By Craig B. Anderson
The rhetoric of educational reform is all too familiar – calls for adequate school funding, concern over declining test scores, impending teacher shortages, growing grade inflation, the need for curriculum revision to address poor student performance, the failure of educators to provide a “moral compass” for students.
Politicians, as well as educators, make much ado about the need for such reform in education. And yet, after elections, the enthusiasm wanes while the rhetoric continues in blaming others for failing to provide the needed reform. A certain irony attends such rhetoric; citing the youth of our nation as our most valuable natural resource, little is invested and the returns are discouragingly poor.
Beyond the rhetoric of reform, there is a deeper educational crisis in our country evidenced by the growth of home schooling, charter schools, and increased enrollment in independent and religious schools. This deeper crisis is all the more pronounced, given our insecurity born of political instability as a nation and terrorism fueled by religious fanaticism. Corporate corruption in the form of greed, shattered trust in the institutional church owing to sexual abuse, exacerbate the problem. Moral relativism and political correctness obscure the needed reform. From whence is our help to come?
Allow me to be boldly presumptuous. The answer, I think, is to be found in religious schools in general and Episcopal schools in particular. In the face of ongoing concern for the reform of education in our country, I do not think it is accidental that Episcopal schools are growing rapidly, have long waiting lists for admission, enjoy a good reputation, and offer an alternative to what some would perceive as godless, secular education on the one hand and a growth of fundamentalist, for the most part anti-intellectual, religious schools on the other. Episcopal schools have in common a recognition that education should go beyond the imparting of information and knowledge to a deeper wisdom – education that values the of the life and the life of the spirit; education that promotes intellectual growth, character formation, spiritual development, and moral discourse.
A little more than a year ago, a provocative article appeared in The New York Times Magazine regarding the need for educational reform but with a different twist. The answer to educational reform, according to the author, is not curriculum but community. The essence of the article pointed out that the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. school experience, if not supported by what happens after 3 within the broader community, has no chance of succeeding. The author called on the community to exercise responsibility for the nurture and care for children after school as well as during the school hours. I found the article to be not only insightful but also inspirational in developing a symposium and providing a new way of thinking about the nature and mission of Episcopal schools.
Last June, St. Paul’s School, Concord, N.H., held a symposium, “Community and Character: the Spiritual Formation of Young People.” More than 70 schools from around the world were represented by school heads, trustees, teachers and students. I was struck by the common recognition that our calling as Anglican schools is not only to equip young men and women to be thoughtful critics of the culture and provide leadership through service grounded in a deepened spirituality and moral conviction, but the need for our schools to address the larger problems of educational reform.
In short, we recognize that our mission was not only to those committed to our charge and care as students, but also included the call for our schools to be models for the formation of character and the teaching of virtue – models that could be translated and replicated in other environments given a common commitment to the education of the whole person to include a deepened sense of spirituality, and a respect for other religious traditions.
Our conversations confirmed my belief that much of the violence, destruction, and warfare that we bemoan in our present time is owing to religious intolerance. Most conflicts throughout the ages have been grounded in religious difference to include the current and ongoing tensions from Bosnia to Belfast, from Jerusalem to Iraq. As such, the teaching of religion needs to be a part of every curriculum; not only the academic study of religion, but a deeper recognition of how the transcendent is identified in our lives and how faith, religious faith, governs our actions and undergirds the rules, contracts, and policies of any and all governments and cultures.
Religious schools need to reclaim, if it has been abandoned, their religious heritage, teach and practice religion in a way that moves students and faculty to a deeper understanding and knowledge of what we call wisdom, a sapientia that informs our habits of the heart, soul, mind, and spirit – a habitus resulting in a paidea that leads to a wisdom that is the goal of all education.
I am increasingly convinced that the vocation of Episcopal schools is to teach, in the words of St. Jerome, “those things on earth the knowledge of which continues in heaven.”
The New York Times article also helped me to rethink the nature and mission of Episcopal schools. It strikes me that Episcopal schools function like monastic communities.
Episcopal schools are informed by an approach to education that is funded by either an explicit or implicit “rule of life” revealed in the mission statements, policies, and norms of the institutions.
Such formation is four-fold, beginning with conforming one’s will to the school’s purpose, beliefs, values, standards, and norms to include a conformity to academic integrity, intellectual honesty, moral purpose, and ethical behavior. Such conformity leads to and prepares one for a second element, being informed through a process resulting in knowledge yielding understanding, and finally embodied as wisdom. Many schools feel that these two moments of formation are sufficient unto the day. I would add that most Episcopal schools strive for two other aspects of formation – a reforming of the individual to be a moral agent, responsible citizen, and person of spiritual depth committed to servant leadership. Such reformation leads potentially to the transformation of individuals and societies in service to others for the common good.
Finally, a caution needs to be identified. While monastic communities are counter-cultural especially in times when the culture is corrupt or at least morally relativistic, they do not intend an escape from society or a retreat from communal engagement and responsibility. Quite the opposite is true. Monastic communities, by their very nature, are places where persons are prepared or better “formed” to go out into the community to bring about a just society. Such is the higher calling for Episcopal schools – to make a difference not only in the lives of individual students, but to make a difference in society itself. The key to such reform yielding transformation is the willingness and ability of our schools to raise up servant leaders who are not only intelligent and talented, but leaders who know the difference between right and wrong and good and evil, and the resolve to act on such knowledge and wisdom. In short, ministry.
The Rt. Rev. Craig B. Anderson is the head of St. Paul’s School in Concord, N. H.
The Living Church – February 16, 2003