Prairie View

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

More Lethal Than Covid-19?

A number of months ago, in a surprising set of circumstances, I found myself explaining something  that I had never tried to articulate before to a lawyer from Topeka, Kansas.  He was asking about Amish Mennonites and inquiring about their religious beliefs.  I told him that living out one's faith in the context of community is one thing that is very important to Amish Mennonites.  To put it in slightly exaggerated terms, they (we) believe that a Christian life is lived as part of a body of believers or the Christian life hardly exists at all. 

He had stated publicly that he was attending the meeting we were at on behalf of his church, so I knew that he was no stranger to religious ideas.  Nevertheless, I could tell that this confident man didn't quite know what to make of what I was telling him.  He was too courteous to argue, and too doubtful to offer any affirmation.

Today I read something posted by Gerald J. Mast on Facebook that echoed some of the same sentiments that I shared with the lawyer.  When I read it, I made an instant connection between racism and what I had told the lawyer.  Here's what Mast said:

For a substantial number of Americans, the concept of a "public good" or a "common good" is completely absent from their conceptual framework. There is only individual good, the good that I pursue myself or that I experience myself. It's not something that I can share, except insofar as I offer it personally to another individual as an act of individual charity or piety. And this is reinforced in the religious sphere by a definition of salvation that is entirely personal--Jesus died for my individual sins and my guarantee of salvation is my individual decision to accept Christ's death as the sacrifice that vindicates me before God. This means there is no understanding of social or structural or collective sin or of communal or collective salvation; therefore also no social or collective repentance or responsibility.

Some of this is a little bit too deep for me.  It's also a little bit too "Amish" for me.  That is, the language of evangelicalism and fundamentalism makes much of the necessity of the new birth, a personal transaction between an individual and God.  In our Amish Mennonite churches, we have mostly adopted the same language, and by it, I believe, lost some of the richness of our historical Amish understanding of living a life of faith.

I idealize recovering some of those Amish sensibilities.  As Mast notes (elsewhere in the same post, mostly),  this Amish sensibility is deeply entwined with feeling a responsibility to promote "common good."  It avoids the kind of individualism that has become toxic in the "mask" wars, for example.  Consider this quote from Mast's OP:  "It takes a rhetorical scholar borrowing from feminist studies who is also a preacher to really explain why many Americans are so averse to wearing face coverings in the middle of a lethal pandemic: "On this reading wearing a mask attacks the feeling of absolute autonomy, cuts at the roots of individualism, assaults feelings of sovereign selfhood, and becomes an existential threat to identity."

I believe that we have sometimes unfairly disparaged "joining the church" through baptism as the sign of a changed life as the Old Order Amish do.  This is, in fact, similar to what launched the Anabaptist movement in the 1520s, of which the Amish group is an offshoot--adult baptism being a declaration that Jesus is Lord, with an accompanying commitment to a life of discipleship in the context of Christian community.  The "package" is gelassenheit (surrender), to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ--the opposite of asserting and claiming individual rights or "sovereign selfhood.".

I see something very different from gelassenheit in some conservative Anabaptist Christians' strident criticism of leaders who attempt to rein in the spread of Covid-19 or to warn of its potential devastation.  They assign devious motives to anyone whose edicts inconvenience them or whose scholarly projections don't quite pan out.  They construct and publicize elaborate conspiracy theories around these inconveniences and "suspect" motives. They miss the fact that the "off" numbers quite possibly resulted from some people actually taking the limitations on activities and the warnings seriously--resulting in being spared the worst case scenarios).  They don't admit that they are possibly even misunderstanding the numbers, and the mistakes may actually not be present. They seemingly have no understanding of the fluid nature of knowledge about a new disease.  "Mistakes do not prove conspiracy."  John Waldron, a Mennonite doctor writing soberly on COVID-19 said succinctly.  That this truth is not readily recognized by some of us is not only cringe-worthy, but repentance-worthy.

I see no gelassenheit in blatant refusal to abide by policies for mask wearing from civil authorities or expectations communicated by church leaders.  I see in it a breathtaking assertion of individualism and sovereign selfhood.

Not being able to see beyond one's own inconvenience to the good of the community is a fundamental departure from historic Anabaptist practice--as though no connection exists between a life of faith and its expression in a Christian brotherhood and among those around it.  If that "Amish" sensibility is lost, the potential devastation to our faith community may be even more lethal than Covid-19. 


Note:  Spead out over the past few weeks, this post has been beset by many technical difficulties, which involved loss of text, rewriting, and "save" malfunctions.  Today I was shocked to find that it had, in fact, not yet made it to publication.  Just in case more than technical difficulties were involved, I'm praying for protection over this effort. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Betsy and I Speak on Schooling

With the normal opening of school only a bit more than a month away, the topic is getting a lot of press these days.  In national news, the U. S. Secretery of Education, Betsy DeVos, is giving voice to the federal administration's wishes by threatening to withhold funding from any schools that do not reopen normally, on schedule.  It's not clear, however, how this could be done, since funding for education comes mostly through state government--not national government.  This scholarly writer*,whom I've come to trust a great deal, believes that DeVos sees in the pandemic an opportunity to privatize education entirely.  In her home state of Michigan, many "regular" schools have been replaced by charter schools, presumably privately run. 

I find some common ground with DeVos, but am simultaneously horrified at what seems like an effort to effectively dismantle public education.  I do wish for schools to function with  less top-down regulation, but have little hope that across-the-board privatization will offer a good solution to the problems in education.  As I see it, that would make education one more capitalistic experiment, open to manipulation by anyone who has the money and power to call the shots in a specific locality.  I see this as not only diluting the nation's will to prioritze the common good above the ideals of efficiency and productivity, but leaving many vulnerable families underserved. 

Many in my reading audience will wonder why what happens nationally in education should make any difference to us, since private schools are exempt from many government regulations.  Others will see in DeVos' ideals hope that private schools will be able to use government money as a funding source.  Those who are heavily invested in conservative politics will applaud DeVos, no matter what she does.

What I do like about DeVos' ideals is that she is interested in empowering parents to make choices for their children's education. 

I know that not all parents have the means or capability to provide academic instruction for their children, and these parents will need help from others.  The model in Scripture for child training is clear, however, in that the primary responsibility belongs to parents.  This is why our models should start there as well.  In my estimation, both public and private schools have in most cases moved far away from this ideal.  When parental roles are considered, what is most familiar often looks more like abdication than delegation.  Institutional roles often look more like asking to be served rather than serving.  The pandemic offers us an opportunity to reorient our group education efforts around the Scriptural model. 

One of the few things that almost everyone seems to agree on is that spread of disease is most likely when people spend lots of time in enclosed spaces with infected individuals in close proximity to others.  With Covid-19, a major complication is that people who are infected may not know that they are infected.  Infections jump from one person to another most effectively in the days before symptoms develop.  If people knew right away when they become infected and were conscientious about staying home, life would be much simpler all around, especially for those planning for group schooling.  I simply know of no way to insure that infections are not transferred inside typical classrooms, given these complications--if community spread is occurring, and people are moving about freely outside the classrooms. It is these complications that set Covid-19 apart from "regular" flu. 

"Normal" schooling, as we know, always involves lots of time with other individuals in close proximity in enclosed spaces.  The things that people know to do to minimize the hazard of inhaling the virus particles are not easy to accomplish inside classrooms.  Everyone wearing masks?  Possibly, but not likely, given the fact that parents of students are sometimes unwilling to comply even when mandated, not to mention the built-in resistance to being inconvenienced that most immature people have.  Staying at least six feet apart at all times in the classroom?  Possibly, but classroom size and number of students per classroom are limitations.  Bringing in fresh outside air constantly, while exhausting indoor (potentially contaminated) air?  This would require major retrofitting of the ventilation systems in use, and would make the utilities costs skyrocket, if outdoor air varies too much from 70 degrees.  Frequent hand sanitation?  This is the probably the most doable aspect of infection control that could be implemented at school, if done upon entrance and exit to the classroom, every time.  None of these measures are necessary in a normal homeschooling environment.

Nearly all of the burden for implementing and maintaining these safety measures would rest on school personnel.  I seriously question whether it's possible for them to manage the task AND teach academic content besides.

I know that what happened last year when the school year was abruptly upended was not easy for anyone.  The teachers especially have my heartfelt sympathies.  Their already-heavy workload increased, and few of the rewards of teaching could be experienced.  Frustrated students and parents added to the burden for teachers.  Just managing to stay in touch meant navigating a technological jungle. 

At least at our local Christian school, I believe that teachers did not need to worry about students having enough food or being exposed to abuse while at home, or having the students left to fend for themselves during the day without parents at home.  This was not true in all schools.

Increasingly, I believe it's becoming a necessity to have a church-based education structure that maximizes the effectiveness of schooling at home.  At a minimum, putting such a system in place now would greatly streamline things if reverting to it would become a necessity, either by mandate, or by the necessity to protect people's life and well-being.  I'm hearing from friends who live elsewhere that their chldren will not be attending school away from home during the coming year because they believe that their children would be in harm's way if they did so. 

At least one local public school district is asking all patrons to choose either virtual schooling or classroom schooling, with no option to mix the two--that is, they will not attend school only on certain days or for certain classes, and plan to do the rest at home.  They will either go to school every day or work from home every day.  Plans are in place to provide laptops for each student, so that the virtual program provided by the school is accessible to all who choose this option.  I lament parents needing to make this hard choice, but I completely understand the necessity from an institutional perspective. 

Virtual schooling is not necessarily synonymous with homeschooling.  I won't go into all the differences, but you should at least know that the main feature of virtual schooling is that, with the aid of technology, it attempts to duplicate a classroom education without needing to enter a physical classroom.  The main feature of typical homeschooling that varies from this is that the school is self-contained, without curriculum materials, lesson plans, instruction, or equipment being provided by the school, or reporting to the school being required. 

For our local Christian school, and for communities similar to ours, I believe that the homeschooling model is more workable than the virtual school model.  But wait.  I'm actually not saying that every family should be abandoned to their own efforts to educate their children, or that it would ideally all happen at home, or even that a laptop should be provided for each student.  If it had to, school could happen at home.  If circumstances allowed, schooling could be a hybrid between family-based  and community-based schooling.  The hybridization could take several forms. 

In an earlier post, I talked about small one-room schools involving cooperative efforts between several families.  While it would be easiest to see this as a win for homeschoolers, I believe this could be the first incremental step in hybridization as well. For those who are poised to go back to "normal" school as soon as possible, the curriculum in use at the "normal" school would be used in a one-room school model.  Getting this model up and running before the school year starts seems wise.  This one would work--minimally at least, regardless of what happens to "normal" schooling. 

The next step could possibly involve bringing smaller groups of students to a central gathering place for shorter amounts of time.  I haven't developed this line of thinking very far, but perhaps it would be possible for multi-grade classrooms to bring in no more than one grade per day, to insure that there would be adequate space for the students to spread out in the classroom.  Students would work at home on the days they are not in class.  Note that since this is a grouping of age-mates rather than family units, the risk of exposure to infection is significantly greater--because each student potentially brings along whatever microbes are present in their family home--some of them no doubt brought there by individuals who are present in the work world away from home. 

Classrooms could be completely aired out at least once a day, and surfaces could be disinfected beween student groups.  During nice weather, some classes could perhaps be conducted outside.  Teachers could see more of their students and students could see their friends. 

If spacing of classroom days were sufficiently distant (one day a week, or at least 3 days apart? ), anyone who is infected but pre-symptomatic--someone needs to help me with this thought . . . . I was thinking that it would be less likely for spread to happen between students because infected people would have time to develop symptoms on the "off" days and stay home when they're sick, but I'm not sure. . . .

I'll need to come back to this topic in a later post.  Duty calls elsewhere for now.


 *I urge anyone with an interest in hearing a careful and well-crafted reporting of news, with limited ideological spin, to follow Heather Cox Richardson on Facebook or on one of the other platforms she uses.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Schooling During a Pandemic

I have no idea why this topic seems urgent to me right now, but I want to share an idea for anyone who is resposible for making plans for Grades 1-12 students for the following school year.  I am thinking especially about how best to  manage education for students in families that have not chosen to homeschool, but may be forced again into some alternative mode of education, just as was the case duirng the past school year. 

I'll give it to you straight.  If you are a parent, the best way to insure that you will not experience major upheaval and crisis during the school year is to plan to homeschool during the coming year.  Buy your curriculum now so that you can get started whenever you please and keep going, no matter what happens in the brick-and-mortar schools around you.  If you are accustomed to sending your children away for school, and hope to do so again soon, it may be worthwhile to consider the curriculum that is being used in the school they would be attending if society were not in emergency mode.  Having teacher's material will be important, although this will add considerably to the cost. 

You should know, however, that if you choose to go the classroom-school curriculum route, you run the risk of a high level of frustration because the material may not be well-matched for you or for the students in your family.  Materials prepared for a classroom full of age-mates is of necessity geared toward the middle of the class.  This means that students who are not in the middle will  likely find the material and the pace frustrating, either because it moves too fast or too slow.  This problem is most pronounced in subjects like math that are of necessity rather rigidly sequenced.

The second piece of what I recommend is that you seek to partner with a few neighboring families to organize a one-room school for all the school-aged children in these families. I idealize six to eight students in these one-room schools, but possibly up to 12 would be possible.  Basically, I believe the gathered students should still be family-sized in number, and they should fit around a dining room table. 

The students in the one-room school would gather in one of the neighborhood homes whenever they meet.  They would meet at least one day (or half day) per week, and one parent would be in charge of providing the supervision for the day in which the meeting happens in their home.  The parent in charge for the day could hire someone outside the family if the parent is not able to perform the task of supervision. 

What happens during the time the students are gathered should be determined collectively by the parents involved in individual one-room schools.  At a minimum, the parent-teacher for the day will need to function as a supervisor/facilitator for the students working on the lessons assigned by the students' own parents.  Students will bring the needed curriculum materials and supplies from home. 
Alternatively, the parent in charge for the day could plan and carry out some group activities that all could participate in.  This would provide a wonderful opportunity for parents to share their passion and expertise in the specific areas in which they shine, and for the students to benefit.  The downside is that it would require more planning and preparation for parents than carrying out the minimal duties. 

I have considered a myriad of details related to this proposal to form one-room schools, but I will zero in on only one additional detail:  Why neighborhood schools?  This seems intuitive partly because that's the model that comes to us from education in America.  Before consolidation, every small geographic area had a school   While mechanized transportation is more available now than it was then, biking or walking to school would have some benefits.  Beyond this, however, is the simple fact that in the event of a near-lockdown, staying as close to home as possible has some benefits.

In some cases, extended family groups might work better than geographic-proximity groups.   Other criterea for groupings are possible also.  The difficulty of moving away from geographic proximity as a determiner of who makes up an individual "school" is that things can get very messy very fast organizationally, and some families are at risk for not being "wanted" in any group.  Perhaps some existing "authority" like a homeschool administrator and some helpers, or a school board or school staff or a group of church leaders could take some initiative in organizing the groups.  Beginning with the idea of geographic groupings and making needed adjustments where that doesn't seem feasible would be one possibility.  In any case, I believe that tweaking the method of forming groups would be preferable to discarding the idea of small one-room schools entirely.


In our extended family (our sons' families), too little planning together has taken place for me to know how a one-room family school might look.  I'm happy though that the idea of having a "cottage school" on our property is beginning to take shape.  The cottage building is being prepared at the home of my brother Lowell.  It will be 12' x 24'.  The size is pre-determined because the cottage is being created using an existing framework that originally was made for bedrooms added on to Lowell's house before the house underwent a major remodel much later. 

I vizualize the possibility of all the school age grandchildren coming to the cottage one day a week with one of our three daughters-in-law being in charge.  I could babysit the preschoolers inside the house while school happens in the cottage.  Every fourth week, I could possibly be the teacher in charge at the cottage.  On that day, no babysitting services would be offered. 

Even if no one-room school meets in the cottage, I believe meeting in this space would greatly enhance what I have been able to offer my nature group children so far.  I know that it would really streamline my preparation and ability to assist the students in working on their nature journals. 


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