Educating Whole People: A New ‘Common Core’

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Author Rev. Ginna Bairby
Author Rev. Ginna Bairby

Do you have a teacher story?

It seems to me that most people do. Many of us, when asked, can easily recall a story of a mentor figure who encountered us at just the right moment in our lives, the teacher who taught us a lesson much more important and profound than algebra or adverbs. The adult who invested in us when we were children, who looked at us and saw not only who we were but who we would become – and who cherished both.

I know I certainly have a teacher story; honestly, I have several. From English teachers who taught me not only how to write but how to find my voice to Spanish teachers who gave me confidence to use that voice even in a foreign tongue to music teachers who helped discover the deepest form of expression within myself, I have a long list of teachers to thank for who and where I am today.

The teacher story may not be a universal phenomenon in society today, but it’s definitely a cultural narrative to which we assign a great deal of value. One has only to look to Hollywood and movies like Dead Poets Society, Coach Carter, Music of the Heart, and so many more, to see evidence of our societal belief in and our cultural fascination with teachers that truly transform the lives of their students – and who, in doing so, often going far above and beyond their technical job descriptions.

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Many of us can easily recall a story of a mentor figure who encountered us at just the right moment in our lives, the teacher who taught us a lesson much more important and profound than algebra or adverbs.
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Photo Credit: Ray Roberts
Photo Credit: Ray Roberts

Over the last month, as I have been developing this issue of Unbound, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting with others on the purpose of education. We’ve sat down together and wrestled with questions not only of how we educate, but also of why. What do we educate for? What do we want children to gain, learn, take from their educational experience?

Listen to a sampling of the answers I’ve heard: We educate for reconciliation, for wholeness, for shalom. We educate for citizenship – for public engagement and moral formation. We educate to gain understanding and appreciation of ourselves, others, and the world around us. We educate for human dignity and for cultural awareness, understanding, and literacy. We educate to build peace.

How’s that for a new “common core”?

Forgive me, I don’t mean to be flippant. I do believe that inherent in all of these answers is the assumption that we also educate for a certain intellectual and technical capabilities that will help a student “make it” in life. Many have discussed the need for education that allows students to gain the basic knowledge and skills that will prepare them for the working world. But it seems from the conversations I’ve had recently that many if not most people believe that an education that stops there is woefully inadequate.

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The purpose of education not merely information, but transformation.
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What has continued to come up is the need for education of the whole child – the whole person. Holistic education that attends to not only the mind, but also to the body, through physical education and health classes. That teaches not only marketable skills but life skills – practical, interpersonal, intellectual, and moral. Education that doesn’t demand that all students fit into a one-size-fits-all strategy, but rather values the differences among students in learning styles, cultures, and gifts. An approach to education that acknowledges the underlying factors in students’ lives that contribute to or detract from their educational experience. An educational system that acknowledges that its students do not all come from a level playing field.

Loving Our Neighbors 2010 PolicyI can’t say any more on this subject without acknowledging that I am very aware that I speak from a place of extreme privilege when it comes to education. I am a young woman with both a Bachelor’s degree (hearken back to our last issue for a minute – I’m a bachelor? Really?) and a Master’s degree. I can’t give thanks that my own education did not stop at workforce readiness without acknowledging that many schools in my own country – in my own city – lack the resources to provide even adequate preparation for students to join the workforce. And finally, I can’t take an honest look at justice in education without naming that the reason my educational experience was of such a high quality has to do with where I came out in the “birth lottery” – white, wealthy family, able to live in a school district with high-quality public schools.

I think it goes without saying, as people of faith, that the system as it stands is unacceptable. Many among us, myself included, will rightfully advocate for the quality of our public schools. But, as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 2010 social witness policy on education, Loving Our Neighbors: Equity and Quality in Public Education will remind us, quality is nothing without equity.

Many of our authors in this issue will take up these subjects, both the struggles for justice in our current educational systems and the theological foundations of why this is so particularly problematic for us as Christians.

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I think it goes without saying, as people of faith, that the system as it stands is unacceptable.
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At its 221st General Assembly last summer, the PC(USA) adopted a new campaign called “Educate a Child, Transform the World.” This campaign is still very much in the early stages of implementation, and authors in this issue will be able to speak to it in more detail than I can here. At the bare minimum, it will include both a national and an international component, and it will draw on the Reformed Theology’s emphasis on the need for access to quality education that dates back to John Calvin himself. Succinctly put, belief in education is part of Presbyterian DNA.

Hands Reaching ShutterstockI like the name of this initiative because it reminds me of a basic principle that has been at the foundation of the discussions surrounding this issue of Unbound: That the purpose of education not merely information, but transformation.

Of course, the “Educate a Child, Transform the World” campaign leaves out a few of the steps in the middle, but I think we can imagine what’s implied. “Educate a Child, Transform a Child” – or help that child come to believe that he or she even can be transformed. “Transform Enough Children, Transform a Community.” “Transform Enough Communities, Transform the World.”

Perhaps I’ve missed a few steps as well. Regardless, it starts with each individual child. This sort of thinking is not particularly new to us – it’s at the foundation of many Christian traditions. Transformed people, we believe, can’t help but participate in the transformation of the world.

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Transformed people, we believe, can’t help but participate in the transformation of the world. However, transformational education remains a privilege that not all in our country or in our world are able to access.
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Shutterstock TutoringHowever, as it stands, transformational education remains a privilege that not all in our country or in our world are able to access. Authors in the “Strategies and Solutions” section of this issue will look at ways that individuals, congregations, and the Church as a whole have sought to change this. The methods vary: from direct intervention for students falling through the current systems’ cracks to establishing separate schools for those whom have educational systems are currently failing to advocating to reform – to transform – the educational systems and institutions themselves.

There are a lot of faithful people doing this work, whether they are educators, administrators, legislators, advocates, parents, or simply concerned citizens who have taken seriously Jesus’ words about loving our neighbors. They are ready to make a change.

So, I suppose, the question comes back to us. Will we allow ourselves, our communities, and our educational system to be transformed?

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Read more articles in this issue: Pedagogy for the Distressed!

Read more articles from this section, “Setting the Stage.”

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