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Violent Schools in a Violent World

November 7th, 2019 | 7 min read

By Casey Shutt

The Hunt, a series from the creators of Planet Earth, provides a vivid depiction of the brutal predator/prey chase. The series reveals a violent world where crocs mimic floating logs before lunging toward a herd of slurping wildebeest and a tubby sea lion lounging on a slab of ice must abruptly scramble from a polar bear who shoots up from the water to attack. Another scene follows a starving, panting wolfpack that spring into gear and – through teamwork, endurance, and desperation – close in on a faster, more nimble rabbit.

Reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, watching these real-life pursuits is exhausting. There’s no rest for these animals, for they – both prey and predator – are locked in a life and death struggle. The scenes of these desperate animals struggling to survive powerfully depicts the groaning of creation (Romans 8:22). And then it struck me: the world of these animals is not that different from our own. Sin brings a similar groaning to our lives, wreaking havoc at every level: nations prey upon nations; cyber bullies ruthlessly pounce upon the weak; sexual predators prowl in pursuit of the powerless. Our circumstances are not that different from the lives depicted in The Hunt, something we learn early on in school.

Contemporary education operates from the premise that the world is nothing more than a clump of scarce resources that individuals must fight and claw to acquire. This fight is introduced in school where students are called upon to conquer both curriculum and classmates in order to move to the head of the class and become poised for success in a cutthroat world.

Educator Parker Palmer describes it this way: “we have been schooled in a way of knowing that treats the world as an object to be dissected and manipulated, a way of knowing that gives us power over the world.” And it’s not just power over the world, but power over fellow students. The much-discussed Common Core standards were driven by anxiety over how well (and evenly) prepared American students are when compared to their international peers.

The national anxiety that spawned the Common Core bears down locally as districts compete with one another, often shrinking (or scrapping altogether) recess, PE and the Arts to allow more time for the classes that “count” in the fight. Classroom teachers do their best to serve students well in this pressure cooker, but find that much of their time is devoted to busily tracking student data that will hopefully validate their progress when compared to their colleagues, both locally and nationally. It is, after all, only the measurables that matter in this competitive world of education.

Students undoubtedly feel the cumulative anxiety that weighs on the system. Successful students acquire power that will position them for college where they will gain the chops to fight for the few resources the world has left, battling for their piece of the pie. What becomes clear to all students in the system is that power (acquired through competition) is the bottom line. A few students who feel they have no power will reach for it with all the desperation of a starving croc. Tragically, this desperate reach for power through violence occurs with greater frequency in our schools.

According to the Washington Post, more than 230,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the 1999 Columbine tragedy. The atrocious actions of too many (often marginalized) students who feel as though they lack social, academic, athletic, or artistic power, is a desperate grab for what their education has taught them to prize, power. The catastrophic step that an increasing number of students have taken is no anomaly but a tragic extension of modern education’s curriculum of control and power. The problem for our schools is a flawed target or telos that is too much in step with the cadence of the wild. While conversations about gun control and school safety protocols are worth having, it is critical that schools and educators consider afresh the purpose of education.

For C.S. Lewis, education aimed at control and power is a uniquely modern phenomenon. Lewis claims that in every other place and age education has focused upon teaching students how to live with the grain of the universe. Consider classical education. The Greeks understood the universe as integrated, ordered, and even animate. French philosopher Luc Ferry describes the Stoic conception of the world as a “gigantic animal.” Ferry continues, “[e]ach part, each member of this immense body, is perfectly in place and functions impeccably (although disasters do occur, they do not last for long, and order is soon restored) in the most literal sense: without fault, and in harmony with the other parts.”

The Greeks – Stoic or otherwise – termed the rational coherence of the universe, Logos. The purpose of education was not to teach students how to manipulate or control the world. On the contrary, the Greeks sought to help students live in step with the Logos. In other words, submission to (not control over) the rhythms of the universe was the purpose of classical education.

By the time Augustine attended school in the fourth century AD, the classical model of education had veered, shrinking its scope from the Logos to the “ephemeral aims of career, wealth, and fame,” as Joseph Clair writes. The freshly converted Augustine was faced with a dilemma: would he discard the Greek educational tradition and build a Christian education from the ground up? Or would he unite the two, building a distinctly classical Christian education? Augustine opted for the latter, synthesizing both the classical and Christian traditions and, in the process, redirected the telos of education from the Logos to love. More precisely, Augustine clarified that the Logos of the universe was love.

As the Gospel writer John puts it, the Logos (namely, Jesus) took on flesh, entered the world, and turned the lethal, crouching predator, sin, into prey, chasing it all the way to the cross. The ferocious Lion of Judah, while violent towards sin, was gentle towards those most afflicted by sin. His violent conquering of sin was coupled with restorative healing and mercy all fueled by a boundless reservoir of love. Not only did Christ rise from the dead but he is exalted and, as Paul writes, holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). Because Jesus is the integrative glue of the universe his love – as Athanasius writes while commenting on Ephesians 3:17-19 – is “unfolding” everywhere, which is why Augustine believed education should connect students with this love, teaching them to better love God and neighbor.

Throughout his ministry Jesus made paradoxical claims about his kingdom, saying things like the last will be first, those who lose their life will find it, and the meek will inherit the earth. The inbreaking of his kingdom has turned the world upside down. We’re not living in an episode of The Hunt. The bottom line of the universe is not power and control, but love, precisely the holy love of the Triune God. This mighty love, thanks to the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, is coursing through the universe.

The Greek understanding of Logos is revelatory for contemporary education and schools would do well to organize education around helping students live in step with the dance of the universe. This means seeing the student not as autonomous and mighty controller but as embedded participant of an integrated world, a virtually universal pre-modern pedagogical principle.

But what the City of Man can learn from the City of God is that the adhesive holding the cosmos together is not a cold, rational Logos, but a deeply personal force of love. Put simply, what schools need is more Jesus. Christian schools and Christians teaching in non-Christian schools have an opportunity to be an outpost of Christ’s kingdom, places that let students in on a mystery of the universe: that Jesus and his love is unfolding everywhere and bringing its restorative effects as far as the curse is found.

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Casey Shutt

Casey Shutt is pastor of King’s Cross Church in Oklahoma City. To learn more about Casey, visit his website: