A few weeks ago, a junior at a independent Baptist Christian high school in Vermont was suspended for the remainder of the school year because of an essay. His paper (which avoided topics on the teacher’s “banned topics” list) challenged the school’s dress code rules as ineffective and inconsistent. Citing a yearlong attitude of “rebellion,” the school board chose to suspend him because this was a ‘last straw’ moment of bad attitude.
The incident rapidly hit the blogosphere, especially among ex-Fundamentalists, and later caught the attention of the local FOX News affiliate in the school’s town. Outraged supporters of the student founded a Facebook pagecalling for the school to “do right” and apologize. A few days ago, the church leadership surprised the school community by announcing that the school would close its high school at the end of the school year, naming low enrollment as the cause.
Having taught for a decade, I can sympathize with beleaguered educators like the people at Trinity. I’ve encountered plenty of folks who don’t comprehend the mission of NCS, leading them to badly misunderstand what we do or misrepresent us to others (sometimes with the best of intentions). To teach is to invite criticism and often condemnation.
On the other hand, the student raises a major question for school life. What about the rules? Should schools arbitrarily set policies without input from students? Is is disrespectful to question or reject those rules? Can questioning become “rebellion”?
I started thinking about how I’d handle a challenging student in my classroom at NCS. This is a good test case for Grace-based education. Our theology reveals itself most clearly when someone has the nerve to challenge it.
I’ve become a lot less defensive as I’ve grown in personal maturity. Defensiveness is a mark of insecurity, which ought to be a trait of immaturity. Scripture doesn’t present Yahweh as a defensive authority figure. God doesn’t “earn” credibility or respect from us; He deserves it by default. His dealings with humans are incomprehensibly gracious (the overwhelming theme of the Old Testament stories). I’d like to suggest that godly authority is patient enough to allow for critique and challenge, even when the challenger cops a nasty attitude.
Truth is a Person — Jesus Christ (Jn 14:6). I’m not responsible to save people or convince them on an intellectual level of biblical truth. The Holy Spirit illuminates minds and the Father draws people to the salvation won by the Son through his vicarious sacrifice. That’s a freeing set of principles, believe me.
In Milton’s great treatise against ineffectual censorship, the Areopagitica, he famously writes that Truth, on an open field, will always win the battle. I tell my students, “Never be afraid to ask hard questions. If what you believe is actually the Truth, it can handle any challenge you throw at it.” (And a corollary for parents: Calm down. Smart kids question a lot of beliefs. Trust the Covenant promises and believe that God is at work in your kids, especially when they are skeptical.)
Why do so many adults react badly to being challenged?
Is it because we have blindly bought into a system of thought without doing the intellectual or spiritual heavy-lifting to make it our own?
Are we secretly afraid that our own faith, authority, or level of integrity is too weak to be challenged?
Are we too proud to appear ignorant in front of people younger than we are?
Have we found ourselves stuck in a system of rules that we can’t agree with either, so we try to keep the subject from arising?
Grace-based education seeks to apply Gospel norms to the structure and methods of education. (IOW: you can talk about the Gospel all you want, but if your structure and rulebook and attitude toward your students undercuts the Gospel message at every turn, you’re going to impress hypocrisy onto their minds more than anything else.) How can a committed Christian community of learners approach skepticism, questioning, and intellectual freedom with both strength and grace?
…. I’ll take up that question tomorrow.
Cross-posted to Teaching Redemptively