Educating with a religious focus, while well-intentioned, often emphasizes the wrong things.
Just as I was considering the marriage of technology, reading, and education, it occurred to me how often in the early years of our homeschooling journey I wasted money on what is regarded by many Christians as excellent educational curriculum. Judging by the number of books these curriculum producers sell, a lot of people love them.
Over our past 7 years of home education, I’ve dabbled with Sonlight’s curriculum; rudimentary. A beka; hated it. Bob Jones; blech. Most I bought used, so we didn’t take a major monetary hit on them, but I didn’t really like them. For the longest time, it was hard for me to figure out why.
Until we enrolled in our current academic program, a classical one which relies heavily on The Well-Trained Mind and Circe Institute for its educational philosophy, I never found a comprehensive Christian curriculum that worked for us. The only one I like and continue to use is Apologia science.
Recently it occurred to me why I prefer The Well Trained Mind, and Circe in particular. It’s because they are not contrived. They don’t make up poorly written, “Christian friendly” books with the intent of cocooning students. Our kids read real literature, from real books. Books with competing world views and different religious traditions, books where the hero is often not the good Christian hero. Peter Pan is one example; Taro from The Samurai’s Tale another. Teachers converse with the students, walking through the ideas, allowing them to think, compare and contrast what they are reading with what we believe.
If there is one thing that Christian homeschool curriculum developers get wrong (we’ll start with just this one), it’s that in their zeal to impress a Christian “worldview” onto the student, they take away the very thing the kids need in order to bolster their faith: the chance to wrestle with it.
As if on cue, Joshua Gibbs, of whom I am quickly becoming an intellectual groupie, penned his thoughts on what classical educators can learn from stand-up comedians. His entire piece is well worth the few minutes it will take to read it, but about halfway through he explains why much of what is offered in the way of Christian comedy and satire falls woefully short:
When I bring up stand-up comedy, someone invariably says to me, “I love stand-up comedy. Have you seen Brian Regan? He’s good, and his stuff is clean, too.” I do not find Brian Regan funny. I am skeptical of anyone who thinks a comedian worthy of acclaim simply because his routine is not vulgar. While I have no special fondness for dirty jokes, I do believe that comedy is simply a kind of offense— a very controlled offense shared between friends. Brian Regan’s material might be clean, but it is also too friendly, too safe, and accordingly banal. Good comedy is an insult which a man longs to hear. There is an anarchy to good comedy which suggests the poor are being given bowling pin-sized turkey legs to eat and the rich are being sent away with fistfuls of Cheerios. Comedy marvels at the dual nature of man— immortal spirit, farting body— for comedy always involves the juxtaposition of high and low, friendship and shame, dignity and embarrassment. The punchline to the oldest joke in the book is a mockery of man’s desire to overthink and over-intellectualize everything. To get to the other side. Comedy employs laughter to fill the chasm between high and low. Laughter is a bridge.
For this reason, there is usually an element of danger in good comedy, for every joke the comedian tells has three potential victims: himself, his audience, and all mankind. The best comedians are metaphysicians, for in minutely observing their own words and deeds, they can determine which of their sins are universal. We laugh (in fear) at the audacity of a man who confesses the finest nuances of his selfishness, his ignorance, and his laziness, for, in laughing, we are admitting we have done the same, and that we have no defense for our actions. Good comedy is “high-wire truth-telling,” as Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen once put it. The laughter of the audience is a veil which both conceals and reveals they are complicit in everything the comedian confesses.
Clean comedians (at least the ones who market themselves that way) are rarely willing to genuinely insult anyone, and their audiences laugh as though they are being skewered when they are actually getting off scot-free. In the first several months The Babylon Bee was up and running, the satirical news site ran a dozen stories with headlines like, “Local Calvinist Drinks Dark Beer and Has Beard,” as though this was really sticking it to those bearded, dark beer-loving Calvinists out there. It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out the writers were Calvinists themselves, and somewhat squeamish at that. If The Bee had opened with stories about Presbyterians trading exclusive rights to the Epistle of St. James to Roman Catholics in exchange for Matt Walsh and half a dozen of the more savage Flannery O’Connor stories, it would have been a different story— but that’s someone else’s joke to make. To their credit, over the last year The Babylon Bee has proven willing to test the thickness of readers’ skin. Comedy proves human community is built on something other than flattery, but this means comedy is necessarily confrontational. When I am finished watching a stand-up special, I want the same feeling of self-awareness which attends an anxiety-inducing, no holds barred sermon. Brian Regan joking about the phonetic pronunciation of “phonics” just doesn’t cut it.
We’ve discussed here before the limitations of explicitly Christian entertainment which I believe are rooted in the fact that Christians shouldn’t be about producing entertainment. Today however, I am considering something different. Namely, how the admirable desire to protect our students can shield them to the point of defenseless when taken too far, as it often is.
I am fully aware that a classical approach to education isn’t the right fit for every student, family, or school. But I do believe that an education which fails to offer its students the opportunity to question and think deeply fails the student.
For what it’s worth, secular government education doesn’t do any better job of helping students think either. In fact, they are the worst offenders. There is far more to helping someone learn to think than repeatedly telling them that their parents’ views are wrong.