Schools That Work

Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities, by James S. Coleman and Thomas Hoffer (Basic Books, 254 pp.; $21.95, cloth). Reviewed by D. Bruce Lockerbie, Staley Foundation Scholar-in-Residence at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York, and president of Stewardship Consulting Services.

If Thomas Paine were to publish Common Sense, his 1776 pamphlet, today, he would probably have to rename it “Statistics Show” or “A Study Reveals”—especially if he were attempting to treat some topic relating to human behavior, such as politics, religion, or education. Philosophers of old were content to observe human phenomena and rely on their common sense in uttering their wisdom. But today, we must have graphs, statistics, and the jargon of social science to justify any conclusion otherwise deemed unverifiable.

For instance, I read recently this headline in an education tabloid: “Divorce, Joblessness Identified as Primary Reasons for Child Poverty.” The article beneath that headline disclosed that “parental unemployment and divorce are the most common reasons that children fall into poverty, a study of 7,000 families nationwide has concluded.” This study, conducted by a university economics professor with funds from a foundation, followed its subjects for more than a decade.

This is no doubt an interesting way to occupy one’s time and spend somebody else’s money. But does the extensive study tell us anything we could not have figured out for ourselves? Does the scientific-research method of interpreting surveys, polls, and questionnaires improve on our common sense?

Obviously, politicians and educational sociologists believe so, as do many sheeplike citizens. Otherwise, books like Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities would find no commercial publisher. Readers willing to wallow through the peculiar patois of the University of Chicago’s sociology department will discover gems worth reclaiming in standard English. But few nonspecialists will find this book readable, for the fact is that it consists altogether of arcane tables set off from prose as deadening as the graphs themselves. A single quotation will serve to illustrate:

“We suggest that a family’s action in deciding among schools should take into account three elements that we have examined at some length in this book: the human capital in the family (as exemplified by the educational and cultural level of the parents), the social capital within the family (as exemplified by the presence of adults in the household and their degree of interest and involvement in their children’s lives), and the social capital in the local community surrounding the household (as manifested by the degree of intergenerational closure in the community).”

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Orientations To Schooling

Coleman and Hoffer, coauthors with Sally Kilgore of the controversial 1982 report High School Achievement, focus this study on students in grades 10 and 12; their research includes public, Roman Catholic, and other non-Catholic private schools. By questioning their sample two years later (sophomores as seniors, seniors now two years out of high school), the authors are able to justify their conclusions relating to the differences among the varieties of American secondary schooling.

Once again, this Coleman report points up the inadequacies of American public education, but not because of the reasons usually given. Rather, this report dramatizes the gulf dividing several “orientations to schooling,” three of which the authors describe. Public schools are “an instrument of the society to free the child from constraints imposed by accident of birth.” Religious schools (exclusively, in this study, Roman Catholic) function “as an agent of the religious community of which the family is a part.” Independent private schools (presumably, in this study, those without religious profession) appeal to the most individualistic inclinations: “The parents search for that school which most closely accords with their values and send their child to this school.”

Given the validity of these differences, which schools are likely to produce the most favorable (forgive the jargon) “achievement outcomes”? No fair! You relied on common sense. Where are your statistics to prove your conclusion?

“To Succour The Desolate”

A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael, by Elisabeth Elliot (Revell, 382 pp.; $14.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Katie Andraski, a poet and writer living in Belvidere, Illinois.

In A Chance to Die, Elisabeth Elliot challenges the reader to take a good hard look at pioneer missionary Amy Carmichael’s life and let her be a hero for our times.

An illuminating anecdote: When Carmichael landed in Japan after a heartbreaking departure from family and friends and a grueling voyage, there was no one to meet her. The crowd did not understand her. She did not understand it. All she could do was laugh. “All this was part of the going forth unto a land I knew not, and everything was just right, and if things went wrong it was so much the more fun,” Miss Carmichael wrote later.

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Several years after her first stint in Japan, Carmichael settled on her life’s work, providing a home for the homeless children of India and children sold into temple prostitution there. The goals she charted for Dohnavur Fellowship, her new organization, were “to save children in moral danger; to train them to serve others; to succour the desolate and the suffering; to do anything that may be shown to be the will of our Heavenly Father, in order to make His love known, especially to the people of India.”

She constantly faced difficulties from the caste system, nominal Christians, her own frailties, and disease. Yet she also testified to God’s support and grace helping her to overcome these trials. Her successes were long and hard in coming. In her own books, she was painfully honest about the rigors of missionary life—much to the dismay of some supporters back home. She also published volumes of poetry that are still read and admired today.

A Chance to Die reveals what it was like to be caught up in the great missionary tide that went out from England during the latter part of the last century. It gives an accurate picture of the mindset that drove people to serve the Lord in foreign countries.

Carmichael’s Muted Flaws

For the most part, Elliot has done a superb job of telling Amy Carmichael’s story. Paced like a novel, the book is entertaining, interesting, and instructive. But Elliot seems worried about whether readers would find in Carmichael the same hero she found. Elliot’s defensive tone made this reader wonder what she had to hide.

Carmichael’s muted flaws become visible in this book. There are, for example, her sudden departure from Japan for Ceylon without regard for her supporters, and her breakup with several families that worked at Dohnavur. But everyone is sinbound. It is a miracle of grace that God can accomplish anything good through us.

Elliot’s penchant for taking pot shots at contemporary thinking is an irritating and intrusive element in this book. For instance, when Elliot compares Carmichael’s courage to current approaches to grief: “If she had been born a hundred years later, she would very likely have been encouraged to be angry, told she had a right to express her sorrow and her bewilderment and her rage, and generally to disintegrate.”

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Carmichael’s courage is to be admired. But why use it as a sledgehammer to batter our culture’s way of coping?

But these are minor points next to the Carmichael legacy. A Chance to Die is worth reading because her story challenges comfortable faith, making us look and look again at our own sacrifice and service.


Preserving The Story

Herbert O’Driscoll, rector of Christ Church in Calgary, was for five years the author of the “Back Page” in The Observer, a magazine of the United Church of Canada. These reflections have now been anthologized in And Every Wonder True (Wood Lake Books, 109 pp.; $9.95, paper). In this excerpt, O’Driscoll’s meditation on the Qumran community’s dedication to preserving Scripture leads him to think about Celtic scribes and contemporary translators:

“As I walked about Qumran I couldn’t help thinking of another community which another despairing time in history gave its energy and skills to transform the sacred text of Scripture with brilliant artistry.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, when the lights of the western Mediterranean world seemed to have gone out, many fled that exhausted world and took refuge in the distant, haunted, harsh world of the Atlantic coastlines and islands. There in the crude and isolated shelters monks once again gave themselves to the written word. In fantastic and complex detail they embellished the pages of the Gospels with designs of endless convolution, preserving both the words of the Bible and their devotion to them.

Is it more than a coincidence that as the second half of this eventful century began and the pace of history and of human experience quickened and intensified that we have begun in translation after translation, paraphrase after paraphrase, to again mine the meaning of the timeless story we possess? Is all this an unconscious realizing that ours is a ‘Qumran’ time, an ‘Iona’ time, when our paramount task is to preserve the Story, placing it not in caves or in bogs to survive a dreaded future but in the hearts and mind of all who will listen?”

More Influential Than When He Died

How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, edited by Donald K. McKim (Eerdmans, 186 pp.; $9.95, paper). Reviewed by Gregory C. Bolich, president of the Christian Studies Institute, Cheney and Spokane, Washington, and author of the 1980 book Karl Barth and Evangelicalism.

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This volume contains essays from 26 contemporary religious thinkers. Their only real unity is their acknowledgment of Karl Barth’s genuine importance not only in the history of theology, but for doing theology today. If anything, Barth is more influential today than at the time of his death. His influence is claimed by adherents of diverse theological outlooks, including evangelicalism. One of the virtues of this volume is its diversity of perspectives and personalities. Several of the contributors are familiar names in evangelical circles:

• G. W. Bromiley is well known for his translation work, which includes much of what is available in English by Barth. He makes plain that reading Barth firsthand “is an experience that all who make a serious pretence of theology and all who have an authentic concern for ministry should not on any account miss.” Among Bromiley’s lasting impressions are the priority of biblical investigation evident in Barth, the relevance of historical theology, and the arousal of an appreciation of dogmatics. Bromiley provides a sensible and fair appraisal of Barth. Not insignificantly, it is also marked by an attention to often misunderstood areas of Barth’s thought, such as creation and a natural knowledge of God. Nor does he neglect Barth’s character, pointing to his integrity, his mellowing with age, and his enduring faith.

• Bernard Ramm has certainly not ignored Barth. In fact, in recent years some have questioned his evangelical standing because of his open utilization of Barth’s thought. Yet, Ramm confesses, even in the doctrine of Scripture, where he finds Barth most useful, “There are some hard problems to face to make his theory workable.” In Barth, Ramm finds help to correlate biblical criticism and divine revelation, without giving up inspiration or authority, and so gaining a fearless and holistic position on Scripture.

• Donald Bloesch has also interacted significantly with Barth. In his own two-volume Essentials of Evangelical Theology Bloesch is often in dialogue with Barth. He unblushingly confesses, “Besides Luther and Calvin, I count Karl Barth among my principal theological mentors.” From this teacher he has been helped most by “his fresh interpretation of biblical authority.” Of course, this is precisely where Barth has attracted the most evangelical attention, and occasioned the most controversy. Like Bromiley, Ramm, and Pinnock, Bloesch appreciates Barth’s stress on the Bible and the objective character of revelation. Ramm and Bloesch, in particular, see in Barth’s doctrine of Scripture tremendous resources for evangelicals.

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Bloesch, like many evangelicals, worries that Barth has left no genuine place for personal, decisive faith and obedience. Despite this imbalance, Bloesch maintains that Barth is “an evangelical theologian who transcends the parochialism of both fundamentalism and a narrow confessionalism.” And, in his opinion, we cannot safely ignore Barth.

• Clark Pinnock, who does not share Bloesch’s or Ramm’s enthusiasm for Barth’s views on Scripture, is the strongest evangelical critic of Barth in this volume. Nevertheless, he rescues something: “His emphasis on the concrete actuality of revelation is obviously biblical and begs to be given a nobler place in our apologetic efforts than it has been given.” Like his evangelical colleagues, Pinnock is neither afraid to confront Barth nor to acknowledge his helpfulness.

• John Yoder’s essay was, for me, both the most provocative and problematic of the evangelical contributions. For him, Barth “is not rehabilitating orthodoxy or establishment,” but moving to “radical churchmanship” along the lines of “the free church vision.” I think Yoder’s essay may say more about himself than about Barth. But without debating this thesis, I wish to point again to the openness of Yoder to Barth, and his ability to discern in Barth’s theology challenging and resourceful insights.

Indeed, openness to Barth while retaining critical awareness seems a fair characterization of the evangelical contributors to this volume. Anyone familiar with these individuals will know their independence from one another. What they demonstrate is that Barth is too important not to be reckoned with, and too helpful not to be used. Barth’s ideas on Scripture, natural theology, and salvation remain critical concerns for evangelical theologians. But today evangelicals are finding creative ways to dialogue with Barth, rather than to lapse into simple (and simplistic) judgments for or against him. That is a healthy development, and this memorial to Barth marks this happy situation.

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