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Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
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No School Is an IslandNo School Is an Island

No School Is an Island

Doug Sikkema
3 minute read

Northrop Frye and, later, his student Margaret Atwood established the “garrison mentality” as a defining trope of Canadian literature – a literature born first of settlers, then immigrants, strongly bonded together in a landscape and society often hostile to their existence. This “garrison mentality” is the building of walls (both literal and metaphorical) to keep the wilderness out and the ordered community in.

In many ways, private Christian education can operate out of such a garrison mindset, particularly if it’s connected to an immigrant culture.

I was a high school teacher in a private Christian school when the Cardus Education Survey came out, and I remember the anticipation with which my colleagues and I awaited the results of how the private domain was faring when stacked up against the public system and other independent school models. At the time, I was sure that the data would work to confirm what many of us already assumed to be true: private Christian education was performing quite well in this competition. In other words, I believed that the data would only reinforce the solidarity within my garrison, and the deficiencies without.

I would also hazard to suggest that I was (and am) not alone in such an approach to this data. Yet there is a serious problem here: it’s easy to misread the data by the attitude and conceptual framework through which we perceive it.

In some of my upper level literature classes, we had begun to broach the unsettled waters of literary theory and to pose some basic questions around the constitution of a “good” reader. A few things we agreed upon after looking at several theorists were that good readers try to understand the text before they over-stand it, they listen before they speak, and generally, they try to avoid overtly resisting the text at hand. Of course, such reading is hard. It forces us to hold up the mirror and take a look at something we might not like or even agree with. It can unsettle us, and perhaps, even unsettle the walls of the garrison with which we identify.

The survey data, really, had some unsettling truths for us if we were open to listening. Particularly in terms of our mission statements that boldly championed an engagement with the culture, the survey showed a dearth of Christian involvement in politics, the arts, and other “high impact” cultural areas.

This week at Cardus, the social capital roundtable led by Milton Friesen provided a different set of terms to help understand the insularity that might exist within very tight-knit educational communities: “bonded” and “bridging” social capital. In garrisons such as private Christian schools, the bonded social capital is quite high, and this is a good thing. There is a united social network around a common ideology, a common purpose, and sometimes even a common ethnic heritage.

However, “bridging” social capital – the ability to develop relationships beyond the walls – is often regarded with hesitancy. We’re happy within social networks that largely affirm what we already do. The tendency within strongly bonded groups can be a failure to see how to reciprocally enable schools of radically different structures.

Earlier, I used the term “competition” to frame my understanding of the CES results. Were we winning? Were we losing? Such language of the marketplace, while it has its appropriate context, is largely inappropriate here. It creates a perceptual framework that will not only encourage misreading, but wrongly shape how we think about moving forward to improve our schools, and our societies.

In reflecting upon death, John Donne wrote:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

The same might be said of schools. If we rely on the language of competition, the apparent weaknesses within the public systems give us a false sense of triumph. But nobody really wins when a school weakens. Strong Christian schools make for a strong society. Good. Conversely, weak public schools make for a weak society. So rather than to give ourselves a victory pat on the back, the data is really a call to employ rigorous educational innovation within our communities, and increase dialogue without.

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