July 23, 2007

Education for An Unknown Future
by Pastor George Van Alstine

I came across this advertisement for Peddie School, a prestigious academy near Princeton University, in a 1919 periodical:

Fitting Your Boy for the New Civilization

The war is over. The most hazardous days of Reconstruction are happily past. We are at the dawn of our country’s greatest era of prosperity and achievement.

By the very nature of things, there will be unprecedented opportunities for men of large calibre—true men—men equipped physically, intellectually and spiritually to carry on the great work just ahead.

Somewhere in America today these men are boys—growing up. Some of them are even now on the threshold of a higher education . . . .

It is no easy task to find exactly the right school for your boy . . . .

The rest of the ad goes on to show why Peddie School is just the right place to prepare young men for this boundless future. The promise of the school concludes with this quaint piece:

Every Peddie boy is given a comprehensive physical examination. Every organ is tested and charted. Reports are mailed to parents. Defects are corrected—special abilities noted and encouraged. Character built and strengthened by contact with virile Christian men.

A twelve-year-old boy who entered Peddie the next fall would probably graduate in 1928. He would likely move on to Princeton or some other prestigious university. During his first college year, the economic optimism of the ad (We are at the dawn of our country’s greatest era of prosperity and achievement) would be shattered by news of the stock market crash and deepening National depression. When our promising young hero was about thirty, World War II would begin, making a mockery of the ad’s triumphant 1919 boast The war is over. Thirty-year-olds were drafted into the army.

The ad also rejoiced that the most hazardous days of Reconstruction are past. By the time our Peddie alum was in his young adulthood, it would be dawning on him that America’s race problems were far from over. Segregation was entrenched in the South, and equal opportunity in education, employment and housing existed virtually no where in the Nation. Over the next few decades of his life, his WASP prep-school privilege would be shaken by the unstoppable Civil Rights Movement.

That other kind of privilege presumed by the ad, the whole tone of masculine superiority that underlies the ad’s promises, would also be radically challenged by the assertion of equality for girls and women in all dimensions of life. Over his lifetime, he would have to adjust from an automatic role as king of his castle, to a position of equality with his wife and even other members of an increasingly egalitarian household.

There is another subtle message in the ad that would be challenged during his generation—the notion that contact with virile Christian men would inevitably build a boy’s character. A new sensitivity would emerge to the widespread abuse of children in some of America’s most trusted institutions, like churches, and schools, and even families. Over and over again our now-adult Peddie alum would hear about how often the character of children has been destroyed, not strengthened, by contact with virile Christian men.

That’s a lot of change for our young man to deal with in his lifetime. This is my father’s generation we’re talking about, and thinking about what social and cultural changes he had to adjust to makes me appreciate him much more.

But what about the generation of twelve-year-olds who are in our homes, our schools, our church right now? Considering the explosion of technology, the global economy, ecological crises, and shifting moral standards we see today, what will our kids have to face? Probably changes that will make my father’s challenges seem like little bumps in the road.

In our homes and in our church, let’s dedicate ourselves to equipping this upcoming generation for the future with all its unknown possibilities, not for an imagined utopian future we may hope for. The best gift we can give them is to help them find a living relationship with the One who is “the same yesterday and today and foreverâ€? (Hebrews 13:8).