Knowing is half the battle

My kids loved GI Joe during his second life in the 1980s. Our house was littered with outlandish vehicles in garish colors and implausible configurations. The boys would charge from room to room shouting “Yo, Joe!” as they pursued reptilian bad guys. One part of the cartoon stuck with our family. Anytime someone refers to knowing something or needing to know something, another family member finishes the thought with “?and knowing is half the battle.” This refers to a series of goofy GI Joe public service announcements on fire safety, drug abuse, going with strangers, etc. The hero Joe would tag the message with, “And now you know, and knowing is half the battle!”

Everyone agrees that learning and teaching have high value in our culture. We may not agree about the content of necessary knowledge?some value technical information more than the theory behind it?but we all find information of some sort worth pursuing. Our natural curiosity will find an outlet.

That’s one reason we spend billions on education. That’s why no success of our recent Texas legislative session compared with their failure to address school funding. We want our kids to know; and knowing is?well, half the battle.

Progress in our society is dependant on passing along the lessons of those who have gone before. Even before reading and writing were commonly-held skills, new generations were orally given the understanding accumulated by their forebears. There have always been teachers.

In our culture, that work depends heavily on professional educators in a public school. Thousands of our college grad education majors feel called to serve in this context. These teachers are central characters in the life of our communities. Because it is a service profession, many Christians are drawn to the work.

While teachers agree that the joy of their work and their preferred focus is teaching children skills and knowledge, their time is increasing taken with other responsibilities related to social needs of families and students. This trend is a source of some discouragement among those who love to teach children. One retired teacher added that her responsibility increased as the authority to fulfill it decreased. The experience of being a teacher today is completely mixed with these increasing frustrations.

Their primary challenge is to do the thing they love in an increasingly complex setting. Some of the complexity comes from being a governmental institution. Some of it comes from the troubled homes of the children. Teachers at the beginning of their careers may seek another profession before they’ll take a position at a school where they expect teaching to take a backseat to social and disciplinary problems.

For Christians there is an aspect of mission to the work. They carry with them a view of truth that inevitably shines through as they work with students. This, by the way, is a reason why the character and behavior of teachers matters very much. A teacher who prays for her students and who sees them as valuable bearers of God’s image will be a better reading teacher than one that only judges potential and accomplishment. Conversely, a teacher ravaged by a self-destructive lifestyle is poorer at whatever he tries.

Christians currently engaged in public education face new challenges. I don’t believe a teacher today is as free to overtly uphold the values I saw in many of my teachers. No Christian can or should leave his faith in the car when he gets to work. But can the living out of one’s faith in the context of this local and very personal government service be allowed? In many places, the answer is still “yes.” Those places will be fewer as each year passes.

I don’t expect the challenges faced by public education will be solved. These problems reflect the moral confusion of our culture; they do not cause it. Because it is a government entity, a school wanders through the same political minefield as other public institutions (the military, welfare, etc.). Since religion, specifically Christianity, is controversial, government agencies try to steer clear of ultimate truth claims. That’s why advocacy groups freak out when some Christians at the Air Force Academy witness to their friends. That’s why the Supreme Court offered such mixed, tortured opinions about displaying the Ten Commandments on public property.

What about the other, harder half of the battle, applying what you learn? You simply can’t teach skills or capabilities separate from their right application. Sex education is a fair example. It is not value neutral. We either offer guidance regarding proper sexual relationships or we leave students free to apply what we’ve taught them (and what we taught is necessarily selective) as they wish.

Teaching, particularly teaching our children, is always values-laden. There are assumptions behind any teacher’s message. If Christianity is out of bounds, some other belief system will fill the vacuum, every single time. Currently the most acceptable belief system is wildly relativistic. All foundations for understanding truth are considered equivalent, dissimilar though they may be.

Teaching history, for example, in this way is a mess. An event may be seen from many different perspectives but not all are equally significant or even valid. Trying to teach this way separates facts from meaning. This is also true in science (the question of origins or bio-ethics), literature (what weight to give classic western literature), or grammar (spelling and punctuation are culturally weighted). Arguably, teaching error is better than teaching that truth cannot be discovered or valued. A firmly held but wrong belief can be addressed; this pale “all things are true and precious” nonsense is as hard to engage as it is to define.


Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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