Education Sunday, 2016
Sermon: Leicester Cathedral
1 Tim 1: 12-17
An atheist was walking through the woods. ‘What majestic trees!’ ‘What powerful rivers!’ ‘What beautiful animals,’ he said to himself. As he was walking alongside the river, he heard a loud rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to look, and he saw a 7 foot grizzly bear charging towards him. He ran as fast as he could up the path. He looked over his shoulder & saw that the bear was closing in on him. He kept running hard. He looked over his shoulder again, & the bear was even closer. He tripped & fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up but saw that the bear was right on top of him, reaching for him with his left paw & raising his right paw to strike him. At that instant the Atheist cried out, ‘Oh my God! Help me.’ Time Stopped. The bear froze. The forest was silent. As a bright light shone upon the fallen man, a voice came thundering out of the sky. ‘You deny my existence for all these years, teach others I don’t exist and even credit creation to cosmic accident.’ ‘Do you really expect me to help you out of this predicament? ‘Or, am I to count you as a believer?’ The atheist looked directly into the light & said, ‘It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now, but perhaps you could make the Bear a Christian?’ ‘Very Well,’ said the voice. The light went out. The sounds of the forest resumed. And the bear dropped his right paw, brought both paws together, bowed his head & spoke: ‘Lord for what I am about to receive ….’
There has been a lot about education in the news this week. That is not all together unusual. We are an anxious society; we are anxious about the future and so we are anxious about our children and the world they will inherit from us and what they will make of it. It is also good displacement activity to talk about ‘education’. Our anxiety can be transferred neatly on to teachers and we can absolve ourselves of all blame. We can blame ‘education’ when what we really mean is the society we have created, the families we are and the people who nurture children.
It takes a village to raise a child, Hilary Clinton famously quoted, but only the village school is to blame when things are not as we would have liked them to be.
I have been involved in education as a teacher for almost all of my adult life, and have also been a school chaplain, inspector and Governor. Like most teachers when asked why I came into education I would say something like ‘to make a difference’. There is something in us that believes that what happens in schools, what happens in classrooms can change pupils’ lives. Films like Goodbye, Mr Chips or the Dead Poets Society, full of romantic visions of education reinforce that view. Many of us have stories to tell of powerful figures in our childhoods and adolescence who inspired us. When asked about school, many adults will talk about particular teachers and ascribe their life choices to the love of a subject displayed by one teacher.
But the predominant model in our education system is at odds with that romantic view. It is utilitarian. It is about producing workers, economic units who will be productive and competitive in the work place. At least that’s what we say.
But there are, as we know, huge problems about this.
Today’s first reading has Moses at the top of the mountain. He has had the vision of God and he now has to go down to the people who have gone astray.
Today is Education Sunday. What is our vision for Education? What do we think it is for? How should it do what we think it should do? How do what schools do fit with what we think are the responsibilities of parents?
It helps me to think about five modes of education and how they effect our thinking. And just in case you are thinking that education has nothing to do with you, I think it’s also useful to apply these modes to our Christian lives and our lives as Christian communities:
Radical – this is the sort of thinking that created schools like Summerhill, no rules, no boundaries, let children discover what they want to learn and need to know. This is the world of de-schooling society and the ideas of Ivan Illich.
Progressive – these ideas dominated education thinking when I was trained as a teacher. Discovery learning, give children the basic raw materials and they will find out the things we want them to know.
Romantic – this is probably the culturally dominant model of teaching which I have already described. Part of the reason, I believe, for the loss of so many teachers early in their professional lives is that Romantic ideas inspire young people to come into teaching but the predominant model in our education system is:
Utilitarian – measurable; results; economic outcomes; education is about producing workers for the system.
Finally, I would like us to think about what I call the Transmitive model of education. In which we pass on to children, we transmit to them, the cultural inheritance we have received and into which we want them to live and thrive and flourish.
It is probably best to think about these not so much as competing systems but as different modes. No doubt the best of schools do all of them to some extent.
But I think the debate – if such it is – about grammar schools reveals something really interesting about our thinking.
There is a deep nostalgia when we think about schools and a real feeling that what happens in schools does not address that nostalgia. I think there is some truth in that.
I have just finished seven years as Head of an all through (3 – 16 year olds) school in south-east London. As part of our culture we deliberately adopted as many signs as we could of that nostalgia in education, in many ways best displayed in the Harry Potter books and at the fictional Hogwarts. Staff wore academic gowns, we described ourselves as the borough’s only ‘grammar style school’ we labelled the top set the ‘grammar stream’, we had Houses and the senior pupils and prefects wore academic gowns in the house colours. As you can imagine some people – outside the school – objected strongly to all this. But it worked. And other schools across the country are doing similar things. Changes in the exam system also reflect this return to tradition. More content based, more knowledge to be learnt and some – although in my opinion not nearly enough – memorisation.
When comprehensive schools were introduced there was the wonderful phrase ‘grammar schools for all’. There is a clear desire that we provide something for children that is summed up for us as a culture by the phrase ‘grammar schools’ and that we have not been providing in our schools. I happen to think that’s right, although I don’t think the piece-meal re-introduction of grammar schools will deliver it fairly either.
It is, I believe the transmitive mode of education that we long for and have not yet achieved. If I was Secretary of State for Education I would be suggesting something much more radical than either the reintroduction of grammar schools or the academies programme. I suspect our problem is the shift in schools at 11 which is far too early. A change at 14 when young people are ready to make a choice for a style of education, and when we can value equally those who want a technical style education or those who want an academic style.
Well, this is supposed to be a sermon not a lecture on education nor an opportunity for me to fantasise about alternative career moves. So back to our atheist walking in the woods. I am always struck when I tell that joke about how people respond to those final eight words:
“Lord, for what I am about to receive …”
Most people, of course, don’t say grace before meals, but certainly for a certain generation and above those words activate a memory, without completing the grace we know what is going to come.
The transmitive mode of education is fundamental to how humans learn. It is the telling of stories round the camp fire. It is the repetition of the words of the liturgy in our worship. It is the descent of those words deep into our souls so that when we are in despair or joy; when our lives are triumphant or when we are breathing our last breath those words come to our lips.
We impoverish our children if we don’t transmit to them this inheritance, if they don’t memorise poetry, recognise great art or appreciate the music that has inspired generations. And today’s gospel makes it clear that we can leave no child behind, that this inheritance is for everyone. Elitism for all!
Memory is so essential to who we are.
In that wonderful reading from Exodus Moses even berates God to remember what he did in the past for “Abraham, Isaac and Israel” and notice the memory enhancing power of that phrase.
In the Eucharist which we celebrate here today Jesus commands us to do this to remember, in memory of him.
The urge to grammar schools is a good motive, one that needs to be extended to all children and one which we need to exercise in our own Christian lives. It is the urge that has led Christians day by day to recite the Scriptures, to pray the psalms, morning and evening, to educate our hearts and minds in the mind of Christ. It is the inheritance, the memory, the anamnesis which is our gift to the future.
Just as we are anxious about education so we as a church are anxious. Anxiety leaves us with a lack of confidence and makes us diffident.
The Church of England Education Office has just produced a new vision for our schools Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good. As a church we are embarked on process of Renewal and Reform. If that renewal is to be real, if it is to be about more than structures it must be deeply Christian, and the really radical thing is to root it in our shared memory; in liturgy memorised and repeated.
So my challenge to you today, this Education Sunday is how many texts from Scripture do you know by heart? How many psalms can you recite from memory? When you see the shadow of the clouds on a field which poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins springs to your lips. Which poem by Carol Ann Duffy occurs to us when we want to define what prayer is or which psalm comes to us when we lose our job, a loved one dies or we are in the depths of depression.
My challenge to you in your prayer is to memorise a few words every day. St Paul tells us that he needed mercy because he had ‘acted ignorantly’.
My dear friends don’t be ignorant of the wonderful, world- changing Word of God. Obey the command of Jesus that we will
Hear again in a few moments the word from Jesus that, in Word and Sacrament we do this, to remember him.
As Saint Paul say when we do this the grace of our Lord will overflow for us with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.