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Measuring success

OPINION | Michael Jensen

Monday, 11 June 2012

I was once invited to participate in an evening where the topic under discussion was how to measure the success of Christian schooling.

The very thought of it made me cringe at its crassness. Education at all levels is dying the death of a thousand paper cuts delivered by the Gradgrinds of government, who don’t value anything unless it can be measured against benchmarks and KPIs. Utilitarianism is the philosophy that prevails in public discourse in 21st century Australia. It’s a philosophy which claims that what is good must be measurable, or it has no business claiming to be good.

But Christians are not utilitarians, because we have a much grander vision of the good than what can be simply quantified.

For followers of Jesus Christ, the quality of our relationships is essential to that vision of the good: a quality that in the end answers to the ultimate judge, and to him alone. This is what success in Christian schools will look like. Can we count it, or measure it?

Perhaps not. But there is a way of taking stock. Though the very emphasis upon relationships is a thoroughly Christian insight, we need to be careful that we relate our understanding of relationships back to the Christian story itself, lest “relationships” become a kind of Platonic ideal. It would be possible, after all, for a pirate ship to be crewed by an effective team in good relationships with one another.

The gospel of the God who is Trinity speaks to us of a very particular quality of relationship: relationships of costly love that involve forgiveness, mercy and grace. “Greater love has no-one than this”, said Jesus “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Which is, of course, what he himself did; and it is that story, the story of the cross, which teaches us about true relationships. And note: it wasn’t a message of relationships based on mere acceptance; to die for one’s friends is to say that one’s friends need dying for, because all is not well with them as they are. Sometimes relationships patterned on the cross require a “No” as well as a “Yes”.

Is there to be no judgement of Christian education then? Do we have nothing to say about what might constitute a successful Christian education? I have spoken with Christian Heads of schools who are tired of the endless and often carping criticism of Christian educators by the Christian community, in contrast to those outside the Christian community who seem quite grateful for their work. They see themselves as professionals. So what business have non-experts in interfering with their work? Would doctors have their patients offering them advice?

I am also irritated by the tone of much of this criticism. Much of it, like the question of how to Christianly teach maths, is just idiotic and needs to be called for what it is.

But the proper response is not to repudiate judgement, but to encourage better judgement. This may not be what Heads of schools want to hear! A Head of a school has professional expertise and ought to be trusted to exercise it. But the Head is operating as an expert within a community of shared knowledge and values. This is widely recognised in state education, of course, and you can see it played out in the vigorous debates we have in our newspapers about what happens in schools.

But I am afraid that Christian or church schools are in many cases the domain of the churches who found them, support them, pray for and with them, and brand them.

What is needed is a more nuanced and open discussion both ways. The problem need not be seen as a question of Church input into education per se, but the quality and the manner of that input.

Martin Luther once said, “Every Christian is a theologian”. And that is right. Christian heads and educators are theologians. They share and lead others in the knowledge of God. They pastor others in the name of Jesus our Lord. Theology is not something that is best left to experts; by its very nature it’s a shared enterprise.  What this means is that I (as a ‘theologian’) have no wish to cordon off my discipline, and to plead the protection of my professional expertise. If churches and church officials have acted as if a person with the Christian experience and intelligence of our Heads of schools cannot challenge our so-called professional expertise, then we need to repent of it.

I would hope that Heads of schools, as theologians, will become aware of the shared nature of this exercise of seeking to know the mind of God and to live in the light of the gospel of Christ; and that mutually enriching partnerships between churches and schools may emerge.

There is a difference of purpose between churches and schools, although we serve the same God. The prime role of a school is to educate, not to evangelise. Of course, evangelism may take place at a school and often does.
But when the church thinks that the primary role of the school is to evangelise and not educate its students, then it is imposing a paradigm on the school that does not belong to it. And if effective evangelism is the measure by which a school is to be counted successful or not, then it is not a school but something else masquerading as a school.

The problem, I think, concerns the notion of “the good” that I mentioned earlier. It was Augustine who pointed out that Christianity was not simply a choice for a single good as the only good, but an ordering of all good for the highest good – the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Which is to say: the preaching of the gospel is not the only good that we may seek in this world. The education of young people is a good worth pursuing and a job worth doing, and it doesn’t need justification in terms of evangelistic opportunities, or the prospect of bums on seats. In fact, the best evangelistic opportunities will arise as the task of educating young people is carried out with integrity and dedication – precisely because it is the kind of genuine care for people that shines through at these moments.

True education is itself the result of a commitment to the kind of world that God has made – a world which is ordered according to the divine plan.  The message of the gospel reveals to us the goodness, beauty and truth with which the holy God has imbued his creation, and for which he will hold us human beings accountable.

And this could prove more significant than we yet realise, for the barbarians are at the gates of Western civilisation. In flight from its Christian roots, the West is pursuing a self-destructive course. Without God, everything is permissible: the ugly, the false and the evil. Even the New Atheists have begun to wonder how civilisation might be saved if the God of Jesus Christ is abandoned. They cannot appeal with any conviction to a sense of absolute right or wrong, and so any outrage they have looks insincere; and they cannot know that what they see around them is real. There is now a sense among them of tragic loss – an acknowledgement perhaps that their project has destroyed the only things worth having.

Perhaps, as after the decay of mighty Rome when it was the Christian monasteries that preserved the possibility of a less savage way of life, so now our schools and churches may need to become the protectors of the true, the beautiful and the good.

This is arguably already in evidence in Christian schools, and may be called a measure of success: people with no faith can see that our schools and the extraordinary people in them preserve something precious which has been lost, and that in their devotion to what is true, and right, and beautiful in creation, they point beyond themselves to the source of all these things.

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