Homeschooling, Poetry & Words

‘Beautiful Feet Books’ History Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

A lot of different books cross my desk, especially as I work on creating an early elementary reading schedule for U.S. History. When I first started to look into Beautiful Feet’s “Early American History For Primary Grades literature guide for grades K-3, I was intrigued. Once I sat down and actually read through it, though, I knew I wouldn’t be using it or incorporating the lessons into my history schedule.

If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time at all, you know I’m a Jesus-follower; and if you’re searching for reviews on Beautiful Feet curriculum, you likely know it’s purported to be a Christian curriculum.  I wouldn’t say it represents a Christian worldview, though — certainly not my worldview. But before I get into the implications of how the Beautiful Feet guide teaches morality, let’s address two of the books included in the primary literature list, “The Courage of Sarah Noble” and “The Matchlock Gun“.

In “The Courage of Sarah Noble“, Sarah’s courage is praised, but just what is it that Sarah is facing with such bravery? “Indians [who] will eat you.” Sarah is afraid of things in the dark, because they might be Indians. She freezes “still as a rabbit in danger” when Indian children approach. When she finally musters up the much-applauded courage to interact, she can’t be bothered with “the long, long names of the children, so she called the boy Small John and the girl Mary.” To learn more upsetting details, please do read this review of The Courage of Sarah Noble“. There are billions of books in the  world, and ones like this don’t belong anywhere near my bookshelf.

And then we have the “The Matchlock Gun“, which is so horrifyingly unthinkable in its description of Native American people, that I can hardly bring myself to type it here, but I want you to know what these books contain: “They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then the other coming up, like dogs sifting up to the scent of food.” This is stomach-churningly appalling. And why is young Edward, the main character, so celebrated in this book? Why, because he fired the matchlock gun and “killed more [Indians] than the rest of us put together.”

No. This book has no place on my bookshelf. Additionally disheartening here is the fact that Beautiful Feet is not the only publisher to include these two books on their recommended reading lists. But let’s at least take a look at Beautiful Feet’s “Early American History For Primary Grades” study guide itself. The guide was updated and revised in 2014, so it’s more modern in appearance than previous editions. The 37-page softcover book now covers additional material such as the Westward Expansion,  and has full-color images and web links (although, I counted less than ten links in the course of over one hundred lessons). The content itself was less practical than I was hoping for — comprehension questions are given, but no answers are provided. Lesson prompts are vague, at times not much more than “Introduce Columbus” and “Discuss the value of conscience”.  And there’s a lot more written busywork than I expected in a literature-based curriculum designed for kindergarten through second grade; students are instructed to copy entire dictionary definitions into a notebook. I could be persuaded to overlook some impracticalities, if it were not for my deeper concerns about morality-first instruction.

'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

Throughout the guide, the child is asked to interpret every historical figure by measuring the person against a list of character traits, and then make a determination of the person’s virtue. Nearly every one of the 106 lessons instructs the child to extrapolate the good character traits from a biographical segment of a person’s life, and then make an effort to apply these same character traits to his or her own life. This might seem innocent enough at the outset, but little mention is made of the heart itself, or of the transforming power of the gospel (which transforms from the inside out, not the outside in), or of what it means to actually follow Jesus. Perhaps this is because each lesson simply encourages the student to follow a list of moral character traits, not Jesus Christ himself. The hope, it seems, is that through emulating morality from the outside, one might become pure on the inside.

This isn’t a problem exclusive to Beautiful Feet guides alone; there is a tremendous amount of curricula and instructional material framed this way. But there are problems with this approach. When a child is repeatedly, lesson after lesson and year after year, asked to give examples of how a revered historical figure stacks up against a list of Christian virtues, several things are bound to happen. First, this approach ignores the basic fact that every single person who ever lived was inherently complex. So by reducing complex individuals  to one-dimensional figures, heroes inevitably become white-washed, because the focus is always placed on their abundant virtues. The child forms a worldview in which heroes have a lengthy list of abundant positive character traits, and “the bad guys” have very few positive traits. Life, of course, is not this binary. Going into life’s tricky situations believing you will easily be able to spot good vs. evil in either-or terms is not even safe! Teaching that people are good because they exhibit outward traits teaches nothing of the heart (although it does teach how to act “perfectly Christian” on the outside).

Another thing is bound to happen, too, when a child is asked to emulate the outward qualities of heroes who have almost exclusively positive character traits. When the child first encounters a sense of failure in his or her private life, the child is very likely to see even a minor struggle as a massive moral failure. After all, the child has never known any “good person of Christian virtue” to have struggles or moral failings — so the child concludes that he/she must not be good, either. When discernment between good and evil is determined by actions and accomplished by checklist, one too many moral failings on the checklist will automatically shift a person over into the “bad guy” category. And if “goodness and badness” are assessed based on a self-imposed list, what room is there for grace?

This curriculum guide also instructs children to memorize “The Conscience Poem”, several rhyming stanzas devised  by Rea Berg, who co-authored this guide with Joshua Berg. At first, I hoped this poem could easily be overlooked as an inconsequential side-note, but that’s not the case. “The Conscience Poem” is a central focus of the lessons, and is used in lessons 8 through 51 . The poem explains conscience as the inner “voice” or “light” by which a child “understand(s) God’s justice, truth, and love”, and ends with these lines, ”…and this is the confidence I will have / that God is pleased with me.”

No.

This is so damaging. First of all, one’s inner voice isn’t even a Biblical concept! God’s still small voice, yes. Ours? No. We simply cannot teach children that their own thoughts are the sole determination of God’s displeasure or pleasure. We can’t teach that their worth and value is determined by how they feel about themselves, or by how they imagine God might be thinking about them on any given day.  God already made that clear in John 3:16, “For God so loved...” Not that “For man was so wretched…” or “For man knew God was so angry…”, but “For God so loved…

We don’t need to keep self-assessing God’s love for us. We don’t need to keep wondering what God thinks of us. He already demonstrated that. His bloodshed and resurrection settled that question once and for all. When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished.” He was the sacrifice, the Lamb of great price, and we do not need to struggle daily to apply virtues in order to guarantee God’s favor. That’s not the gospel! And it’s not what I want to teach my daughter.

It’s also worth noting that for all its talk of Christian virtue, the character traits in this guide aren’t even taken from Scripture. One would expect, at least, this character-driven type of of morality-based education to be centered around the fruits of the spirit found in Galatians 5 — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control — but this list is never mentioned in this guide. Instead, the ambiguous ideals of “industry”, “virtue”, and “moral sense” are emphasized, as is an excerpt from Tennyson’s Oenone which praises “self-respect, self-knowledge, and self-control”. (Of course, it would not change the spirit of the curriculum even if the list of virtues had been taken directly from the Bible; even the fruits of the spirit are not a way to achieve righteousness. )

Overall, the guide teaches that a person’s goodness is measured by moral tendencies or lack thereof, and teaches that a child’s value and God’s pleasure are measured and determined by how well the child thinks he/she has applied a list of moral virtues. Contrast this with the perspective Rich Mullins sang about in “Let Mercy Lead:

“Aidan, you’re young
but Aidan, you’re growing fast…
…and you’ll need something more
to guide your heart
as you grow into a man

Let mercy lead
Let love be the strength in your legs,
and in every footprint that you leave,
there’ll be a drop of grace.

If we can reach
beyond the wisdom of this age
into the foolishness of God,
that foolishness will save
those who believe…

…Aidan the day will come
you’ll run the race
that takes us way beyond
all our trials and all our failures,
and all the good we dream of.
But you can’t see yet where it is you’re heading,
but one day you’ll see
the face of love...”

It’s about mercy, always. It’s about grace, always. It’s about God’s endless love, always. Mercy, grace, and love can’t be quantified. They can’t be put on a checklist, and applied to life. Morality doesn’t set anyone free. Perfection doesn’t set anyone free. Good character doesn’t set anyone free. Only Jesus — the face of love — can do that.

When you’re presenting the world for the first time to five-, six-, or seven-year-olds (the Beautiful Feet guide is intended for grades K-3), you have a serious responsibility. This responsibility is not just to shelter their tender hearts from the violent darkness all around us, but to show them the world and equip them with courage and with faith. I want to teach my daughter that the most courageous people in history were not those with the highest stack of character traits, but those who believed God could overcome darkness. Morality does not overcome darkness. Virtue does not overcome darkness. Only God can do that. And we have to be careful not to oversimplify life to the point that we end up teaching false doctrine.

So perhaps, as my strong and sensitive daughter grows up in this big ol’ world, I’ll say to her as Frederick Buechner said best —

 “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

'Beautiful Feet Books' Review, and the Harm of Morality-Based Instruction

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Christmas, Poetry & Words

Why Celebrations & Beauty Still Matter in a Broken World

During Advent, lighthearted festivities can conflict with the dark reality of the world. But we shouldn’t give up Christmas. You can’t fight the darkness without light.

Why Celebrations & Beauty Still Matter in a Broken WorldSometimes, people wonder how I can get behind something so trite as Christmas decorations, when I also talk about death and darkness and clinging to a thread of hope when grief colors everything. How can I talk about pretty things when there’s all this brokenness everywhere we turn? Isn’t that incongruent? Doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? Don’t I know the world is dying?

I do know. And because I know, I refuse to give in to the darkness.  I refuse to let the darkness chase us away from all the beauty.

Our God, the same God who demands justice and calls us to love mercy [1], also created beauty. The same God who calls us to defend the fatherless [2], also paints the billowing clouds with fiery indigo, told His ancient people to weave golden threads into gilded curtains and dot the tabernacle with precious stones [3], and turns snowy mountain peaks copper with every rising dawn.  If we have the eyes to notice, our heart is lifted at a solitary bloom alive in a dry and cracked sidewalk, and something in our spirit leaps at the sight of a single lit tree in the darkness, glistening in snow-covered bursts of colored light. Our deep longing for aesthetic beauty echoes the whole, complete beauty that existed in God himself before the Fall of Man. Glimmers of it shine earthside still. Every single thing of beauty on this earth hints at the beauty that waits just beyond the veil [4].

And something else await beyond the veil, too — a celebration [5].

Somewhere along the way in our journey through the monotonous tasks of living, we’ve heard whispers that to be holy is to reject the nonsense of tinsel and lights, and to be an effective servant of God we have to squelch in ourselves our deep-seated craving for beauty.  We’ve heard that to have a heart that really loves mercy, to have a heart that really broken over injustice, we should probably think twice about merrymaking. But beauty and joy and celebrations are not at all antithesis to our identity as Christians. Rather the opposite; celebrations are at the very heart of our Father God. All throughout the Bible we see, over and over and over again, this idea of gathering together in the mutual enjoyment of this wild and beautiful life. And we crave it. We crave beauty, we crave togetherness, and we crave wholeness.

Maybe it doesn’t make sense to live this way. Maybe it’s all more complicated than this. But I think my God is big enough that I don’t have to choose between beauty and truth. I think my God is big enough that I don’t have to reject the beautiful things He’s created in order to love mercy. So instead of understanding it all, I just want to embrace this mystery. The mystery of God, the mystery of this life, the mystery of serving the One who lets all these disparate things — beauty, injustice, death, love — coexist, and even, somehow, weaves them all together with redemption in a tapestry altogether glorious.

So let yourself be freed from legalism this Christmas. Let yourself be free to savor the deep, beautiful goodness of God, and drink in the wonder of His Advent, even if everyone around you is cramming in commercialism until the season nearly bursts with misunderstanding, and even as the news broadcasts keep rolling, and even as there is still work to be done.

“Here is the world”, said Frederick Buechner. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.” [6]

Poetry & Words

POETRY & WORDS :: And I’ll Sing in the Land of my Sojourn

And I'll Sing in the Land of My Sojourn by Gina Munsey on Oaxacaborn, with quotes by Rich Mullins and Frederick BuechnerIt’s quiet, at least as quiet as an afternoon can be on the second floor of an apartment building, perched at the edge, where the gully dips down into rain-soaked grass and back up again to meet the ragged blacktop edge just before the toll booth.  This little corner of earth where residential and interstate meet is not a destination or a landmark, but I think Rich Mullins would have sung about it [1].

I think he’d have seen the gold in the way the sun fights for light here, like a farmer sees hope and life in the tiniest green shoot.

Maybe he’d have heard a melody in the rumble of the trucks which coast and pull their rattling brake just before the bend in the road, like he did when he sang “And the coal trucks come a-runnin’  / With their bellies full of coal  / And their big wheels a-hummin’  / Down this road that lies open like the soul of a woman…” [2]

He saw beauty, somehow, where others only saw the tired corners, where others only saw the afternoon traffic jams and the faded street signs and the plodding of sojourners down the cracked and uneven sidewalks. When you know everything around you lies in shadow, waiting for the great awakening, when you know we’re all living just on the very cusp of seeing clearly and not through a glass dimly, well, then, there’s beauty in everything broken. Because as soon as that Star shown down into the stable and as soon as He was born, well, redemption was set in motion and that was “When the old world started dying / And the new world started coming on”. [3]

There have been sojourners as long as there has been time itself, mendicants wandering [4] yet wandering with purpose, through the dredges that are made holy with that same purpose. Sojourning is different than drudgery. Drudgery is repetition without hope on a horizontal plane. But sojourning! Ah, sojourning takes the repetition in which drudgery despairs, and views it with eyes opened by the God of Wonder Himself.

“If you think you are seeing the same show all over again seven times a week,” Frederick Buechner writes [5], “you’re crazy. Every morning you wake up to something that in all eternity never was before and never will be again. And the you that wakes up was never the same before and will never be the same again.”

And so, in the midst of the traffic chorus outside my window, and the unwashed laundry and  the unanswered emails, in the midst of confronting evil and doubt, in the midst of working long into the night and consoling a child’s fever and answering unspoken fears, in between the lost moments of sleep and the sunrises awash with new mercies and endless grace, in the arms of everlasting love, “I’ll sing my song / and I’ll sing my song / in the land of my sojourn.”[6]

Life in Photos

LIFE IN PHOTOS :: Childhood and Summertime

Falling asleep reading
backstage at the theatre
Dala horse and ramen
mosaic fountain
Papa and Aveline
Grumpy Aveline and Spanish moss
Post performance blues
Papa and Aveline
sunrise wakeup call
lighting check
big old palm
raincoat indoors
A little too happy to do spelling

“What child, while summer is happening, bothers to think much that summer will end?

What child, when snow is on the ground, stops to remember that not long ago the ground was snowless?

It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity—happy times and sad times, the time the rabbit bit your finger, the time you had your first taste of bananas and cream, the time you were crying yourself to sleep when somebody came and lay down beside you in the dark for comfort.

Childhood’s time is Adam and Eve’s time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything into before and after.” -Frederick Buechner

Poetry & Words

She’s outside of time. We’re in it.

One week and three days. That’s how long it’s been since Holly left this earth. Thirty years she lived on this side of eternal life.

“We are not alone / We are more than flesh and bone / What is seen will pass away / What is not is going home…” –Andrew Peterson

Donations to Ethopian school  Ziway Adami Tulu in memory of Holly Lutterman[Donate in Holly’s memory to the The Ziway + Adami Tulu Project]

And now, she’s home.

She’s dancing in the pure Light, healed. 

She’s outside of time. We’re in it. She’s free, and we’re trapped, feeling deeply the ebb and flow of new grief, constantly aware of life’s frailty.

The thing about death, you know, is that the living keep on living.

“The living can’t quit living,” Wendell Berry writes. “They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.”

And so we can’t quit. We don’t. We keep on, changed. Our perspectives shift, our priorities shift, our vision is altered. But we don’t quit.

We mourn, but not without hope. We grieve, but not without hope.

Hope is the anchor.

Hope points me to the “holy shores of uncreated light“, and the One who lights the way.

“‘Praise, Praise!’ I croak. Praise God for all that’s holy, cold, and dark. Praise him for all we lose, for all the river of the years bears off. Praise him for stillness in the wake of pain. Praise him for emptiness. And as you race to spill into the sea, praise him yourself, old Wear. Praise him for dying and the peace of death.

…Now that I can hardly walk, I crawl to meet him there. He takes me in his chilly lap to wash me of my sins. Or I kneel down beside him till within his depths I see a star.

Sometimes this star is still. Sometimes she dances. She is [Holly]’s star. Within that little pool of Wear she winks at me. I wink at her. The secret that we share I cannot tell in full. But this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” -Frederick Buechner