Jay Blogs – The Light of Babel

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I appreciate much of the work of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist from NYU. He’s not a Christian, but he has some really keen observations of the world around us that make a lot of sense. In an article in this month’s Atlantic entitled, After Babel: How Social Media Dissolved the Mortar of Society and Made America Stupid, he argues…well, the title of his article pretty much says it all.

Haidt compares our current era to the period immediately after the fall of the Tower of Babel: a people disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. Rather than mere tribalism, Babel represents the fragmentation of everything, not only between red and blue, or between other camps or tribes, but even within each camp itself, and within institutions such as universities, companies, and families.

The article is too long to do it justice here, and I recommend you read it yourself, but the basic idea is that social media operating on digital platforms created a system that rewarded creating posts that “went viral,” and made people “internet famous,” and that people’s value and worth became rooted in clicks of thousands of friends and strangers. This system encouraged curating and group approval, eventually degenerating to dishonesty and mob dynamics, making social media apps an increasingly-nastier place, where tribes form around political or social causes and personal attacks are prevalent. And, the attacks aren’t just limited from tribe to tribe. “Those who express sympathy for the views of opposing groups may experience backlash from their own cohort…(they) don’t just shoot darts at their enemies; they spend a lot of their ammunition targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team. (Hence, the attacks of younger, farther-left progressives against their older counterparts, or the attacks of far-right conservatives on the “RINOS” within their own group).

Haidt observes that generally, as human beings, we become more secure in our own thinking when we are challenged and engage with others who hold different opinions and perspectives. We learn, we grow, and we become more assured of our own ideas when we genuinely and in good faith test those ideas against those who actually hold different positions. For thousands of years, good education has consisted of rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking and writing that assumes a deep understanding of the thoughts and reasoning of others, or debate, that requires the same.

When, as in our digitally-obsessed culture, people are afraid to engage others in good-faith dialogue, conversation, engagement in ideas, or nuanced thinking because they fear backlash and cancellation, not only from opponents, but from those they consider friends and colleagues, the result is large-scale groupthink and untested promulgation of bad ideas. In other words, Haidt notes, we become more stupid. Haidt notes that much of the dumbing-down of America currently threatening our democracy is rooted in this social media-induced attack phenomenon.

As believers, it’s important we recognize much of what is happening in the world around us is bad old-fashioned idolatry. I remember attending the second CESA conference in Dallas, perhaps 2011, when former Christianity Today editor and author Andy Crouch spoke on the impact of idols in our lives. He said that idols, whether the gods of old, like Molech, or modern gods, like work or substances, operate using similar tricks. They always give us the initial promise of something great, even transcendent: things like recognition, esteem, and value in the eyes of others. But they always require something from us, like time, investment, or allegiance. Over time, the idol requires more and more of us, and gives us less and less in return. At the end, the idol takes everything and leaves us with nothing.

Worst of all, like Molech, “taking everything” means that idols eventually require the lives of that most precious to us, our children, maybe not always physically, but emotionally and spiritually. In the case of workaholism, it’s the damage our kids face as we become so consumed with our work that we have no time for them. In the case of substance abuse, it’s the untold havoc such things wreak on our children and their future. In 2011, Andy Crouch said it was too early to tell whether our reliance, our addiction to digital technology and social media would require the lives of our children.

Of course, we now know the answer to that question, don’t we? Distracted kids, social angst, the alarming rise of anxiety, depression, and suicide among pre-teens and teens on an international level since 2008 and the introduction of the iPhone, correlated with the rise of social media. And, all the impact of the dumbing down of our culture visited upon our children.

What’s the answer to all this? Haidt argues that American democracy is in serious trouble without hardening democratic institutions, such as voting processes, against the effects of extremism, reforming social media through legislation, and preparing the next generation. When it comes to “preparing the next generation,” there has perhaps never been a more significant time in our history for Christian education to produce a people who are truly different and distinct from the toxic, divisive culture around us. Schools have become battlegrounds in this divisive fight, and there’s rarely been a time like now when it has been more necessary to raise up a separate, particularly-prepared people who view life differently than the culture around them, through the lens of truth, of Scripture. Our homes, schools, and churches need to be counter-cultural training grounds that prepare kids’ hearts and minds to be lovers of Jesus, rather than the things of this world, which destroy and can never satisfy. In the Christian school, I think this has several implications.

First, as always, we have to help our kids realize that this is and has always been a spiritual battle. It is the human heart that’s corrupt; modern technology just acts as an accelerants to the already deadly impulses of our heart, like gasoline on the fire. Social media and digital technology can be used for many good things, like prayer, connection, support, information, encouragement, and enhancing already-existing interpersonal relationships, yet there are many ways our attractions to these things can, and do, easily slip over into idolatry.

If we can’t put it down or walk away from it, look at it just before bed and right before we get up, checking it impulsively, even when it’s not safe to do so, chances are we’re addicted, and addiction is a form of idolatry, something other than Jesus that has control of our lives. “Mild” and socially acceptable addictions, like digital use, workaholism, and overeating, are still addiction and idolatry, and rationalizing it isn’t the answer. The answer, of course, is the same as other idols: to repent, remove the idols from our lives, and replace them with the Lord, the only one who is intended to be upon the throne of our lives. This is hard work, and if we want to encourage it in our kids, we have to observe it in our own lives. But, the hearts and minds of our children are worth it.

Second, we have to teach our children to be good digital citizens. There are lots of good, Christ-centered resources out there to help us restore technology to an appropriate place in our lives, and use these things as a tool to build, rather than a weapon to kill. Our former director of digital learning, Christina Jontra, has a company called Neptune Navigate that creates lots of good material to teach kids to be Kingdom digital citizens. Crouch wrote a book several years ago, “The Tech-Wise Family,” that has good, practical advice for parents seeking to instill practices in their children for the moderate use of digital technology. Shirley Turkle’s book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” is a great resource for parents and educators seeking to guide children in restoring the art of conversation as a mentally, emotionally, and spiritually-restorative practice.

At Grace, particularly at the high school, we will be significantly curtailing the use of digital technology in school over the next couple of years, encouraging and facilitating face-to-face engagement and conversation. We consider spiritual formation a significant part of our role as partners in our parents’ education of their children, and healthy digital citizenship as a significant part of the spiritual formation process. We know so much more than we knew several years ago about the good and the bad of technology use in the classroom, (mostly through hard lessons and mistakes along the way) and best practices are emerging to help us equip kids to be redemptive digital citizens, learning to use these things wisely and moderately. Furthermore, deeper learning instructional and curricular strategies at work at Grace, such as Teach for Transformation, encourage interaction, conversation, and collaboration, engaging students’ hearts and minds in problem-solving together.

Third, a strong Christian liberal arts curriculum can help students become deeper thinkers and combat the fallacies and shallow thinking facilitated by the current age. A liberal (meaning, “broad” or “reading-driven,” rather than political) arts education is the ancient concept of a broad and general approach to education, learning many different things, many different disciplines, as opposed to the tendency toward specialization even in K-12 education today. A liberal arts education encapsulates everything from literature, to mathematics, to the social sciences, to what used to be called “gymnastics” and what’s now called “physical education,” or “athletics,” all thoughtfully linked in cross-disciplinary ways to promote broad and varied thinking.

Through the liberal arts, students learn how people have lived for thousands of years, and what constitutes the life well-lived. They learn what the great writers and thinkers throughout the ages have said and thought about what is true and noble and good. They learn what it means to be a good man or woman, and good citizen, and a good steward of this Kingdom of God they have been given. And, when they receive a Christian liberal arts education, when they learn all those things through the lens of what the author and creator of the universe has to say about who they are and how they were created to live, it is truly spectacular and life-giving.

Ever since the turn of the century, educators have been writing about 21st century learning skills, concepts like critical thinking, reasoning, clear and cogent communication, collaboration, and creativity. In a very real sense, there’s nothing particularly “21st century” about these ideas: they’ve always been necessary to living and functioning well in the workplace and society. And, nothing develops these skills like reading complex texts and critically analyzing them, being able to write and speak in clear and compelling ways, learning to write well, learning to listen and understand the thoughts and feelings of others, learning to work and live with all sorts of people, and learning to solve complex problems both logically and with an eye and ear towards the heart. The liberal arts, a broad course of study, especially one infused and undergirded with God’s truth, is the key to developing all these skills.

Finally, in our divisive culture, a Christian school should give its students the space and practice of knowing and loving other people who are not like them. Christ calls His people to unity, although they are an amazingly-diverse group of people. They are created, intended that way, diverse in His image, unified by Christ’s blood. Part of the reason for so much divisiveness in our culture is that we often don’t really know or build relationships with people who aren’t like us. It’s so much easier to objectify, minimalize, and attack others and what they believe when we don’t actually know them. Knowing creates empathy, and empathy, love. And, perfect love casts out fear, and restores, and heals.

If we really want to see our land healed, we have to do the hard work of building relationships, engaging, and loving other people, even and especially people who aren’t like us. Standing on one side and yelling at the other isn’t working out so well, for America or for the Kingdom of God, and it’s not anything like the gospel. The best way for kids to learn how to build empathy and compassion, and to see unity in Christ lived out through the diversity of His Body, is to see it lived out in the spaces where they live, like school. Learning to love others unlike us isn’t a new invention or a political agenda; it’s the hands and feet of the gospel, the words of Jesus Himself (Matt. 5:43-48), and God’s command for His Church. And, a Christian school is one of the few places our kids will have a Christian framework for doing so.

Who but God knows what will become of our democracy and our nation? It is in a rather precarious place; yet, it’s been there before, and even more so. Will we find ways to unify and uncover, as Lincoln said, “the better angels of our nature,” or will we be unable to keep the republic, as Franklin feared? While that’s a really, really important question, one that’s even more important is whether we as the children of the Kingdom of Heaven, a people who transcend the kingdoms of this earth, will be a light to the world around them, being ambassadors of one kingdom to the next? How we lead ourselves and our children in this generation is critically important to what will become of us.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.