Education of Empire versus Education of Creation

While in many ways I consider the desacralization of educational institutions a good thing, I also feel as though we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater, losing millennia of universal Wisdom along with contentious doctrinal teachings.

One such piece of Wisdom is the distinction between “empire” and “creation,” which Wes Howard-Brook discusses in his Tikkun Online piece about the Vatican’s recent smackdowns of its nuns. This duality has gone by other names — Matthew Fox talks of fall/redemption theology and creation theology, for instance — but the concepts are so useful outside of a theological context that I prefer the names with the least religious connotations: empire and creation.

Let’s start with empire and creation in a theological context, and then move on to their educational implications.

Religion of Empire

When we speak of religion of empire, we are referring to both its origins and its mindset. It is important to note that much of modern Christianity, stemming from Roman Catholicism, is heavily influenced by the culture of the Roman Empire, which predominated in the days and years after Jesus’ death. The Romans, to put it briefly, were in the business of conquest, and, as Cynthia Bourgeault points out in The Wisdom Jesus, they placed an emphasis on uniformity, order, and authority.

When religious organizations and clergy speak in terms of divine authority, doctrine, dogma, thou shalts and thou shalt nots, they are invoking the ghosts of the Roman Empire. The institution of the Church may not be known for its nimbleness — it took 350 years for it to pardon Galileo — but it is notable for its longevity and the power it continues to wield.

The empire state of mind is one that is clearly intended to serve the preservation of the hierarchy. We know that the Divine, if we believe in one, isn’t going anywhere, regardless of the rise or fall of the Catholic Church, so the attachment to this particular institution seems a bit misplaced.

Religion of Creation

What preceded a theology of empire was the theology of creation that the historical Jesus preached and made manifest through his works. When we talk about a theology of creation, it’s important to note we’re not talking about Creationism. Put simply, we’re talking about that which creates and supports life. And when we talk about supporting life, we’re not talking about mere physical survival, in the sense that pro-life advocates in the abortion debate use the word. We’re talking about thriving. And that goes for everyone. This respect for vibrancy flows naturally into a sense of community, concern for social justice, and care for the environment. It’s about creating heaven here on earth.

It sounds like a simple enough choice, but creation is a risky path. Jesus wasn’t just a nice guy who loved everyone, healed the sick, and fed the hungry and, because he was divinely ordained to do so, saved us all by dying on a cross. His repeated challenges to authorities and hierarchies were what really made him remarkable and put him on the path to Golgotha.

This message is embedded in the parables if you can look past the filters of empire. Take, for example, the well-worn Parable of the Talents.

The Parable of the Talents: A Modern Retelling

Imagine, for a moment, the reality show The Apprentice, except that three teams are competing instead of two. Mr. Trump calls the teams to the boardroom. To the team that was most successful on the previous challenge, he gives $5,000, to the next team, $2,000, and to the third team, $1,000. Mr. Trump sends the teams away to work on the challenge, and later calls them back to the boardroom.

The first team reports that they have doubled Mr. Trump’s money, as does the second. “Well done,” says Mr. Trump. But the project manager from the third team reports, “Mr. Trump, we knew you to be a hard man, accumulating wealth you haven’t earned. We were afraid, so we sat on the money. Here is your $1,000 back.”

Without deliberation, Mr. Trump tells the project manager of the third team, “You’re fired.”

The reason I cast Mr. Trump in the starring role of the merchant is that it makes it much easier to see the error that religion of empire makes in its interpretation. The merchant is typically interpreted to be a stand-in for God, and the parable an exhortation to make the most of the gifts and talents bestowed upon you.

But if you smiled a little at this act of civil disobedience, of refusing to further enrich a man of questionable hair and questionable ethics, then you’ve caught a glimpse of creation.

From Theology to Education

Many of the elements of traditional education are easily recognized as elements of empire: neatly arranged desks, expert lecturer, and assessment through extensive use of standardized tests. After all, what did Roman legions organize themselves behind? Tall poles called standards.

The current emphasis on job-readiness, with an additional focus on STEM jobs that benefit military and corporate interests, is a clear indicator that empire has claimed education as its tool. The humanities — and note the “human” in humanities — are viewed as second-class subjects, except when we find ways to place the arts in service of the empire. Likewise, we eliminate all physical activity from schools, save sports programs. That Jerry Sandusky was permitted to do terrible things to children for so long without being reported is emblematic of empire.

We openly lament students’ inability to think critically while secretly prizing it. The ability to bow to authority and follow rules is necessary to uphold empires, so we teach students to think just critically enough to serve our goals, but not so much that their questioning is disruptive to the aims of the empire.

Even gifted education, which I’ve often considered a bastion of vibrancy and creation, has been overtaken by a philosophy of talent development that reeks of service to the empire.

The Parable of the Talents may prod us to do our very best with what we are given, but the question we must dare to ask is this: for whom?

If our children refuse to learn in the environments we’ve provided, if they are unmotivated by any of the carrots and sticks we come up with, how do we choose to interpret that?

Do we see it as a wicked refusal to live up to their potential, or a righteous protest against the empire?

From Empire to Creation

An education of creation does not ask the question of whether its students have lived up to the minimum standards of society. It does not ask whether we are leaving any children behind. It asks, instead, whether they are flourishing.

The Finnish education system has recently been held up as a model of success, but if we make the mistake of looking only to their practices and techniques, and do not ground our philosophy solidly in an ethic of creation, our efforts will fail. That the Finns provide free education to everyone, that private schools are rare, that teachers must have Masters degrees, that play is important; these are outgrowths of an ethic of creation that affirms the equity of all children and a desire to see each of them thrive.

I’ve seen increased discussion in the education community of the trappings of creation: transformative education, engagement, the reintroduction of play, the implementation of zero-grading policies, and so on.

But our educational ethos matters a great deal. In a system that is overwhelmingly empire-based, those who openly operate from of an ethic of creation risk being marginalized or cast out, and their tools risk being turned to the ends of empire.

The real tragedy of the Parable of the Talents is not that the last team does not serve its master, nor that they are cast out of the boardroom, but that, as William Herzog points out, we aren’t all taking a stand together.

Thanks to my friend and childhood pastor Father Ben for opening my eyes to this alternate interpretation of the Parable of the Talents.