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.