- - Monday, August 17, 2015

It is back to school time!

Ten years ago this month, as I geared my oldest son up for first grade, I also penned the following article. Using Winslow Homer’s famous painting, “The Country School,” as inspiration, I reflected on some of our family’s goals for education.

A decade later, I can’t say that we’ve attained all these aims, but they do still serve as guide to point our pedagogical noses in the right direction.


Dan Quayle once gaffed, “We are going to have the best educated American people in the world.” Humorous as the verbal miscue may be, we all know what these types of political statements mean – “Follow my plan, and your kids will be smarter than their kids.”  Which always leaves me asking the question, “Who cares?”  Big promises mean nothing to me if I place no value on the merchandise.

What are some “big ideas” that should govern our thinking in the matter of education?  What it is that we are hoping our children will take out of the process of education itself.

As a prompt for our thinking, I am going to use “The Country School“ by 19th century American painter Winslow Homer. What a great painter Homer was. Beginning with Civil War sketches and scenes of genteel life, he moved on to painting common American citizens before finally becoming a master of seascapes.

This famous painting of a one-room school house bursts with warmth and personal touches. Although the furnishings are different, the scene reminds us of an episode from “Little House on the Prairie.” Or perhaps the barefooted boys bring thoughts of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. It is a sweet picture indeed.

What ideas about education are conveyed in this painting?  Four come to mind.

#1 Gratitude

Education is a privilege not a prison. Think through what you see in the picture. How many students are in the room? Twelve. Do you think this small amount equals the number of school-age children in the community?  Not hardly in an era when an average woman gave birth to seven children.

Where are the rest of the students?  It would be easy to say Homer left them out to keep the painting simple. The truth is that many children worked full days on farms and in factories. “The Country School“ was painted in 1871, the birth year of compulsory education laws in the states. Prior to this time, a mother may have taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, but cracking open textbooks in a classroom was a privilege not easily afforded.

Do we lead our children to be thankful for their education? Ungrateful students may master an academic subject, but their moral grade card should read “F” for foolish. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul in listing various types of sinners. In between “disobedient to parents” and “unholy” comes an indictment against the “ungrateful” (2 Timothy 3:2).  An attitude of gratitude is more important than learning longitude or latitude.

#2 Duty

In a letter to his son, Robert E. Lee once said, “Duty, then is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more; you should never wish to do less.”

Duty is the discipline of keeping our hands to the task, even on a beautiful day of sunshine and green grassy hills. The students and teacher are busy with work, even as the delightful sunshine beckons them to leave their work behind.

It is true that all work and no play makes for a dull child.  But what does all play and no work make? Proverbs 12:24 says, “The hand of the diligent will rule, But the lazy man will be put to forced labor.”

One of the lessons of education must be the idea of delayed gratification - putting off present pleasure in order to gain long term benefits.  It means completing your dreaded math even when some delightful literature beckons.

Ideally, all our work would be a joy, but that is not the case in the real world. Do we expect our children to complete only those tasks that are enjoyable? We should lead them to fulfill their duties, especially when the duty is not a delight.

#3 Authority

Painting the standing teacher at the center, Winslow establishes her authority. The classroom is warm and inviting, but there is no doubt about who is in charge. The students are not in an uproar of unruly behavior.

Behind the authority of the teacher stands the community of parents who hired her for the task. When Johnny smart-mouths the teacher, do you think she will be blamed? Do you think the school board will convene in order to discuss how to boost Johnny’s self-esteem? Not hardly.

Proverbs says, “Do not withhold correction from a child.” (Proverbs 23:13a) and “Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid.” (Proverbs 12:1)

Parents, what concerns you more? That your child has the top test scores in their class, or that they joyfully submit to the authorities that are placed over them?  A child who does not live under the authority of earthly authority will become an adult living outside the authority of God.

#4 The chief end of man

This brings us to the final consideration - the purpose of education.  If you look closely at the teacher’s desk, you will notice a big, black book.  Given the historical context of the time, this is undoubtedly a Bible…in a school!

Now, I am not going to open the can of worms about whether public education should have Bible teaching.  A more pressing concern is whether our Christian schools and our Christian homes have solid Christian teaching at their core.  A few Bible verses sprinkled here and there does not constitute a Christian education.

Consider the following quote, taken from the 1642 rules and precepts that governed Harvard University: “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”

In all of our efforts of educating our children, do we believe that the true foundation of all knowledge begins with a love and fear of God? Would we prefer agnostic children who win scholarships to Ivy League schools, or children of average grades who love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Proverbs 1:7a says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.”  What does this say about the world-renowned scientist, with two Ph.D.s, who professes to be an atheist? Eternity will prove that the wisdom of God will bring to shame the wisdom of the world.

In light of eternity, what choices should we make in educating our children?

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