Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions.
Stone the Christian: Addressing the Coddling of the American Mind
I teach Bible college students in the classroom and in my office. In the classroom I cover the broad sweep of education. I write goals and objectives that grow out of our scope and sequence. My lesson plans apply to all and, although I try to differentiate my instruction by teaching in groups and allowing multiple book choices, I know that there is a better way to teach.
In my office I have placed a rocking chair and an arm chair under the window. My office is where the truly differentiated instruction really takes shape. Many students want to discuss worldview issues, identity formation, and relationships. It’s in my office that we peel back the façade and see what is underneath. It’s in my office that I see the heart of my students. And what I see supports the trends I have been reading about in The Atlantic, The Telegraph, and WaitButWhy.
In the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote “The Coddling of the American Mind,” where they make the following observation: “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.” Then they explain why this is “disastrous for education—and mental health [i].”
In Britain, The Telegraph and other papers are talking about what they call “Stepford Students”—students who keep a Pollyanna perspective on life. These young people make sure that any views which are too far from their own are universally marginalized and labeled as ‘intolerant’ or ‘hate speech’. Manchester University’s Student Union event “From Liberation to Censorship: Does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?” is a clear example of how far things have gone. Both the radical feminist Julie Bindel and right wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos were disinvited after complaints from students about their stance on the issues[ii]. It used to be that the diversity of the perspectives in a debate were testimony to its potential for learning. Now it is reinterpreted as the potential for harm to the student.
Similarly, WaitButWhy explained why twentysomethings might be a bit more depressed than previous generations. Tim Urban does not write an academically sound blog, but he writes a wildly popular one. His article “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy” has over 500k shares[iii]. It resonates with people. His basic thesis is that twentysomethings are depressed because reality does not meet their expectations. They have been told they are special, which they translate as exceptional. They graduate from college, he argues, with the erroneous belief that the world is waiting for them.
These trends of entitlement and a lack of resilience could be dismissed by Christians as a “pagan trends.” The world is going to hell in a handbasket, we could argue, so the spoiled, sheltered, coddled products of grade-inflated public schools are now reaping what has been sown. But I don’t think that Christian schools and homeschools can so easily let themselves off the hook. Christian Smith has shown that the children in our churches have much the same worldview as those from other religions. David Kinnaman and The Barna Research Group have shown us the statistics of what our churched children believe when they enter their twenties[iv]. As a fifth grade teacher in a Christian school, I personally experienced the overprotection of helicopter moms and anxious fathers, who wanted to make sure that their child wasn’t made to feel uncomfortable.
However, discomfort is a catalyst to learning. We have a special word for discomfort in education; we call it “disequilibrium.” The mind tends to want to return to a calm state of equilibrium. When we challenge a students’ perceptions, they are forced to learn so that they can reestablish an inner sense of calm. Are we really challenging children enough that it rocks their world? Have we become so afraid of accusations of hurting a child that we do not challenge them? We have to think about whether the students in our Christian schools have an expectation that life is safe and predictable and that, if things get too hard, Mom and Dad will rescue them. Students coming to Moody Bible Institute out of a Christian school report that as long as you play the game of compliance with school policies, smile at your neighbor, and participate in acts of service you are basically left alone. But Chris Browne of Wheaton Academy has tested his high school students, largely raised in Christian homes, and he has found that their good behavior is not really supported with solid doctrinal beliefs[v]. My own conversations with children going through Christian schools lead me to believe that Christian children have similar values to the world and believe that everyone is basically good deep down (which, of course, is not biblical [Mtt. 7:11]).
So, what shall we do? I believe we need to challenge students in ways that do not destroy them, but that make them uncomfortable. We need to prepare them for the harsh realities of what some commentators call the “quarterlife crisis[vi].” We need to help them develop the critical analysis that can engage with an agile, technological culture. We need to expose our children to the realities of the world and not to hide them in a cloistered environment from which they emerge like beautiful, innocent butterflies just to be crushed under the heel of the first college professor who calls them a moron, or the first friend to unfriend them on Facebook because of their religious views. In short, we need to develop resilience in our children.
If we are to challenge our students, how might we start? I like to stone them. Before you call child safety, let me explain. First of all, I am always willing to be stoned first, and second, this is not a literal stoning. (My guess is that you had that one figured out.) When I play “Stone the Christian” in Christian schools and at camps, I let students ask me questions which they think a Christian would find hard to answer. It’s on-the-spot apologetics. The student or camper who asks a hard question can earn class rewards or camp points. Students can also collaborate to come up with really hard questions. With 8 through 11-year-olds the questions are usually simple ones like, “Why are there so many religions?” or “How can you trust your Bible?” When I have done this with highschoolers, the questions are more difficult, but not as difficult as you might hope. After a while of showing them that I am unafraid to have their stony questions thrown at me, I turn the tables. I have them answer my questions. I try and pitch the level just above what I think they can answer comfortably. And here is the essential part–I don’t rescue them. I ask them hard questions, and I let them sit with the questions at least overnight. The disequilibrium then does its work.
Instead of discouraging or deconstructing the children’s faith, this method is a positive challenge. Then I go a little deeper. I pretend that I am either a naturalist or a postmodernist. (In my college classroom, we work with fourteen different worldviews.) After I have explained what each worldview believes, I let them choose which one will attack them. Then I go after their faith from that very specific worldview perspective. The fifth graders I taught usually did well against the naturalist, but the postmodern perspective was like a greasy pole they couldn’t get a hold of. Too, they often found the postmodern worldview rather enticing.
Of course, some parents were skeptical about my talking to their children about their beliefs in such antagonistic ways. However, when I explained carefully that I was preparing them for difficult conversations after high school, the parents were quickly on board. Some of them helped their children think through the questions over night, but others joined me in letting the disequilibrium sit for a while.
Your solution to the coddling of the American mind needn’t be “Stone the Christian.” However, we must work with God to disrupt the comfort of the feathered nest. In Deuteronomy 32:11 God is described as an eagle. This is not the eagle soaring high and majestic in the clear blue sky. This eagle is busy snuggling up to its young and then pushing them out of the nest. As the eaglet wonders what on earth is happening, it plummets toward the ground, flailing wildly. But the parent eagle swoops down and catches the eaglet before it is dashed to pieces. Then it repeats. Finally the flailing becomes flapping, and the eaglet learns to fly. If we want our students to soar and not fail-to-launch, we need to emulate our loving father who throws adversity our way. We need to expose our children to some things that trouble them, and we need to let them flail a while before we raise them to the safety of the nest.
We want students who engage the world and are resilient. The peace of God–His shalom–will guard their hearts and minds as they engage the most difficult situations. Can you imagine the effect of students on their college campuses who have had their worldview attacked vigorously by friends, family, and teachers who have trained them? The reality of dorm floor debates and watercooler conversation might seem trivial compared to the paces that we have put them through. They will already be used to the discomfort of disagreement and rather than responding in fear and anger they will respond with poise and grace. If we have regularly pushed our students to do activities outside their comfort zone, when they need a job, they will not be averse to knocking on doors or making cold calls until they find someone who will give them a chance. If we intentionally let students engage in situations where they will struggle and fail, they will not collapse completely because their identity has already been built around unrealistic expectations.
We are already seeing that the Christian worldview and its values do not have dominance in the marketplace of ideas. There will be arguments and haggling, bartering and badgering. Those who stand strong will have a voice. Those who allow themselves to be silenced will be marginalized. Those who speak up in adverse conditions must be born from adversity–even if it is a rigorous simulation in our classrooms.
As an administrator you might consider using Social Studies and Bible times in your school to coordinate sequential steps into more adverse environments. Both subjects address societal conflict, so they can house simulations of current cultural contexts or past biblical narratives. The gradation can be intentional, based on developmental appropriateness.
As a classroom teacher, you can think of ways to upset the nest. If your students study The Hiding Place, role-play a Nazi looking for Jews and do not be nice about it. I did this days after a Corrie Ten Boom reenactor had come to tell my fifth grade class her story. I was delighted at how vehemently the students fought to keep her whereabouts a secret and vowed to defend her with their lives.
Among the first Christian schools, according to Paul Kienel[vii], were Martyr Schools. These schools met in secret and prepared their children for the persecution which was to come. It did so by drill and simulation. We would do well by being equally prepared to engage with the culture in which we live. Let’s train our children vigorously to be able to withstand the post-Christian attacks that will come their way. Let’s prepare them for the rigors of life in their twenties. Let’s bathe the whole process in prayer and petition to our God.
[i] Lukianoff, Gregg; Haidt, Jonathan The Coddling of the American Mind, September 2015 Issue of The Atlantic. The article was accessed on 10/31/2015 on-line at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/
[ii] Ardehali, Rod Stepford Student Culture Threatening Free Speech published by The Telegraph accessed on line at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/student-life/11930441/Stepford-student-culture-threatening-free-speech.html on 10/31/15
[iii] Urban, Tim Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Not Happy online article http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/09/why-generation-y-yuppies-are-unhappy.html accessed on 10/31/15
[iv] Kinnaman, David You Lost Me Baker Books 2011
[v] Personal conversation
[vi] Robbins, Alexandra; Wilner, Abby Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties (Tarcher, 2001)
[vii] Kienel, Paul A History of Christian School Education, Volume 1 (Purposeful Design 1998)
May we have courage to challenge the young. May we upset the nest of those who are in our charge so that they develop resilience. Let us not coddle our young, but let us challenge them.
- How does God develop the children of Israel according to Deuteronomy 32:11?
- How can care and compassion come from the same source as one who overturns the nest?
- What might an ancient Israelite think when reading this verse in context?
- How has your nest been overturned? What did you learn?
- How have you challenged another person by participating in the overturning of their nest?