Why, as a Christian, I’m more worried about STEM than Safe Schools

My kids go to a fantastic kindergarten. It’s play based, and it really means it. It has an incredible playground where kids interacting with each other, and with nature, prompt learning opportunities spontaneously and driven by curiousity. It has toys and costumes designed to encourage learning through role play. It fuels the imagination. It sees education as being about forming inquisitive, curious, lifelong learners but also fostering a sense of community and belonging. I love it. I’m convinced about its pedagogy — and convinced this approach to education should extend well and truly into adulthood.

My oldest daughter is enrolled at the public school in our area that we felt was the closest match to this kindy in terms of ethos (the one that cared least about NAPLAN as far as we could gauge from talking to teachers at school open days). It was ‘play based’ (in a different sense to kindy) in grade 1, but that pedagogical method is rapidly disappearing into the rear view mirror, and the parent groups we’re in online are now filled with people handwringing over the school’s (not great) NAPLAN results…

At the same time there’s a nationwide push for standardisation in our education system, a national curriculum in schools and the national ‘Early Years Learning Framework’ setting standards for kindergarten/pre-school, it aims to ensure “all children experience learning that is engaging and builds success for life.” Which sounds like a terrific aim. Education is really important, but how we approach education as a nation (and as parents) reveals lots about what we value, and from a Christian framework, what we value as a nation reveals what we worship.

Our education systems are formative, they operate with a vision of what a person is, how a person functions, and what good people do, and they use practices to get there. These streams come together (especially the practices) to form ‘pedagogies’ — the ‘methods and practices’ of teaching, pedagogies are oriented to outcomes and matched with ‘curriculums’ (what is taught). ‘Play based’ is a pedagogy, so is ‘ROTE learning’…  The push for education based on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is a ‘curriculum’ push. The combination of ‘pedagogy’ and ‘curriculum’ adopted and assessed in a national approach to education reveals how we see the ‘good life’ for our nation’s citizens, but it also profoundly shapes what we value, because, as Christian philosopher James K.A Smith puts it — we become what we love, and what we love is formed by practices and a vision of the good human life, and the combination of ‘practices oriented to a vision’ embedded in a story is the very essence of worship. I went to a lecture he gave on educational practices (within the context of Christian education) a couple of years ago where he said (these are my notes):

“Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.

Every philosophy of education/strategy assumes implicitly/tacitly some model of what human beings are, and therefore what learners are.

The university has assumed an anthropology that is a lot newer than we might realize, that is contingent and challengable. Christian teaching and learning should work from a different model.

The water in which higher education swims is largely, now, a German production. The assumptions about what a university should be are post-enlightenment, 18th-19th German education, which became a model exported into the US, UK, and probably Australia. As an enlightenment institution the assumed model of the human person is the “thinking thing” model — the university model assumes humans are primarily brains on a stick. The task of education and the university is the depositing of beliefs into the intellectual recepticles of thinking things in order to equip them for a particular task. You get the prioritizing of the brain that is then wedded to a utilitarian/pragmatic view of what education is for. Universities become credentialing facilities for brains on a stick.”

It’s not just universities. This happens pretty early on — a utilitarian view of education — that we’re being trained for a vocation in our schools, to participate as economic units within a ‘machine’ is what is driving the push for STEM based education in the early years of primary school, right through to university. If education is ‘jobs focused’ not ‘human focused’ we lose, because we shrink our sense of what it means to be human to how a human contributes to and in an economy. This will have implications for decisions about who we value and what ‘humanity’ is (and about, for example, aged care, euthanasia, abortion), there’s a vicious cycle where education assumes an anthropology, and then it works to reinforce that anthropology.

The ‘culture war’ Christians seem to want to fight often tilts at the sexual revolution and how it has taken its place in our schools via Safe Schools, now, I have some reservations about Safe Schools (both in terms of its pedagogy and curriculum), but I am not worried that my kids are going to come home from school able to empathise with any of their peers who have different sexuality or gender stuff going on (I wrote an article about Safe Schools for Eternity News a while back. Read that). Education should form kids and adults who are able to live together with people who are different to them, and part of living together will is listening carefully and seeking understanding. In many ways Safe Schools offers a much better ‘pedagogical’ framework, a much more appropriate ‘practice’ and imagination driven way of forming kids, than the rest of the curriculum, and perhaps in a world that worships sex, that is what makes it more dangerous than other things on the table presently…

But I don’t think sex is the big alternative god of the west, it’s ‘a big god of the west’, certainly, but the sexual revolution still divides both conservatives and progressives, and Christians and the rest of the world. I think the most sinister ‘alternative god of the west’ doesn’t divide anybody. Conservatives and progressives and Christians and non-Christians are all on the same page… and it’s the god behind STEM. The real ‘god’ of the Babylon of the West.

It’s money. It’s Mammon. It’s the anthropology that measures a person by the contribution they make to digging stuff out of the ground, turning it into technology, and selling it to make our lives more comfortable. It’s the ‘jobs of the future’. It’s that which distracts our kids from thinking about the aspects of education previously known as ‘humanities’ and instead, has us thinking about how we don’t just make machines, but become little cogs in an economy built on the back of making machines. What is the difference in STEM’s anthropology between a human and the widgets the human creates that slot into a smaller piece of technology? Not much.

What’s new about this vision of people? That we are cogs in an economic machine designed to produce goods? Not much. It’s precisely how the Egyptians viewed the Hebrews before they were rescued from slavery and became a nation, and it’s what still leads people to enslave other people. You can only make somebody a slave if your view of humanity is on economic terms… our education system, with its emphasis on jobs, and particularly ‘machine like’ jobs isn’t hugely different, the pay and conditions are just better (mostly, at least here in the west).

STEM without humanities (and the arts) is part of the abiding myth of the western world, the catechism (the process of educating up worshippers) associated with this particular god. It’s part of what Brian Walsh called Christians to eject from in his book Subversive Christianity in 1994, when he wrote about the dominant story of the west, a story that hasn’t become less dominant just because we now fixate more on sex… it’s just we don’t see that this narrative captured the imaginations of Christians as well, to our detriment:

This story, this Western cultural myth, proclaims that progress is inevitable, if we only allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world so that we can acquire the technological power to control that world in order to realise the ultimate human good, that is, an abundance of consumer goods and the leisure time in which to consume them.

This myth of progress is engraved in our high-school textbooks, proclaimed in corporate advertising, phallically erected in our downtown bank and corporation towers, propagated in our universities, assumed by our political parties, and portrayed in the situation comedies, dramas, and news broadcasts on the popular media. This myth idolatrously reduces human labour to the efficient exercise of power to produce maximum economic good.

Serving the three gods of scientism, technicism, and economism, our work lives (in both the shop and the office) are subjected to scientific analysis by industrial engineers and a whole army of consultants, to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand using the best and quickest techniques to attain the highest possible economic good… More foundationally this is the worldview that captivates the imagination of our society…Looking at life with this worldview is as natural as breathing for us. Because, after all, it is in the air everywhere, and the church provides no gas mask.

Why is it that when Safe Schools drops into schools we Christians panic, we jump up and down about the corruption of our children? We reach for the proverbial ‘gas mask’ or pull the eject cord and home school, or withdraw into the Christian bubble… but when there’s a push for a STEM driven national curriculum we’re silent?

I was horrified recently when I heard a new set of early school readers Suzie The Scientist were being produced with a STEM focus so that even literacy could be taught with the goal of checking off the STEM box. ‘School Readers’ have a long history (documented here), and the first ones, instead of being produced to serve an economic agenda, featured:

  • classic stories from English literature
  • adventure stories
  • accounts from British, Australian and Queensland history
  • biographies of significant figures in history
  • traditional fairy tales
  • poems
  • health lessons
  • stories encouraging the development of good character.

Now. I don’t want to pretend to claim that these would’ve been perfect… education has long been a tool for social engineering and the culture wars, but the goals of these readers, included “instilling in pupils a lifelong love of literature” and “encourage virtues such as honesty, obedience, bravery and courage,” there were other educational aims in the mix, but the new

  • provide information about a range of subjects including nature study, early Australian history, significant figures in history
  • encourage children to read and enjoy traditional tales such as Jack and the beanstalk, Cinderella
  • inform children of heroic deeds in short biographical stories including one on Grace Darling

The ‘Suzie the Scientist‘ series, instead:

  • Each book aligns to learning outcome statements (i.e. Descriptors) from the Australian Curriculum: Science
  • Unlike other science-based home readers, equal emphasis is placed across all four sub-strands (Biological Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences and Physical Sciences) – 6 books for each sub-strand!
  • In addition, all three strands of the Australian Curriculum Science are also addressed – i.e. Science Understanding, Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills

They are include information to “empower parents to engage children in exploratory conversations about science… linked to classroom learning via the Australian Curriculum: Science” and are built around “consistent sentence structure and use of high frequency words appropriate to each reading level to help children develop fluency, comprehension and vocabulary” introducing “key scientific words introduced for discussion prior to reading and in context within the book to help children extend their reading vocabulary.”

Spot the difference.

Imagine the difference this produces in terms of people of character rather than people of knowledge.

This is why I was so greatly encouraged by the words of the New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes this week (quotes from the SMH).

“From government ministers to journalists – from industry CEO’s to senior public servants – people of influence are piling in to denounce the value of philosophy, the arts, and the social sciences – insisting that only by bowing before the altar of STEM will today’s students be adequately equipped to thrive in the 21st century.”

And then:

“Education is not simply about getting a job. Our educational institutions exist primarily to help educate the next generation to build a more just and more engaged society,” Mr Stokes said.

“They exist to provide students with higher-order skills that are flexible and adaptable to a changing world.”

He said the key to a robust 21st century education system was “not the overt preferencing of STEM” but the championing of a true multidisciplinary system.

“Ultimately, STEM seeks to dehumanise education – reducing it to an equation of inputs and outputs. Yet excellence has always been most evident when education is at its most personal.”

Yes and amen. It’s interesting that he uses religious terminology; the ‘altar of STEM’… because STEM is about worship. It’s about claiming the hearts and minds of our children in service of a particular god.

One of my parenting wins this year was watching the Falcon Heavy launch with Xavi. It’s inspired the building of countless Lego rockets. It’s not that I hate science, technology, engineering, or math — it’s that these disciplines and ways of discovering wondrous and true things about the world need to be paired with education, or formation, about what is good for humanity. Who is going to decide what technology it is good or virtuous to develop? Or how it should be deployed? Or what impact that technology might have on our brains and culture? Technology isn’t neutral, when it enters an ecosystem it reshapes it, and it reshapes us, our habitats shape our habits and our habits shape us, which means we need to be pretty thoughtful about what sort of technological changes we introduce. Which means good education in the technological age won’t just focus on the technique — the engineering — but on the telos, to what end we want to develop different types of technology, which ties into the broader question of to what end we humans live for.

Education should absolutely focus on these questions, on what a good citizen of our nation looks like, and what future we are educating towards… but STEM alone can’t save us, unless all that matters is that the Australia of the future is economically prosperous and good at digging stuff up to turn into other more expensive hardware, or at turning our time and effort into software that people want to use. The best STEM work comes from an ability to imagine, and from the curiousity that drives innovation, which requires a pedagogy that is driven by something other than the regurgitation of the status quo in order to answer standardised tests… it requires, as our kindy director says “being able to deal with problems where we don’t know the answer” so that kids start coming up with new solutions now, so that we normalise that experience, not just maintain some status quo.

Our education systems are organised towards a view of what people are, and what a good life looks like. They reinforce both through pedagogy and curriculum. At the moment our pedagogy is driven by the curriculum — by achieving certain outcomes, particularly knowledge in these fields.

What would happen if our education system was built on the anthropology that we become what we love, and with the goal of forming virtuous citizens who have the character and ingenuity capable not just of creating new technology but of assessing what it’s going to do to us?

It’s pretty clear from stories in the news recently about Facebook that there’s a questionable amount of moral philosophy behind the scenes there that has little concern about the impact of social media on neural pathways or mental health, and on what should be done with the data of its products (their view of the people who use the technology)… but I don’t want to single Facebook out, because similar things could be said about just about any (if not all) technological behemoths — the sort of companies crying out for STEM graduates. In Australia we’re increasingly enslaved by the gaming industry; what sort of qualifications are required to build and maintain pokie machines, online gambling, or sports odds?

What in our national curriculum is helping kids identify and avoid parasitic industries that destroy others rather than building them up (and so building our nation)?

What would education look like if we operated with a different anthropology, and so a different pedagogy (and curriculum)?

I have some guesses.

We’d see the STEM-driven curriculum as an ideological danger more compelling than Safe Schools (in part because we as parents are already exemplars of being more bought in to this dangerous system), not a neutral or good thing for our kids.

We’d see kids as more than ‘brains on a stick’ (or mini computers) who need to be aimed at particular careers so that they contribute to our economy, instead we’d aim their hearts towards virtue and the flourishing of themselves and others in more than just economic or material terms… and so we’d see our teachers as something more than programmers or information delivery systems.

We’d have a broader focus in terms of ‘standardisation’ — something more like the classical or liberal arts curriculums of old, but we’d encourage kids to play and explore and learn what they love and what they’re good at more intuitively. We’d have lots more problem based learning where we don’t have pre-conceived answers and where we reward innovation and imagination not just repetition.

We’d celebrate the schools (and kindys) and teachers who get this and we’d champion them and their ideas to grow their reach (and their enrolments). We’d advocate for a better way on P&Cs and other committees, and we’d write to MPs and education ministers (especially when good teaching gets threatened by standardisation or red tape).

We’d be careful about where we enrol our kids, not just to secure the best financial outcome for them job wise, but to be part of providing the best education for their peers.

We’d pay teachers better to be exemplary leaders who emphasise character and who see children both as future citizens and as individuals whose flourishing is best secured not by pumping them into some sausage machine, but by fostering their individual capacity to be curious, to imagine, and to use their gifts and abilities to serve others.

We’d work to free our schools, teachers, and children from slavery to a results driven national curriculum and see the human capital of our graduate-citizens as the product of an education, not test results (we’d have to substantially change our metrics).

We’d take responsibility for educating and forming our kids with the school as partners in that, rather than outsourcing this to schools, and so we’d take a stand against practices that are dumb (like homework).

We’d see that education, or formation, (like virtue) is about habit building and the shaping of loves through a ‘grand story’ not content delivery of disconnected facts.

We’d have teachers who both model and teach that work is a good and rewarding thing not simply because it helps us buy better technology (that we don’t need) but because it helps us build better communities and better homes. We wouldn’t have kids in math lessons asking ‘when will I ever use this’, but have them using math to solve problems or describe interesting reality (like rocket launches, though probably not rocket launchers (though that thing where youth groups used to make potato cannons would make for a good math or physics lesson)).

As Christians we’d be teaching that work is a form of worship, and that the economy isn’t neutral (or naively, that it’s a pure ‘good’), and we’d be valuing, supporting, encouraging, and becoming teachers like this.

We’d pursue real flourishing, which, as Smith put it in his lecture:

Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.

The task of a Christian education is to help people find what they are made for.

At present, we wouldn’t necessarily be pulling our kids out of schools where the curriculum is at odds with our beliefs but putting ourselves (and our kids) in and articulating a need for change, and if we did pull our kids out into Christian education institutions it would be because they’re committed to an alternative vision of education for all, not just for enforcing some Christian bubble. What many of our church owned schools currently do, in adopting the national curriculum uncritically and pursuing exclusive excellence on its terms, or in being insular doctrinally-driven schools suspicious about the world won’t really serve anybody. In our homes and churches we’d be helping people not just aim their hearts towards virtue, but towards Jesus, and our own pedagogy wouldn’t be a head-on-stick driven exercise aimed at helping kids know about Jesus, but instead a practice driven, play based, problem solving approach to helping kids live like Jesus and love Jesus.

That’d be a revolution.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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