The Big Picture

Note to the reader: This week’s meditation deals with issues surrounding curriculum at the high school level. Students have a difficult time seeing the big picture of learning when they navigate very different and seemingly unrelated courses each day. During these pandemic days when schools are closed, and most of us are wondering what our lives will be like when social opening begins, it is even more difficult to see the big picture of learning. Somehow, what is worth knowing seems different these days. Can we ever learn enough to make sense of things? I think St. Augustine helps us here by telling us that we should order our lives to love what God loves, otherwise “our hearts will be restless” as he says in the opening of his Confessions. Well-ordered loves do not mean we will automatically get the big picture. We do see “through a glass darkly” as the apostle Paul says (I Corinthians 13:12a). While it is important to see as much as we can of the coherence and meaning across the creational landscape, it is more important to “rest in him” (again Augustine). Then we know personally the one who made and continues to make the big picture. Pandemic, meet the one whose word stands forever, even when the grass withers and the flowers fall. (adapted from Isaiah 40:8)

Now for this week’s meditation:

The Big Picture

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.
– Romans 11:36

George is a typical high school student. He is interested in many things in life, including some things at school. But his interest in what he learns in school is very uneven. Some assignments motivate him to work hard, and to others he gives only half-hearted attention. Mostly George doesn’t see the overarching purpose of school, and so he moves from math class, to Bible class, to science class, and he never sees a pattern that connects all of his courses together. They are like so many rocks that he must step on to get across the stream.

Then George hears in chapel that Christ is Lord of the creation, and that “from him and through him and to him are all things.” George listens but wonders how to make sense of it. Is this so much “religious language” that is irrelevant to what he learns in math class? Sometimes George doubts that he can connect the grand truth of the chapel message with all the smaller and disconnected truths he hears in his classes. He can’t quite see the big picture of school.

“All truth is God’s truth.” “All things hold together in Christ.” These phrases and others like them echo through the halls of most Christian schools, especially during teacher in-service meetings. This is as it should be, because the Bible is clear that in Christ are hidden “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” and because of him “all things hold together.”

Yet teachers also know that the fragmentation of knowledge and the teaching of courses in unrelated fashion do go on in school and are the great enemy of student understanding. Alfred North Whitehead cautions against creating disconnected tasks for students like George: “You may not divide the seamless coat of learning,” warns Whitehead, “[you must] eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of our modern curriculum.”

Strong language, and it is easier to lament the absence of curricular coherence than it is to fix it. Inconsistency, superficiality, and the absence of meaningful connections often overtake efforts at holistic learning.

One school I know of addresses this problem through an interdisciplinary “Culture and Humanity” course required of all twelfth grade students. The course is designed to help students think as Christians about the great issues facing their world. Here history, literature, geography, science and other disciplines come together to examine these issues, all from a Christian perspective.

What is your school doing to help the Georges at your school? Combining disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches is one way to help. Teachers know that students learn better when they not only come to know the source of all truth, but also see the many-faceted coherence of that truth. When students see the big picture and can fit their studies within it, they are likelier to sustain an interest in school. Even better, they may be moved to say with the apostle Paul: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”

O Lord, forgive us when we look at the stars and see just stars. Forgive us when we read about your world and see only words. Help us to help our students become big picture Christians. In Jesus’ name, Amen

Stephen Kaufmann
Covenant College