problem comes in Erica's solution. In favour of a Big-Brother style educational bureaucracy, she supports an educational system that strives to support its students in a personal quest for "the uniqueness that lies inside each of us" - a quest that signals the ideological emptiness underlying Erica's vision. In postmodern America, the central worldview is this: that reality is not objective but subjective - created and recreated, defined and redefined by every individual. Metanarrative (the attempt to explain the world on a large scale) is replaced by personal narratives scripted by every single individual, each of which is just as true as the next. It is these personal narratives that Erica demands the public school system uphold.

Here, Erica's argument falls short. A strong education is not one that simply releases its students into a freewheeling intellectual experience but guides their thinking along established thought, acquainting them with community traditions and beliefs and within this framework allowing them freedom to develop as thinkers. It is all well and good to argue that students should be made completely free, intellectually, but the truth is that each and every student (however much Erica ignores it) is already bound to the confines of a communal worldview. Is the student a feminist Democrat? A Goth? A traditional Muslim? Each of these identities bears a worldview as strong as the corporate one that Erica seeks to avoid, or the Christian one that many educational leaders today seek to avoid. For a teacher, then, it is impossible to entirely release students; they will never create their own worldview but will choose succeeding political and religious ones - right or wrong. The goal is simply to guide them to the point of decision. For a Christian educator, the goal is even greater: to guide the student to the point where they are able to independently choose to belong to the intellectual community of Christians.

Of course, this responsibility does not require students to "shut down" their mind nor slavishly accept every doctrine that their Christian teachers and leaders foist at them. As Milton reminds us, a "fugitive and cloistered virtue" unexposed to alternative points of view is no virtue at all, and an intellect sheltered from other opinions and beliefs is non-intellectual. A Christian thinker can challlenge ideas and form strong personal opinions as freely as anyone. Indeed, intellectual growth is crucial to spiritual growth, which requires that the believer "be transformed by the renewing of [the] mind." The key word here is "renewing": the reshaping of the mind to better understand and uphold a biblical worldview, the only correct worldview. As long as students will accept some worldview, as long as they are searching for a worldview, we as teachers must guide them towards the narratives of Christianity. There alone can students experience a breadth and a richness of thought, discovering in the end not their own "uniqueness" but Truth itself.