Last summer at the ChildLight USA conference, we were very privileged to hear contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura speak. His topic was “Culture Care.” The idea was new and fascinating to me then, and over the last few months my mind has been swirling around it. Soon after that lecture, I decided that I would try begin to engage the mainstream education culture in conversation about reform. I dusted off my Twitter account (of which, I must confess, I had never really understood the value) and began following the movers and shakers. This showed some initial promise, as I was actually able to have a brief conversation with Diane Ravitch, who tweeted to me that she had discovered the writings of Charlotte Mason in the British Library and really liked her. New confidence! I began entering conversations with teachers and representatives from the NEA, who, I found, were mostly very angry.
Having spent time in their shoes as a public school teacher, I understood what they were feeling: frustration at the de-professionalization of the careers they had poured themselves into, pain for the children who are being ill-served by the testing culture, anger at bureaucrats who make presumptuous laws that do not serve students, and rawness from being made to feel like failures and self-serving monsters by the media. I felt compassion for these teachers, and although tweeting can be a bit like shouting into the wind, I thought I saw a glimmer of hope that just maybe I could make a difference. But then, one afternoon as I was talking with a delightful gentleman about what was working in his school and I shared that I had started a private school to have the freedom to try new things, someone re-tweeted me with the hash tag #edshame. And that was it. I was done, content to let all those angry people continue to shout and duke it out among themselves.
Now, in looking back on this experience, I see that this attempt was a bit naïve. Relationships are very difficult to build in 140 characters or less, and everyone yelling their opinions at the same time cannot solve complex problems. But my mind is still chewing on Mako’s charge to resist the language of ideological war in favor of the language of culture care—to think upon and create things that are good, true, and beautiful in order to re-humanize our culture—to approach problems in education with hope and empathy instead of cynicism and hostility—to engage the culture rather than withdraw from it. And while Twitter may eventually play some role in that, I do not think it was the appropriate place from which to launch such an endeavor.
There are several organizations that I believe are doing a wonderful job engaging and caring for the culture in a way that honors God. One is the International Arts Movement, of which Mako spoke in his lecture. Another is the Relationships Foundation in the UK, which seeks to build community and engage politics on issues of social justice in a relational way. A third organization is the Jubilee Centre, also in the UK. Their book, Jubilee Manifesto: A Framework, Agenda, and Strategy for Christian Social Reform outlines relational ways to approach poverty, the economy, government, and crime. (You may remember Jason Fletcher talking about these groups at the conference a few years ago.) What these organizations have in common is that they begin from the same place: seeking biblical wisdom. I am not talking here about sitting in judgment of the world or those they perceive to be responsible for problems. I am talking about stripping away preconceptions and familiar, traditional practices and beginning from a point of honoring God by seeking His way and honoring His Image-bearers. I think this is precisely what Charlotte Mason did in her day, and it is exactly what the field of education needs today.
Mason did engage her culture. She wrote letters to the Times. She gave lectures. She wrote books. She inspired people, and then she organized them to action. She contemplated the ideas of others and weighed in on them, but she did it with radical gentleness and respect, even in the midst of conflict. Her approach was invitational rather than confrontational. In his lecture, Mako said that, if you care about your garden, you must cultivate it daily. Mason faithfully cultivated her own little garden, but she did not advocate the life of the ascetic; she continued to engage—and influence—the wider culture.
There is no doubt that the present culture of education needs care. It needs the language of wisdom, compassion, and commonality instead of the language of ideological war. It needs grace and mercy instead of blame. It needs people to think on and create what is good, true, and beautiful in order to re-humanize it. As Mako said in his lecture, change will not happen overnight; this is “generational work,” but it can begin, here and now, with us.
© Jennifer Spencer 2012
Jen is the director and lead teacher at Willow Tree Community School in Boiling Springs, NC. To find out more or to read her weekly blog, please visit www.wtcschool.org.