A Teaching Ministry: Worth the Effort

El PradoAs August draws near, my thoughts are beginning to turn once again to the new academic year. All my courses are ready and syllabi complete. I have to admit I always look forward to the fall semester. Fresh new faces showing up in the classroom, very welcome “old” faces, and the opportunity to share God’s truths make it all worthwhile.

I am privileged to be at a university like Southeastern where I have liberty to teach without censorship or threat of “re-education” training. This will be my eighth year here, and I’ve been able to develop new courses without hindrance. I doubt there are many universities where students can take a course on Ronald Reagan and modern conservatism—taught sympathetically, that is—or another entire course on Whittaker Chambers and the history of communism. In most places, I’m sure you can learn about communism, but only as a springboard for promoting radicalism:

Limber Up Cliches

Christian universities are not immune from such perspectives, but they’re not as prevalent as at other universities. Our students differ as well. When you think of the typical college student, what image comes to mind?

Familiar Refrain

Yes, we have our quota of students who don’t take their studies seriously, but we have a much higher percentage of those who seek to do God’s will through what they learn. That makes for a far better classroom environment. Not a perfect environment, by any means, particularly in a survey course where many students don’t really want to be there, but even that is part of the ministry God has given me. If I can, by the end of the semester, convince many of those apathetic students that learning history is essential for their overall understanding of life, I will feel like I’ve succeeded.

When you view your life’s work as a ministry, it stops being merely a “job” or “career.” I thank the Lord for the ministry He’s allowed me to have. This is my twenty-fifth year of teaching at the college level; sounds like it ought to be celebrated as some kind of landmark. I don’t need some special celebration, however; I celebrate each day as I receive reports from a few hundred of my former students who are now raising families and fulfilling the ministries God has given them. Those good reports make all the trials of these twenty-five years worth the effort.

Lewis on Education: Go to the Sources

C. S. Lewis with BookNot all of C. S. Lewis’s writings are explicitly Christian, yet he brings a clarity to any subject that is drawn from his Christian convictions. One of his favorite subjects, naturally, was education, since he spent a lifetime teaching and tutoring students at Oxford and Cambridge. I find this particular Lewis commentary in an essay titled “On the Reading of Old Books,” to ring true. See if you agree.

I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.

The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.

The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books of Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

In my courses, particularly in the upper-level history courses, I try as much as possible to get students to read the documents from the era and what the people of each era actually said. I don’t avoid using interpretive books also, but I seek those books that are filled with the writings of the principal actors in the history. A good interaction between the historic agents and the modern commentators is a nice mix. I think we need both, yet Lewis is correct in emphasizing the originals. They are essential, so we can judge whether the modern analysts have understood those writings correctly.

This is called real education. We should try it more; students might like it.

Obama’s Skewed View of Christian Education

Barack Obama, Michelle ObamaEarlier this week, when he was in Ireland for the first leg of his European trip, President Obama made a speech that didn’t garner a lot of attention at the time, but now part of that speech has raised some very real concerns among Christians, not only in Ireland but in the U.S. Essentially, the president criticized religious education as divisive and a contributor to violence. That’s startling to those of us who are deeply committed to providing a Biblical foundation to all learning. Here were his exact words:

Because issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity—symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others—these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it. If towns remain divided—if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs—if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.

Notice how the critique of religious schools is couched in the very real desire for peace and harmony, something everyone wants, at least on the surface. But you have to look deeper. Obama’s worldview doesn’t have room for differences; all are to be incorporated into the whole, under the wise guiding hand of the federal government. Any deviation from that would be “division.”

His wording assumes that somehow segregation and lack of opportunity in society can be traced back to religious differences. He believes that these differences lead to fear and resentment. Certainly, in history, that has sometimes been the case, but with one mere paragraph, he has tarnished all religious education. What he either fails to realize, or seeks to ignore, is that Christian education, whether via homeschooling or private schools, is a major source of strength for the country. There is no war in America between Protestant and Catholic; the only battle I see waging is between Christian faith and encroaching statism. The president’s own signature piece of legislation, which we call Obamacare, began the war by trying to force religious schools to provide contraception and abortifacient drugs in direct violation of their bedrock beliefs.

Who’s causing the division? It’s emanating from Mr. Obama himself.

Further, any objective study of the results of private education shows that students are learning more through that medium than through the government-controlled system of schools. I don’t accept the argument that government schooling is the way to go. I’ve always been disturbed by how easily our citizens, even those whose Christian beliefs should alert them, become like sheep when herded into that system. Civil government is not the Biblically ordained agency for the education of children. Parents are to take that responsibility and then decide if and how they want some of that education delegated to others. All too often, we have come dangerously close to the idea that children belong to the government.

So I oppose government-controlled education on principle. Others look mostly at the bad results. While I would like for more people to be informed on the principle, I am happy when anything attracts their attention to the woeful state of education as it exists today. On the practical level, we are failing:

Get With the Program

The bad results should make us want to reexamine our most basic concepts of how education should be carried out. Failure should lead more parents to consider the alternatives.

No, President Obama, the homeschoolers and private Christian schools in our nation are not the problem; they are the beginning of the solution.

Lewis: The Learned Life Is a Duty

For me, as a university professor, this quote from C. S. Lewis is one I would think of framing and putting on my office wall. Please don’t skip over any of it; each sentence is truly weighty, if you stop and ponder as you should. I’m particularly drawn to phrases about “good philosophy” answering “bad philosophy,” our need for an “intimate knowledge of the past” (well, I am a history professor, you know), those trendy ideas that Lewis terms “temporary fashion,” and the “nonsense” that emanates from the press. Give this one a few minutes out of your busy schedule and see if you might agree with me.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods, and that much that seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.

The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

I’ve been trying to shoulder that duty for quite some time. There are others with a greater intellect than mine; I know that without a doubt. Yet those of us who have been tapped on the shoulder by the Divine Tapper to teach must remain faithful and continue to seek His grace to work with our efforts. This is really not an onerous duty; it is a privilege.

Screwtape’s Education Formula

C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters remains one of his most admired and imaginative books. In the later editions, Lewis added a little essay called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In it, the master devil shares his insights into how to undermine the human race. One of his methods is to destroy education. If his formula sounds familiar, there might be a good reason. Here’s a portion of Screwtape’s speech at the “Annual Dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils”:

What I want to fix your attention on is the vast overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination of every kind of human excellence—moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods?

The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” . . . Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma . . . by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers—or should I say, nurses—will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time of real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

Lewis on Education

As we survey the vast wasteland of modern American education, C. S. Lewis can help us see the root of the problem. From his essay “On the Transmission of Christianity” he offers this bit of wisdom:

This very obvious fact—that each generation is taught by an earlier generation—must be kept very firmly in mind. . . . Hence the futility of many schemes for education. None can give to another what he does not possess himself. No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got. . . .

If we are sceptical, we shall teach only scepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism. . . . We shall admit that a man who knows no Greek himself cannot teach Greek to his form: but it is equally certain that a man whose mind was formed in a period of cynicism and disillusion, cannot teach hope or fortitude.

A society which is predominantly Christian will propagate Christianity through its schools: one which is not, will not. All the ministries of education in the world cannot alter this law.We have, in the long run, little either to hope or fear from government.

So, once again we come face to face with the undeniable truth that our society—government, education, and all—is only a reflection of who we are as a people, and the only way to salvage the society is to salvage individual souls first. The propagation of the gospel remains our top priority because only through relationship with God can our souls be salvaged.

Sixty-two . . . and Still Learning

Add another year to the total. As startling as it was to turn sixty two years ago, I’m just as amazed by the undeniable fact that today I’ve reached the sixty-two mark. I have a tendency to get reflective at times like this. I hope you’ll excuse me for it today because I was thinking about what I’ve learned over the years, through the good and not-so-good times. Where was I each time my age ended with a two? Here’s my review.

Age 2: I thought I might skip this one. After all, who really remembers anything from when they were two years old? Yet I have a vivid memory of seeing my grandfather sitting on the couch. He had lost one leg and used crutches. I must have been two, or no older than barely three, because he died when I was three. We never got to know each other. What does this mean to me today? Just this: I want to be around to get to know my grandchildren and be a positive influence on their lives. Whatever I can do to point them to serving God and loving Him, I want to do. Currently, I have four grandsons and one granddaughter. Two more are on the way this year—a fifth grandson and one of unknown gender at this time. Seven grandchildren by about October. May my life be a blessing to them.

Age 12: This was about the time I reluctantly realized I wasn’t going to be a Major League baseball player. An .032 average in Little League can lead one to that conclusion. It was disappointing. The Yankees were my life; Mickey Mantle was my hero. But I learned I had to move on to other goals, and it wasn’t too difficult once I put away my childish dreams. I entered junior high that year, and life was changing. It was time for a new perspective. God already had His hand on me. I know this because I was probably the only guy who actually looked forward to Saturday morning confirmation classes at my Lutheran church. Yes, life was changing.

Age 22: Married less than a year. Getting ready to graduate from college and take on my first fulltime position. Shortly after this birthday, I arrived in Portsmouth, Virginia, and began working at the Christian Broadcasting Network. I started in the television studio, but moved up shortly afterward to radio, where I became the all-night “personality.” It was a time of maturing, even though I don’t think I matured as quickly as I needed to. I had great zeal, learning Greek and beginning my study of theology. Two years later, I would be a father for the first time. A year after that, headmaster of a Christian school. All seemed right with the world.

Age 32: All was not right with the world. Well, let me rephrase that: all was not right with me. I was completing my doctoral studies at American University in Washington, D.C., not knowing it would require another six years before that dissertation would be finished. Spiritually, I was in rebellion, but God hadn’t given up on me. He was beginning to show me how void of meaning a life of study and learning can be without Him. I would begin to take those first steps back to Him, but the process would be much slower than it ought to have been, and true repentance still lay in the future.

Age 42: Spiritual restoration was now in the past, and I was a professor in a Christian university. The students voted me Professor of the Year, yet my tenure at the university was not assured. I had to learn a greater depth of trust in the Lord’s provision. The struggles of that year led, ultimately, to a call to another university, where I could teach at the graduate level. I began to believe more than ever that the Lord does open and close doors, and all I had to do was rest in His leading.

Age 52: At my third institution of Christian higher education. The students were a joy to teach, but I was again undergoing a test. Had I missed God’s calling? Why did it have to be so hard? How many ways can I be misunderstood by those in authority over me? Lord, what am I supposed to do? Those were the constant questions that plagued my thoughts. At age 52, things were looking a little bleak. Yet, as I learned soon after, God hadn’t deserted me, no matter how I felt at times. He was still the God who opens new doors.

Age 62: It’s been a rough couple of years as my wife has gone through cancer treatments and surgery after surgery. I’ve been there with her all the way, and the Lord is teaching me what it means to love—in ways I never thought I would have to learn. The cancer storm has subsided for now; my position at my fourth Christian university seems secure; the joy of teaching has not abated. There is purpose in life through Him, and even if circumstances change for the worse, I would be the most dense student ever if I began to doubt His care now. He has proven Himself over and over with each succeeding decade. The lesson: rest in God’s love and draw strength from His seemingly endless supply of grace.

That’s my review. Those are the things I’ve learned at these various stages of life. Whether I have another decade of learning is in His hands. If not, I can say with the apostle Paul, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”