Encouraging a Different Narrative

FirmBee / Pixabay
FirmBee / Pixabay

“I’m glad we don’t have to raise our kids in that culture” was the comment of the educator I was having breakfast with at a café in early August. Any guesses where I was eating breakfast and what culture the educator was referring to?

Recently I had the opportunity to work with two international Christian schools, one in Nepal and one in Indonesia. The comment above was made by an American born and raised educator who was now working in one of these schools and the culture she was referring to was the culture in her home state that she revisited this summer. She said that what struck her most is how much America is immersed in a constant culture of consumerism and how it seemed to confront her everywhere she turned.  She was actually relieved to be back at home in a third world country so she would not have to counter these consumerist messages every day and moment with her kids. I started to wonder how much of the consumer culture has actually seeped into our schools and how much is carried in each day via staff and students.

First, do we personally see how much our culture, on a daily basis, encourages us to consume and be dissatisfied? Secondly, does this concern us? Do our worldview detectors go off each time a consumerist message comes into our consciousness? Thirdly, as Christian schools, are we providing a different narrative for our students and helping them gain true biblical wisdom about biblical truth related to things that do not have eternal significance?

A long-time concern in Christian schools is that some parents choose a Christian school not because of a deep passion for a Christian education, but for reasons such as safety or success. If we don’t move parent understanding beyond safety or success to desiring shalom, then are we simply allowing parents to be consumers who are modeling consumption for their children? If the understanding of a Christian education is allowed to be just about consumption, it is more likely to just be about success or a good job or opening options for further consumption down the road. Is there a different narrative being promoted in Christian schools than consumption and success?

One of the things that still strikes me about the original High Tech High video is that Larry Rosenstock, founder and CEO, says is: “High Tech High is about production, not consumption” and then the video goes on to show ways that students are producing real and valuable services and products for others- students are asked to take the focus off from their needs and aspirations in order to serve others in authentic ways. I have pointed out in my presentations that our kids now have the digital tools, like never before, to produce, connect, and collaborate – to create/impact culture. This is not a new concept – Michelangelo suggested that it was best to “Criticize by creating.” Yet, are we giving kids opportunities to create?

In a recent blog post, professor John Spencer shares the following:

For the last eleven years, I asked my students to fill out a survey about how they use technology. Although I am now teaching university students, I think I’m going to do a similar survey. The questions are both about technology use (have you ever edited a video online?) to attitudes (what is the purpose of a smartphone?) to beliefs (how are devices changing human communication?)

The results always feel depressing.

  • 100% have watched a video online or with a device
  • 96% have played a game online or with a device
  • 82% have used Facebook
  • 8% have created a slideshow (PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Presentation)
  • 2% have written a blog post
  • less than 1% have edited a video
  • less than 1% have edited audio
  • less than 1% have coded
  • less than 1% have created a visual model

When I look at the data, I notice a trend. Students have never used their devices creatively. They have the power to capture and tell a story but they don’t. They have the power to connect to an authentic audience, but it’s not happening. They have the potential to build models and design products and turn things from wild ideas to tangible realities. However, it’s not happening.

Spencer’s informal survey begs the question: Are we giving students creative work assignments? Or are we encouraging them to simply consume bits of knowledge that are disconnected and incoherent? Are they gaining a connected picture of Christ as sovereign and holding all things together?

My questions for you to consider:

  • Is your Christian school, as currently configured, more about production or consumption?
  • Do you think that giving students many opportunities to create and produce will help them flourish, and better enable them to use their gifts to love God and neighbor?
  • How will you counter/change the current US cultural narrative with your students and parents to one that is more biblically based?

4 comments

  1. Joe Neff says:

    Thanks, Dan. Great piece on culture and what to do about it. I am afraid we are way beyond what has “seeped” in and are more normally seeing floods pour, and consumerism is a big part. I am guessing most of us in North American don’t know how drenched we are.

    But, it isn’t a new problem. I remember fifteen and twenty years ago working with missionary kids back in our school in the States. They either was almost sick of the consumerism, or they jumped in feet first. Neither was good, but showed how deep we already were but only noticed when someone was out of our culture a while.

    I think you are right. First, we need to help parents know why they are in Christian schools, what is the deep value we offer. And, second, help students learn to look outward, to give, to create, instead of looking for more.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks, Joe – you are right – we are flooded! I am concerned that the old consumption model of education just won’t help change the narrative…and our kids need a different narrative that counters the messages they are getting everywhere else. Thanks for taking time to comment.

  3. Matt says:

    Is the answer then the United States to become a Third World country? I understand the article, and consumerism is a foothold for Christians. But according to the missionaries logic, the answer then would be for America to become a Third World country and that would solve our problems? I suppose there isn’t greed, waste, and consumerism in Third World countries?

    • No, Matt – I don’t think the educator is saying that at all, but simply recognizing that each culture has different struggles that are endemic to that region and recognizing that consumerism is one of the insidious temptations to Christians in First World cultures. Our task as Christian educators is to discern the culture, examine our practices, and encourage those in our lives, including our students in our care, to live in accord with the Gospel message of Jesus. What I am attempting to build awareness about in this post is that even in our Christian schools we are tempted to settle for a consumption mentality in our teaching practices/expectations instead of seeking ways for our students to master how to produce, serve, and minister to neighbors.

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