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a man and a boy skiing in the snow

The Community of Education

Peter Mommsen

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  • Paul Garrison

    Schools do not teach children how to become "self-fulfilled individualists." The opposite is actually the case. Each day at work, I see the one unmistakable lesson taught: conformity. From the spirit weeks, assemblies, home coming courts, bell schedules, lunch lines, one size fits all curriculum, etc. students are taught how to exist as part of the mass. Their "individual" tastes, being programmed by advertisement since birth, have been molded into pre-designed choices. Their lives, well worn ruts, the American Dream, are decided well before birth. All talk of individualism is propaganda. The beauty and challenged of the Bruderhof is not its communalism, but that its members somehow broke free from the social conditioning to choose as individuals their own course. Kierkegaard said it best in Provocations, " God in heaven does not talk to us as to an assembly; he speaks to each individually. This is why the most ruinous evasion of all is to be hidden away in a herd in an attempt to escape God’s personal address." Schools like society are *designed* to force us to lose our individual humanity so we can fit, neatly, into people types in order to allow marketers, politicians and technicians to make mathematically, precise, master plans.

“What’s the point of school?” It’s a question my son is doubtless the several-billionth schoolboy to ask when told to park his soccer ball and start his homework. There’s a stock set of responses parents tend to repeat at such moments. But the question remains unsettled, even two centuries after the Prussians invented compulsory education.

Schools are a mirror of our society as a whole; what we want for schools makes plain what and whom we value in our common life. For example, the Prussian idea of what a school is for – to mold the populace to serve the state – seems foreign to today’s liberal democracy. In vogue, instead, are slogans like acquiring marketable skills and realizing your full potential.

a man and a boy skiing in the snow

Photograph by Alexey Ruban

Such slogans reflect two main ideas. The first is that a school should prepare a child for the job market: the goal is “student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness,” in the words of the US Department of Education. The second is that a school should aid a child to become a self-fulfilled individualist – a “leader and catalyst” who is “empowered” to “pursue your passion” (to pick a few common catch phrases from university brochures).

These ideas powerfully shape our culture, thanks not least to their influence in the Silicon Valley worldview we live and breathe. Both boil down, ultimately, to pursuing one supreme value: individual success in a competitive world. What’s not said is that this kind of success comes at someone else’s expense. By definition, not everyone can be above average. Despite its invocations of creativity and diversity, for much of humanity the creed of Tech Age meritocracy is a bleak and merciless one.

Fortunately, these aren’t the only ideas out there, as a rewarding new book by Alan Jacobs reminds us. In The Year of Our Lord 1943 Jacobs describes how, during World War II, a network of Christian thinkers including Simone Weil, C. S. Lewis, and Jacques Maritain imagined what post-war society should look like. They focused especially on schools.

One of them, the poet W. H. Auden, was a schoolteacher himself. In his 1943 talk “Vocation and Society,” he appealed to his fellow educators to focus on the spiritual element of education. This meant helping students discover their vocation – a life-defining task they know they must do, even at the cost of suffering. Most people, distracted by earning and spending, never find such a vocation. But educators, said Auden, must strive to “make a sense of vocation the normal instead of the exceptional thing.”

In the Christian tradition, the life of discipleship is also a school. In this educational community, under the instruction of our one Teacher, we learn not to seek empowerment, but to find strength in weakness; not to out-achieve others, but to serve them; not to pursue our passion, but to obey a call. That, after all, is the message of Christ’s incarnation as a vulnerable human baby, the great mystery we celebrate each year at Christmas.

Contributed By Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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