Recently I wrote a column recounting the extraordinary positive influence of one angel from heaven – who happened to be my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Ethel Smith. Through her coaching, inspiration and influence, in 18 months I rose from being the school dummy, four years behind on all the scales of a standardized test, to being a straight-A honor student. She made learning fun, and these first-time school successes were powerful rewards for me.
Then, in the summer between 7th and 8th grade, I had a transforming epiphany. I had been spiritually born-again and baptized three years before. Now God showed me, as a 12-year-old, that Mrs. Smith had done His work. He had personally used Mrs. Smith to take me from worthless failure to sweet success – and that this great blessing was only a tiny parable of his amazing grace, transforming every part of my young life. The Lord Jesus also revealed to me that I could start serving him by helping others – especially by coaching and encouraging fellow students that showed evident un-used potential. Immediately after that epiphany, early in 8th grade, I first saw some of the rough edges of the education gap.
Because of the dense smoke and misleading mirrors surrounding so much of federal and state education policy, most citizens are puzzled by the education gap – the fact that nationally African-American and Hispanic-American youth graduate from high school at 66% of the rate of European-Americans – and then enter college at 50% of the rate, and finish college at 33% of the rate of European-Americans. Because of excellent civil rights legislation and proper court decisions from 50 years ago, official policies seem fair – except for limitations on school choice. The nanny state control over the selection of the children's schools has a de facto racist aspect. The politicians that teachers' unions support may seem "liberal," but their anti-choice education policies continue to enslave millions of children through dysfunctional schools they would escape in a nanosecond, if they could.
On the implementation level, racial injustice is persistent and costly. The education gap is immensely expensive because of the huge lost potential for individuals, their families and the communities. And the pipelines into prisons remain crowded, which causes further major degradations to the families and communities. The additional losses of human potential to our country and to the world are utterly incalculable. Now nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War, we all continue to pay dearly for America's chronically habitual racial sins. On the ground level, since the beginning of 8th grade, I have sought to bring some liberation to victims of these evils. Please let me share some of that story. Perhaps it will inspire.
In my high school in the inner city, many fellow students needed encouragement. The school was half black and half white, but the band (where I had the privilege of playing piccolo!) was mostly black. The college prep classes were mostly white. Because I often hung out with my fellow band members, I recognized their brilliance. Early in 8th grade, when I tried my pre-algebra problems on fellow band members, they could figure them out with great speed – even though they had been assigned to the boring "general math" class. They hated general math, because it was a mere repetition of the math they had studied for years – but they loved my pre-algebra problems, and they were smart enough to figure them out at least as fast as I could.
There was a simple solution, I thought. Bring this missed potential to the attention of a guidance counselor early enough in the Fall so that a class change could take place. It would make sense and be good for everyone. However, instead of addressing the opportunity and fixing the injustice, the advisor attacked me for presuming to advise her! How dare I, a little 8th grader with no professional qualifications, try to counsel a counselor? This 12-year-old was run out of the counseling office, but nothing was done to remedy the injustices to my brilliant fellow band members. Other visits to the hostile guidance office produced the same results. I tried to be a personal encouragement, but the miseducation and disempowerment at Central High School was as entrenched as sin. I graduated as salutatorian in a class of 300, but there were no minority students even in the honors group.
A few years later, I taught math in another racially divided high school, in a very racially charged area of Virginia. Very similar to my own high school, this one was 50% African-American, but there were no African-Americans in our college-bound math classes. The official school "policies" were fine, but the administration of fair education was deeply flawed. When I offered repeatedly to help leaders see and address the dysfunctions, I was treated as a major trouble-maker and at the end of the year "let go."
That was just fine, because there was a call on my life to be a pastor. Even before that school year was over, I had accepted the call to serve as the senior pastor of the largest church in that same geographic area. While we frequently addressed justice issues in the community, the church grew further and many people came to know the Lord Jesus. The church's children's and youth ministries multiplied, also. However, because of openly standing with Jesus for social justice, my life was directly threatened twice, and many in the surrounding community treated my wife and me as dangerous trouble-makers, calling us names I will not quote here. Biblically, this is just being in good company with the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
After completing the PhD at the University of Virginia, I was deeply honored to be a part of the educational leadership of wonderful Wheaton College, just west of Chicago. I became tenured associate professor, and also associate dean (Coordinator of General Education). I also founded and directed of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) – the first ethics center in an evangelical college. Our first CACE ethics conference was on racial issues – in spite of the fact that many of the college's administrators and faculty insisted that race was no longer an issue, then already decades after major civil rights legislation.
We connected with Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu – profound Chicago-based author of the provocative Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys. Dr. Kunjufu argues that black children's in-born capacities are proven, but many of the infrastructures of the black families and communities – and the communities at large, in school and out of school – mitigate against the children's achievement. Boys are at special risk because they have so few examples of men who read. CACE sponsored his lecturing at two conferences, including required faculty meetings, highlighting the continuing practical racism of American education – and solutions for redemptive engagement. From the faculty, these two conferences generated the most praise from some, as well as the most criticism from others, of any of the many CACE conferences.
Many otherwise brilliant people cannot see the lingering monstrous racism around them, and they are tone deaf to the obvious ways churches and families can become engaged in transformative, Biblical ministry – (1) teaching reading-mastery through the best Book, (2) teaching the Bible through the 7-Word-Wonders (www.7WordWonders.com), and (3) teaching life skills through the Word and words-the three literacies of Literacy3 (www.Literacy3.org).
Two conclusions come to mind as I reflect on these personal experiences with racism in schools:
1. Do not let school get in the way of education. School reform is needed, but resurrecting the churches and redeeming the families to their essential education matters, too.
2. Do not ignore the racism monster that will not go away gently. The redemptive power of Jesus' death and resurrection can transform dysfunctional families to educate in all the communities – and resurrect dead churches to their essential educational roles, too.
May the Lord Jesus Christ continue to empower and guide us all to honor him and his Word, as we train up the next generation by the best Book.