September 17, 1995

BACK TO BASICS

Impress them on your children. Deuteronomy 6:7

Why do children go to school?  What are they supposed to learn?  What are the schools supposed to do for them?

The answer can get pretty complicated.  Once upon a time, many children went to school for just a few years, long enough to learn the three R’s:  reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  But if you’re a child today, you’ll spend a lot more than a just few years in school, and your school will try to teach you a lot more than the three R’s.  They teach history and geography and science and art and literature and many other subjects.

And the schools don’t stop there.  They try to shape your personality and character.  They try to give you more self-esteem.  They try to help you clarify your own personal values.  They tell you how to relate to other people.  They try to help you love your country and at the same time they try to help you to be tolerant of different viewpoints.  They tell you about sex and pregnancy and AIDS.  They talk about alcohol and drugs.

On top of all that, schools try to help you get ready for a lifetime of work and play.  When it comes to play, they provide all kinds of games and sports activities.  When it comes to work, they try to sharpen skills that will help you get a job, and they also offer classes that show you home skills like cooking and making repairs and handling a checkbook.

The schools try to do an awful lot, don’t they?  In fact, sometimes they try to do so much that they don’t do any of it very well.  With all the efforts to help students in their personal and social life, there’s more teen pregnancy, more drug and alcohol abuse, more antisocial gang activity, and more teen suicide than ever before.  With all the efforts to provide job skills, employers complain that fewer young people coming out of school are able to handle simple and common responsibilities.

And meanwhile, as the schools pour so much energy into so many different things, it seems that more and more students know less and less about basic subject areas like science and history and geography.  Many students aren’t even mastering the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  More people in North America are functionally illiterate today than in the years before education became mandatory by law.   There are high school graduates who still can’t read simple instructions or write a decent paragraph.  As for arithmetic, some young people can spend twelve years in school and still be unable to handle everyday math without a calculator.

A number of people have reacted to all this by demanding that schools get back to basics.  They want the schools to focus more on basic skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic, and on basic subject areas like history, literature, and science. Forget about having so many sports and clubs and other extras. Forget about values clarification, sex education, drug education, and self-esteem drills.  Teachers should teach, not pretend to be nannies, parents, preachers, or social workers.  Just get back to basics and do what schools are supposed to do.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for that, but it’s not quite that simple.  The fact is that many children these days have big problems at home.  They get little guidance from their parents, or they don’t even have two parents.  They show up at school needing a lot more than academics, and the schools try to provide it.  As it turns out, school isn’t a good replacement for the family, and it’s not very effective as a social agency, but can you blame the schools for trying?

Well, maybe you can blame them, at least a little.  Is it really true that the schools took over so many things because the homes weren’t doing it, or did the homes stop doing it because the schools took over?  I suppose we might as well ask which came first, the chicken or the egg.  Whatever came first, we’ve got a situation now where the more the schools try to do, the less the parents do, and the less the parents do, the more the schools try to do, until the schools are doing almost everything and the parents are doing almost nothing.

In some ways, it’s like the welfare system.  What happens if people start thinking it’s normal to get their income from a government welfare check?  After a while they have no sense of initiative or obligation to provide for themselves and the family.  They figure it’s up to a government agency.  Something similar can happen when people start thinking it’s normal for children to get their education from a government school.  After a while, parents feel no initiative or obligation to be deeply involved in the training of their children.  They figure it’s up to a government agency.

The simple fact is that too many of us parents are depending too much on government and on other institutions to do our work for us.  We can gripe about big government and about schools that try to do almost everything except teach what schools are supposed to teach, and we can say that schools ought to get back to basics.  But before we talk about getting back to basic subject areas of traditional schooling, maybe we need go even deeper and get back to the basics of what it takes to help children develop properly in the first place.

Here are the basics we’re going to talk about:  the basic teacher, the basic attitude, the basic book, the basic classroom, and the basic goal.

Who’s the basic teacher?  Well, I’ve already answered that.  The basic teacher is the parent.  We go seriously wrong when we think that a child’s main teacher is a hired professional or a government institution.  Mom, dad, you are the basic teachers, the primary instructors of your children.

Nothing in the Bible is more plain.  Listen to what it says in Psalm 78.  “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done… he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.  Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands” (Psalm 78:4-7).

Mom, dad, you can’t drop your children off at school five days a week and think they’re getting all the education they need, just as you can’t just drop kids off for Sunday school and think that’s all the spiritual training they need.  You’re not just a chauffeur.  You’re a teacher.  You’re the teacher.  You’re the one who has primary responsibility for your children’s development.  God expects you to tell your children his deeds and commands.  He expect you to help your children put their trust in God.  That’s your job, not somebody else’s.  There may be fine teachers at school, and at church, and maybe they can supplement and expand on the instruction you provide, but they can’t replace you.  You are the basic teacher.

A mother and father, praying and teaching and leading their children to know Jesus–that’s where education begins.  We’ve been talking on today’s program about getting back to basics, and so far we’ve seen that the basic teacher is the parent.

Now let’s look at the basic attitude.  The basic attitude for a sound education is love.  You might say, “What?!  Love is nice, and I’m all in favor of it, but what does love have to do with the learning process?”  Well, in the first place, love is our whole reason for being.  Without love, the learning process doesn’t amount to anything.  Without love, all our knowledge is pointless.  As the apostle Paul put it, “If I …can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge… but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).

But when I say that love is the basic attitude for good education, I’m not just saying love is more important than learning.  I’m also saying that love energizes healthy learning.  Who does a better job of teaching, someone who loves children, or someone who couldn’t care less about the children?  Who learns best, a child who can’t stand the person doing the teaching, or a child who loves that person and hangs on every word?  Who is more eager to discover new things, a child who loves God’s creation and the people God made, or the child whose only love is himself?  What provides a better incentive to learn and really discover, the desire for a good report card, or an enthusiastic awareness that Jesus calls us to love God with all our mind?

The best education happens in an atmosphere and attitude of love.  When teaching becomes a nothing more than a job, when learning becomes a chore, when subject material becomes stuff to store in your brain just long enough to get through the next test, then education is in big trouble.  The poet Yeats once said, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”  It’s tragic when children are treated as containers that we fill with facts by pouring in daily doses of information.  Children are spirits who need to be kindled with an inner fire.

Love is a flame.  It warms and enlightens wherever it goes.   Heartfelt love for God, love of parents and children for each other, and love for God’s world, for the people in it, and for all the things God has made–love is the attitude that inspires the best kind of learning.

A teacher once asked a bright but unmotivated student, “What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?”  The student replied, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”  And that’s right.  Ignorance is “I don’t know,” and apathy is “I don’t care.”  And that brings us right back to why love is so essential to learning.  What you don’t love, you don’t care about, and what you don’t care about, you’re not eager to know about.

However, when you love God, you’re eager to learn more about him and know him better.  When you love the world God made, you’re eager to explore more of the patterns that science and mathematics can show you about creation.  When you love the people God made, you’re eager to explore the history and culture of various peoples, and also the wonderful literature and art and music that can stretch your mind and inspire your soul.  Love is the basic attitude for healthy learning.

Now let’s talk about the basic book.  The book that gives us our starting point, the book that gives us a vantage point for everything else, the book that is the very heart of education, is the book inspired by God himself, the Bible.

The Bible contains the words of many different different writers, but the entire collection comes from just one Source, the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.  In Ecclesiastes 12, the Bible says, “The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails–given by one Shepherd.  Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.”  Sometimes the Bible is like a goad, poking us and hurting us and forcing us to wake up and change our ways, but the words of Scripture are also like firmly embedded nails, like pegs that you can hang your whole life on.

One reason we need to start with the Bible is that we’ve got to start somewhere, and there are so many books and so much information floating around that we could go crazy trying to master everything.  As Ecclesiastes 12:12 puts it, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”  So many books, so little time.  And that was written in the days of parchment and clay tablets!  What about this age of computers and high speed printing presses and books and magazines and newspapers and movies and TV programs without end?  Nobody can keep track of all that information, and you’ll wear yourself out if you try.  So where do you begin?  With the book that matters more than any other, the one book everybody needs to know.  Without knowledge of the Bible, all other knowledge is trivial pursuit. The Bible doesn’t teach all the facts;  it teaches the most important facts.  the knowledge of how to become part of God’s family through Jesus Christ, God’s rules for conducting ourselves once we’ve become part of his family.

Another reason we need to start with the Bible is that it’s the only book we can be absolutely sure about.  Everything else is suspect.  Everything else can be mistaken.  But not the Word of God.  The Bible must be our basic book, not only because it deals with the most important things we all need to know, but also becuase it’s the only book that always tells the truth.  If we know the Bible, we can explore other sources of learning and sift through what’s good and what’s not.  The Bible says, “Test everything.  Hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Making the Bible the basic book doesn’t mean that we study only the Bible and ignore everything else.  Jesus commands us to love God with all our mind, and the Bible itself teaches us that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1).  That gives us the permission, even the obligation, to explore and discover more of God’s world.

The earth is the Lord’s, and all truth is God’s truth.  As John Calvin put it, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.”  Calvin says we can learn a great deal about law from lawyers, philosophy from philosophers, speech from orators, medicine from physicians, math from mathematicians, astronomy from astronomers, and so forth–whether these people know Christ and believe the Bible or not.

When we take the Bible as our starting point, we have a foundation for all our other learning, and when we take the Bible as our measuring stick, we have a way to sort through and test for what is true and good and honorable.  Because the Bible deals with the most important knowledge of all, it is the book that comes before all others.  And because the Bible is without error, it is the book by which we evaluate all others.  That’s why every child’s education should begin with the Bible and stay centered in the Bible.  The Bible is the basic book for education.

Now let’s talk about the basic classroom.  The basic classroom is everywhere.  That’s right, everywhere.  A school building isn’t the only place people learn.  Children learn at the breakfast table, by riding in a car, playing with friends, reading a book, and watching a TV program.  They learn wherever they are.  What they learn may be good or bad, but they’re learning something.  The classroom is everywhere.

Some parents think it’s horrible that a school can hand out condoms but not Bibles.  And I agree, that’s not what schools should be doing.  But some who worry about what’s happening in school let their children spend countless hours watching sexually charged videos and programs that are saturated with unmarried people hopping into bed with each other.  The parents themselves may watch soap operas and comedies and talk shows and cable movies that are at least as degrading as the worst sex education classes.  What’s the use of trying to clean up the school room if you can’t even clean up your own family room?  The classroom is everywhere, you are the basic teacher, and so you should not only withdraw your children from classroom situations that are offensive, but you should also learn how to hit the “off” button in your own home.

But knowing that the basic classroom is everywhere isn’t just a matter of what kids shouldn’t be learning.  It means taking a positive approach and using every opportunity to inspire curiosity and wonder and a love of truth.  Remember the quotation from Yeats?  “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”  Let’s not think that learning is something that happens only in a school building, where a little more is added to the bucket of information each day, until one day the student receives a diploma certifying that the bucket is full.

Children learn many things before they’re even old enough to go to school, things that are more important than anything they’ll learn in school.  And grownups who left school behind long ago can go right on learning and discovering new things from God’s Word and from God’s world.  A person who never finished graduated from high school but wants to keep learning every day has a healthier mind than someone with a Ph.D. who thinks his degree is proof that now he know all he needs to know.

Teaching and learning is part of being human.  Positive learning should be happening all the time.  And every opportunity we have, we should relate our situation and what we are learning to the the Bible.  God says in Scripture, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds…  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 11:18-19).  Everywhere you go, everything you do, show your children how to relate to God’s world in light of God’s word.

Education doesn’t just mean school.  It means praying together, reading the Bible together, reading other great books as a family, doing fun things.  It means pointing our interesting things,  stimulating and feeding your child’s wonderful, God-given gift of curiosity, answering the questions your child asks and always, always doing this in light of the Bible, until God’s Word and the wonder of learning become as natural to your children as the air they breathe.

There’s a lot to be said for the idea of getting back to basics in the schools.  The formal education a child receives is important, and next week I hope to say more about the options in education.  But right now, I’m urging you to get even more basic than the basics of schoolwork and commit yourselves to what is even more basic in the all-around education of children.  If you really want to get back to basics, then base your life on the true and living God, and impress your children with the need to base their lives on him.  The basic teacher is you, the parent.  The basic attitude is love.  The basic book is the Bible.  The basic classroom is everywhere.

All of this, and much more, comes through in one of the most basic and most powerful passages in the whole Bible, Deuteronomy 6:4-7.  “Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

PRAYER

Lord our God, what a marvel it is to be alive in this amazing world of yours!  What a joy to know you and love you in your Son Jesus!  What a privilege to stand in the light of the Bible and to explore the many different dimensions of this world!

Forgive us, dear Lord, for the ways we have failed you and the ways we have failed each other.  Forgive us parents for failing our children by neglecting the basics of a God-centered upbringing.  Forgive those of us who are children when we resist the efforts of godly parents to make us wise.

Father in heaven, help us truly to trust and obey you.  Help all of us to walk in your ways:  to love you and to love all that you have made, to listen eagerly to your Word, to honor you and see your hand at work wherever we go, and to experience the rich, abundant life that comes through faith in you.  We pray this in the name of Jesus, our Savior, our Teacher, and our Friend.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.