Monday, January 4, 2016

Kuyperian Principled Pluralism: A Case for Fair Treatment of Christian Views in Changing Times

The January 2016, CCS Newsletter cover article provided a brief introduction to a term used by Abraham Kuyper more than a hundred years ago: “Principled Pluralism.” This post is provided for those who do not read our CCS Newsletter or for those who wish to read further on the topic by way of the links within and related posts here at "To Begin With." As we enter into an election year with escalating rhetoric on all sides, it may be wise for Christians (called to impact their culture) to consider the merits of this approach to civil discourse.

Abraham Kuyper was a renowned 19th century theologian who later served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901 to 1905). He was a relentless advocate of K-12 Christian education who made an enduring case for publicly funded faith-based schools. One hundred years later, his efforts still serve as a model for school of choice and the value of parochial schools.

Though a devout Christian himself with no desire to water down the singular call of the Gospel of Christ, he fully understood that his biblical worldview could not be politically imposed upon the world, but he also believed that the absolute separation of church and state is neither healthy nor necessary in a pluralistic constitutional republic. Kuiper knew it was not the role of government to impose or inhibit religion as part of a nation’s identity.

With that in mind, Kuiper used the two words “principled pluralism” together like a blacksmith’s tongs to forge a common sense approach to governance in a setting where religious and secular worldviews were often at odds. His approach was not ecumenical (i.e."all roads lead to God so lets just get along"), but even as he served as Prime Minister, he understood that he could extend no more protection to his own deeply held religious beliefs than to those he considered erroneous.

It is important to remember that respecting another person’s right to hold an opinion does not require agreeing with it. Likewise, respecting that there are huge differences in world religions does not require believers to be blind or mute for the "common good." It is alright to agree to disagree agreeably, True pluralism does not require an "I'm okay; you're okay" pretense; nor does it mandate the silence of opposing views in the public square. 

The current one-sided activism playing out on many college campuses, however, seems to stem from a sense of entitlement and victimhood amid demands for “safe space” from “microaggressions” while chanting about which group matters more than the other. This drama of distinction unfolds in a culture otherwise eager to neutralize all differences by redefining terms (e.g. gender, conception, life, citizenship, marriage, etc.).

Ironically, in the name of “tolerance,” dissenting voices are quashed by supposedly open minds. Dare to disagree with the latest change in public opinion and you may be called a fascist, sexist, bigot, homophobe, transphobe,.. fill-in-the-blank-ophobe. [As if disagreeing with something equates fearing it. By that test, non-Christians could be called Christophobes.] The list of epithets hurled in the name of tolerance is surprisingly long. 

Public policy driven by outcry rather than principle can lead to “might makes right” and the misguided  notion of  “majority rules,” both of which our founding fathers protected against as they drafted the U.S. Constitution. From experience, the founders knew that laws based upon pendulum swings of power rather than on an enduring set of principles ultimately lead to various forms of tyranny.

As we have seen this past year, pluralism without principle leads to selective tolerance from a growing secular majority at the cost of fair treatment for those who hold opposing convictions or beliefs.

"Perhaps Kuyper's greatest significance for our own religiously and culturally fractured world is the way he proposed for religious believers to bring the full weight of their convictions into public life while fully respecting the rights of others in a pluralistic society under a constitutional government." [Jim Bratt, Kuyper biographer and professor at Calvin College]

Parity not privilege is a general paraphrase of the Golden Rule. Rather than imposing change on others against their will (e.g. through executive orders, Sharia Law, SCOTUS, or caliphates), the Golden Rule would suggest to “Govern when you are in control as you wish to be governed when you are not.” As we begin an election year, this seems like a reasonable expectation to have for elected or appointed officials.

This is the heart of Kuyperian Principled Pluralism as I understand it, and It it will help us set a useful tone for CCS students “to bring the full weight of their convictions into public life.”

Because of the limited space of the January Newsletter, I have provided some related links on this subject below. 

Tom Kapanka

Click here for an article on Kuyperian pluralism from the Cardus publication Comment.

Click here for the context of the following quotation by David Koyzis:

"In [Kuyper's] own life, he exemplified the effort to live out the lordship of Christ in every area of endeavor, including politics.

Of course, politics in the real world is a matter of trying peacefully to conciliate diversity, as the late British political scientist, Sir Bernard Crick, aptly expressed it. It requires the tolerance of “different truths,” or, more accurately, different claims to the truth. How then can Christians, whose scriptures so frequently ring with the phrase, “thus says the Lord,” be expected to live with unbelievers who deny God’s sovereignty to begin with? How can we live out an all-encompassing commitment to God’s kingdom in such a diverse society and polity? Would not Kuyper and his followers be compelled to work for the establishment of some sort of theocracy? ...

But this was not Kuyper’s approach. During his political career, Kuyper worked, not to turn the Netherlands into a godly commonwealth, but more modestly to secure a place in the public square for his Reformed Christian (Gereformeerd) supporters in the face of the secularizing ideologies spawned by the French Revolution....

In North America, ... Kuyper’s legacy amongst evangelical Christians... comes not a moment too soon. In many respects our North American polities are increasingly taking on the divided character of European countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, albeit without (yet) a comparable level of political instability....."

Click here to read of the legal case involving InterVarsity Christian Fellowship groups on public college campuses being accused or "religious discrimination" for requiring organizational officers to be Christians.

The following discussion aired after the first drafts of this article were written. It does not mention Kuiper or principled pluralism, but it does touch upon our discussion:

Click here  (or read post below) to see an ironic lack of parity in an email exchange about a state-approved workshop instructing Michigan K-12 teacher to include lessons on "Islam The Straight Path" in their classrooms.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ironic Lack of Parity Regarding the Teaching of "Islam the Straight Path" in Michigan Schools

In 2007, eight years before the above post about Kuyperian principled pluralism and the video clip that illustrates this post,  I received an email from the largest state university in Michigan asking me to promote Teaching about Islam: a workshop for K-12 teachers.

It did strike me as ironic that such a seminar was being offered by a school that likely employs a cadre of professors who make sport of mocking Christian students and/or some of their traditional views on social issues. (All three of my daughters have survived this worldview guantlet in state college classes. A few years ago, on the first day in a large lecture hall, a philosophy professor asked for a show of hands of "the Christians in the room." My daughter's hand rose without hesitation. He pointed her out (seeing no other hands) as a warning and said something like, "Keep your faith to yourself. This is "philosophy" not a religion class." That was day one. Can you imagine him issuing the same warning to a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist student? I cannot. 

Obviously, not  all professors or public school teachers have a disdain for Christianity. My sister, for instance, taught for over twenty-five years in Michigan public schools, but during that career she was told that she could not have a Bible on her desk (even for private personal reading), and one Christmas, early in her career, she was asked to remove a small Precious Moments nativity set from the back corner of the room. No such request came when other religious symbols (e.g. a menorah) were displayed for cultural/educational purposes.  My reason for sharing these anecdotes will become self-evident as you read this post. 

I have chosen not to use the actual names of people or institutions, but the dialogue below is real (cut and pasted). My purpose was not to debate the merits of either Islam or Christianity. I was not even offended that this topic was available to interested teachers. My issue was the lack of parity between this red carpet seminar for Islam compared to the "open season" on Christianity and its December holiday. This lack of parity is the antithesis of "principled pluralism." 

The emails to me are in blue text; my replies to the university are in red text.

First Email with original subject line: 

Subject: Teaching about Islam: a workshop for K-12 teachers

Dear Principal or superintendent.

This notice is to let you know about an exciting FREE 5 day workshop the Asian Studies Center at "State" U is putting on for teachers. The workshop is "Teaching about Islam" and will cover both the present situation (terrorism, women's issues, the Sharia, etc) and the history of Islam with an eye towards helping teachers understand and teach this material in their courses. The workshop will run for 5 days, from June 25 to June 29, each day from 9:00am to 4;00pm .... The seminar will be held in the international Center at "State" U and free parking passes will be issued to participants. In addition to the seminar, teachers will receive a copy of the book Islam the Straight Path by John Esposito as well as other teaching materials. The workshop will taught by Mohammad Hassain Khabil who is completing his doctorate in Islamic Studies at University of Wolverine in May. the workshop flyer and application form are on this website.

[Link to workshop website showed the daily agenda which included: Introduction to Islam; Muhammad: the Prophet of Islam;The Qur’an; Islam after Muhammad;Islamic intellectual history from law to Islamic mysticism;The pillars of Islam, rituals and holidays; Islamic civilization, etc. the Muslim world after the Crusades. Islam and violence; Gender in Islam, and Muslim feminism]

Please let your teachers know about this exciting opportunity State board
CEUs are being arranged for the workshop)

Thank you so much for your assistance
[person's name]

Assistant Director ...[department name]

My reply:
Dear [person's name],

Thank you for the invitation to "State" U's seminar on religious sensitivity toward Islam in the classroom....Participants will be glad to know State Board CEU's will be awarded....

Having read the PDF brochure, I see that the lectures will promote respect for Islam, the Koran, and students whose faith affects how they live. To be on the safe side, however, I'd like to ask some questions before promoting this opportunity to my teachers:

Will this seminar help prevent teachers from belittling the personal religious beliefs of Islamic students? I trust it would discourage teachers from mocking Islamic students for bringing "their parents' religion" with them to college. Will teachers leave this seminar feeling it's their duty to open the minds of Islamic students? Will the required text "Islam the Straight Path" tempt teachers to say that a "narrow way" is only for "narrow minds"? One would hope not, but I've heard such comments made to Christian college students so I thought I should ask.

If the seminar sessions are subtly designed to help teachers poke holes in Islam, or twist the quotations of its prophet, or question the Islamic student's need for "God," daily prayer, etc, I won’t promote it. If anything about this seminar will result in teachers teasing Islamic students or putting them "on the spot" to repeatedly defend their minority beliefs simply because they are not shared by the majority of their peers, that's a poor model for classroom dialogue. If any seminar material could later be used to convey to Islamic students that their "morality" is from an out-dated book and has no place in a tolerant society, How intolerant would that be?

On the other hand, if Dr. Mohammad Hassain Khabil's 5-day lecture series will help teachers see how wrong it is to treat people of faith as if they are less than intelligent, I can support that. The brochure says, "Each teacher will be asked to create a teaching module or lesson plan on Islam…" and that the week "is designed to give classroom teachers a good foundation in Islam and to help them integrate understanding about this often misrepresented religion into their classes."

Sounds reasonable. For far too long, America's irreverent elite have declared open season on “believers.” Thank you, "State" U, for hosting a seminar that denounces misrepresenting people of conviction simply because they believe some things are right and some things are wrong. I'm confident that Dr. Khabil will help foster a respect for the Koran in academia that is often not extended to the Bible.

Speaking of which, please also send me any information you have on seminars that may help college professors develop this same sensitivity to all students of faith. Does "State U" (or Dr Khabil's U of Wolverine) offer seminars that address showing respect for articulate Christian students who when appropriate speak or write about assigned topics from a Christian perspective? When are the dates for that seminar? If possible, I'd like to promote both the Islamic and the Christian sensitivity seminars. If there is no such seminar, that may explain the apparent disconnect between the worthy goals of this seminar for K-12 teachers and the belittling treatment of articulate Christian students in college lecture halls across the land.

Thank you for making this information available to us. I will pass it along to my teachers. The seminar falls on the week of my daughter's wedding, and I cannot attend. I genuinely wish every educator in the state could attend a seminar that promotes the civil treatment of people of faith. We can only hope that the thousands of Michigan teachers who don't attend will not follow the example of those college professors who have zero tolerance for the faith-based worldviews expressed in their classrooms.

Your personal response is welcome. My purpose in responding at length is only to better understand Academia’s treatment of people whose faith is an active part of their formative thinking.
[My name and position here.]

The next day's reply to my questions...
Dear Tom:
Thank you for your letter. The seminar is designed to promote respect and understanding for all persons and to give teachers the tools to understand Islam and to counter the negative views found in our media. Mohammad Khabil is not only an expert in Islamic studies but is a practicing Muslim himself and I have talked to him at length and he is concerned about how Islam is represented in our schools. 
Rest assured that we mutual promote respect and understanding between all religions.
The book we are giving to the teachers is one of the two best introductions to Islam by a noted scholar in the field and it non-biased and non-judgmental and tries to explain Islam from the point of view of those who practise it.

We would welcome any of your teachers into the workshop.
Sincerely, [Name] Assistant Director ...[department name]

My response to clarify the real issue behind my questions:
Dear [person's name],
Thank you for your prompt reply. I hope you're having a nice day in spite of this rain. I admire your eagerness “to give teachers the tools to understand Islam and to counter the negative views found in our media.” ...

We fervently pray that the freedoms enjoyed by Americans—those same freedoms that allow Islamic sensitivity seminars in our schools—will soon be modeled with “Appreciating America’s Religious Foundation” seminars in Islamic schools in the Middle East. Wouldn’t that be great!

Wouldn’t it be great if Mohammad Hassain Khabil's could fly in a non-American-educated female professor from Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan to teach the section on “Muslim feminism”? That would be powerful. Maybe next summer.

I do appreciate the clarification of your seminar's goals, and trust you’ll allow me to clarify my deeper concern. You and I are expressing two different but very worthy topics for discussion among educators. Your topic is “Teaching Islam in our schools.” My topic is "... the realities of unequal opportunity for free religious expression." Let me explain:

As a practicing Muslim, Dr. Mohammad Hassain Khabil, will be allowed to add personal insights from his faith in each lesson he teaches at your university. On the afternoon tour of the mosque near the campus, he will be free to speak from his personal experience. The K-12 teachers he will be teaching, however, are NOT allowed to do that. As you know they are forbidden to speak of their own faith in the classroom. They could never take their class on a field trip to their church. After attending your seminar, they will be applauded for sharing their Muslim professor’s faith next fall but still scolded if they talk about their own. There's the rub.

I was glad to hear you say that the book “Islam the Straight Path” is “non-biased…and tries to explain Islam from the point of view of those who practice it.” I only wish that one of countless expert Christian educators could come to "State U" and teach a five-day seminar with a non-biased text like “A Case for Christianity,” by C.S. Lewis or “A Case for Faith” by Lee Strobel, each of which “tries to explain [Christianity] from the point of view of those who practice it” (as you put it).

After sharing the textbook, this Christian lecturer could have a session that focuses on the endless negative Christian stereotypes found in the media. (Think about how often you see a “Christian” portrayed as a corrupt preacher or obnoxious Bible-thumper or nut in a film, sit-com, or “reality TV.” The Christians I know are neither Ned Flanders or Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction who recites a paraphrase of  Ezekiel 25:17, each time he kills someone.)

The Christians I know are obviously nothing like that. They are intelligent, caring individuals who strive to follow the teachings of arguably the most influential “teacher” who ever lived. But Hollywood would rather depict modern Christians as the misguided leaders of Salem, Massachusetts, than the brilliant minds behind our Constitution and our judicial system (the very foundations that allow a Mosque to be built near your campus and for Dr. Mohammad Hassain Khabil to teach our teachers how to teach Islam in our public classrooms).

Conversely, Christian students on college campuses like yours are “put down” mercilessly until they reach the point of sitting mute in class while their professor tears apart their deeply held beliefs.

Do you see the Irony? That is the source of frustration among many administrators. Thank you for not taking this personally, but if the leaders you serve in academia do not see the cause of this valid frustration, it will take far more than five-day seminars to bridge the “religious divide” as we proceed toward these shared goals.

Thank you for your time. I realize I may be addressing the wrong person, but I welcome additional discussion. Perhaps I should direct my thoughts to another department or person. If so, rest assured that your polite response to this and the previous email was appreciated.
Thank you for considering these thoughts,
Third email from "sender"
Dear Tom:

Actually we do have a number of gradute stduents at ["State U"] who are women and practicisng Muslims who we hope to bring into the class share their views as to, for example, why they chose to wear Islamic dress, why their husbands are supporting them in their graduate work towards PH.Ds, what they want for their female children, etc. So we do intend to integrate them (they are from Malaysia and Indonesia) into the class. 

[Note to current readers: I had mentioned bringing in guest female "feminist" speakers from Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan. Knowing that would not happen, she mentions speakers from more moderate Muslim countries in Asia. Understanding the difference between moderate and more radical forms of Islam (those who prefer Sharia law, over the U.S. Constitution, for instance, is important to the current "assimilation/immigration discussion. Now back to her note:]
....There is a great difference between teaching ABOUT religion and giving Religious Education with the view of trying to convert someone. The first belongs in our schools, the second does not. And to teach about religion, one should be able to take one's students to visit ALL places of religion in a community.

Best wishes, [signed by name, Center for Asian Studies]

My final reply with sincere thanks...
Dear [first name],

Thank you for your thoughtful responses. I know you are busy and did not intend to have this discussion with an administrator, but it has been helpful to me.

I’m glad there are Muslim female grad students residing in Michigan who can speak on those topics at the seminar. I believe your participants will receive them graciously. The hundreds of thousands of Muslims in our state support our schools, our freedoms, and the fact that America is a “Melting Pot”—we love that about our country—but there are enemies who wish to spill that melting pot. Please encourage Dr. Khabil to reiterate that the vast majority of Muslim populations not residing here also respect America’s freedoms and that THEY TOO denounce those who wish to do us harm.

Thank you for clarifying that "There is a great difference between teaching ABOUT religion and ...trying to convert someone. ...Perhaps you will better understand the frustration not yet addressed if you remember that K-12 teachers are NOT free to teach ABOUT their religion. For instance, on “Ash Wednesday,” a Catholic teacher in a public school can be told to wash off the ashen cross on her forehead even though it’s only there one day a year [case law illustrates this action]. She is not trying to "convert" her class, but she would NOT be free to talk ABOUT the mark she was asked to wash off her forehead. And yet, I think most districts would allow a female Hindu teacher in our K-12 schools to display and talk ABOUT the "bindi" on her forehead. Please don't misunderstand my point. Like you, I think both teachers should be encouraged to bring this dimension to their classroom.

Think of it this way: Your seminar is for K-12 teachers (not comparative religion teachers, just regular K-12 teachers of any grade or subject). Your brochure says you will provide a CD with 30 lesson plans for teaching ABOUT Islam in the classroom. It also mentions “other materials” will be provided. Will any of those lessons make use of the Koran? That would make sense to me, but will the State Board granting the CEUs also grant that teachers be allowed to have a Koran on their podium as they teach "about" it? [That would be interesting because they are not allowed to have a Bible there.] 

Perhaps a new day is dawning that will restore the freedom to talk ABOUT these things. Seminars like this one you have graciously invited us to attend may hasten its arrival. If so, you are indeed promoting a newsworthy event.

I have enjoyed this discussion with you. Thank you for your time.


No further emails followed.
Note: The brochure made it clear that no public funds were being used to provide this five-day workshop (and all its materials).  Typically a workshop of this length and scope and eligible for state mandated Continuing Education Credits ("CEUs") would cost hundreds of dollars.  Any guesses as to the religious orientation of the individual, organization (or country) that paid the tens of thousands of dollars to teach teachers how to teach Islam the Straight Path?

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Roots around Rock: Ideals vs. Norms:

Thoughts on Teaching toward Ideals in a Less-Than Ideal World

Part I: The  Understood Tensions inTeaching Ideals
[Click on highlighted words in this post for support links.]

The instructional philosophy and program of any school is based on a set of assumptions. Some call these assumptions a worldview for they do, indeed, determine how we interpret the world around us. An important characteristic of one’s worldview is determining whether it is shaped by fixed ideals or changing norms. Teaching from a foundation of ideals is to some too idealistic—too out-dated, to out of touch with reality, too authoritative, too non-inclusive—to be included in the 21st Century classroom. But if guiding principles and ideals cannot be taught in a school setting, what hope is there beyond its walls? Ideals are standards of expectation toward which individuals or societies can strive; they are not meant to govern, per se, but to guide. 

Ideals do not replace reality; they inspire us to improve upon it. Self-governance, for example, is an ideal which requires the reality of law enforcement, but this fact does not make reality more important than the ideals that help shape it; it merely reflects the interdependence of the two terms. Ideals that have no effect upon reality are no more attractive than reality which does not reflect ideals.

Just as there is interdependence between ideals and reality, ideals themselves cannot properly function in isolation. The quality of mercy, for instance, means little without the reality of justice. It is the natural tension between the two ideals that makes each effective. There is similar tension between our founder’s ideals of equality and freedom. Most free people consider it self-evident that “all men are created equal,” and such equality is best seen in the equal disbursement of freedom. Within the context of liberty, however, comes the freedom to excel, to “build a better mousetrap,” so to speak. Excelling is a competitive process that implies doing something BETTER than—not equal to—the other guy.

Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of equally-created people in their pursuit of happiness means little without the freedom to excel—which is to rise above "sameness" with those in the same pursuit. Freedom also allows people to rest in that pursuit—and to be content with the way things are or to reach different conclusions regarding similar things: 

In other words, one can build a better mousetrap if he chooses; or rally for the rights of mice as PETA chooses; or build a kingdom and a fortune with a mouse as Disney did. Three very different paths, freely chosen, with very unequal outcomes, and there is room for all three perspectives in the principled pluralism of a constitutional republic. 

[Note: This does not mean that PETA's cry for animal rights is morally equal to causes like Right to Life. It simply means that, constitutionally speaking, PETA activists are free to equate themselves with rats so long as they treat people who disagree with them humanely.] 

The understood tension between freedom and equality is better understood when equality is seen as the ideal of providing a level playing field rather than manipulating an equal score. To whatever extent equality guarantees outcomes each individual’s freedom to excel is proportionately diminished. Schools are wise to teach the importance of equal opportunity in conjunction with each person’s freedom to excel. There is a similar relationship between individual and corporate effort. Even though doing one’s best is an individual responsibility, achieving excellence is rarely done in isolation; it is more attainable with the help of parents, teachers, and peers; and it is more sustainable in the context of community and complementary skill sets.

It is the tension between valued ideals that makes them difficult to teach and emulate, but the task is also hard because ideals are not comfortable. Ideals do not exist to conform to man’s nature but to transform it. Formative ideals must naturally be harder than the nature they hope to transform. There’s the rub. 

Striving toward individual or collective ideals implies friction, effort and yielding, falling down and getting up and starting all over again. There is after all, that continuous clash between ideals and the realities of resistance. But just because just causes sometimes fail does not mean justice will not more often prevail; just because exceptions to a rule may sometimes be in order does not mean order itself should not be preserved; and just because students may see brokenness in and around themselves each day should not dim their hopes of a better tomorrow and purpose for embracing it.

The process of teaching ideals begins with an understanding of human nature. Left to his own devises is man basically good at heart ?... or is man's nature prone toward depravity changed only by divine intervention? The answer determines one's worldview.

As is so vividly depicted in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the question of man's nature is answered by the this unfolding reality: human behavior is only as "good" as his sense that authority exists to which he will someday give an account. The story proves that the ability to exercise "good judgment" individually requires an authoritative sense of right and wrong and the belief that collective accountability to that authority will someday be restored. 

Golding's tale [see film here] reveals that, when shared ideals and expectations erode, behavior devolves to each man doing what is right in his own eyes. "Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die" becomes the existential law of the island [which is a symbol of earth] as fewer and fewer boys believe that someone will save them. Lost is a hope of rescue (salvation), and equally lost is the notion that the boys will ever give an account of their actions on the island. 
As hope fades, the unifying call of the conch shell soon gives way to fear followed by bravado and  tribal chants to do away with Ralph and "Piggy" who dare hold to forgotten moral codes as they  speak out against wrong behavior. A society that stops calling things "wrong" may suppress feelings of guilt in the short term, but in the long term, guilt-free depravity removes the foundation upon which individual freedom and corporate governance function. The last scene of Lord of the Flies is an excellent illustration of this truth.

Teaching toward ideals is not about survivalism or a vain attempt to build a Utopian society. Nor should it breed judgmental eyes or nose-lifting elitism. Just as one can embrace ideals without becoming a blind ideologue, one can strive to develop principled good judgment without becoming the earthly judge of those choose not to agree with it. This approach echos the old maxim of etiquette: The truest test of manners is how one treats those who lack them. 

A balanced approach to teaching of and toward ideals does not mean teachers must be neutral, always claiming the middle ground or forever straddling every fence as if they hold no personal beliefs; balance does not mean they must teach that all belief systems are equal, for indeed, history proves they are not. Ideas have consequences for better or worse, and it is the long-term effect of an idea on the future of an organization or civilization that should determine its merit in the present. It is a selfless and noble worldview that can project unintended consequences of "change" beyond a lifetime to the next generation.

Part II: Are we talking about Ideas or Ideals? What is the difference?

Here it may be helpful to point out the difference between ideas and ideals. Both words are derived from the Greek root, √≠dein ‘to see. Its first use is seen in Plato's writing  where the root word ideo is used to mean the “archetypal form of something,” the standard to strive for, which implies objective meaning beyond one’s own thoughts. Applying the root meaning “to see,” it is as if an idea is a spark in the mind (or the light bulb a cartoonist might draw over an inventor’s head) whereas an ideal is a beacon, a lighthouse in the distance that guides.

In modern usage, the word idea more often refers to a subjective notion or creative thought originating in one’s mind.  Ideas are far more subjective, spontaneous, and innumerable than ideals.  Ideas may be good or bad, and therefore, shared ideas require collective scrutiny. The more people an idea affects, the more inclusive the dialogue should be. Ideas are wonderful part of being created in the image of God. Ideas fuel inventiveness, ingenuity, creativity, problems solving, etc. 

The story of mankind cannot be told without understanding the many ideas that have come and gone through the centuries. During such discussions participants should not confuse a genuine respect for one's right to share and idea (or hold an opinion) with a pretense of equal respect for all ideas or opinions. Credibility must be earned. Sound ideas gain acceptance through merit, and in that sense they become more like ideals if they stand the test of time. For this reason, students must understand that the ideal of “free speech” does not guarantee the non-existent right of "equal acceptance of all ideas." This is not to say that acceptance or public opinion alone determines the merit of an idea. What may be popular is not always right, and what is right may not always be popular. A balanced approach to teaching ideals equips students to take a stand and to practice principled pluralism with others. Understanding these terms is essential to teaching toward ideals in a less than ideal world.

Part III: The Importance of Teaching toward Ideals Rather Than Norms

As previously mentioned, formative ideals must be harder than the nature they hope to transform.

Ideals inspire standards which hold true over long periods of time. It is the static nature of ideals that causes them to fall in and out of favor—particularly within cultures that thrive on constant change whose very economies depend upon planned obsolesence in everything from fashion to durable goods.

Norms are collective patterns of behavior and societal tolerances. They are shaped by trends and the shifting winds of politics, pop-culture and public opinion. Norms are not inherently good or bad, right or wrong, but they tend to absorb absolutes and dissolve differences—to blend the black and white to gray. Norms seek an ever broader way and embrace the exchange of “new for old” on the assumption that change itself is naturally toward what is good. Little thought is given to the burden of proof incumbent upon change or the unintended consequences that come by failing to meet that burden.

Norms are therefore in constant flux as opposed to the steadfast nature of ideals. Perhaps this tension between norms and ideals is to be expected in a democracy in which public opinion and the power of majorities carry so many issues of the day. Ironically, however, the more tolerant a society becomes to constant change the less tolerant that society is toward those who hold to changeless ideals. Some call this phenomenon “reverse intolerance" or "unprincipled pluralism.” It is more often exhibited in cynicism based on the false premise that an “open mind” is superior to a firm belief. As a natural result, fewer and fewer firm beliefs are tolerated and therefore, over time, they are silenced or less frequently expressed. 

The ever-broader nature of cultural norms eventually prompts observers to ask, “If anything goes, what stays?” Over time—sometimes decades, sometimes centuries—it is the fluid, ever-dissolving, ever-absorbing nature of norms that brings them to a saturation point. It is then that a lost society stares deep in the cloudy saturated solution of norms and sees that on forgotten fibers deep inside crystals have formed, hard as rock. These crystals take on new value though they are as old as time; they are the ideals that were dissolved and forgotten in the swirl and heat and fluidity of time and change. The stability of a community rests in its ability to separate enduring ideals from swirling, temporal norms and ask: “How then should we live?”  

The Latin term for "the way things are" is status quo. In Western culture those two words are almost always used in the pegorative sense. Progressive attitudes assume that change for change sake is for the better.

In change-driven cultures, norms gradually assume the formative role of ideals. The rightness of a norm is proven by its acceptance into normality. In this sense, "rightness" does not mean righteous but alright. Something frowned upon a generation ago suddenly becomes alright, which is counterfeit to the word’s root meaning. Profanity, vulgarity, immodesty, lascivious grinding on a dance floor, and countless other behaviors once considered “taboo” steadily slither into common practice under the mantra of “Everybody’s doing it so it must be alright,” and with no more rationale than that, norms change, and behavior that was considered disgraceful or illegal for centuries is suddenly on parade.

In this sense norms are like thermometers, accepting and reflecting external changes as the new reality. Ideals are quite the opposite; they function as a thermostat, pressing toward a mark in hopes of influencing reality to a better end. 
Cultures shaped by norms rather than ideals tend to accommodate regrettable behavior rather than abstaining from it.…

The line schools draw between instructing toward ideals while writing policy and creating a school culture that recognizes the realities of human nature is an important matter for each district to decide. It is highly recommended, however, that ideals and not norms be used to set the guiding standards. Norms do not point where we should be going as a society, they merely confirm the direction we are headed, which history confirms is a never-ending cycle of “waxing worse” with time.

How should we then live and instruct so that enduring ideals can both appeal to conscience and help shape consensus? By teaching and modeling a human condition that surpasses our longing to belong and our need to feel normal. Such needs stem from an even deeper yearning: the hope of being unconditionally loved. These needs are compelling and should affect human interaction at all levels. But there is an unintended consequence of normalization, even in matters pertaining to unconditional love —the most important of all ideals. In a society that settles for coexistence, the higher ideal of unconditional love is substituted with mere tolerance. Worse yet, if the process of changing norms (aka, “the new normal”) becomes political or coercive, what begins as a plea for acceptance—whatever the issue may be—often becomes a demand for equal status of unequal things. The shift from acceptance to legislated or imposed approval unwittingly negates the beauty of unconditional love by imposing conditions. In other words, even when the concept of tolerance becomes a norm (noble as it may sound), it falls sadly short of a much more valuable commodity: the ideal of unconditional love.

Unconditional love is not undiscerning nor is it blind to things that are wrong; it is the ability to see what is unacceptable while at the same time seeing through it with the hope that grace may abound.

Ideals, in the truest sense, transcend norms. They are not just lofty words or feel-good maxims. They are not stepping stones conveniently placed along some garden walk. Stepping stones have a purpose, but they are typically put in place by man for the paths of his own choosing.
 Ideals are immovable boulders deep in the ground, exposed over time in the grip of roots…and forever bound through the ages. 
They line the rugged, narrow path from where we are to where we know we ought to be as taught in Ancient Words proven true through centuries. They guide mankind away from the short-cuts of mere coexistence toward the time-tested principles, purposes, and behaviors that perpetuate life itself and nurture the best of relationship and stewardship intended for earth as it can only be imagined in an “ideal” world. That is the heart of the kind of “community” that transcends geography and is built instead on the common ground of shared ideals.

The rise and fall of all civilizations is the story of man’s struggle to strive toward ideals that are seemingly beyond his grasp and his regrettable acceptance of human nature’s norms that are so readily within his reach. It is through striving—with all the help made known to man—striving toward our highest ideals (even if not attaining them) that individuals, homes, communities, and civilizations have the faintest hope of reflecting their intended purposes on earth.

Ideally, parents understand their lead role in the training and education of their children, and ideally they can find a school partner that understands and supports that role in a context where formative, enduring ideals have more influence than ever-changing norms. The most important choices of life depend on knowing that difference, but even when the parents and school agree on the importance of including ideals in the educational process some important questions remain:

Who decides which ideals are expected of mankind? Is it pop culture, political activists, the legislature and/or the courts that decide which ideals are relevant and which are pass√©? Or is there a higher authorship/authority/authoritative source for such things? Is the world in which we live the product of random chance—just part of a galactic box of BBs spilled? Is man the master of his own fate or is there One whose Word has set the ideals and provided the plan for all who fall short of them? Is it not this same authority to whom each individual will someday give an account?

Some educators and school systems claim that such questions may have a place in religion but not in education. This assumption, however, requires a separation of learning from life itself—separating science from conscience, facts from faith, theory from wonder and wonder from belief. Educating in a vacuum that leaves God and faith out of the equation not only compartmentalizes personal existence but also elevates the study of created things above the mere mention of a Creator. Ultimately such a “faith-free” education promises students that they can gain a full understanding of “the whole world” while giving no thought to things that transcend this world.

Based on most state-required “hours of instruction,” the average student spends over 15,000 hours under the influence and supervision of school teachers during his/her K-12 education. The quantity of time at home may be greater than the time spent at school, and ideally the influence of the home is even more compelling, but imagine the educational advantage of having the school and home on the same page. Imagine students not needing to compartmentalize the lessons of life. Imagine a school setting that purposefully integrates learning with life, science with conscience, facts with faith, theory with wonder, and wonder with belief. 
At the time of this writing, the Pledge of Allegiance is still said in public schools, but there is a difference between being “one nation under God” and being a nation that strives toward His ideals. It is true that this nation and the whole world is “under God” for He cannot be expelled from any place, but His role as our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend has been banned by law from the curriculum, lesson plans, celebrations, and student-teacher relationships of state-run schools. Imagine a place where the opposite is true.

Parents do have a choice in education.

Imagine an education in which the pressures of conformity to ever-changing norms is evaluated in the context that we are in but not of this world. Imagine a place where the norm, if you will, is caring for this world but knowing our purpose in it is to love God and others while holding fast to the unchanging, transformative Biblical ideals shared by the school, home, and church.
The school that is rooted in such shared ideals becomes more than a school; it becomes a community that partners with the home in teaching young people not only how to make a living  but also how to live.

Originally printed for CCS in booklet form in 2013
© Tom Kapanka, 2010, 2013