These thoughts emerged as a personal response to the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale Law professor Amy Chua who pushed her daughters to excel in ways that earned her praise and censure. She writes: I do believe that we in America can ask more of children than we typically do, and they will not only respond to the challenge, but thrive. I think we should assume strength in our children, not weakness. My grapplings found their way into a magazine article that studies the Biblical roots Christians might do well to lay down in their quest for achievement. The question that I realized has been little discussed in the Church applies not just to parents or homeschoolers but to all Christians seeking excellence in their calling.
Before the Homeschooling
Homeschooling opens a family to freedom in style and pace not viable in schools. Free rein in hand, I watched my boy full of joie de vivre opine at three-and-a-half years, “obla dee, obla da, life goes o-o-o-n, la la life goes o-o-on,” and wrestled with the unsophisticated question I had trouble answering. So how much do I push this little guy?
Hard work is a practice and philosophy I still struggle to keep in the balance. As a workaholic who has let work tip my life even to the compromise of my health, I found myself picking through what were defining cultural, educational, professional, even physical experiences to sort out a theology of achievement as both parent and home educator.
A walking paradox, I am a product of Asian culture and the academic zeitgeist of the East Coast, a former teacher of the gifted and talented program, and an eventual coast-to-coast transplant converted happily to the gentler lifestyle of California. I’m also a Christian. These thumbprints converged on the table where I set out to homeschool Tennyson and pulled me in conflicting directions. Discipleship would define our schooling but the West Coast Hippy whose educational goals for her son were relaxed and unhurried caught the Tiger Mom from New York encroaching on her plans.
There is a cost to anything worth achieving. The building blocks of accomplishment are sacrifice. How much of that was I willing to exact from my son? My parents immigrated, and raising me here by the sweat of their brow, bequeathed to me the firstfruits of something American culture offers so wonderfully: the assumption of choice. The freedom to pursue my passion with no obligation beyond itself. I say firstfruits because while I did not have to study and work to stay alive at the level my parents did, my drive to excel academically and professionally was not entirely free of constraints. There was an element of spurn against the prejudice my parents faced and a mission to redeem their suffering.
My child, however, remains at liberty – even at leisure – to dream and indulge his gifts. In short, to enjoy his work when he’s grown and to explore the options along the way. Will this freedom weaken him or his character in any way? The fact that he is under no compulsion to be or do something? That he is, well, comfortable? After all, comfort does not soldiers make. We build muscle by defying resistance. And the higher we set the bar, the more we gain in the reach. We gain by the stretch up as well as the one down into the resources of the spirit where character is forged. All to say some measure of trial is good for the soul. So what should we be straining for in our studies, and why?
A Portrait of a Pupil
Working these questions through, I was reminded of a sermon I heard in college. Dr. James Boice in Pennsylvania pointed out that Jesus will not commend, “Well done, good and successful servant.” Our Lord looks forward to declaring, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And in Genesis 39.3 I see “the Lord was with Joseph and he prospered…his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did…” Joseph concerned himself to keep faithful. Success was something God saw to grant.
As we are to pursue faithfulness rather than idolize success, excellence should mark our endeavors. The imprint of this distinction ought to be evident in the work of Christians to bring God honor as His image-bearers, showing forth the beauty of His excellence. Achievement ends up the sweet fruit of labor. Consider the Scriptures:
Ecclesiastes 9.10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.
Colossians 3.23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Proverbs 22.29 Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.
My graduate degree in education says I mastered learning in 1997. It was only in the the baby steps toward homeschooling, however, that I really got it. Sure, I had worked to foster critical and creative thinking in my public and private students. But here I was with a budding life entrusted entirely to my nurture. The stakes couldn’t be higher. What were my hopes for this mind of his? His soul? Yes, we’ve got our road map for strong SATs. But while a reputable college is an admitted temptation of a goal in the schooling, is this really what skillful writing, creativity in the arts, becoming a well-rounded adult should be about? I am assuming the glory of God that should predispose the studies and am seeking to trace the functional role of formal learning. Days he doesn’t feel like it, why should Tennyson tackle the books?
My hope is that he grows to enjoy the challenge of learning to learn. Not memorize for grades. And what he is required to retain, that he takes up as the opportunity to understand more of his Father’s world. That he will become a self-directed learner so he can be motivated to develop whatever new skills all those opportunities beyond school will call for. That he will appreciate the freedom to discover the person that God is making him. For education begins and ends with Him, the source of all that is true. I want Tennyson to think for himself in keeping with God’s truth, independent even of pundits. I want him to learn how to live, to know he is a glorious creature made in the very image of God. Talk about self-esteem! In other words, education is more than academics.
A Success Story
As a parent, I now am taken with the Daniel of chapter one even more so than the hero of the subsequent stories I learned of in Sunday School. Daniel was about 14 when he was kidnapped to Babylon, uprooted from his family and the rich life of the worship of Yahweh. What if my son were wrested from me like this? What if the worship at church last Sunday were the last such fellowship he would enjoy, songs sung in the English he’d taken for granted? What will enable him not only to persevere but flourish and impact his captor country with the gospel?
In what we today would call very stressful circumstances in a foreign land, Daniel remained unmoved in his convictions. How deep the reservoir of the knowledge of his God, how intimate his fellowship with his Creator, how reverent and fearful of the Lord was he. He knew whose he was and which King to fear. His roots not only ran deep, he grew fruitful with “aptitude for every kind of learning, well-informed….God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning…At the end of the time set by the king…he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service.”
In mastering the writings of this pagan culture during his three years of study, Daniel came to understand its psyche as conveyed by the literature. He clearly discerned truth at critical junctures in the years that followed, but engaged the language and the art of writing that were part of God’s creative enterprise. Outperforming his peers, he so excelled in his secular education that he ended high up in government employment. Daniel was not charmed by the fruit of his labor: grades, status, three-chariot garage. He worshiped God alone. All his accomplishments brought him to speak into the lives of kings and help order the affairs of an empire in the strategic outworking of redemptive history. Note his honorable friends, like-minded men who helped one another stay the path. And we have 19-year-olds in America who blow time and money on campus, even Christians without the discipline and integrity to get up for morning class.
So let us be faithful like Daniel.
Is this exhortation our final word, the way to urge our children to excellence? The Scriptures Daniel had absorbed in youth were replete with God’s injunction to remember His faithfulness to Israel. This Daniel did. What his memory served him from the last 10 years before his exile were the lessons of spiritual posterity. When the Lord saved Daniel from the threat of execution by revealing to him the king’s dream, Daniel prayed, “I thank and praise you, O God of my fathers…” The unchanging God Who had been true to Abraham had come through for him. In his regular prayer life, he also was accustomed to the disclosures of his God.
If ten years were all I had left with Tennyson, what should remain central in our home instruction, the discipleship? A whole lot of preaching that he stay true to God, to keep doing better? This well-meaning moralism would be one great way to raise a spiritual drop-out. William Butler Yeats said, “Educating is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Many who decide down the road that Jesus never was for them began with knowledge. But they had not been kindled by the gospel of grace, by the truth that with His blood Jesus purchased for them the abiding, unremitting favor of the Lord. Apart from the assurance and taste of this immovable love, our resolve of allegiance will — to borrow from the wife of CS Lewis – fall like a house of cards.
It is in the irreversible work of the Cross that I want to teach my son to rest. In the gospel truth that no one and nothing can pry nail-scarred Hands loose of that grip on him. I pray his journey will be no toilsome climb up the ladder of achievement but a pursuit of excellence marked by joy and freedom that flow from gratitude.