EDUCATION AND US
One of my tasks over the last year has been to understand the Right to Education Act which came into force from April 1 and explore how Christian institutions and churches working together can use the enabling provisions of this Act to enlarge educational opportunities for children between the age of 6 and 14 for whom the government has now made education free and compulsory. Education now is a Fundamental Right. The Act with all its promises is a landmark legislation for civil society institutions in general and Christian churches and agencies specifically, because Christians and churches have long been associated in the public mind with education. However, what is associated in the public mind is the archetypal Christian school, typically elitist and exclusive in nature and quite opposite to the inclusive nature of the State's attempt to get involved in education.
As I dialogued with many kinds of people, I noticed a sense of disquiet among many Christians at what they saw as an attempt of the State to enter into a domain that had till now been largely ignored. Many had misgivings about the secularisation of education and the impact of the law on minority educational institutions (the law does impose obligations on private educational institutions; although the obligations on minority institutions are still not clear, presumably they will be protected). Does the State have an agenda in place, even as it enforces the Right to Education? Of course it does. A key piece in the law says that all educational institutions have to teach subjects and content that is in conformity with the spirit of the Constitution. We may argue this is not such a bad thing, since the Constitution of India with its emphasis on secularism, respect for human rights and human dignity is not such a bad thing.
But that made me turn to the Bible for precedents regarding instances when the State got involved in affairs of education and with agendas and consequences. If you want to study an instance of what happened in history when the State got involved in education and that too with a clear political intent, look at the book of Daniel.
After Daniel and a whole bunch of other Jews were carried off into captivity in Babylon, they were to be 'Babylonianised'-that was why King Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans and educated in the Babylonian ways and norms. He was saying, "Acculturate and also indoctrinate these fine specimens-and make them ours!" He was basically making them 'royal offers that they could not refuse'! For Daniel and the other three youths to resist would have meant only death for them.
This curriculum was to include the Babylonian teaching on the occult, magic, the Babylonian deities, and everything else that would have made them excellent citizens of Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom. To separate these men geographically away from their home was not enough. They had to be made intellectually different; their identity had to be changed! They were not to be merely sojourners or exiles, but good and outstanding citizens of the Kingdom of Babylon. What the king wanted to do was to remove any identity that they brought with them that would have made them unable to serve his demands. Yes, from one perspective, this was ingenious of King Nebuchadnezzar! He had a bold new plan for the annihilation of one kingdom of people and the furtherance of his own kingdom, by assimilating the defeated kingdom.
We must understand here that there were two purposes trying to be accomplished, the purpose of God and the purpose of King Nebuchadnezzar. The question that we ought to be asking is, "Whose purpose, whose goal, will be accomplished?" Were the people of God to remain distinct and the seed of Israel continuing, or was Nebuchadnezzar to 'create' as it were, his own people despite God's purposes? More importantly, would God's redemption be able to be accomplished in spite of Nebuchadnezzar's strength and power? The first step of this cultural assimilation was a name change. This was extremely important and we want to understand why the youths accepted this change without resistance. Although an extremely important 'first step' in assimilation, it was not important enough to resist-yet.
There is a true element and portrayal of Hebrew wisdom being enacted here. That is, Daniel was living by his memorisation of the Book of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. God's ways must be followed, but wisely in this world! Extermination for the Hebrew youths would not be the wisest route for them to take! Wisdom gives discernment when there are no easy answers, and we see Daniel living by God's wisdom here. The four youths had to follow closely and shrewdly as they attempted to stand and preserve their identity-in spite of the tests and temptations of the Babylonians.
Here is an example of God's wisdom being practised in a culture which prided itself on knowledge-but lacked true God-given wisdom. Do we know how to use wisdom and discernment in the midst of a pagan environment? Do we withdraw from every request made of us by a pagan or secular environment, or do we pray and seek God's wisdom so that we can remain a light in the world, without 'hiding it under a bowl'? Do we seek easy answers and methods by just separating from the culture and world, or by giving in and becoming like the culture, or have we learned to use wisdom so that we can truly be 'in the world and not of it'?
Here, we see God Himself educates Daniel with true knowledge and wisdom. God Himself preserves Daniel from false and worldly knowledge, but He also teaches him wisdom in that education. Not only that, but God will use Daniel's education for the remainder of his ministry and will allow him to be promoted to a position of power under the king of Babylon until Cyrus, king of Persia, defeats the Babylonians in the latter part of the 6th century BC. Just like Moses, who was educated in all the wisdom and knowledge of Egypt many years before him, Daniel also is gifted with an education in the midst of a perverse generation so as to show forth God's glory in a dark place for the next fifty years of his life!
Later we learn that after graduation, the king called for the youth to be brought into his presence. He spoke to all the young graduates, but he found none who were equal in appearance and learning than Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king's service. In fact, the king sought these four to answer his questions in every matter of wisdom and understanding. Where his magicians and enchanters failed to supply the necessary answers, the four Hebrews were able to answer 'ten times better.'
So, let us not withdraw from the world as the religious hypocrites of Jesus' day-neither become like the world as some did during the exile to Babylon. But let us be transformed by the renewing of our minds from God's wisdom! While we need to be grateful that our government today considers it wise to spend on education and take upon itself the responsibility of educating every boy and girl between 6 and 14 by sending them to school, let us also not delude ourselves that school equates educating. Education is all about the wisdom to live and that wisdom is not to be found in schools necessarily. At the same time, let us also not delude ourselves that education is value neutral, for very clearly it is not.
The Right to Education Act specifies that no school shall teach anything that is not in harmony with the spirit of the Constitution, and that is fine. What the Act does not specify is what schools and institutions can teach. The new law will extend the reach of education to millions who did not have it before and making it operational requires vast numbers of teachers and schools which do not exist today. The kind of teachers, who are going to be trained in the next few years, will quite likely influence the mind of a whole generation. Nebuchadnezzar, all those millennia ago, understood the value of education and invested in it, even though his values and purposes were all wrong. The question is whether we in the church will understand its importance in just the same way, or be always stuck with managing the dwindling number of institutions that we have today.