HE WIDTH BETWEEN RAILS OF THE standard North American railroad line is four feet eight and one half inches. This may seem like an odd bit of trivia, but as someone who loves woodworking and understands the importance of precise measurements and perfect fittings, it piqued my curiosity. Why such an odd number?
So I did some research. What I discovered is that the American railroad system was first built by the British, who already had been building railways in Britain and Europe for many years. They brought their knowledge and skills of a successful enterprise to the “New World” using the same tools and measures that had worked for them in the “Old Country.” But again, how did they come up with such an odd number?
It seems that when Britain was ruled by Imperial Rome in about A.D. 100, the primary means of transportation was by chariot. So many chariots had traversed the countryside that they had made deep grooves in the carefully built Roman roads. In later centuries as the British were building wagons, they were forced to match the span between the wheels of wagons and horse-drawn carriages to the width between the grooves left by the Roman chariots or else the wheels would break. The standard width between chariot wheels and then, later, wagon wheels was four feet eight and one half inches. The British railway constructors reasoned that if that were the standard width measurement between wagon wheels, why not do the same with railroad tracks?
But why did the Romans choose that width in the first place? Because after much trial and error, they found that four feet eight and one half inches best fit the width of two horses working side by side to pull a chariot. Using that width made sense to them, and it worked well.
In many ways modern education is built around the same premise: if it worked well before, then why not do it the same way now?
Current educational calendars, for example, are built around agrarian cycles. Although agriculture is not the method by which the majority of families earn their living today, school still begins after the summer harvest and ends about planting time. That schedule has remained the same for decades. So, too, many of the basic academic courses offered in today’s classrooms, such as English literature, chemistry, biology, history, and so forth, have remained unchanged. We have tweaked the delivery methods of these subjects, but the basic concepts of education have changed little over time.
Adventist Education’s Mission
In many ways the mission of Adventist education, which is different from the traditional public school system, has not changed. In the 1870s and 1880s, as the young Adventist Church began to contemplate establishing a system of schools, the reasons for spending time, energy, money, and spiritual investment in building schools and churches were clear to church members. They knew that unless they captured the minds of their children and inculcated the gospel message and the belief in a soon-returning Savior, the church would fail to perform its mission and reach its spiritual goals.
History shows how this movement flourished and grew. Adventist education was foundational in developing a central message in the minds of growing thought leaders. This central message—a clarion song sung by parents, teachers, and preachers—was that Jesus is coming soon, and that each person can be ready for that glorious event. Sharing that good news—to those nearby and to those far distant—is the joyful privilege of those who are looking eagerly for the Lord’s return. From its inception, Adventist education has emphasized the redemptive process.
But as the Lord seemed to tarry, the mission of Adventist education began to shift—slightly at first, then more delib-erately toward, and then alongside, public education. It morphed from an agricultural, hands-on labor approach to one that incorporated more academics and structure, including an emphasis on areas such as testing and accreditation. Although these changes may have appeared warranted by cultural shifts, the focus on the central message began to wane—the clarion song started to fade into a background melody.
In a search for competitive academics, strong sports programs, and other extracurricular activities, many parents, teachers, and pastors seem to have lost sight of the primary reason Adventist education exists—to lead children into a saving relationship with Jesus and to prepare them for service in this world and citizenship in the world to come.
Railroads may be structured with dimensions from another era, but they still have a consistent purpose—to transport. The same concept must hold true for Adventist education. We must ask the questions: Has the mission changed? Has the foundational purpose for Adventist education changed from the system’s inception in the 1870s? Sure, the curriculum and the delivery system have adapted, but what about the core principles of its mission? If the focus has shifted, is it because we have become distracted from our primary task of transporting our children to the Savior?
Foundation of Mission
The principles our founding fathers and mothers used to establish the Adventist system of education have not changed—to inculcate values, distinctly Seventh-day Adventist values, in our children as well as like-minded children and parents in our communities. The most vital outcome is not the prestige of the college attended, the degree earned, or the salary achieved. It’s whether our children are standing beside us as parents, pastors, and teachers at the foot of the cross.
Academics are very important, and Adventist education should provide the highest standards for student achievement—as it has been doing. Recent statistical studies such as CognitiveGenesis1
(2007) have shown that Adventist schools provide excellent education regardless of the size of the school, the grade level, the subjects taught, or the region of the country in which the school exists. But unless we value the spiritual outcome as the highest priority, even above academics, we will drift from our true mission, a mission of redemption. Retired Adventist college professor Floyd Greenleaf says: “The identity of Adventist education derives from its purposes. Maintaining that identity requires a constant and prayerful review of the purposes and principles of Adventist education, combined with a commonsense approach to change.”2
The Adventist education system was built on the principle of a partnership between the home, the church, and the school, thus giving that partnership a spiritual foundation. Values taught in the schools must align with the values held by the home and the church, thus providing a balanced partnership. But unless the three entities share the same core values, the partnership will be unstable.
Focus on Mission
Many public schools deliver good, even great, education—education that is academically rigorous and prepares students to attend prestigious colleges and universities. But all schools also offer values to their students, and the questions remain: What values are they promoting? Who decides what values are right and wrong in a public school system?
Many fine Christian schools of other denominations also offer a quality education and promote essential Christian values. Some share the distinctive values of the denomination or group sponsoring the school. But for Seventh-day Adventists, it is vital to instill within our children our own unique Adventist values and beliefs. It is important for our students to internalize the Sabbath and its place in the final days of earth’s history; to understand what the Bible teaches about death, obedience, and the nature of God; and to restore in our children the image of God. It’s essential to inculcate values such as honesty, integrity, and truthfulness in a spiritually healthy and Adventist context. It’s crucial to teach our children that God loves them unconditionally, and that we need to love and serve those around us.
Adventist schools today must regain and maintain our focus on mission.
Teachers and Mission
Teachers and administrators of Adventist schools have been called to look again at the mission of Adventist education and evaluate whether they are meeting that mission. Educators must embrace the mission, professionally and personally, internalize that mission, and implement its values throughout the school.
Adventist schools have some of the best, most qualified teachers in the world. These teachers daily deliver quality, research-based, and often cutting-edge curricula based on national academic standards. As a whole, students in Adventist schools perform above the national norm in almost every subject area and at every grade level, as shown in the CognitiveGenesis study. We have no reason to hang our heads regarding academics—Adventist education excels in this area. But we must not forget the primary goal is to share Christ with our children.
By definition, every Adventist educator is a minister to youth. They should see themselves as Christ’s representatives in the classroom every day and in every situation. The teaching ministry is more than employment: it’s a call from God to share the good news of a soon-returning Savior, a call to help students develop a personal, committed, lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s a call to be the best possible educator while simultaneously discovering ways to invite children to give their hearts and lives to Jesus. It includes a commitment to inculcate distinctly Adventist values in their students, and to be partners in ministry with the parents and the local pastor.
Partners—the parents, the pastors, and the teachers—with God’s guidance helping children to form stable, shared values. What a fantastic concept!
Pastors and Adventist Education
A growing number of pastors in today’s Adventist Church have had little experience or training in Adventist education. A significant number are coming into the church as converts through evangelism—for which we praise God—but these spiritual leaders have not grown up in the Adventist school system or even been exposed to the values of Adventist education. Administrators then place those pastors in small churches with struggling schools and tight budgets, along with increased pressures to do public evangelism with only limited funds available. Is it any wonder that we are witnessing a decreased emphasis on Christian education from the pulpit and more concern about the percentage of the church budget that supports the school?
Adventist education is an evangelistic arm of the Adventist Church. It is evangelism. Our number one goal should be to see our children in a personal relationship with Jesus and to help them learn to share that relationship with others.
Recent studies by George Barna show “the probability of someone embracing Jesus as his or her Savior was 32% for those between the ages of 5 and 12, 4% for those in the 13 to 18 age range, and 6% for people 19 or older. In other words, if people do not embrace Jesus as their Savior before they reach their teenage years, the chances of them doing so at all are slim.”3 So where should we be placing our emphasis and our money? Every Adventist child deserves an Adventist education, and many schools and churches strive to ensure that goal is reached. Formal Adventist education, however, is serving fewer than 40 percent of the children in our churches. It’s obvious that we must find ways both to make Adventist education affordable and to provide Adventist educational services to those who can’t or choose not to utilize the formal Adventist school system.
Homeschools and Adventist Education
God’s messenger, Ellen White, clearly states that parents hold the first responsibility to educate their children: “The parents’ work of education, instruction, and discipline underlies every other. The efforts of the best teachers must often bear little fruit, if fathers and mothers fail to act their part with faithfulness” (Fundamentals of Christian Education, pp. 69, 70).4
Quality homeschools in which parents prepare and deliver a spiritually based, rigorous curriculum, particularly during a child’s very early years, often work well, but that scenario isn’t possible for many families. Adventist education is the natural extension for such families that desire a quality, spiritually based education.
The North American Division Office of Education is searching for ways to include all Adventist children in programs of the local church school or academy. For those who make the decision to homeschool their child, we want to provide whatever assistance we can. For example, we are working in partnership with Griggs University and the Review and Herald Publishing Association to produce a homeschool-oriented Bible curriculum for grades 1 through 12 because we believe that every Adventist child deserves to receive an Adventist education in some format—whether in a homeschool or a formal school setting.
Fulfilling the Mission
The NAD Office of Education is in the process of attempting to implement the mission of Adventist education more fully in our schools. Jesus is coming soon, and we want to partner with parents and pastors to prepare our children for this wondrous event. We are currently developing a program to enhance the training of both teachers and pastors to lead children to Jesus and accept Him as their lifelong Friend and Savior. We are also committed to reaching out to pastors and inviting them to serve as willing partners in the evangelism of our youth and their families.
As a first step in our renewed focus on mission and the desire to commit ourselves to that mission, the NAD curriculum committee voted in December 2007 not to adopt a secular science textbook series for grades 5 through 8 that had been previously endorsed because of the high cost of developing a faith-based science series. We are currently in the process of developing a faith-based language arts program that integrates reading, writing, spelling, and other subjects into a uniquely Adventist curriculum that will revolutionize how language arts is taught in the elementary school. Although we are stepping out in faith financially, we are committed to developing a similar faith-based science series, eventually even including a faith-based social studies series that calls attention to God’s activity in human history. We can no longer allow materials built on other presuppositions to form the basis of our Adventist curriculum.
Adventist education is strong—both spiritually and academically. It is also expensive, and Adventist educators grapple with the reality that many families struggle to afford it, even with the assistance often provided by the local church and other entities. Yet we ask all church members, young and old, to look again at the benefits of a revitalized and refocused Adventist educational system—early childhood through university—and then ask themselves, What are the costs of not preparing spiritually and academically “an army of workers as our youth, rightly trained”? (Education, p. 271).
In a partnership that includes home, church, and school, we must commit to rebuilding and reemphasizing the reason we exist. We must work together—Sabbath school, church, Pathfinders, schools, and homes—to send the message to our youth that they are of utmost importance to us and that we will be working together for their salvation.
“They [the home, the church, and the school] must set before their children an example worthy of imitation. Should they be remiss in this respect, what will they answer if the children entrusted to them stand before the bar of heaven as witnesses to their neglect?” (Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 129).
1CognitiveGenesis is a population study of students in grades 3-9 and 11 who are attending Adventist schools in North America. The purpose of the study is to determine the academic achievement of students in Adventist schools as compared to those in public and other private schools. The project is a partnership between LaSierra University and the North American Division Office of Education. See www.cognitivegenesis.org. (Watch for an upcoming article in the Adventist Review regarding the encouraging report from year two of the study.)
2Floyd Greenleaf, “Has the Leopard Changed Its Spots?” Journal of Adventist Education, Summer 2006, pp. 5-14.
3George Barna, Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions—Why Children Should Be Your Church’s #1 Priority (Regal Press, 2003), p. 34.
4Ellen White, Fundamentals of Christian Education (Southern Publishing Association, 1923), pp. 70, 71.
Larry Blackmer is a vice president of the North American Division, and writes from Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.