WARNING: The following may require 10 minutes of sustained reading. Proceed with caution.
A few weeks ago, the upper school students took great joy watching me take a drill and a few big screws to my iPhone. I mounted its smoking carcass on a piece of wood and it now remains on display in the 8th-grade classroom. This was not a physics lesson or a random act of violence. During the weeks leading up to said destruction, the students and I had been engaged in a lively discussion about my plans. I told them of my growing discomfort with the place the phone was playing in my life and, most importantly, with my own inability to master the phone. I am sure most of you are familiar with the symptoms: the constant distraction, the temptation to check emails, the beeping interruptions, the feeling of never being able to switch off or disconnect, data overload, news overload, and screen overload. But what really tipped me over the edge was seeing the way my students reacted whenever they caught sight of my phone and the inordinate power it had over their attention. I did not want to feed into that dynamic anymore. They need to see that these objects are only bits of silicon and glass that are meant to serve us and are not to be worshiped and obeyed. Only God deserves that.
I am writing to you about this now because a related issue has cropped up during our parent teacher conferences that I want to make you aware of and to offer you something to think about as we strive to raise children in a highly digitized age.
The issue that has come to our attention is that a substantial number of our older students have created a Google chat group for Imago students. This has apparently existed for a while and teachers have noticed some secretiveness in the students regarding its existence. I bring it to your attention because, in the hours after report cards went home, students were posting their grades to the whole group online. Now, this is no great moral issue. We do ask students to not open their report cards at school and consider them to be a communication between us as teachers and you as families about our ongoing project of educating your children. But the issue it highlighted for us at the school is broader and concerns the medium through which the event happened.
The Google chat group is a perfect example of how social technologies have changed the social landscape in which our children are growing up and in which we are parenting. As a thought experiment let me ask you a few questions. Would you allow your children to have a party every afternoon for 25 schoolmates in your house without you there? Would you drop your kids off at school for even one morning if the teachers all went on strike? I hope the answer to these questions is an easy “no, of course not, they need to be supervised in groups like that.”
Why do we supervise children? Is it just about control and bad behavior? I think it is actually deeper and more profound. Parents and teachers are not just cops busting the bad kids. Instead, we are actually mediators of reality to our children. Think of it like this: Jesus is the mediator between us and God because if we were to stand directly in his presence with no mediator we would be destroyed. We play this role for our children. If they were to have unmediated access to each other and to the world, as they are in their fallen state, it would do great damage to them. As they grow up we introduce them to more and more of the world and give them more and more direct access to it and each other. When they are toddlers, they “play” with others with the very close supervision of multiple adults. When they are 5 or 6, they are given the backyard with a few friends for a few hours with a parent checking out the window occasionally. As they grow they get more space and less mediation to the point when we send them out with no supervision at all into the world.
Now bring the internet into the picture. If you give a child unsupervised access to the internet, who or what becomes the mediator of reality? The media becomes the mediator. What is created by this is a space where children have direct access to everything and everyone in the world. It seems difficult to wrap our heads around the fact that a smartphone or computer is not just an object among other objects. It is the entire world in your pocket. It is everything and everyone. So when a child is in his or her bedroom with a smartphone, they are no longer in your home, they are everywhere else. In the case of the Google chat room, our kids are in a room together having a party every night, mediating reality to each other.
Many of our parents are aware of the chat thing and check in on it. So what is so bad about kids chatting in the evening? It is concerning because what has been created is a space where children have near constant direct access to one another. Child spaces have always existed in some form: think of forts built in the back yards and alleyways behind houses, or even a child's playroom or bedroom. These are normal, good and needed but they are embedded in, informed and limited by the adult world and are ultimately directed towards membership in adult society. What is created by digital media is actually a distinct and separate culture, a youth culture, that exists in parallel to our culture. The youth culture of our age is increasingly foreign to and disconnected from the adult world. Without the shaping of adults, it becomes detached from the richness of history, is informed only by itself, develops its own set of ethics, language, and interests and usually settles to the basest, most banal and vapid level. It becomes a cultural Ouroborus, eternally eating itself.
Now put on top of this the sheer amount of time kids are in these digital spaces and the amount of access they have to one another. For many, this becomes their primary habitat where the adult world only occasionally breaks in. It is no wonder that these days, young adults are finding it harder and harder to “grow up” and adolescence is stretching into the 30's. The stronger and more pervasive that youth culture becomes the more this will be a problem. How can children enter the adult world if their primary cultural environment is so detached and isolated from that world? It is possible that youth culture will swallow up adult culture and we will become cut off from all that has come before us.
When it comes to these issues we are all responsible to our own consciences and will exercise wisdom in different ways. I will offer you no prescription or tell you what to do (cough, cough, kill your phone, cough). I can tell you though that I am enjoying the freedom I have found after smashing the idol, after a bit of unpleasant withdrawal I must admit. I also do believe that what I have said above is true. Unmediated access to the internet is dangerous for children. Children should not have their own subculture but be burgeoning members and inheritors of ours. We have to wrestle with this issue very carefully. The pace of change in our society is always speeding up and the consequences for our children are huge. But I am committed to Imago being a place where parents and teachers are thinking through the tough questions of our age. I hope you will join me in that.
In the same boat with you all,
Postscript: A few readers of this letter have communicated that they found it condescending and felt I was insulting them. After reflecting on these comments, I do see how it could have been read in that way. I am very sorry for this and hope the readers will forgive me. The “warnings” were truly intended to be a humorous nod to our busy age where writing tends to be short and pithy and to the fact that many people, myself included, are finding that the internet is eating away at their patience for longer pieces of writing. I in no way intended any insult or condescension. I am also grieved that my attempt at humor distracted from the content of the letter and may have worked against my deep desire that Imago be a place where we can have conversations about the important issues of our age; this one being of particular interest to me and many others.
I sincerely hope you will forgive my failure as a comedian and that we can talk about the ideas. What do you think? Should we mediate reality for our children? What might that look like in the digital arena?
The following address was given at the March 2017 Imago School Benefit Dinner.
I’ve taken the title for this talk from the title of a painting by Gaugin which I will talk about later. Where do we come from? What are we doing? Where are we going? How does one make sense of the past, the present, and the future? The answers to these questions help us do that, but the answers depend on one’s starting point.
Before I address this deeper theme, let’s look back at where Imago came from and forward to where we are going. Whence Imago? Two single women recently returned from working at L’Abri in Europe are having dinner with Pastor John and Betty Crighton and their five children and talking about what they might do next. I had trained to teach high school English and was saying I might go back to teaching to which John responded, “Why don’t you start a school?” It seemed like an outrageous idea to me, but the seed was planted and over the next year and a half Joodi and I read lots, talked to people in Christian education, formed a board, held meetings with interested parents, and in September 1981 welcomed thirteen students in grades 1 – 6 into our three rented classrooms in Acton. God had sent us “Miss A”; she and I were the teachers, and Joodi, the super Factotum, did everything else. (When his mother asked one of the 1st graders what Miss Ward did, he answered, “She sweeps the floor after lunch.”)
What? What is Imago? What are we doing? We are doing education, but “doing education” means different things based on one’s answers to “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” The second half of this talk will say more about this. Here I want to give one important answer to this question. We are a school operating on a set of founding principles about what education is and what it’s for which have not changed over 36 years. We’ve certainly learned more about how to implement these principles, and we’ve refined them and learned new ways to talk about them, but they have essentially remained the same. We have not been “tossed to and fro” by every wind of educational doctrine.
Whither Imago? Where are we going? We are going forward with new leadership. Once again God sent us the right person at exactly the right time. Danny Burbeck cares deeply about where we’ve come from, and he’s committed to the “what” which defines us. Danny, Joodi, and I have something important in common. All of us spent time studying, living, and working in L’Abri, and this time shaped for each of us our understanding of Christianity as the Truth about reality, all of reality. This truth undergirds our view of education, and it’s this view which we’ll look into more deeply.
What do we want for our students? We see education as more than information transfer and socialization. We start with the truth of students being made in the imago dei, the image of God, and of their being made by God for a purpose which fits into God’s plotline for the Story which began in Eden and ends in the New Eden. We impart knowledge and skills toward the end of helping them become what God made them to be. We want them to be able to answer the big questions about life and its meaning based on an understanding of the truth about who they are, and we want them to understand as much as they can about the world in which they live, the world which is the setting for the unfolding of God’s story. In other words, we want to give them answers to “Whence? What? Whither?” from a Christian perspective to help them understand their part in the Story.
The painting entitled “Whence? What? Whither?” is by the modern French painter Paul Gaugin, and it was painted in the late 1800’s. The questions are written right on the painting. Gaugin thought he could find the answers to these questions by leaving behind the civilized world and all its corrupting influences and going to live among the natives in the unspoiled, pristine world of Tahiti. He, like others in this time, was following the thinking of the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who saw the civilized world as the locus of evil and those living outside of it as “noble savages.” Gaugin did not find what he was looking for in Tahiti because our biggest problems are not outside of us, and so we see in this painting that the innocent baby pictured on the right grows up and eats the fruit in Paradise, but grows into an old, unhappy woman and dies. This was Gaugin’s explanation of Whence? What? Whither? There was something which hinted at the truth in Gaugin’s search for meaning amid the beauty of a tropical Paradise, but Tahiti wasn’t Eden. Gaugin had accepted a different story. At Imago we teach answers to Whence? What? Whither? based on the Story God has given us in His Word.
Whence? We are Eden’s children. Our story begins with God creating two people in His own image who were, in His words, “very good” and placing them in Eden to care for His Creation. We were made by a loving God for a purpose - to love, to think, to imagine, to create – as creatures dependent on Him but like Him.
What? We’re not in Eden anymore; we now live in a spoiled, fallen world because those two chose not to accept God’s description of reality. But, God has not abandoned His creatures or the world He made. He’s provided a way to recover what was lost through His Son, the perfect imago dei, the 2nd Adam. And He has left hints of His glory in His world which beckon us to seek Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. In the words of our school hymn: “The Power and print of Paradise meet your eyes in all things good and beautiful and true.” The fallen world still reflects its Creator.
Whither? The Story does not end in death. There will be a new Eden; Eden will “bloom again.” In the new Eden there will be no more sorrow and no more dying for all followers of the resurrected King who have come to Him through Christ.
The painter El Greco painted an amazing picture which covers the whole wall of a chapel in the Church of San Tomasso in Toledo, Spain. The painting is called The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, and right below the painting is the Count’s tomb. This painting shows a different ending to life on this earth than Gaugin’s painting suggests. There are two worlds shown here, this world and, above it, the world to come. Time and eternity are intermingled here; the saints Thomas and Augustine have come from the world to come and are lowering the Count into his tomb. Simultaneously an angel is lifting a newborn up to Heaven where Christ awaits his arrival with open arms surrounded by saints and angels. The newborn represents the Count newly born to eternal life. Here the supernatural world is shown to be just as real as this world. We as Eden’s children have a future and a hope.
Imago students aren’t just given skills and a certain amount of unrelated bits of information about life in different cultures and different times so that they can create their own identity and figure out who they are for themselves. Imago students are taught that they were created by God for a purpose which He has ordained and will help them discover so that each in his own unique way can live in this broken world as a representative of Eden, the lost Paradise, and of the world to come where all things will once again live in harmony. They are part of the Story which began in Eden and ends in the New Jerusalem, the New Eden.
This understanding of Whence? What? Whither? was central to Imago’s vision in 1981, and it will continue to be our vision as long as God wills for the school to exist.
Many people would find the phrase "Child Centered Education" to be a lovely high minded ideal. After all, education is all about children, is it not?
While giving a tour of the school to a prospective family recently, the couple told me of a perfect example of this kind of educational thought. While touring a local public kindergarten classroom they had seen a list of "class rules." Nothing new there, but the interesting part was that the rules had been written by the children. This is the child centered education of our age.
In his article "Literature, Literacy and Morality," R. V. Young, a professor of literature at North Carolina State University, makes a sharp observation when he says that this idea actually...
"....inverts the normal course of education. Etymologically as well as logically [education comes from the Latin: "ducare"] this word means to lead out, to bring forth. Its goal is to make the child responsive to the world around him, not to his own whims and desires. Children who are subjected to "child-centered" education are likely to become self-centered, self-indulgent adults."
At Imago we are attentive to the children. We pay attention to their unique skills and needs but we are striving to "lead them out," to see and know that which is beyond them. We are calling them to standards of behavior that do not come naturally to fallen beings, to learn that which they would not figure out on their own, and to create works of such quality and beauty that, without instruction and example, would rarely be attained.
This is the "reality centered" education found at Imago, welcoming children to the banquet.
Our annual Lessons and Carols service, Dec 15, 2016, was terrific. Here is the video.
Dear Friends of Imago,
Click here to download our Fall 2016 newsletter. Much is afoot at Imago this year. Keep informed, involved and in touch.
Please forgive the file size, we are currently adopting a new system for staying in touch so this newsletter has to go out in this format.
"We watched in silence, not understanding the half of what was going on. The commander barked out an order. Clock clock, went the rifle bolts. Fire! And again, and again, a salute of twenty-one guns. Then amid the curling smoke, and the boom still reverberating in our eardrums, and the birds frightened into flight, came the lone plaintive call of taps. . . . You didn't really need the words. For as we boys stood there, listening, we suspected that something of dreadful importance had gone on, something that had to do with being a man, and even more, with belonging to a nation."Read More
In this chapter our devilish guide begins to take his task of destroying imagination deeper, now into the realm of the moral imagination, the most important imaginative realm. If we can keep the moral imagination suppressed, he argues, our children will be ripe for political sloganeering, cliché thinking, and pop emotion which are perfect fodder for the madman political demagogue to feed on.Read More
The layman and certainly children are discouraged in every possible way from “looking under the hood” of the machines they use day in and day out. Seamless plastic packaging (even in car engines), warranty voiding stickers and touchscreens push our curiosity, and thereby our imaginations, away from the device. They scream like the Wizard of Oz, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."Read More
Chapter 1: “Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible”
Chapter one of our Summer Book study gives us a solid first step towards destroying our children's imagination in Anthony Esolen's upside down meditation on parenting and education. His advice? Keep them indoors as much as possible.
“Few parents grasp the danger of children playing outside. The most enlightened educators do grasp it, and have taken steps to ensure that children will be left to their own devices, outdoors, as little as possible. They have shortened the summer vacation, parceling out free days here and there through the school year. The effect is to keep children from developing the habit of learning things outside of school.” p.31
And what happens when children go out doors? What dangerous things might they find? First on Esolen's list is.....the sky. But not just the place far from the center of the earth that has gas and matter in it, but the heavens that “...naturally lead the mind to contemplate infinities.”
He goes on:
“Imagine then never being able to look upon the sky....In Lady Windemere's Fan by Oscar Wilde, Lord Darlington says, 'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.' That is bad. We want our children to look at the gutter, or at the very least, the movie theater or arcade across the street. What we want is to raise human beings that are not burdened with the yearning to look upward–unless they are seeing in the sky some career opportunity as a commercial pilot or a server of diet cola on airplane flights. We want to remove the organ of longing for the sky...The sky suggests the vastness of creation and the smallness of man's ambition. It startles us out of our dreams of vanity, it silences our pride, it stills the lust to get and spend. It is more dangerous for a human soul to fall into than for a human body to fall out of.
But the sky is there, and the best we can do is to prevent the child from stopping to notice it. At this task we have been remarkably successful. It has been many years since I have seen a child, of any age, lying on a grassy field and staring up at the sky. The most likely reason I'll give in another chapter: they do not have time to do it.” p.33
Perhaps it is not only for our own sake that we say at the end of our wits “GO PLAY OUTSIDE!”
10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child
By Anthony Esolen
To give you all something to chew on this summer as you enjoy the delights of having the kids home from school (hopefully at least occasionally), I thought to pass on some highlights over the next few weeks of a book I am reading right now.
The book is written in the style of C.S. Lewis' “Screwtape Letters” in which a neophyte devil receives advice on how to corrupt a Christian from his more experienced uncle. So in this book we learn all we need to know, and perhaps see much that we already do to destroy the imaginations of our children.
Esolen is provocative and extreme so perhaps take it with a grain of salt but I hope it will provoke some helpful thoughts as you navigate the maze of raising children in the 21st Century. Feel free to comment, push back against his ideas, or push them further. Enjoy.
Come visit the Imago School this week on Wednesday July 13 from 6-8pm.
Tour the School, meet Staff, and see what The Imago School has to offer your family.
Find us in the St. Bridget's School at 1 Percival St, Maynard MA.
The forth and final day of the Upper School trip to New York City featured a visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), a picnic lunch in Central Park and a tour of the U.S.S. Intrepid.
The Met boasts an incredible collection of paintings, sculpture, installed facades and ancient artifacts from all over the world. Spanning nearly four city blocks, one could easily spend a week working through its several hundred rooms. Before sending the kids off to explore on their own, Miss Dey walked us through several sections, highlighting and relating particular pieces to their studies. Her knowledge and passion for history and art is invaluable in these moments.
We were fortunate to be visiting NYC during Fleet Week, a time when many active military vessels dock in the harbor. We saw dozens of service men and women throughout our four-day visit. Several students sought out opportunities to thank them for their service as they passed, an important tradition being passed down to this generation.
The U.S.S. Intrepid is a retired Vietnam war era aircraft carrier that has been transformed into a permanent sea, air and space museum. It has over a dozen military aircraft on the flight deck, including a special exhibit that features the Space Shuttle "Enterprise", a prototype that was used for atmospheric testing. The hangar deck is filled with interactive exhibits and history. Lots of really cool stuff.
We had a great time in New York City, traveling all over the place to keep everyone engaged in a productive and healthy use of their time. While we enjoyed lots of laughter together, the upper school trips are designed to gain tangible experience with some of the beautiful things God has enabled people to create and produce. It also provides an opportunity for growth through limited independence and responsibility. Everyone was always on time. Most of them rose early and finished breakfast before the adults. Some of the boys even ironed their clothes without being asked. That's part of the culture of Imago.
Wednesday night's performance of Fiddler On the Roof was a great prelude to our visit to Ellis Island National Park. Many of the immigrants that came through Ellis Island shared a common story with the characters in Fiddler: Russian Jews suffering under the pogroms fled to America. The Ellis exhibit picks up where Fiddler ends so it was a great way to contextualize what we were seeing. We learned there were also lots of Italians that came through Ellis Island. One of our students looked up his family's name and found that his relatives might have come through. Pretty neat!
Our afternoon was spent in lower Manhattan island. Many of us know this area as one of the great financial centers of the world, Wall Street. What was new to me was lower Manhattan's key role in U.S. government. As we stood on the corner of Wall St. and Broad these worlds intersect, seeing both the New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall. Federal Hall is our first capital building, the site of Washington's inauguration and the centerpiece of many other important events in our early history.
This is the first upper school trip to NYC where most of the kids were born after 9/11. It was good to pause and reflect on this important event. In addition to visiting the waterfall memorials of the two towers, we included a walk through nearby Trinity Church, a refuge for the rescue and cleanup workers.
Before dinner at Buca di Beppo we walked part of the Brooklyn Bridge to get some spectacular views of the East river and the city.