Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Schools and Rules: Authority

Yesterday I mentioned the case of the kid in Vermont who was suspended for the remainder of the year by  his Christian school because of his essay challenging the school's rules for behavior and dress code. I used that as a jumping off point to think about how we should handle challenges to authority within a Grace-based school.

I certainly don't have it figured out.  Kids challenge authority all the time.  Adults challenge authority all the time. We sinners hate boundaries.

But I can leverage a little experience and theology to offer a couple thoughts.... here's the first.

1. Obedience to a human authority should not be equated with obedience to God's Law.


I've heard this syllogism a lot:  God must be obeyed as our ultimate authority; His Law is absolute and without question. God delegates authority to parents and pastors and governors and teachers (etc). Therefore, human authorities can demand the same level of obedience for their rules as God expects for His.

First off, that's a terrible syllogism (from the standpoint of logical structure).

Secondly, it's not a biblical statement of obedience or authority. We can't add corollaries to God's Law and call them holy. Human rules are just....rules.

Yes, Scripture commands obedience to church elders and to parents and to our government officials, even when we don't like them. But derived authority does not also endow us with the power to bind people's consciences to non-biblical rules. People with authority need to be careful of the limits they choose to set for behavior when dealing with the tender consciences of kids.

I realize that the kid who wrote the essay at Trinity probably just wanted to grind his ax about the rulebook. That can grate on the nerves of adults who see a bigger picture than "I don't like wearing khakis and a polo every day."   Cynical skeptics are a drudge -- they don't offer any constructive solutions to a problem, they just sit back and tear apart whatever's been built.

But if we can't defend a rule from a biblical mandate ("modesty" doesn't demand a "school uniform"), then authorities need to take steps to unlink "following the dress code" from "keeping the Law of God." They're not the same thing.  Call it a policy, give students a voice in setting their communal rules, and work toward consensus.

(Personally, I'm glad the "I-hate-the-dress-code" theme has toned down a lot at NCS during my 10 years there. The people who determined the dress code have made a lot of really good adjustments over the past several years, and I think that we've got a good balance of a functioning school uniform combined with dress-down Fridays -- and those dress-down days exist on purpose to reinforce the idea that our dress code rules are not God's rules for clothing. Students aren't thrilled about it, but they mostly just don't care. School clothes are just that -- school clothes.)

My classroom rules are mine. God's Law is far more difficult: Love God with everything you have as hard as you can all the time, and love your neighbor like yourself.  If I'm doing my job, I can tie my class "rules" back to the Great Commandments as illustrations of loving God or neighbor in a community of humans ... but I also need to be honest with kids that some of my rules are just idiosyncratic, and they deserve to be changed if kids point out legitimate problems with their implementation or function.

Note that a lot of student frustration arises out of adults shutting kids out of the process. By the time a student reaches adolescence (and definitely by the time they're in high school), he/she should be given a voice in the school structure for which s/he will be held responsible. It diffuses a lot of griping, and it's a much more respectful way to deal with students as human beings who are about to be "adults" and legally responsible for their decisions/actions.

This approach demands patience and work by adults to involve students, downplay immature suggestions, encourage half-baked good ones, and guide the whole mess toward a coherent and useful outcome. Welcome to education.

more to come....


Cross-posted to my personal blog

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