First published 4/23/2014
There may be no surer footing for Christian fidelity and simplicity than Jesus' formula for putting God first: "But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides" (Matthew 6:33). As the nation fusses and frets over state standards, Common Core, and regaining our competitive edge internationally in education, let's consider applying the Kingdom-first ethic to curriculum--knowing that when Jesus makes a promise, He keeps it. If He promises that putting God first will sustain all our human endeavors, then curriculum and standards should be no exception.
The fist step, then, in creating effective educational standards and curriculum, is to make education God-centered rather than state-centered/economic-centered. This is not to say that we need to bring up the old debates over prayer in schools. Prayer in schools would be the effect of a properly designed curriculum, emerging naturally from a focus on God and the works of God in the world. No matter how well-intentioned our vocational fixation in education is, it does not work. One must be oriented in one's design and purpose in order to discover the gifts with which God has endowed one for the exercise of earthly dominion. Put more simply, our children will not be motivated to pursue success in vocation until and unless they understand what they are, their purpose for existence, and the divine ordering of creation to the glory of God.
As it is now, students overwhelmingly think of education as nothing more than a means of gaining entry into college, which itself has become little more than job training. They are trained to see their purpose as primarily economic--to provide for one's survival and the survival of the state. This mistaken orientation falls somewhere between Communism and slavery; that is, "I exist only to work, and I work only to survive and fulfill my economic responsibility to the collective." It should not surprise us that an educational system founded on the live-to-work ethic is less than inspiring and motivating to our youth. Why would one apply oneself heartily to success if there is no guiding principle behind it?
We work because God gave us work in order to perfect ourselves and glorify Him. Our earthly dominion is a gift that allows us to transform what God has given us into a gift that can be offered back to God. Work allows us to reciprocate God's loving provision. Education exists to enlighten students as to who they are--children of God in God's image and likeness, and their role in accomplishing God's plan for their lives and the world--dominion and vocation. That is inspiring.
Getting to these truths is a matter of integrating the glory of God with the discovery of truth, goodness, and beauty. If all truth redounds to God, then there is no such thing as a subject that does not reveal Him. When we present subjects as compartmentalized vocational specialties, we ignore the universality of God. God pervades and unites all knowledge, scientific, literary, technological, artistic--everything. Tell all but the most motivated, scientific-minded, student to study higher level Math and Science so he can get a job in an increasingly technological job market, and he'll trudge through the formal requirements of the curriculum like a zombie. Show him how higher level Math and Science reveal the glory of God and the mysteries of creation, and he'll study them intrinsically out of love for the powerful truths that they are. In the process, he might discover that he's more of a scientist than he thought. If he, someday, goes into a humanities (rather than science) field, he may apply scientific thinking to create new, cross-discipline advances.
How we developed the notion that studying the divine mysteries present in subjects like Math and Science, detracts from their utility is an enigma. Extracting the utility of Math and Science, and technical subjects like computers and engineering, is the fruit of engaging these subjects on a deeper, more philosophical basis. To see God's hand in these subjects only deepens one's interest in them so that they can be understood in context and used effectively to accomplish God's will. Can one build a new smartphone, flatscreen TV, or manufacturing process to God's glory? If you are a Christian, you must answer, yes. We are the salt and light of the world, called to bring God into every nook and cranny of human existence. If a student, conscientious of God's calling and plan, wants technology to serve God, then that student will learn about technology all the more so that the technology can be ordered to a divine and humane purpose.
Thus far, our focus has been on Math, Science, and technology as disciplines acutely subject to educational utilitarianism. When economics is the prevailing value behind education, it is only natural that schools would place greater emphasis on whatever currently drives the economy. Right now, the driver is technology, which puts Math and Science front and center in our curricula. Hence the heightened focus today on STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and Common Core's fixation with "informational texts."
Left by the wayside are the humanities, which have always existed to shed light on the nature and purpose of humanity and human enterprises. The humanities exist to provide a humane context to our undertakings. Understanding the human implications of Math, Science, and Technology is essential to inspiring our creative energies and ordering our creations to our perfective end as children of God. Every time we answer the perennial student question, "Why do we have to learn about literature (or psychology, art, music, or history) unless we're going into that career field?" glibly with something like, "Because even if you're not going into that you'll still need to be able to read and write," we do a disservice to education. Wouldn't it be inspiring if every teacher were to answer that question with something more like, "We study these subjects because they help us to understand who we are, our purpose, and God's working in our lives and the world...now let me show you what I mean"?
This has been the task of classical Christian education for centuries. In classical education, every subject at every level is treated as an integral piece of God's natural revelation. Everything is treated for goodness, truth, and beauty, which inhere in God perfectly. A great work of art is as valuable as a great scientific theorem. A great work of heroism in history is treated as valuable as a great invention. A moving poem is treated as valuable as a useful Mathematical operation. The arts and sciences are considered one. To understand the physical mechanics of astronomy without the poetic beauty of outerspace would only be half an education. We would be deprived if we studied the stars without studying the human impulse to strap ourselves to flaming rockets in order to get closer to them.
Today's overspecialized, technical, vocational education cuts out the human principle of education. Students are reduced to cogs with predetermined economic niches determined by testing. In this sense, education has become a machine, and curricula like Common Core, along with its dependency on standardized testing, have become little more than programming instructions. If the debate over Common Core and standardized testing has awakened a sense of outrage in parents, it is because parents want their children to be treated as the unique persons they know them to be. As primary educators of their children, parents would like to see schools treat their kids as they treat them, beloved individuals given to us by an all-knowing Creator.
Kingdom-first curriculum unfolds God's presence and plan in every form of knowledge. God is the reason we learn, and so educational lessons should always proceed from a desire to understand God and the human beings He created in His image. Learning what we need to know about all subjects, including those that might not immediately seem to pertain to God and human nature, will come about as the fruit of divine wisdom. After all, God promised us this much--that seeking Him will produce all that we need besides.