After much wrangling, wrestling, questioning and struggling to land on a dissertation topic for my doctoral work, I have finally come to something that I not only feel strongly about, but that I think will be an important contribution to the field of educational studies, reform, curriculum theory, and socio-moral development. Using the framework established by two of my favorite theologians, Walter Wink and Walter Brueggemann, I want to look at education writ large (that is, education in all its many forms: the schoolhouse, media, politics, the market, church, etc.) through the ways in which we conceptualize the sacred. In religious parlance, we interact with the sacred in a variety of ways that recursively shape us into its image. For example, in any given religion, the liturgy, texts, space, worship experience, symbols, architecture, etc are all designed to shape “believers” and “responders” of a certain type. There is a culture (from the Latin concept of “cult”) that is designed to shape “disciples” or followers that is then passed down generationally through repetitive practices within that culture. By understanding what we hold as sacred, we can better understand how we are shaped (in ways both overt and not) by its overarching narratives. And this holds true whether one holds as sacred Yahweh or Zeus or Osiris.
My argument for my doctoral work will center on what we in the modern culture hold as sacred, examining it as either a “healthy” or “sick” “angel” (to borrow from Walter Wink), and discussing what “prophetic” role the schoolhouse must play to critique, re-imagine and redeem it.
My hypothesis is that, though we may claim religion to be what we hold sacred in America, no keen, observant Martian would agree. From a meta-perspective, it would be quite clear that where we spend the vast majority of our resources, time, and pursuits, as well as how we employ our rhetoric, would dictate what we hold as sacred, no matter how much our “talk” may claim otherwise. The Nazis might have chosen to believe that they were a kind, compassionate, inclusive bunch, but everything from their propaganda to their schooling told a different story. Looking back, it is easy to see how, for the Nazis, their “sacred” narrative worshipped power, might, conquest, virility, dominance, etc. so much that an entire nations became disciples of this “god”.
What, then, does the modern narrative say about us? What do we hold as sacred and how does it make disciples of us? Unfortunately, if I were a Martian, I would say that the language of “market” and “empire” were our modern “gods” and everything from our advertising to our schooling to our cult-like following of mega-churches preaching prosperity fall at the altar of consumerism, materialism, consumption, vanity and greed. Our collective liturgies are formed by mass media, our sacred texts by our portfolios, our saints by those who entertain us, and our temples by our skyscrapers. As a pastor friend of mine said to me the other day, “It’s not a coincidence that, when people leave our church, they go to one with stadium seating.” We may not like it, but we must at least claim it before we can critique it and ultimately redeem it.
Where does the schoolhouse fit into all of this? As Michael Apple writes, the schoolhouse is not just a replicator of this vision of the “sacred”, it is also its greatest legitimator. By assuring one type of student a clear path to college (Ivies, at that), high-powered jobs, and the resources to ensure generational wealth, and, consequently, assuring another a path strewn with high rates of illiteracy, disengagement within schools that far too often mirror prisons, and a fast track to gangs, welfare, crime, and generational poverty, we legitimate the value of one type of human over and against another.
This is why our current discussion of school reform is ultimately and always destined to fail. Until we make school reform (whatever we may mean by that) about redeeming what we claim to hold sacred (and not just in a religious sense; we can discuss the “sacred” in terms of human agency, morality, virtue, identity, etc.), no amount of “higher standards” or “greater accountability” will work.
The role of the school must become prophetic in the sense that it holds up to critique the morality of the culture in order to redeem the culture. It is not until we diagnose our “angel” as sick that we can strive to make it healthy. Reclaiming what we worship and hold as sacred gives us the tools to do this difficult, but necessary, work.