The Lexus and the Olive Tree

The Lexus and the Olive Tree

For Veritas Press, Epistula (May, 2007)

Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

Summer is near, and during these days it is windy in Pennsylvania. For most of us, summer means that we are taking a break from the rigor of schooling. This is needed. Classical Christian education is much more work to accomplish than most of us knew when we began. Labor in the Lord, however, brings joy and meaning, not futility. “Our toil is not in vain in the Lord,” writes St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:58). In this article, given our education labor, I wish to point out several trends in our society and how we should respond.

Where are we on the voyage to our educational vision? If we climb to the crow's nest on our ship and take a wide look, we are in the midst of a sea of cultural change. We live in a time of unparalleled prosperity in many respects. Many drive a Lexus, which has become for some a kind of symbol of prosperity. Yet, a not-too-penetrating look at our society will find many crises just below the surface of our ordinary lives. Perhaps some already feel the strain of this on several levels, educational, familial, economic, and spiritual.

A shared area of concern is education. Perhaps the reason why you are reading this is because you have seen the crisis of modern education, especially in American government schools. I need not remind you of the infamous words of the “Nation at Risk” report which said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Our classical and Christian emphasis in education is a direct attack on this.

We also see all around a crisis in terms of family, as well. Our families are the primary context for education, yet American families have undergone radical changes. A Cornell University professor looked carefully at societal changes and identified nine critical shifts. These indicate nothing less than a crisis in family trends when viewed from a Christian perspective:

1. Fathers’ vocational choices which remove them from the home for lengthy periods of time. 2. An increase in the number of working mothers. 3. A critical escalation in the divorce rate. 4. A rapid increase in single-parent families. 5. A steady decline in the extended family. 6. The evolution of the physical environment of the home (family rooms, playrooms and master bedrooms). 7. The replacement of adults by the peer group. 8. The isolation of children from the work world. 9. The insulation of schools from the rest of society.

If we think through this list, most of them touch us and our families quite directly. Because of the last factor, the study described the current U.S. educational system as “one of the most potent breeding grounds for alienation in American society.” This study, however, was written in 1974. Every point on this list could be greatly expanded today.

Moreover, just beneath the surface of the U.S. economy is a major movement. This directly relates to our goals in education because of the shift in vocational opportunities. Thomas Friedman explored this in two books relating to globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization and The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. He shows that the vocational playing field between, say, the U.S. and India, is now being leveled because of the speed at which information can travel across the world. This “outsourcing” is becoming a trend for many more jobs than you might imagine. This is not just about speaking with a Pakistani on technical support for your Compaq computer. While I don't agree with all Friedman's conclusions and recommendations, it would be unwise for our educational plans not to be mindful of these major shifts. No wise educator today can expect the same kind of manufacturing, industry and information jobs to be available as they were yesterday. This is a significant change even in the last twenty years.

We also live in a sea of changing religious views. One example is the so-called “emerging church.” This is a movement away from traditional (and contemporary-styled) churches. It involves unchurched and “post-churched” people experimenting with a non-dogmatic conversational approach to faith. One prominent writer describes himself as, “post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.” The whole groundswell is bound up with a postmodern outlook which no longer sees the static structures of society as stable. This leads to a radical kind of individualism which desperately seeks community. While critics point out how this leads to unorthodox theology, relativism, and syncretism, my concern is to observe that we clearly have the winds of change blowing. “The times, they are a changin'” (Bob Dylan).

To the winds of change, which wail at our children, our families, our future, and our faith, how should we respond? In a word, “We are to be steadfast, immovable and always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). The Scripture says, “Blessed is every one who fears the LORD, Who walks in His ways. When you eat the labor of your hands, You shall be happy, and it shall be well with you. Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children like olive plants all around your table . . . Yes, may you see your children's children. Peace be upon Israel!” (Psalm 128).

There is a blessedness to happy labor and a blessedness to a happy home that give us hope, regardless of the surrounding change. When the storm winds of change blow around us, we are to draw nearer together and batten down the hatches. According to the Psalm, the product of the fear of God in our lives is fruitfulness, regardless of the changes around us. The image of fruitfulness is not a Lexus, but an Olive Tree. Our children are pictured as olive plants around the table. It may take as long as forty years for an olive tree to mature and fully produce fruit. Olive trees are long-lived, with a life expectancy of as much as five hundred years. They’re tenacious, easily sprouting back even when chopped to the ground. The fruitfulness that we must be after is a long-range crop.

During the school year, we often do not have time to fully assess where we are on our raising fruitful olive trees. Sometimes that is due to the business of life and making payments on the Lexus. Sometimes that is due to our own degraded routines which fail to cultivate the fertile ground of the olive plants and appreciate the blessedness of a believing home. Being mindful of changes all around us that affect us and shape us, the approaching summer is a wonderful time to reassess family life, relationships and our faith.

Our family will travel together for several weeks in June to see extended family members. The closeness of traveling together is an opportunity. We have already begun to think through what we will be doing to enhance and refresh our children in the process of this unique time. We can do all this knowing that our work in the Lord is not in vain. Still, we need reprieves. I trust that summer opportunities bring the kind of refreshment that hardworking educators, families and olive plants need.

Gregg Strawbridge

Gregg is the pastor of Alls Saints Church in Lancaster County, PA, and the author of the pamphlet titled Classical and Christian Education, as well as several Omnibus chapters.