by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
September 7, 2009 - Tomorrow President Barack Obama will address many of the nation’s public school children in an address that generated a firestorm of media attention well before its release. The brouhaha was predictably partisan: Republicans fearful of executive abuse of power – raising concerns of socialist indoctrination, and indignant Democrats filled with moral outrage – wondering how anyone can quibble with a pep talk.
Sadly, the bickering in the blogosphere impedes the prospect of deeper reflection about the text of the President’s speech. It turns out that both the Democrats and the Republicans were right – at least by half. By and large, the President’s remarks are a pep talk for K-12 students. And in a moment in our nation’s history when an exceedingly high dropout rate still plagues historically disadvantaged minorities, one should not devalue the potentially inspirational effect this speech will have coming from the first African-American President. At the same time, motivational speeches, by their very nature, are not ideologically neutral. (Try to imagine being motivated by one that was!) Thus, even if they were chasing the wrong stick, the Republican hounds were not entirely mistaken in raising the possibility that the speech would be tossed from the President’s own ideological front porch.
Whether it’s his front porch or not, Christians should think carefully about the architecture of the one from which the President will be speaking tomorrow. At face value, the remarks are innocuous. Stay in school; set goals; be responsible, etc. It appears to be the stuff to which only a partisan crank would object. But a reflective student (or parent) will consider not merely imperatives, but the grounds on which those admonitions are based as well. In short, “Why?” What is the point of education?
Here the President’s remarks are suggestive, not definitive. Still, the overtones are clear enough. One goes to/stays in school for the sake of self and country. (Interestingly, in the order of chronology, self comes first; though arguably country is first in the order of priority.) This is a philosophy of education according to which learning is an instrument of consumer desire. “If I want X (fill in . . . success, fame, wealth, or a specific career), I must do Y.” To be sure, the President’s talk does not articulate a crassly consumer-driven view of education’s purpose. After all, the desires of the individual are subjugated to the demands of the collective: “Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.” Still, the justification for education rises no higher than either individual or national wish-fulfillment.
Caution is called for here. No citizen of good will would deny the value of an educated citizenry in a nation with an economy and political structure such as ours. But Christians necessarily possess divided allegiances. The phrase “God and country” captures priority, not merely conjunction. And a speech in which the former is entirely absent leaves one wondering whether the latter is meant to command ultimate allegiance – at least as far as education is concerned.
A distinctly Christian philosophy of education is rooted neither in unbridled nationalism nor in free-market consumerism. For the Christian, the love of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom are – in themselves – an expression of worship of the triune God in whose image human beings are made. When one “quits” (i.e., refuses to seek knowledge and wisdom) it may very well be a form of self-destruction. It may even result in the loss of goods that would otherwise have been bestowed upon some people or nation. But that is not – as the President’s speech clearly suggests – the ultimate point.
To refuse to cultivate one’s intellectual gifts is to hate the Giver. But it does not follow from this that one must “stay in (public) school.” For there might be circumstances in which the love of God requires desertion of country.
As the Apostle Paul pointed out in I Corinthians 1, such a view of education in relationship to the state is “foolishness” to those “who are perishing.” For the latter, the polis commands our highest allegiance, if not worship. But Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and to God’s the things which are God’s.” A student’s vocation – the natural terminus of formal education – is God’s gift. Thus, it is not, contrary to President Obama, owed to the state. It is rather to be rendered to God. For it is only in serving God first that the state can be served properly at all. Education for “self and country” is nothing more than idolatry.