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Common Core and Uncommon Gutenberg

A bit of a storm is blowing—no longer brewing but now blowing—across the country about the top-down education program known as “Common Core” that originated with the federal Department of Education and is now being implemented all across the country. Things got particularly hot last Friday (11/15) when Secretary Arne Duncan tried to downplay opposition to Common Core and marginalize detractors by saying that “white suburban moms” whose kids can’t meet the program standards are the ones leading the charge in opposition.

 

 

That prompted one of those moms, Ali Gordon, to write an open letter which found its way into a Washington Post blog. Both Duncan’s comments and Gordon’s letter illustrate much that is wrong with a government regulated approach to education which has large monetary strings attached. It is those national regulations and the attached strings that we at Gutenberg College struggle with all the time. Our national accreditation brings those things into play, but to avoid additional strings, we don’t take any federal money at all for scholarships or for any other reason.

Secretary Duncan’s response to the firestorm sets the table nicely for what is at issue. He says, “I have not been shy in letting the country know the enormous value of the state-led movement to prepare young people for college and careers.” What happened to “parent-led” or “school-district-led” or even “citywide”? The further that any government-type program gets from the individual and the local level, the more problematic it can be, as a “one size fits all” approach forces countless numbers of sizes and types into the same small box.

Gordon, the accused “white suburban housewife,” starts off by observing that she does not fit the profile of an anti-government conspiracy theorist. Rather, she characterizes herself as a “Progressive, bleeding heart liberal” who voted twice for President Obama, contributed to and volunteered for his campaign, and took her family to D.C. to celebrate both of the President’s inaugurations. Now that’s commitment!

After listing many more of her “credentials” for having good reason to speak out against Common Core, including her election to her local school district board, Gordon makes her first point. Stating that she does not necessarily oppose over arching standards, she does object to them being handed down from above and adopted locally primarily because of the large amounts of money that are conditioned upon adoption. And she further objects to standards that don’t necessarily adapt well to students with particular needs and concerns, like her fifth-grade epileptic daughter.

Gordon goes on to state that she objects very strongly to standards which force development of curriculum that is not developmentally appropriate. Another Washington Post blog post on the subject of Common Core from January of this year contains this quote from a childhood educator at the University of Hawaii: “The people who wrote these standards do not appear to have any background in child development or early childhood education.” So unless all children are as precocious as were mine and all of yours, that means that the early standards are quite unreachable for many, perhaps most kids.

Then Gordon raises the issue of excessive standardized testing that eats up the time and resources that would be better used in actually teaching—to say nothing of the well known practice of “teaching to the test” that too narrowly focuses what goes on in a classroom. A focus primarily on testing and results will likely end with an atmosphere where students (with their individual personalities, learning styles, and needs) will get lost in the educational shuffle.

Next Gordon makes this very telling critique: “I’m also opposed to the 1%—Bill Gates, et al—imposing a business model mentality on public schools.” There is a tendency in our society today to try to reduce all activities and practices to exercises in technical expertise or in the implementation of successful business principles. While we at Gutenberg are neither Luddites nor Occupiers, we recognize some of the limitations and problems with an approach that doesn’t necessarily take into account the uniqueness of our ethos, our biblical convictions, and our individual students (who certainly don’t come out of a cookie-cutter mold). Even in our little corner of the educational world, we run into any number of strings, overt or not, attached to money that might come our way.

There’s more in Gordon’s letter. That woman is one momma bear that I wouldn’t want to mess with. She goes on to talk about a number of specific ways that Common Core is being implemented and is not working out in the state of New York. But I think you get the point.

This issue gives me the chance to talk about many of the things that I appreciate so much about Gutenberg. I can’t imagine a college or university in which the individual student gets more individual attention and interest. Soon after admission, the tutors and staff have begun to truly know and understand the individual student and are thus better positioned to be able to help the student get the most out of his or her education—academically but also philosophically, morally, and spiritually.

And seldom have I been around a group of people more committed to doing what they believe is right. They will not compromise their principles regardless of where that request for compromise is coming from—national standards for higher education, monied interests, theological arbiters, or any other source. They will gently and humbly pursue that which they believe to be the calling of God in the way that things are done at Gutenberg.

Those are the things that have elicited from me a love for and commitment to Gutenberg College.

 

“Exorcist” Author Identifies What’s Demonic

OK, I admit it. I get distracted from time to time by the headlines that pop up on my screen. I’m sure that never happens to anyone else, but, to my eternal shame, it happens to me from time to time. So here it is Halloween morning, and the Washington Post publishes a story about William Peter Blatty who forty years ago wrote the Exorcist, a story about demon possession.

Now personally, I don’t do horror stories. And I absolutely, positively, definitively, and incontrovertibly don’t do horror movies. I am the proverbial scaredy-cat when it comes to horror movies. Never been to one and never plan to go to one. (Zombieland doesn’t count.) But you simply couldn’t have been alive forty years ago and over the age of eight and not have been aware of Blatty’s book and, a couple of years later, the movie by the same name. They defined a generation of horror.

So I admit it, I read the Washington Post article, and I found an interesting nugget at the end. Blatty graduated from Georgetown University but has taken issue with his alma mater because of its lurch into secularism. The university is ostensibly Catholic and, more particularly, Jesuit. I have often thought that if any long academic tradition aligns fairly closely with Gutenberg, it would be that of Jesuit colleges and universities. So I thought it interesting that they are having such a discussion.

The final straw for Blatty was Georgetown’s inviting Kathleen Sebelius to be a commencement speaker last year. Sebelius is an outspoken advocate of abortion, both personally and in her capacity as secretary of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Affordable Care Act (more commonly known as “Obamacare”) with its requirement that even religious organizations must provide for abortions in their health insurance plans. Since the Catholic church opposes abortion, Blatty is suggesting that the church should either bring Georgetown back into conformity with Catholic teachings or cut its ties to the university. The Washington Post interviewer writes that Blatty, “his voice trembling,” described “in graphic detail” a particularly grisly abortion procedure and then said, “That’s demonic!”

We see again how far modern day academia has drifted from any moorings in helping students to understand and embrace a moral framework in concert with that of the Creator God of the universe. Secularism currently rules the day.

 

Too Much for a Headstone, But…

From time to time, my darlin’ wife finds a book that captivates her so much that she wants everyone to read it. And, as I neatly fit into the category of “everyone,” I try to oblige. The book is often a bit different than what I find on my own reading list, but so far she has never disappointed me with her suggestions.

A few weeks ago she was quite insistent that I read Guernica by Dave Boling. And since it was close to our 35th anniversary and I wanted to do something especially nice for her, I brought the book on a summer vacation trip we had.

I don’t know about you, but it usually takes me at least a couple of dozen pages to get into a new book. For the first few chapters, it is up in the air as to whether the book will languish for months or years on my bedside table or if it will become a constant companion for a few days until I can finish it. Much to my literary embarrassment, I still haven’t gotten to that “constant companion” point with Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I’ve been feeling such guilt about that for years, and now I’m so glad to have gotten that off my chest. But I digress.

Guernica started to captivate me when I ran across an early description of a character that will figure prominently in the rest of the book. She is a sixteen-year-old girl, the daughter of the first character we meet in the book, and she is growing up in a small Basque town in the first half of the twentieth century. Here is the introduction to the author’s description that inspired and motivated me:

Had there been reason for the citizens of Guernica to hold a referendum on the most popular person in the village, Miren Ansotegui would have won without competition. She was only sixteen, but she seemed to encourage people to take part in her youth rather than give them reason to be jealous of it. She reminded them how life looked before it became so complicated.

It was more than the way she floated through the streets of town, so lean and loose limbed, her black braid a pendulum swinging from one hip to the other with each stride. More appealing was her knack for disarming people, for drawing them near, as if initiating them into her own club of the unrelentingly well intended.

There was no trick to it beyond good nature. As she spread warm greetings to everyone she passed, she uncannily inquired about that single portion of their lives that made them most proud. She always opened a gate to somewhere they each wished to go. And then she listened.

The novel then goes on to recount examples of Miren’s interactions with people that allow them to feel loved and encouraged and given the opportunity to pass that on to their own family and neighbors.

I wish that could be said about me and my relationships: “He initiated them into his own club of the unrelentingly well intended. He always opened a gate to somewhere they each wished to go. And then he listened.”

 

Losing Sight of the Essentials

My good friend Allen forwarded me an article, “Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Soldiers Under Fire,” from the Wall Street Journal (August 9, 2013).

I confess that I am not an expert on Israeli culture or on the practices and convictions of contemporary Israeli Judaism, but I find that I am quite interested in the ultra-Orthodox community (the Haredim) in Israel. My interest is primarily because of the conflict going on in that country and in that community right now about the role and privileges of the Haredim. When the nation of Israel was reconstituted, the Haredim, very small in number at that time, were given a very special place in society. They were exempted from military service (which was quite a sacrifice on the part of a nation under constant attack), and they were supported wholly by the state because it was thought that the ultra-Orthodox could maintain the religious studies and the religious culture that would provide a small measure of balance in what was in fact the very secular nation of Israel. That special treatment worked well in the beginning when it involved fewer than a thousand people. Today, however, there are closer to a million Haredim, and they are increasingly viewed as a burden on Israeli society rather than a blessing. Thus a movement is underway to revoke many of their special protections and to change their societal status to something much closer to that of the rest of Israelis in the country.

An interesting development over the last few years has been the tremendous leadership that a small group of ultra-Orthodox Israelis have shown in the military in that oft-besieged country. I would imagine that has been an encouragement to most Israelis, but in their own community, amongst the Haredim, those soldiers are despised and attacked—even physically, according to the article my friend sent me—because their involvement in the secular society is seen as a betrayal of their commitment to the study of the religious writings.

It struck me that there are unfortunate parallels between their experience and that which is seen so often in our conservative Christian communities. Too often a culture, with all of its extra-Biblical beliefs and traditions and practices, takes on a life of its own that supersedes and even supplants the original plans and purposes of God.

After reading the article my friend Allen sent me, I responded with a few comments. Here is the gist of what I told him:

I am very interested in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and especially the changes over the last several years. Obviously I am speaking largely in ignorance of contemporary Israeli Judaism but with at least a little bit of awareness of historical Judaism as expressed in the Tanakh.

My most basic theology is this: God’s work in the world is all of one piece from creation until now. I believe that His consideration has always been for those who recognize that God is, acknowledge their own failings, and cry out to God for mercy. He will respond with grace to those who cry out for mercy. And He will judge those who shake their fist at Him in rebellion. Originally that relationship was expressed primarily to the Jews, but it was not limited to the Jews. Gentiles who cried out for mercy received mercy, and Jews who shook their fist at God were judged accordingly. That this was true for Gentiles as well as for Jews was clarified with Jesus, but the basic “rules” remained the same: mercy for those who cry out to God and judgment for those who turn away from God. That is my context.

From that context, it seems to me that the actions of the ultra-Orthodox Jews in attacking ultra-Orthodox soldiers are puzzling. I would guess that the attackers consider the commands of God to be clear on the issue of being separate from the affairs of the state, but my take on it would be different. Since my authority is with the written Scriptures (both Old and New Testaments) and not with commentaries on the Scriptures (either rabbinic or Christian), I would be hard pressed to make the case that the Haredim would use to justify violence against these ultra-Orthodox soldiers. The Haredim don’t seem to be arguing that the soldiers are behaving unrighteously in fulfilling their soldierly responsibilities but rather that they have involved themselves in the secular culture as opposed to standing apart from it. That is where the religious cultural issues come into play. For the Haredim, complete separation from the secular Israeli society is so important that they will beat those soldiers who have engaged with that secular society.

It is just so very easy for us to lose sight of the essentials of what true righteousness and pursuit of God is all about and to focus time and emotional energy on those things which not only are not constructive but which are often contrary to the plans and purposes of God—all in the name of maintaining our own particular system of orthodoxy.

 

Essential Education

It has always been clear to me that Gutenberg strives to impart a moral education that is sorely lacking in today’s colleges and universities. In wrestling with the “big questions”—those that humans have always struggled to answer—a Gutenberg student is challenged to come to grips with questions of truth, morality, and the most fundamental of all: Does God exist, and what claims, if any, might He have on my life?

Increasingly, however, it is not simply the content of a Gutenberg education but the very nature of a Gutenberg education that is shown to be critically important in this fast paced and changing 21st century. Gutenberg’s “great books” education focuses on learning to read difficult literature with understanding, to discuss that material respectfully with other divergent personalities, and then to communicate briefly and clearly the interplay of different ideas. Those are the very skills that today’s marketplace increasingly demands.

Justin Pope and Didi Tang of the Associated Press expressed these thoughts recently in an article titled “Post-Recession, Higher Ed Paths Diverge,” which has appeared in a number of different formats and publications. Slightly different versions of the article (from which I will quote) appear at http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/ap-impact-post-recession-higher-ed-paths-diverge-19473716#.UdGcMeAxd4F and http://www.tuscaloosanews.com/article/20130624/NEWS/130629894/1291/sports?p=7&tc=pg.

In their articles, the authors contrast two colleges in China, where education has traditionally been very narrowly geared toward specific job training characterized by “rote learning, hyper-specialization, and a lock-step course of study for all.” They note that this type of higher education—essentially vocational training—has been the norm in the entire world outside of the United States.

But the economic meltdown of the last decade, the pace at which technology (and thus job skill sets) has changed, and the huge amount of unemployment have forced people outside of old career fields. In light of those changes, the authors have found that advocates of broader learning around the world “hear employers demanding the ‘soft skills’—communication, critical thinking and working with diverse groups—that broad-based learning more effectively instills. These advocates argue their countries need job-creators, not just job-fillers. They think the biggest innovations come from well-rounded graduates.” What these employers are demanding is what I see modeled five days a week, nine months a year in Gutenberg’s classrooms.

Interestingly, the article notes that at the very time that the rest of the world is seeing the limitations of college as vocational training, America’s education power structure is turning away from the liberal arts and toward that which elsewhere is being rejected: “In the United States…higher education’s focus is shifting to getting students that first job in a still-shaky economy.” Note that the authors say “first job.” But how many of us are still in the same field as our first job or perhaps anything close to it? And how many of us are working in the same area in which we studied?

In America, broad-based learning and the liberal arts and sciences are losing favor with students and politicians because, say the authors, “Tuition is so high and the lingering economic distress so great that an education not directly tied to an occupation is increasingly seen as a luxury.” The article notes that fully 25 percent of today’s college students are studying business in one form or another. Yet, in their next paragraph, the authors note, “Elsewhere in the world there is a growing emphasis on broader learning as an economic necessity.” Yes, “an economic necessity.”

Oddly enough, while American politicians (who really like to be able to measure and quantify things—something very difficult to do when it comes to learning to think and communicate well) and schools are moving away from the liberal arts without quite recognizing what they are seeking, employers are asking for those very skills that Gutenberg graduates have in abundance: “A recent employer survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities [AAC&U] found 93 percent [of employers] reported that the capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems were more important than undergraduate majors.” AAC&U president Carol Geary Schneider says,“Employers are saying to us ‘we don’t want to hire people who have been locked into mental cubicles.’ The best way to be locked into a mental cubicle is to study only one subject and look at it only from a particular point of view.”

I wish that our prospective students and their parents could hear what American employers are saying and also what the Chinese have learned the hard way. “China does not teach you how to communicate,” says Peng Hongbin, founder in 2007 of Yuanjing Academy, a new experiment in China that offers students a broad array of subjects. “For a country to innovate, to be creative, it needs imagination, not a knowledge and know-how from a specific field of study.”

Enter Gutenberg College…

 

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