More than once growing up I heard wonderful, God-fearing adults in my life say things like, “She was just so smart that she lost her faith,” or “It’s really hard for people with advanced degrees to hold on to their walk with the Lord.” Oof.
But as easy as it might be to reject those comments, that anti-intellectual tendency might not be as far from our thinking as we’d like to admit. When parenting your kids in the faith gets tricky—when the questions they are asking really push into deep matters of the intellect or into the tough realities of life—have you ever caught yourself saying, “Well sometimes you just have to have faith” as a way to get out of a tough conversation? This can be dangerous territory. If our meaning there is, “Sometimes our rational God calls us to trust Him, because he knows more than we do,” fair enough. But if our meaning is, “Sometimes we do religious stuff for no reason; now please stop asking me questions,” we are perpetuating the false reality that faith is a separate endeavor from the mind and from work and from everything else. We can’t separate the ‘sacred’ things from the ‘secular’ things: following Jesus is about all of life and about all of who we are.
I’m not too sure how it had grown inside me, but by the time I was a 19-year-old in college I had formed this same separation in my life between my faith (which was 75% about that feeling I got when I was singing at church) and my education (which was about cold hard facts and my future job prospects). One summer I read a book by one of my university’s English professors. In it, he has this great quote:
“Christians should be getting dirt under their fingernails in almost every area of interest to human beings. The common distinction between the sacred and the secular, while occasionally valid, often obscures the greater reality that God made the whole world and is not willing that any of it be the sole province of those who have turned from Him.” —Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty
This was a game changer for me as I was wrestling with a choice of major and a choice of career, because Taylor boldly claimed that my faith meant something in every major I might choose, even if it wasn’t Biblical Studies.
My pursuit of Jesus had to do with all of me, including my mind and my job. I realized that I was following not only the kindest man to walk the earth, who had redeemed my heart, but also the most brilliant man to walk the earth, who cared just as much about my mind and my career. I was following a God-man who “is before all things” and by whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). There is no question too big for him. There is no career too ‘secular’ for him. In fact, the more we explore, the more we actually come to know Him, because it is He who is at the center of it all in the first place.
We can’t separate the ‘sacred’ things from the ‘secular’ things: following Jesus is about all of life and about all of who we are.
This reality is the reason one fourth of CHA’s vision statement is dedicated to educational excellence. We want our students to be, as our vision states, Engaged in Educational Excellence, because we think it’s a crucial part of loving God and serving his people.
But what does this kind of educational excellence look like at CHA?
Let me share with you four core elements of our pedagogical approach at CHA.
#1: Set high expectations
I love that at CHA we have six members of our small faculty and staff who have doctoral degrees and three others who have taught at the collegiate level. That means that 60% of my sophomore daughter’s core courses are taught by folks who have taught at the college level. And it also means next year it will be even better at 80%.
I love that many of our graduates attend excellent universities. Because we are a small school, our students are not cogs in a college counseling machine. When our faculty write college recommendation letters, they talk about stories, not numbers. Wellesley and Northwestern and Duke and Pepperdine are real possibilities for our Jesus-following students.
I am delighted that we rank as the #1 Christian high school in the state on niche.com. It demonstrates to me that we do not shy away from intellectual pursuit as an important way to glorify God.
Jesus commands us to love God with all of our heart and soul—our being. He commands us to love God with all our strength—our bodies. He also commands us to love God with all of our minds—our intellect (Luke 10:27, Mark 12:30). God has everything to do with the brilliance required to engineer a bridge, to bring resolution to a complicated interpersonal problem, to triage a medical emergency, to argue a case, to explore an epistemological paradox, and to write a compelling monologue.
Sometimes Christian schools are looked down upon for not being academically rigorous enough. At CHA that doesn’t fit our paradigm. We are academically rigorous because we are a Christian school—because we think the rigorous use of our minds is a way we can both better understand and glorify our Creator.
#2: Talk about the “why”
“Mr. Torgerson, why do we have to learn about all this weird medieval knight stuff?”
I still vividly remember Matt, during my first year of teaching, raising his hand and asking me this question while we were in the middle of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While I don’t recall my response to Matt, I do remember my insecurity about it that evening as I reflected back on the day. (Note: First year teaching is hard!)
Why am I teaching Sir Gawain? What value does it have in these kids’ lives? Matt’s question changed my entire approach to teaching, because I was suddenly forced to realize the importance of the why. From then on, I embraced it. In fact, it became a regular mantra toward the end of my classes: “Guys, what did we learn today?” And, most importantly, “Why are we learning this?”
At CHA we have six foundational whys, and those are our Expected Student Outcomes (ESOs):
- Think Creatively, Critically, and Collaboratively
- Seek and Speak the Truth
- Love Courageously
- Excel in Your Gifts
- Walk in God’s Ways
- Explore God’s Diverse World
It is our joy to explore why we are doing what we are doing with our students, because it gives learning purpose and promotes genuine engagement. Why do we work on proofs in geometry? To think critically. That’s foundational to proving a point. Why do we sing in choir and compete in volleyball? To excel in our God-given gifts for the benefit of His people. Why do we conduct research? To seek and speak the truth. Why do we dissect pigs? To explore God’s diverse world and its infinite wonders. Why do we exegete scripture? To walk in God’s ways. When we let the why permeate all we do (and remove things that don’t have a why)—when we never let students lose sight of the point—classroom content shifts away from mundane, meaningless tasks and instead becomes all about engagement with the real world.
#3: Biblically integrate
One of our faculty’s 12 Teaching Commandments is to Always explore what God might think about the subject. I have never worked in an environment so steeped in prayer as CHA. During my first year here, I was sitting in the back of one of Carolyn Kohl’s middle school Spanish classes, and she began the class in prayer, as our teachers often do. What was remarkable to me was how Mrs. Kohl invited God right into the content and activities of the class. It was not a token gesture.
Her prayer was something along the lines of, “God, thank you for being with us today as we learn Spanish. We thank you for language and how it helps us understand one another. Please help us to focus so that we can use our minds and our abilities for the good of other people in your world.” I’ve heard prayers like this a hundred times since at CHA. Our faculty are constantly probing God’s perspective on their content:
- What’s God’s perspective on the French Revolution? Are all individual rights biblical?
- What language does God speak?
- Did God invent math? Or did we?
- How can we claim God is good despite what we read about the Holocaust in Night?
- Is it ethical to dissect God’s creation?
Every nook and cranny of our curriculum is about engagement with the Creator.
#4: Don’t just tell; involve
It’s lamentable that one of my favorite quotes about education is anonymous. But here it is:
“Tell me, and I forget; teach me, and I may remember; involve me, and I learn.”
When we make learning solely about information gathering—about opening up the noggin and pouring in—we actually perpetuate a dichotomy between life and learning. I don’t think that’s the way Jesus would do it. In the workplace, if we’re working for the Lord, Christians have to wrestle everyday to keep walking in step with Jesus in their daily decisions, in hard conversations, in competing priorities, and as they wrestle with negative attitudes. Faith is very active, and it doesn’t often look like sitting and taking notes.
In the same way, learning should be active.
Last year my youngest, Clara, asked me if I knew the verse she was memorizing around Christmas time—a verse they were going to recite in chapel. I quoted it back to her:
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder.
And that government shall be of the people,
by the people, and for the people,
and shall not perish from the earth.”
Her reply: “Dad! That’s from the Gettysburg Address, not the Bible!”
My fourth grader knew her Abraham Lincoln. Why? First, because a few months prior she had been Abraham Lincoln for the fourth grade Living Museum Project. She had a beard, a top hat, a sample log, the whole deal. Second, because she was involved in her learning and understood what was going on. I can’t wait for her to be in seventh grade and go on CHA’s Springfield trip.
Our goal at CHA is to make literature about discussion, research about problems, and discoveries about presentations. Why? Because we believe that an excellent education—and one that truly equips and inspires students to be lifetime followers of Jesus who love and serve others in every facet of the workforce—is one that’s truly engaging.
It’s this kind of engaging, excellent education that truly prepares our students—your kids—to have a real, vocational impact on the complex and challenging world in which they live. That’s the power of Christian education. I hope you’re as excited as I am to be a part of it.