As part of the OACS News series on the crossroads facing culture and the role of Christian education in these turning-points, we have interviewed James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
What’s the crossroads you see our culture facing today?
In some ways I think we’re at the crossroads between the future and the past, and you could say the crossroads between tradition and innovation.
But I think that’s a mistake; I think that tradition gives us resources to be innovative in the future.
So that crossroads is kind of a good thing.
I think the other crossroad we’re at is realizing education isn’t just about information; it’s about formation.
It’s not just about the dissemination of ideas and knowledge; it’s actually about making persons and building character.
And once you realize that, what’s at stake in education is ramped up, because now you realize that even education that pretends to be neutral or secular is always going to be formative and is fostering some vision of character. The question is which.
I think that entails a new critique of public education but also a new way of embracing Christian education.
Out of what would you say these turning points are arising?
I think part of this new crossroads arises for those communities that have been immigrant and ethnic communities but have now been here long enough that they are undergoing the dynamics of assimilation.
So they have to ask themselves anew, why do we value Christian education?
Is it just because that’s what we’ve done, and do we want to throw off tradition? Or can they actually re-appropriate Christian education in their contemporary context?
So I think that’s one impetus for these tensions and crossroads.
I think the other is just that the vision of the good life that is associated with public education seems to be increasingly at odds with a Christian vision of the good life.
I think maybe for a long time the sort of character formation that people might have gotten in public schools would have been traditional, conservative and so on.
But that has changed; I think the processes of secularization have really changed the kind of character that is fostered by public education.
What kinds of responses could Christian schools be making?
Two things come to mind. First of all, I think Christian schools need to re-articulate the importance and rationale for Christian education.
I don’t think it’s enough to say we need to protect our heritage, or this is what we’ve always done.
I think we need to positively re-articulate the rationale for Christian education for new generations.
And that positive re-articulation of the rationale for Christian education can’t just be anti-public. It can’t just be, “This is what we’re against.” It has to be a positive vision.
Secondly, I think that positive vision needs to come with a very holistic vision of how Christian education forms the whole person for the sake of being ambassadors of the kingdom for the common good.
So that this isn’t just about an education that is protective or preserving or guarding.
It is actually about an education that prepares ambassadors of the coming kingdom who then go and serve their neighbours, serve the common good, serve the public.
One of the themes that’s brilliant coming out of the Cardus education survey is that Christian education is a public education in the sense that it’s equipping students who then go out and serve the wider public. So it’s not private education in that it’s just education for the tribe; it’s an education that forms the people of God to then be public witnesses contributing to the common good.
I think that’s an important theme for us to both appreciate and get the word out.
Are you seeing schools taking the lead in this or making some headway, schools that could be examples already?
I’ll give you one example: Northern Michigan Christian School is in McBain, Michigan.
It’s a small Christian school in a fairly rural community but has sort of embraced this character-forming holistic vision, and that’s impacting how they articulate the value of Christian education, but it’s also impacting their pedagogy.
So one of the principals there who also teaches science, Dirk Walhout, has developed curriculum where there is a garden and farm on the campus of the school and students are invited to do active learning where they are able to embrace a Christian worldview of creation care and stewardship and so on, alongside inviting them into spiritual disciplines and practices.
So it’s like this full-bodied educational experience, not just depositing ideas into intellectual receptacles.
And they’re just starting to scratch the surface, but I think it’s an exciting example of what this could look like.
What’s your commitment to working with schools to help them find their place in this set of cultural dynamics we’ve been discussing?
I teach at a Christian college and I think it’s the responsibility of those of us in Christian higher education as much as possible to resource those in Christian K to 12 education.
And so as much as I can, I accept invitations at Christian educators conferences and write in that direction.
I would want K to 12 Christian educators to know that there are scholars and professors in higher education who want to partner and be a resource.
The other exciting news is I’m taking over as editor of a magazine called Comment magazine, which is a publication of Cardus, a think tank concerned with the role of faith in society. One of its foci is also Christian education, so I’m going to try and foster writing and publishing things that will, I hope, be a resource for Christian educators.