A Christian Perspective on Education

“Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?"(Luke Ch. 2: 49)

(The following is a sermon preached by Rev. Thomas John during the divine service at Christ Church Elamkulam on Sunday, September 5, 2010)

Referring to the Christian presence in higher education, late Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, one of the missionary stalwarts, made the following statement in a talk he had given to a gathering of the principals of Christian Colleges in 1963 at Thambaram:

A Christian college is not primarily a place where the gospel is preached and people are converted. It does not exist primarily to strengthen Christian community. It is not simply a contribution to national development. It is – or ought to be – a place where, under the impulse of the love of God, there is offered to all who desire it that kind of training of the whole person which is congruous with God’s revelation in Christ of the true nature of manhood, and is appropriate to the needs of India at this stage of world history.

What is the goal of Christian presence in education? Why do we want to start educational institutions? What do we expect to happen from education? What do we expect from our children by sending them to “good” educational institutions?

Education, today, is used as a means of making students conform to the standards of our existing society and to the values, norms, wishes and expectations of the parents. It is a means of shaping ‘human resources’ to the requirements of a job market, without any regard for the students’ own aptitudes, interests and potentialities and contribution to the larger society. We as parents, and you as students, are only interested in getting a good job, “good” defined in the sense of fat salary and material comforts a job would provide.

The very description of education as “human resource development” is unacceptable from a Christian point of view. Human beings are not resources, rather they are potentialities. Education should be seen as a process of helping our children to actualize their God given potentialities so that they can live a life that is personally satisfying and socially beneficial. As such, every young child deserves respect and his unique capabilities are to be recognized, respected and facilitated, instead of treating academic success, the way we define it, as the only criterion for “merit “and success in life.

As we find in Luke 2. 41-51, the expectations of Jesus’ parents were no different. They became upset and for legitimate reasons from our point of view, for being indifferent to the parents’ anxieties and staying away from them without informing them. “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you." Jesus’ reply will also appear discourteous from our point of view, “Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Many parents are anxious about their children as to whether they would fulfil their academic and career expectations. They are prepared to spend any amount money and energy for it. Children are also equally anxious. A son or a daughter is considered as ‘good’ so far as he or she is able to remain focused on his or her studies and not indulge in anything that would divert his or her attention from it. Hence, we want politics to be out of the campus. While I do not approve the kind of politics played out in the college campuses in Kerala, it is important to affirm politics as a way of being in touch with current realities and discharging our responsibility in relation to fellow human beings. As parents, we appreciate and even consider important that our children go to the church on Sundays, if there is no coaching class, but we don’t want them to get too much enamoured with/by Christ and his call to leave everything and follow him. This is our attitude. Christianity is a veneer that one puts on to be respectable and decent and that is essential to remain in conformity with the wishes of parents.

Parents of Jesus were also not different. They were also anxious about their son. Their anxiety would be interpreted as more rational and natural. But here the reply of Jesus: “Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?"
We should not make a virtue of obedience. In the sense we understand obedience, Jesus was not obedient to his parents but to somebody more ultimate and important than parents. No human being, even parents cannot demand ultimate obedience and allegiance from their children. This is also true of our obedience to any human authority, including a bishop. Our obedience to a bishop is subject to our obedience to God.
In many other translations we read “I must be about my Father's business.” We call ourselves Christians; but today, nobody is there to be concerned about ‘our Father’s business’ of realizing His rule on this earth. Definitely we don’t want our children to divert their attention by being concerned about ‘the Father’s businesses’. They are too risky and dangerous.

Remember that as parents we are trustees of our children. They actually belong to God. They must be treated as our guests. We do not control our guests. We provide them with the best that we can offer and ensure their comfort, security and safety. But, when the time comes, they must have the freedom to move on. We must respect their interests and concerns. Our task, the educational task of teachers is to help them find their niche in the larger ‘business of God’ in the world.

How can we help our children to develop their educational and academic life around God’s business? Clarifying the meaning of the following terms is very significant to understanding our educational mission: information, knowledge, and wisdom

There is ample information all around us, which a student gathers from various sources. Our five senses are the windows through which the information reaches us. We will not be able to handle this massive volume of information, unless we select those that are more important for us and organize them and give meaning to them. The mental apparatus which we develop through our experiences enabling us to select, organize and give meaning to information is referred to as schema or frame of reference by psychologists. In common sense parlour, it is our perspective. What is assimilated and meaningfully appropriated through this information processing is called knowledge. As teachers and parents what we can do is to help our children in the development of appropriate schema for understanding the world. Cognitive Therapist would trace the root of all emotional problems to false schema or false perspective on life.

Knowledge become wisdom when the schema is related to matters of ultimate concern, that is, according to God’s word, God’s business. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and man.” (52) If we and our children do not have the right kind of schema, a schema that is related to those that matters ultimately in life, they become skewed and our perspectives becomes distorted. This leads to a wrong sense of priorities in life and become the cause of much suffering and meaninglessness, which we try to hide by sensuality and consumerism. Hence, we need to critically look at our role in education and what we do as Christians today in the field of education.

Once, our presence in education was integral to our Christian mission of giving sight to the blind and reaching out to the most oppressed sections of our society. But today, it has become a means of self- aggrandizement and a source of much corruption. Our aided educational institutions are facing complete neglect and in its place what we want is self-financing educational institutions and recognized English medium schools for the affluent. What we are clamouring for and bargaining with government, under the subterfuge of minority rights, is the privilege to run educational institutions without any concern for transparency, merit and concern for the poor and down trodden. In most of the CSI dioceses, the main mission of bishops is to run self-financing higher educational institutions. It is only through such ‘under the table dealings’, that they can regain the large sums of money that changed hands for their nomination as bishops to their respective dioceses.

It is common knowledge that we receive huge sums of “donations” for appointment and admissions to our educational institutions. Who receives it and how are they accounted are very pertinent questions. After basing ourselves in this wrong foundation of profiteering and pilfering how can we run educational institutions as Christian mission? How can they be instruments for our children to develop the right kind of schema in which they can find their niche in the larger business of God for the world? How can the teachers take up their job as a vocation, a calling and deliver such educational ministry that can legitimately be part of proclaiming the good news of the coming rule of God?

It is time to seriously rethink about our educational mission and recapture the vision of our ancestors and find ways of reliving it in creative ways, despite the many forces that militate against this task.

For more from Rev Thomas John, please visit his  blog


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