The End of Religion and the End of School

This post is not intended to spark a debate about religion or Christianity but rather draw attention to an analogy that might be helpful for some. I hope it’s a useful comparison of two huge societal shifts.

I had the pleasure of hearing Bruxy Cavey speak on Friday. Bruxy is a pastor and author of the book The End of Religion. The premise of his book revolves around Jesus’ attempt to stop religion, tradition and liturgy from being the foundations of belief and spirituality. He makes a compelling case for Christs’ desire for people to be free from the law and experience a life built around a person rather than a set of rules.

“What Jesus came to establish was a subversive spirituality outside the boundary markers of traditional religion, and in the process he made religion itself obsolete.”

As he was speaking I couldn’t help think of two educators: Stephen Downes and Clay Burell. Stephen has for a long time given up on the hope that schools in their current state can possibly achieve a true level of personal learning. His and others idea of deschooling is one that for most gets a nod but is quickly tossed aside as “it’s-not-going-to-happen-so-why-bother”. Clay’s unschooliness theme runs through his blog and I’ve stolen his quote many times to say I don’t like school but love learning.

Could we modify the above quote to this?:

“Personal Learning comes as a subversive education model outside the boundary markers of traditional schooling, and in the process makes school itself obsolete.”



So as I listened to Bruxy I was amazed at the number of connections between his idea about religion and my own beliefs about school. Without getting into too much detail about his talk and book, it became apparent to me that what many are fighting for is to not necessarily abandon school but to eliminate the structure and traditions of school that interfere with learning. This is hard work. Bruxy does many things to remove religion from his own church. Witness

      his recent podcast
with the friendly atheist.

Because everyone on the planet has virtually all come to think of school and learning synonymously, it’s difficult for many to see beyond the structure of school. The people of the New Testament experienced the same thing when it came to religion. They only knew about God in the context of religious structure, not all of which was bad, but it had become the focal point of spiritual life and to tamper with it was blasphemous. Jesus is relentless in pointing out the hypocrisies.

Clay and Stephen and others do this often and often with contrary results. While I know Stephen has largely given up on schools but there is hope. Those of us working inside these institutions recognize that the boundaries imposed on us by the very structure of the organizations aren’t very effective. The structure of current schools was developed largely in an industrial age where it met a particular need at a particular time. So too did the religious structures. Jesus came to change that. In schools our need for change is precipitated by many things certainly access to information and people being a major force. Just as with many churches that are not purely focused on their religiosity, neither are all schools focused on schooliness. There are moments, individuals and leaders looking to make school more about learning and less about structure. When it comes to my specific role as someone charged with making technology seamless in our schools, it’s clear to me that just as there are those bound by structures of school there are those who see often see technology as the structure we ought to believe in. At times I’m guilty of this.

I need to see that learning is the goal. Okay so this may seem obvious but in the daily grind it’s easy to become the Pharisees of modern education. We have difficulty when students don’t respond to school the way we think they ought to. Personal learning has little place in many of our classrooms. The frustrations of those of us who recognize this hypocrisy grows every day. We are looking for someone who can change this. Someone with authority who can break down the traditions and structure that so often bind us from what learning should look like. There are certainly glimmers of hope.

Back to Bruxy. He was asked at the end of his talk, “How do you justify working in a church when you seem to be saying that Christ came to end religion?”. His answer was that it’s not that churches in themselves are bad, structure has its place but believing that the structure itself will save you is where you run into trouble.

He finished by giving the example of a thirsty person licking the outside of the water bottle. Obviously ridiculous. But the bottle represents the structure. What we really want is inside the bottle. Can this be true of schools? If so, no wonder our students are often left unsatisfied and go through the motions of what they think we want from them.

I’m sure you can poke holes in this analogy, but for me I was challenged but this idea and can’t help but doing a little pattern recognition and also practicing what Stephen preaches about expanding your network of ideas.

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  • Although I grew up Catholic, as an adult I am not an ‘organized’ religion kind of person. And when I was trying to explain to some coworkers why I was having such a hard time with the direction of schools, I was struggling to find the right words. Basically, I came to realize that I didn’t have a church or a religion that I followed in life… I had schools. I believed in them as the last bastion of community and democracy and possibility for so many kids. I believed that they were the great leveler amongst students, that being part of that arch of possibility was what I was about. And, if schools are my church, in the past 2 years I have been going through a crisis of faith. The schools that I believed in are no longer adapting to the educational needs of the students. In many instances, the prison model of school design has crept into the vernacular of student discipline and curricular ‘control’, undermining the goals of building a dynamic, community of learners. It is evident that as the schoolhouse walls get thinner due to ubiquitous access to information, schools need to retool, redesign and reform. And that isn’t happening at near the rate necessary.

    So you ask…Are schools dead? I think not, I hope not. I still believe in the transformative power of a group of people working together for a common goal and the role that school can play in that endeavor. I have just come to realize that I need to join a new ‘church’ and finding or creating a ‘new’ space for students has proven to be oh so challenging.

  • Thanks Diana for your comments,

    It really has much to do with perspective. There are days when it seems most schools are so far from where they need to be and then other times I get glimpses of hope. Obviously the time I spend in my online network reinforces the hope part but even in schools, the teachers who begin by “teaching kids” not teaching subject are closest to abandoning the structure of schooliness. Yet they often run into roadblocks as they try to break from the expectations of the hierarchies.

    You’ve accurately identified many of the school design issues that cripple learning. But I wonder if Jesus even 2000 years later is happy with many of religious confines. Even though he spend time with prostitutes and others of lower societal standing, he was chastised for that and many religious leaders of our day might still take the same stance. That example doesn’t say much for the chance of schools to reform.

    However, just as we’ve seen more diversity in religion and spirituality, I think we’ll continue to see this in education. Mine and I’m sure your exposure to a global network is already revealing such a variety in learning and schools. My guess this will continue to expand. We’ll see the “back to the basic” movement take root as well as the push to personal learning.

  • Dean
    love this post – you’ve captured many of the ideas and insights that resonate fully with me, particularly the way you’ve related the church/school scenarios. Our biggest problem in Western society is that even if you strip away all logical (learning related) reasons for schools to exist, you come face to face with another reality – schools fulfil a significant child-minding service without which much of our economic base would be threatened with a large percentage of our workforce being prevented from working. This issue emerged during the discussions internationally around the OECD’s six scenarios (ref. scenario three – de-schooling)
    I see a possible solution lying in the middle somewhere – facing up to the fact that schools may not serve our students well in terms of personalising learning, but recognising that they do server a purpose in the social context (not simply child minding.) think of some of hte most successful examples of school activities today – the drama performance, stage challenge, school camp, sports events etc. These all share one thing in common, the need for cooperation and collaboration, from planning to implementation, and within which skills of leadership, team roles, decision making, compromise etc etc are learned – all essential competencies and dispositions for living and working in the 21st century.
    There are plenty of ways in which the formal ‘subject’ learning can be provided – online, seminars, face-to-face, large groups etc – whether at school or at home or in public or private spaces – but the social interaction that is so important to enabling us to exist together as a species and show concern and compassion for all of humanity is, in my humble opinion, learned best through the shoulder to shoulder interactions with other human beings involved in the sorts of activities mentioned above.

  • Interesting article drawing comparisons between schools and religeon, it wasn’t to long ago in our history that the two had very close links. But I do believe it was the advent of democracy and the industrial ages that saw a splitting of the two, when there was a call for a more educated workforce and people woke to the fact that the church wasn’t the be all to end all and the church began to lose their hold on peoples minds.
    I recently posted some thoughts on the possible origins of religeon on my site.

    thanks. O.D.

  • A thought provoking post, indeed! As both an educator and a practicing Christian, I think the comparison between religion and education is apt. In both contexts, structure is too often substituted for substance. The structures that have become entrenched are significant barriers to both learning and faith.

    While structure of some sort is essential, I believe that schools are unlikely to facilitate truly effective learning for the majority of enrolled students until there is profound and widespread structural change. Schools as credentialing factories, with an assembly-line approach, are doomed to fail the majority of “learners”. As I see it, there is hope, and incremental change is possible within the current structures, as the nature of the relationship between teacher and learner is redefined, and as the unique needs of each learner are better recognized.

  • Dean – thank you for sharing this thought-provoking post. From another perspective, it seems like all institutions are changing. Businesses are constantly trying to redefine who they are. Banks are merging and closing. Stores are trying to figure out the best way to market. Even governments are changing. Maybe all of us are looking at bottom up change where the learners are defining what they need to learn.

    I am not very religious but I see some things happening in the churches that I thought needed to be mentioned. I live in an urban area where the churches are the community for many in the black community. You won’t see that changing. They need their churches and I see how they bring people together, encourage them to help each other. In SF the Glide Memorial is a haven for the down and out. A good friend of mine’s church feeds the homeless, goes to Guatemala to build schools, and does one good thing after another.

    I see some schools that are the community hubs for learning. They are open before and after school for tutoring, extended learning, and activities for the entire school community. I do agree that the structure of schools is antiquated and needs change. It just is going to take time and hope that school communities look at what is happening in their local area when they design the new learning environment.

    Are schools closing? Are businesses leaving? What happens to your graduates? Is the graduation rate declining? Are people moving from your area? and so on… I just feel schools tend to work in isolation and need to include what is happening in the whole community.

  • Derek and Barbara,

    Derek you present likely the most compelling reason for the existence of schools and in one sense ties in well with Barbara’s thoughts about the role of the church as a community.

    I don’t think the church and schools are dying or dead but to me the point is to stop focusing on traditional structures that bind both of these valuable institutions.

    Bruxy’s talk and his book try and help those who have become disillusioned with religion. To me this equates to students who have become disillusioned with school. I think the little graphic I copied points to those students who we know want to learn but school’s not working for them. In Derek’s examples, schools work for many more kids because it’s relevant and meaningful to their lives. Most people reading this blog already get this but to my it was a good comparison and helps me to remember to look past structure and tradition and focus on what school should be doing….helping kids learn.

  • I actually found this encouraging on a spiritual level.

    Losing your religion is not such a bad thing.

    “Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.”

    I left school (retired in ‘ 03), but I still find ways to work with students.

    I remember what I used to teach…”freedom within structure”.

    I drew a box on the board with a whole lot of squiggly lines inside it.

    Like the structure was important, but let’s have some freedom for learning within that structure.

    Sad thing is my experience was the structure snuffed out a whole lot of freedom for the students and for me.

    Maybe that’s why I avoid schools and embrace students.

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  • Jim,

    You are a shining example of one who never liked school, but loved learning. Thanks for the comment.

  • Great post. I hate to say thought-provoking (too many already have), but, damn it, it was. Looking at public schools in my neck of the woods (the northeastern United States) it seems like schools have been charged by our leaders to do more than what their original purpose was for.

    Much like the medieval church that grew beyond its spiritual boundaries to take on more political and commercial activities, our public schools are lost in myriad of programs imposed by our government to indoctrinate to certain ideas: smoking (don’t do it), drinking (don’t do it), sex (do it with proper protection) there is no real opportunity for kids to learn in these situations and it cuts into the teachers’ opportunity to guide personal learning in the classroom.

    Likewise we have schools of education that are functioning much like the seminaries that produce priests, preachers, rabbis, and mullahs for religion. Newly minted teachers exit these schools with their heads filled with the latest orthodoxy for teaching, and woe be the parent who questions that orthodoxy. So what’s the answer? I don’t know. I’ve heard calls to shut down the schools of education, bring in individuals knowledgeable in their fields. I certainly believe that NCLB is a double-edged sword, but as long as we have school boards adopting requirements that graduating seniors have been accepted to a college as a requirement to get their diploma then we need to make sure they are capable of functioning in the college environment.

    My head is already spinning and I feel like a medieval monk debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin…opps, there’s that analogy again.

  • Dennis,

    That’s a great point I hadn’t thought of. The role of religion changing to address all kinds of issues that really it was never intended? Considering that things like mixing religion and politics usually ends up badly makes me wonder about how school’s role as places of learning now includes so many other things which have little to do with learning and in turn frustrates and gets its way. Hmmm… thinking about a whole new post.

  • Churches and schools face the same challenge: how to stay relevant in a changing social atmosphere. A couple of generations ago, both the school and the church functioned as social anchors for the community – they were the meeting place, the activity center, the place where people could go to hear everything that was going on in town. As these roles have been picked up by other organisations (or in some cases, not by organisations at all), churches and schools have had to redefine themselves to stay relevant.

    As another poster has mentioned, schools have taken on an information-center role where PSAs find a captive audience and classroom teachers attempt to fill the roles of educator, nurse, career counsellor, etc. all simultaneously. A book I’m eager to read is The Gospel According to Starbucks, which apparently gives a model for the modern church based on the role Starbucks has taken (not simply a vendor of beverages, Starbucks sells an experience). I wonder if a rethinking of education along the same lines wouldn’t be in order. Sometimes I think a Montessori-style pod learning model would fit better with the learning style of today’s kids, but because it’s interdisciplinary, it would be particularly difficult to achieve at the high school level at which I teach.

    All this to say that I think it’s valid and valuable that schools (and churches) seek new models to deliver their same core product, which hasn’t really changed.

  • Dang, sorry for not closing my italics tag (bad web designer, bad)….