Every week this year we are diving in to the theme “The People.” Today we look at…..

The People plowing through homework


Andy Farmer is the Minister to Students at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

We are called to exegete our contexts, which includes examining the historical, cultural, and emotional particularities of the churches we serve and the communities in which they’re located. We also study the broader subjects of 21st-century America and adolescence itself. One of the best things we could do right now in our seeking to understand would be to watch Vicki Abeles’ documentary Race to Nowhere or to read her book Beyond Measure.

In short, youth ministers of the current era have found themselves working at ground zero of a historically significant education crisis in the United States. We are resident theologians and pastoral caregivers for those most directly and critically affected by what’s been called “our outdated, stifling, achieve-at-all-costs educational system” and “the childhood rat race.”

It’s logical that “school issues” would be at the heart of youth ministry. Hasn’t it always been normal for teenagers to complain about school? Maybe, but it hasn’t always been normal for thousands of students to suffer withering anxiety, depression, eating disorders, insecurity, dangerous sleep deprivation, and thoughts of suicide. That’s the present norm, not the exception.

The first chapter of Beyond Measure, titled “Sicker, Not Smarter,” summarizes the incredible youth health epidemic plaguing our nation’s, and our churches’, students.

It’s enough of a problem for me, personally, that “education” and learning have been reduced to fact memorization and posturing yourself for impressive future achievements and a comfortable life. “Study” is a spiritual discipline of classical Christianity that gets at the joy of learning for learning’s sake and opens us up to a God who majors in inducing wonder, not just in the bleeding hearts of humankind but also in the brilliant intellects. God created us with a thirst for discovery and saw that it was good. In our current cultural context, however, “study” is one of the baddest bad words.

But we’re not just talking about the philosophy (or even economics) of education anymore. We’re dealing with startling physical, emotional, and mental problems. And, as it turns out, ethical problems. According to studies over the course of thirty years, today’s kids rate about 40 percent lower on empathy than students in the late 1970s. A Harvard research team asked youth to rank what was most important to them, and 60 percent put achievement somewhere above caring for others. Fifty percent chose high achievement as their #1 choice, and 30 percent put “happiness” above all else. The lead researcher spoke about the misunderstanding surrounding what actually leads to success and happiness:

“The irony here is all this focus on kids achieving may result in them achieving less, not more, because they’re not developing certain skills that are going to be essential for their success once they get out of the academic environment. This is not to mention the skills essential for being good friends, romantic
partners, and mentors, and those relationships are probably the most important and durable sources of happiness that we have.”

Most astoundingly, Beyond Measure shows how “we have, without really meaning to, transmitted to young people the idea that academic achievement is the most important way to measure their value as people, and that success in school exclusively assures success in life.” She goes on to say that a Nobel Prize-winning economist even put that notion decisively to the test and, after analyzing thirty-five years of data, concluded that “character makes more difference than IQ for economic and social success. Improved character even boosted kids’ standardized test scores, if that’s what you care to measure.”

Going back to ancient times, true education has always been about character formation and passing on “life skills.” It’s puzzling and overwhelming to think about how we got so far off track.

But not as overwhelming as having to actually be a student these days. The homework load is backbreaking. The performance pressure has seeped into all aspects of life and sucked up all the room to fail. The biggest and most obvious hindrance to learning and well-being – lack of sleep –– is either accepted as unavoidable or humble-bragged about by students and parents consumed with getting ahead and staying on top.

Whether it’s hosting a documentary screening, meeting with community leaders, or gently dissenting in our own small way, let’s join the movement to reclaim youth health and learning. Christians are called to care for all children and youth, and youth ministers are placed in positions to advocate for them. These are our people.

All data figures and quotes from Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation (New York: Simon & Schuster) by Vicki Abeles.