4th September 2011

“Time to Learn”. (Proverbs 24).

There is a flurry of activity going on all around the country. Bank accounts are being emptied as parents buy school uniforms, games equipment and stationery. Children are studying walking routes and bus timetables as they prepare to start at a new school, or else they are at last picking up the books they were meant to read during the holidays. Site managers and builders are being chivvied to finish off kitchen renovations and roof repairs. Teachers are putting all thought of holiday beaches behind them and looking through their class lists and schemes of work. Even youth leaders and Junior Church leaders are getting ready to enter the fray once more. For it’s that time of year again – the beginning of the academic year. And, for many of us, that means an end to the free-flowing days of summer and a return to our normal daily routines. Some parents might even be grateful!

So what is school for? Most of us would give the obvious reply: it’s for education. But, of course, that only begs a further question: what actually is education? And this is far more difficult to answer. For do we see our schools and colleges as places where students learn a set of facts, a corpus of knowledge? Are they places for teaching skills which will be useful for future employers? Should they aim to inculcate certain values which we would think are central to a civilised society? Or is it most important that they teach young people to question and think independently? These are questions worth asking – and their answers will give us different criteria for deciding what kind of education can be deemed “successful”. We may not feel that emerging from the system with a sheaf of certificates under one’s arm is the most important outcome – or we may feel that it is vital.

I went onto the Internet and did a search for quotes about the aims and values of education. Quite the worst came from Don Berg, an American who describes himself as a “teacher-entrepreneur”; he defines education as “a process of cognitive cartography, mapping your experiences and finding a variety of reliable routes to optimal states when you find yourself in non-optimal states”. No, I don’t know what he means, either! In the Victorian period Charles Dickens, who was a great campaigner in the cause of education, saw it as a means of social reform by rewarding honesty, giving encouragement to good, stimulating the idle, and eradicating evil. Fifty years later Oscar Wilde merely quipped that education “produces no effect whatsoever”, except perhaps for “making one rogue cleverer than another”!

Jean Piaget, the great Swiss philosopher whose effects on education have been profound, saw education both in terms of the individual and society. Not only did he write, “The principal goal of education is to create people who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done” but he also claimed that, “only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual”. Finally I’d like to quote Maria Montessori, the Italian and Catholic educator whose approach has had a huge effect on the teaching of small children; she said, “Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world”.

It becomes clear that many of the people that I’ve quoted regarded education as more than the learning of facts and the gaining of skills, important as these things are. It’s also true that many people (especially politicians) are quick to blame modern education – or its supposed deficiencies – as the root cause for many of our society’s ills (that’s an opinion, by the way, that I simply don’t agree with). And so the question I’d like to ask this morning, at the start of this academic year, is this: is there a specifically Christian view on the subject?

To do this, we’ll first need to go back to Jesus’ own time. The education of Jewish children – which, in practice, meant instruction in the Old Testament laws – was traditionally the responsibility of parents, following the injunction of Deuteronomy 6 which tells them to “Impress (them) upon your children”. This theme is taken up in Proverbs 3, which says, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your mind retain my commandments; for they will bestow on you length of days, years of life and well-being”. However more formal schools were well-established by the time of Jesus, with children beginning to study the Law at the age of 5 or 6. But this was far closer to the Koranic or Muslim schools we see in Britain today than to the wide-ranging education of a modern secular school. Subjects like mathematics, geography and science were simply not taught.

But Jesus was brought up in a multicultural society, and he might also have been familiar with Roman education, even though he never experienced it. For education was very important to the Romans; even the poorest children – the boys, that is – learned to read, write and calculate. On the other hand schools were often curtained-off spaces at the back of a shop, school-masters were slaves and discipline in the classroom was harsh and no debate was tolerated. This basic education was highly practical and aimed to instill a sense of duty into the pupils. Only richer families could afford to take their children further into the realms of literature, philosophy and public speaking.

Finally, we need to take a glimpse of Greek education, which was probably the finest in the ancient world. Unlike the Roman model, which was intensely pragmatic or practical, Greek schooling sought to develop individuals to the highest possible level, not only filling them with knowledge but also ensuring they functioned perfectly within society. At its height the classical Greek system of education included gymnastics, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, music, mathematics, geography, natural history, astronomy and the physical sciences, the history of society and ethics, and philosophy. It was the complete course of study necessary to produce a well-rounded and fully-formed citizen – so much more than the Romans “3 Rs”.

Well, all this might sound interesting, but what could an education based on specifically Christian values look like? I’ve come up with a bit of a check-list which you might wish to think about – it doesn’t claim to be in any way comprehensive, nor come in any specific order.

- First, I believe that education should encourage a spirit of enquiry about the wonderful world that God has given to us. In other words, it certainly should include knowledge-based subjects such as geography and science – after all it was this thirst for knowledge about the divine creation was what inspired some of the greatest early scientists such as Isaac Newton. There is no contradiction between science and faith.

- Second, and linked to this, I believe that education should aim to develop our intellects, our abilities to wonder and to question and to think issues through. This is where I would strongly disagree with those folk who see education purely in terms of learning a set of facts and then regurgitating them in examinations, which seems a somewhat pointless exercise. Yes, we do need to learn facts about history and science and geography; but I believe we must also learn to think about them in a rational and thoughtful way. After all, God has given us minds and I am sure he expects us to use them.

- Thirdly, I believe that education should develop our practical gifts and talents. We do need to learn skills for living and working – even Adam and Eve had to learn how to tend their Garden to the best effect! More important, perhaps, I strongly believe that each person has been created with their unique palette of talents which should be used for the good of society and for their own self-fulfilment. A good education should seek to nurture every individual, however unusual or “different” they may be; it is not in the business of turning out identical sausages or clones, methodically drilled to pass exams.

- To continue, I also think that education should encourage people to be creative – which means that it needs to spend time on the more artistic subjects of the curriculum. Human beings, unlike any other creature, have been given a wonderful the ability to create – an ability, I believe, which we inherit from God himself. Any education which stifles that creativity must, by definition, be an inadequate education.

- And there is more. I think an education should attempt to instill some moral values for life, although one might well argue that that is the responsibility of parents rather than a school’s. In any case, this is not going to be easy, for we live in a society which has no shared moral consensus. That means that a secular school cannot base its teaching on the Bible – although, in practice, there are many Biblical values still underpinning our society; it also means that young people, growing up, are going to ask “why” this should be considered right or wrong. Those are questions which we would not wish to ignore.

- I would also want to suggest that education is a shared activity in which people learn to function well within society. After all, God created us as social creatures, with the power to talk, to share, to help and to love; we were not created to be isolated individuals. And we might want to think of a school, with its timetables, curriculum and rules, as a microcosm of wider society, a training ground where young people can learn to work together (with adults!) before being released into the big wide world.

- And the final point in my list is to say that education should nurture a sense of the spiritual realm. By that, I don’t just mean that its students should learn about the religions of the world (although I do think that that is a good thing). And I most certainly don’t mean that students should have to suffer terminal boredom through a series of lengthy chapel services and assemblies, guaranteed to inoculate their victims against religion for the rest of their lives! But if education can instil in young people a realisation that there is more to live than just eating, sleeping, working, enjoyment and reproduction, that there is in fact a whole other dimension of existence that we may only sense infrequently, then it will have done those young people a service.

I am coming towards the end; but, whether you agree or disagree with my analysis, you might be asking a valid question, which is this: “You’ve been talking about the education of children and young people. But what has any of this to do with me? I left school many years ago and I’m not going to go back to the classroom now!” Clearly, for most of us, that is not a silly question at all.

In  response, may I take you back to something that our last Government very much championed, not because I want to make a political point but because I think it is important. They talked about “continuing education”, education which can go on throughout our whole lives. In the Government’s context, this was all about going on courses or retraining for a different job when one is in one’s forties of fifties; but I would push the idea further than that. For I would want to insist that we can all continue to learn throughout our entire lives, and that it is good to do so. For we can learn about the world and about science from the television or the newspaper. We can learn about human nature through the encounters we have with other people. And we can continue to read our Bibles and pray and so reflect upon God himself. After all, he is so much greater than we are that there is always something new we can discover about him.

And that brings me to my final challenge. You may have children or grandchildren you are seeking to encourage through the educational system. You yourself may soon be entering some course of training or study, either because you want to or because it’s part of your job. That’s fine. But may I challenge each of us to take very seriously the challenge of learning more about God and our faith. It seems to me that, in every church, there are people whose faith has never developed beyond what they learned in Sunday School, whose idea of Christianity is still essentially that of a ten-year old. My friends, that is simply not good enough. We need to be people who are moving forward from a childish faith to an adult one, a faith which brings Christ into the intricate problems and difficulties of our world. We need to listen to the sermons, study the Bible, read Christian literature, do some hard thinking, and pray for understanding.

God still has a great deal to teach us: about the faith, the world, our Christian service, and about himself. Perhaps today will be the beginning of a year in which each one of us, however old or young, knuckles down to some solid and thoughtful learning.