When you are asked the question, “Why Christian school?”, what is your reply? Do you perhaps point to the biblical imperative that parents should teach their children the faith, or perhaps you cite the sociological evidence that subcultures are effective at reproducing religious faith? Maybe you argue that Christian schools are a conserving force in the face of moral decay in our culture, and perhaps you point out that the broader liberal arts curriculum found in many independent Christian schools generally produces better academic outcomes compared to public school. Data from the Cardus education survey would help you to underline many of those points with empirical evidence. I think they are all good reasons, yet none of them is the answer I am inclined to give.
The Historical Perspective
I want to begin with some time travel. I was a high school history teacher so it is my natural inclination to look backward. This may frustrate those of you dying to shake the dust of the past from your feet and do something new and exciting with school. Please be patient, because the most profitable time travel moves between worlds and not just chronology. The best time travelers, of course, are children like Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy or the Murry and O’Keefe families. On their travels, they learn to think differently about questions common to all the ages, they learn what is real and lasting, and they learn who they are. They do this because they leave what is familiar and they wrestle with these questions in the midst of new adventures, although they remain in the same storybook.
We enjoy universal, free public education in the West, largely because the Church cared enough to educate the poor. We are also constrained today, in both our private and public school systems, by an outdated industrial model. This is because the priority in the nineteenth century was a virtuous, efficient, numerate, and literate workforce. That remains a significant priority today and it matters, but on its own it’s not a big enough reason for Christian school. Historians of education profitably trace for us the theological, denominational, and constitutional discussions that gave rise to separate systems of education (public, parochial, independent, Catholic, and Protestant schools)—but a good time traveler will go a step further.
A good time traveler will ask if Christians had some different answers that we have forgotten about today. They might wonder if the small one-roomed schoolhouse fitted to the times and seasons of an agrarian community has something to say to our obsession with timetables, early starts, and after-school clubs. They might wonder about the fact that teachers had respect in the local community and that older children often instructed their peers. They might also wonder about the dangers of only forming young people for limited vocations determined by class, race, religion, or gender. They might wonder about the fact that our ancestors thought that religious and spiritual literacy were part of being an informed and well-rounded person, not dangerous tools of indoctrination. They might wonder about the fact that in many cases, these were schools for all of the children who lived in the parish. The point is not to romanticize Christian schooling in the past, but neither should we treat it as an anachronism. A good time traveler will be inspired by a generation that—without any model of what systems of Christian education should look like—built them in an attempt to provide some of the things that our culture needs from school, if our culture is going to flourish.
The Same Answer, No Matter the Time
Jesus was not a time traveler; the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus split time and space, they did not merely wrinkle it. God’s intervention in this tear through the fabric of the universe was Himself, His presence, and His kingdom. Jesus is God’s answer to what our culture needs. Jesus is my answer to, “Why Christian school?”
I spent some time recently talking to parents and young people in my community about their dreams and their fears. I would encourage you to do the same. What I heard back was a combination of exciting plans for the future, desires for relationships of love and friendship—tempered with nostalgia for things left behind, and fears about being hurt, lonely, and rejected. Good time travelers would tell us that these are universal to humans across time and place. What happens is that we express these desires in concrete ways when we ask questions like: How will this school equip my child to succeed in the future? Will you be teaching math the way it was taught when I was at school? What will happen to this class if we let in lots of non-English speakers? Will my child fall away from the faith when they go to university?
The point of school is teaching and learning; it is never less than that, but teaching and learning is a big important vision and it happens most effectively in community. It happens in school, in family, and in your place of worship. In our contemporary culture, that place of worship could easily be a shopping mall or sports field. When Jesus meets with us and shows Himself to be the answer to all that our culture lacks or destroys, He is teaching and forming us. In turn, we are learning and being formed by Jesus more and more into His likeness. We need to participate in Christian community in order to know Jesus. We need to participate in Christian community so that the kingdom of God can shape us, and we need Christian community in order to be a blessing to our time and place. I have summed this up elsewhere as purpose, rigor, and service.
This doesn’t happen accidentally, as a by-product of one particular curriculum, or because everyone has signed a covenantal statement. It happens intentionally as we look for Jesus to be the answer to the new cultural questions, worlds, and stories that are turning up in our schools.
Questions to Consider
If you are interested in thinking more deeply about how today’s Christian school engages with culture, here is a checklist for you:
- Have we asked the local community recently about what they might need from this school?
- Have we talked with our school community about their hopes and fears for the future?
- Have we talked recently with local church leaders about our partnership in faith formation?
- Have we asked our students recently to tell us what they think school is for? Have we asked them to share with us the questions they have about Jesus and the kingdom of God?
Christian school at its best is a signpost to the kingdom of God. It is a way of showing what flourishing community looks like with the potential to bless our culture for good.
About the Author
Dr. Beth Green is the director of education at the social policy think tank Cardus. Cardus Education seeks to enrich the public conversation with credible data on the impact of the religious school sector on graduate outcomes. It publishes research on education policy and practice and convenes networks for sector leaders.