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School Identity Crisis: Some Thoughts on “Vision & Mission” Statements

“Children are souls to be nurtured not products to be measured.” – Andrew Kern

Try finding an 18th century “mission statement” or “vision statement.” More specifically, try finding a school mission statement or vision statement from the 18th century. Sure, schools had mottos, seals, and shields, such as Harvard’s original “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae” (Truth for Christ and Church). Of course, Harvard has rejected that, shortening the motto to “Veritas” (Truth), which they have also rejected. But, mission statements and vision statements are relatively new creations.

However, their newness aside, they are utilized by virtually every business, school, and organization in America. Such statements function as tools to define the purpose, goals, and methods of measuring success and failure for the particular institution. They articulate future events the way we would like to see them.

This is precisely why Christian classical schools should be leery of them.

In fact, it could be argued that Harvard’s motto has been mangled precisely because it has been treated more like a mission or vision statement. A vision or mission statement is, primarily, about what those within an organization want. It is an expression of their priorities, desires, and designs. As the people within Harvard changed, the priorities, desires, and designs were altered, along with the place itself, and its motto.

Mission and vision statements might work perfectly well if you are manufacturing doorknobs, but not when nurturing souls. Doorknobs can be measured, trimmed, quantified, assessed by numbers, streamlined, mass produced, and marketed. Not so the souls of children.

Schools are not businesses. They are not factories, manufacturing plants, or department stores. As a result, they cannot be governed as though they were. Of course, there are elements of school life that bear great similarity with business structure – finances, accounting, physical plant, etc. – but even those areas must be directed within the context of being a school. That is, if a school is to be properly governed, those governing must first understand that they are governing a school.

Schools are tasked with nurturing the souls of students on truth, goodness, and beauty through the seven liberal arts. This is true education. So, in wrestling with questions of “mission” and “vision” (What is the purpose of our school? What should we teach? How should we teach? How do we assess what we are doing?), schools must not revert back to business or corporate models. Do not confuse doorknobs and souls.

And, if schooling has the formation of souls as its goal, then an individual’s goals for it must never conflict with that, even if they can get a group of other leaders to agree, write it down, and publish in the school handbook. If a person’s articulation of future events the way he would like to see them (vision statement) veers away from what true education is, then it is wrong no matter what my position at the school may be.

Mission and vision statements are, generally, selfish statements expressed in corporate language. Board members fight because their idea of what the school should do differs from another board member’s idea of what the school should do. Their vision and mission statements are clashing. The same holds true with the headmaster, faculty, and parents.

In the work of Christian classical education, however, we do not have a mission, we have a commission. We do not have a vision, but a vocation. And, while it may seem to some that this is merely a semantic sleight of hand or the result of enjoying alliteration too much, far more is going on.

A mission can be determined, defined, and taken on by me; a commission is given to me. A vision is the articulation of future events they way I would like to see them; a vocation is a calling from someone greater than me. All that we are to do has been dictated to us by the Lord – making disciples, cultivating wisdom, and loving our neighbor. And that vocation and commission from the Lord trumps any statement of our own vision or mission.

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