Teacher Training: Questions and Reflections

Last week I found myself at the Rockbridge Academy annual teacher training in Annapolis (actually Millersville), Maryland. You can read my notes from each day here: IntroductionDay 1,
Day 2Day 3, and Planning the First Weeks of School.

The training was excellent; an absolute glut of good info.

Whenever I go to an event like this where I receive lots of input I inevitably find myself spending a lot of time reacting to that input, asking questions and developing my own ideas, both critical and complimentary.

Here are some of those thoughts and questions laid down. These are the questions I either did not get a chance to ask or that I refrained from asking for fear of seeming too polemical. I completely acknowledge it is unfair of me to put these questions out there without giving the school a chance to respond, especially since a lot of my thoughts/questions can seem antagonistic in their motivation. So, let me try to do some preemptive damage control:

1. All of these questions/issues pertain to the Christian Classical Education movement as a whole and not to Rockbridge alone. Put another way, my questions, while direct reactions to ideas put forth at the Rockbridge teacher training, have been fomenting for quite some time regarding Classical Education as a movement and ideology.  

2. Many of these questions need to be asked as part of a long conversation. Although I had lots of good conversations during my week there, these questions in particular need to be answered in the context of a dialogue. I would love to do a podcast interview with the teachers and administrators at Rockbridge. That was just not possible though, for various reasons.

3. I don't exactly feel like equals to the people at Rockbridge, especially the administrators. They have all accomplished so much at their school I don't even feel like I'm in the same realm as them, although, if given the time and resources, I would feel very much the peer to many of the teachers there. This deficit is all imagined on my part and borne of my own self-consciousness and not because I was treated poorly (everyone there was wonderful to me!). Basically, I don't want to become a thorn in their side, a pesky Midwestern headmaster stirring up trouble--even though I actually do want a little bit of trouble, otherwise I wouldn't be putting these questions out there at all. Nonetheless, I'm going to ask my questions like the cowardly writer that I am, hiding in the shadows of the blogosphere, and hold out for that longer dialogue/interview someday.

Also, I should say I have another post coming later this week with 2 big challenges I see facing Classical Education as a movement, two issues which are not addressed in this post.

An initial introductory observation: 
I found myself wanting to be challenged, so instead of going to the big picture and philosophical lectures, which is how I'm wired anyway, I went to a few of the more detail oriented and practical lectures, like "Educating the Sexes" and "The First Two Weeks of Grammar School". I recommend this approach in general life.

A response to a comment headmaster Michael McKenna said in his introductory lecture on Classical Christian Education:
Mr. McKenna said something to the effect of: "Judge not, lest ye be judged." This, and not John 3:16, is now the most popular scripture verse in America. In our culture we're taught to appreciate everything. No, as Christians we are taught to be likeminded and seek unity, and then we are taught to turn a discerning eye to our culture's art and ideas and we must then learn to think antithetically. All art is not created equal. Our likemindedness should create equally uniform art.

While I would certainly agree we must be vigilant discerners of art and ideas I do not believe this should lead to uniformity in our expressions. I believe, drawing entirely from the work of theologian Jeremy Begbie in his essay "Sound Mix" in the volume Beholding the Glory, that the motto of the Church is the opposite of the motto of the United States: instead of e pluribus unum (out of many, one) the motto of the Church is e unibus pluram (out of one, many). Or, more accurately put, those who were once a disparate and damaged many have become a united one, and having been so united and subsequently redeemed and transformed are now freed to become a beautiful and diverse united many.

Let me explain, again, drawing from Begbie. Like a 3-note harmonious chord, we are to seek diversity within unity. We are all united in Christ and out of that flows many melodies and rhythms. It's a paradox for sure, but we need to be willing to embrace that tension and not give in to the tendency to explain the mystery away. Even the Trinity itself contains this paradox, where God is multiple in his simplicity, diverse in his uniformity.

United and likeminded? For sure. But uniform? No way. The pursuit of truth might be necessarily limited to certain strictures but surely the pursuit of beauty is much more broad. This paradoxical approach is a strange way of living and moving forward, for we simultaneously embrace and reject. Everyone is a child of God and should be “accepted” and “appreciated” accordingly, and yet we continually find ourselves in conflicts, either in how we choose to live or in the various contradictory ideas and beliefs we choose to hold. We embrace each other as united in Christ but we continually challenge each other to change and become more like him. I believe it is possible to “appreciate” each other even as we think antithetically about our ideas and the way we live.

Here is the main problem I see in emphasizing uniform artistic expressions or in claiming one type of art is superior over another type: during my week at the teacher training a kind of absolute standard for art and beauty kept being talked about, but it seems to me the standard (the measuring stick) everyone was using is traditional white European culture. In today's world I do not see how we can maintain such a myopic understanding of art and culture. There is not just one kind of art or one kind of music. There are arts and musics. This does not mean we refuse to be critical but it does mean we may have to reserve our initial judgment when a work does not fit into our accepted Western (white) paradigms. The world is no longer monolithic. Indeed, it never was. If Jesus is Lord of all then he is Lord of Javanese Gamalan music and Japanese Kabooki theater, even if those expressions are not necessarily Godly or lack truth and goodness. But surely we can find elements of beauty within them?

It is very possible I misheard and/or misinterpreted Mr. McKenna's thoughts on art, which is why a long conversation (on my podcast!) someday would be highly beneficial.

One other note, related to the section on art above:
Michael McKenna derided hip-hop as an artform. I have a suggestion. Somewhere, somehow we need to have a seminar with a proper analysis of hip-hop. He certainly does not have to like the music, but he does not seem to be denying its artistic merit based on prolonged knowledge and experience but simply from an initial reaction. I know there have been plenty of discussions about hip-hop over the past few decades, but I think it would be a lot of fun to have one specifically within the Classical Education universe.

And now for the questions, and perhaps the real controversy:
1. On creationism vs. evolution: Are there any Classical schools that teach evolution as a valid scientific theory of the progression of life on earth (that is, on "theistic evolution")? Or are there schools that teach the possible validity of both creationism and evolution alongside each other? Is this against ACCS policy? (the Association of Classical and Christian Schools) 

I should note, I do not fall down on either side of this issue. I consider myself a bit of an agnostic when it comes to the age of the universe or how life did or did not "evolve". I'm basically overwhelmed by the arguments on both sides and haven't had time to catch up with it all since I studied it more closely in my youth. I certainly long for the truth in this important issue, but there is only so much time in a given week...

So, the question still stands: do any schools teach positively about the "theory of evolution" and would they be allowed to do so within the ACCS?

2. On "service projects": In the rat race that is “Getting into the best college and then getting the best job afterward” into which we willingly throw our kids, what types of programs does Rockbridge and other schools have that teach students to truly serve the least of these with their entire lives and not just for some weekend service project endured simply so that it'll look good on a college entrance application? How do we make service and mission part of the identity of our Christian young people and not a work to be be checked off on a list to assuage our guilt (as parents, teachers, and students)?

3. On boy/girl differences and the gay and LGBT issue: After attending a seminar on how to teach the sexes according, it would seem to me they haven't properly learned how to address the possibility of having LGBT children/young adults in their school. In attempting to define gender/sexuality Biblically (which I would fully agree with them is the basis for what we believe and how we live as Christians) they have in turn created a seemingly impenetrable monolithic understanding of gender/sexuality. The incredible beauty and complexity of God's intention in creating us male and female seemed to be explained away all too easily, settling for the easily boxed in gender-stereotypes (e.g., boys like war and sports, girls like being relational and taking care of the homefront). My question this time is a little different: have you considered looking at this issue a little more deeply in order to understand the complexity of it all?

They also seem very averse to the more general “gay agenda” that is affecting our culture. While acknowledging this is certainly a powerful cultural force that has become a thorn in the side the American Church and of Christian schools,  I am far more interested in individual young people who are struggling with these issues themselves and how we as schools can help them and their families. Have they had to deal with a child “coming out” or a student who has gender confusion? I am wearied by the culture wars as well, but I desperately care about our kids who are struggling. The Church and the schools who operate under it can no longer treat these people as if they have a sin in their lives they haven't dealt with yet. To quote the Arcade Fire song "We Exist", which is specifically about this issue: "Oh daddy don't turn away/you know that I'm so scared/but will you watch me drown/you know we're going nowhere...What are you so afraid to lose?" (For a great conversation happening surrounding the Church and LGBT issues I recommend this website: http://spiritualfriendship.org/

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