Christian Learning & The Daily Grind
Minutes after I sat down to do some writing, two former students of mine came by my office unexpectedly to talk. Our brief conversation was pleasant if perfunctory. It really was nice to see them. They looked healthy, content, and seemed to have settled well into good colleges. But even though I knew that our conversation wouldn’t go on longer than a few minutes, in the back of my mind there was that sense of anxiety one feels as, looking out on the week’s horizon, one can see a tidal wave of obligations building and gathering force.
A few minutes passed, I said goodbye, and felt slightly relieved. I looked at the clock and realized that I had only twenty minutes for writing before the Next Thing would take me off track. At the same time, I felt guilty. I hadn’t really paid attention to my former students because I was eager to get something done. I had labored at being nice (outwardly), but hadn’t really taken a genuine interest in them. Part of that had to do with the limits of small talk and surprise meetings; but the greater part had to do with the feeling that I had too much to do to take time for pleasantries.
The ideal Christian school (whether Catholic or Protestant) is a place where parents, students, and teachers happily work together for a common and excellent end. But the reality is harried parents, stressed-out teachers, and, at demanding schools, overworked students. Serious schools are confronted by many families that have ceased to function as families because family time is now spent at school-related activities, athletic events, or on homework. Busy as they are, good students do get their work done, though perhaps at the expense of real learning. Projects can be completed and tests excelled in, but that doesn’t mean that anything worthwhile has been learned. (In response to a question I posed to a class, one student wrote that “Teenagers are overworked because their parents and teachers want to live vicariously through them. Parents who regret not having done or learned various things will often…fill their children’s schedules with commitments that may interest the parents but may merely be another burden to the teenager.”)
“I still work like a bricklayer,” a university professor claimed in Time magazine. “I get to work at 6 in the morning and leave at 6 at night. It’s what I do.” Yes, a 12-hour work day is a long one. And yet, were that quote read aloud in a faculty meeting at most academically serious Christian secondary schools, the professor’s claim would be met with titters and rolled eyes. He teaches, at a maximum, six classes a week; secondary school teachers teach between four and six classes every weekday, some of them college-level, advanced placement courses. The professor gets sabbaticals periodically; secondary school teachers rarely do. The professor has quick access to photocopiers, faxes, private phones, e-mail, and money to travel to conferences; secondary school teachers often don’t have such access. The amazing thing is that good educations are gained at the high school level, notwithstanding the harried, jam-packed existence of teachers, students, and parents.
The wise always advise pressured people to relax and enjoy life a little. “I should feel happier,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son in 1944, “if your time was better organized, so that you could get reasonable rest: training by straining seems irrational.” Jesus admonished Martha to stop being troubled about many things and to focus on the “one thing [that] is needful” (Lk. 10:41-42). But Jesus didn’t live in America, where busy-ness and go-getting have always been cardinal values. Neither did He begin competing for entry into a prestigious university when He was 14 years old. He never had to take an SAT or Advanced Placement examination. So it’s hard to know how to put Jesus’ words into practice. And, at the same time, it seems clear from the Book of Acts that the Apostles worked their proverbial fingers to the bone for the sake of the good work they had been given by God to do. For people who want to get things done, at least in this country, the daily grind seems unavoidable.
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