In his seminal book on the subject, Abraham Heschel describes the prophet as one who is not as concerned with predicting the future as one who is scorched with a costly message, someone who leaves the mansions to take us to the slums, one who feels fiercely, who is unafraid to challenge the revered and the holy. He is the trickster, ushering in chaos to upend dominant narratives and the storyteller weaving, with words, better dreams for the community. The prophet is one who begins with a message of doom, but ends with a message of hope. He is the awkward dreamer, the embarrassment at the social gathering, the lonely one attuned to the divine pathos.
At a recent gathering, we were tasked with describing ourselves in one word. After wrestling with what one word would best describe me, (after passing by many others that might better serve), I said: storyteller. This is what I have come to see my life’s work entailing, telling better stories both individually and, more importantly, for the formative institutions responsible for shaping human beings.
I have come to see my role as offering, on the one hand, an honest critique of the ways in which formative institutions (in particular, schools) fail at their chief fundamental and moral imperative to shape wise, virtuous human beings, and, on the other, offering a hopeful alternative that offers possibilities for a new social imagination.
Though I have many friends and colleagues in different forms of schooling (public, private, home school, Christian, secular research universities, private Christian universities), who each believe their particular form of schooling is worth giving their lives to (and, for them, rightfully and thankfully so), I am more concerned with the overarching narrative of education writ large that is, all too often (for each of the forms of schooling mentioned above), formed by even larger, overarching cultural narratives that are rooted in power, control and consumption.
The problem is that narratives are always formative; that is, their larger “S” stories give shape to the little “s” stories we each tell with our own lives. No one explains this better than James K. A. Smith in his book, Desiring the Kingdom, when he outlines the ways we are all formed (mostly subconsciously) into lovers of profit and consumption by the “liturgy of the mall”–a liturgy whose hymns are sung everywhere (on tv, movies, billboards, radio, music, political rhetoric, etc.).
If we do not pay attention to the power of narratives to form certain kinds of human beings, we may wake up to find ourselves enslaved to narratives we may not want. Schools, whether they acknowledge it or not, have become primary replicators and legitimators of the dominant narrative of the culture, rooted in the even deeper narrative of Mammon (see my post, American Polytheism, for a deeper explanation of this idea).
What I am giving my life to, then, is not to see any type of particular schooling thrive, but to set captives free: to set free students who are held captive to institutional mandates that uphold money and power as best interests; teachers who are held captive to dictates that demoralize them and lead to burnout; administrators who are held captive to the distal while they toil in the proximate; the minorities, marginalized, and disenfranchised who are held captive by systems that are complicit in their oppression; and a culture held captive by oppression, injustice, marginalization, and dehumanization.
My larger desire is to help reframe all sorts of formative narratives (schools, but also work and theology) that fall short of ushering in full flourishing both for individuals and for the larger common good. I know this is often a lonely, costly and largely imaginative work (as I told my dad the other day, rare is it that people really understand what I am trying to say), but, when asked if such work is worth doing, my reply is now: “Is there anything else worth doing?”
I don’t think there is.