It is a truth universally acknowledged across times and cultures that education should do more than sharpen students’ literacy and numeracy skills. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” In the United States, the Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush declared religious education a necessary condition for civic value formation: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion.”
Despite a general preoccupation with standardized testing, a strong consensus asserts that schools should produce more than test score conquerors. Research on untested outcomes such as civics and character finds much evidence suggesting that Christian schools do; graduates of Protestant schools are more likely to be involved in their churches, volunteer and give charitably, and remain in intact marriages.
Every school seeks to mold its students into a particular character. Across the ideological spectrum and in different educational settings, we are “witnessing the resurgence of character education.” Christian education is essential because there is no other school sector that seeks to grow its students in the Christian faith and mold its students into the likeness of Christ (Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Galatians 2:20; 1 John 2:6). As Cornelius Van Til (1979) wrote, “It is because we would have our children after us to believe this fact of the coming of the Son of God into the world to save the world, that we need the Christian school” (21).
Integrating Faith and Learning
Every school has a worldview. This worldview informs every aspect of its practices—the teachers it hires, the values it instills, the students it seeks to enroll. As Charles Glenn (2002) wrote in The Myth of the Common School, “No aspect of schooling can be truly neutral” (11). Cardus Senior Fellow Ashley Berner (2017) echoed this sentiment in Pluralism and American Public Education, “Every aspect of formal education is potentially instructive about the human person, the nature of authority, and the purpose of life itself” (7-8).
A biblical worldview is comprehensive and seeks to glorify God in all things (1 Corinthians 10:31). If no aspect of schooling is neutral, every aspect of Christian schooling should purposefully integrate faith and learning. In their book Teaching and Christian Practices, David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (2011) described this integration of faith and learning as something that “called into question the very idea of ‘secular’ or ‘neutral’ learning, emphasized a faith-inspired affirmation of intellectual pursuits, and refused to settle for models that positioned faith and learning as merely complementary or parallel” (2).
The Principal’s Perspective
Do Christian school principals seek to integrate faith and learning? If everything is spiritual, Christian school leaders should be concerned with flourishing and the holistic education of the student. According to Beckman, Drexler, and Eames (2012), the burden of being a “faithful presence” falls to the Christian school head more heavily than to others in a Christian school.
Research on Christian school leaders finds evidence that these leaders are concerned with the holistic character formation of their students. David Sikkink (2012) found that Protestant school leaders are significantly more likely to say that serving as a spiritual role model is a key aspect of their work. Albert Cheng, Katie Wiens, and I surveyed CESA principals and found nearly half prioritize “fostering religious or spiritual development” as their school’s top educational goal. And while this survey did not specifically ask about faith, Albert Cheng and I used a nationally representative dataset and found that 32% of U.S. Protestant school principals prioritized personal growth as the top goal—substantially higher than principals in other sectors.
The Student’s Perspective
As a former history teacher, one of the research projects I’ve enjoyed most is a study on how Holocaust education can shape students’ civic character. Through my experience as a teacher and my research on a Holocaust education conference with Molly Beck, I’ve learned how studying the Holocaust is an opportunity for faith integration.
Each year, the conference features a Holocaust survivor as a keynote speaker. For many students, hearing the survivor’s deeply personal and sobering account is the highlight of their experience. The survivor’s comments left one student pensive and uncertain. “It was surprising when she said that she would never forgive the people who held her captive,” she shared in an interview after the conference. “I’ve always been taught that you should forgive everyone. I’m not sure what to think now.” Her questions would have different answers depending on her values system or faith tradition. In a non-sectarian school setting, it may even be inappropriate for a teacher to try to steer her toward a conclusion.
Students who wrestle with moral dilemmas in a faith-based setting are at an advantage. In a chapter in Religious Liberty and Education, Rita Koganzon (2020) wrote that a student in a faith-based school is “in a stronger position to seriously engage with diversity than the secular one who is exposed to a superficial parade of possibilities that hardly challenge his own weakly rooted preconceptions very deeply” (40). In a flattened world in which all views are presented indifferently as equal alternatives, a student is disarmed and totally unable to render judgments between worldviews. In contrast, a Christian student can be armed by the Word of God, with which a student is “complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
If the purpose of Christian education is to glorify God and to train students in the faith, Christian schools must be concerned with more than academic achievement and test scores. For the most part, I am encouraged by what I see in research. While we can’t directly observe the extent to which these schools prioritize faithfulness, response patterns across various datasets suggest Christian schools are pursuing a distinctive education. If we care about training students with a biblical worldview, I agree wholeheartedly with Van Til—we need the Christian school.
Beckman, Jack E., James L. Drexler, and Kevin J. Eames. 2012. “‘Faithful Presence’: The Christian School Head, Personhood, Relationships, and Outcomes.” Journal of School Choice 6, no. 1. Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/15582159.2012.650096.
Berner, Ashley Rogers. 2017. Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Glenn, Charles L. 2002. The Myth of the Common School. Oakland, CA: Institute for Contemporary Studies.
Koganzon, Rita. 2020. “Pork Eating Is Not a Reasonable Way of Life: Yeshiva Education versus Liberal Educational Theory.” In Religious Liberty and Education: A Case Study of Yeshivas vs. New York, edited by Jason Bedrick, Jay P. Greene, and Matthew H. Lee, 31-46. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Sikkink, David. 2012. “Religious School Differences in School Climate and Academic Mission: A Descriptive Overview of School Organization and Student Outcomes.” Journal of School Choice 6, no. 1. Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/15582159.2012.651394.
Smith, David I., and James K. A. Smith, eds. 2011. Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Van Til, Cornelius. 1979. Essays on Christian Education. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing.
About the Author
Matthew H. Lee is director of Research at ACSI. He recently graduated from the University of Arkansas, where he completed his dissertation on “Faith-based Education and Civic Value Formation” under the guidance of Cardus Senior Fellow Albert Cheng. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @hmatthewlee.