Christendom & Education
I want to make three points: (1) educational institutions, even Christian schools, are best understood as secular institutions that must bend the knee to Christ as King, (2) Christian education (specifically, secondary and higher education) is at its best the work of a unified Christian church, and (3) evangelical Christianity is in no way ready to take on the responsibilities that come with educational choice.
(1) Educational institutions, even Christian schools, are best understood as secular institutions that must bend the knee to Christ as King. With the Principled Pluralist tradition I think education to be its “own thing” – Western schools at least as far back as the Athenian Academy have an identity, government, and structure of their own that is separate from either the family or the state (I am setting aside the relationship between school and church for the moment). Schools have their own cultures and education has its own culture. Guilds serve them, and practically always have. Even in what some would regard as the heyday of American theological education, when most ministerial training took place in an apprenticeship setting, solitary education was a colonial oddity that was set aside when denominations were able to set up proper schools. However, schools are contingent – the training of the young does not have to look like this. It did not in Jesus’ day and most of the young throughout history have gone without what we would call schooling. It is not a necessary or natural institution, like family or state. But like family and state, and in contrast to the church, it is a secular institution – that is, it can possibly last only as long as this world, and no longer; it is not eternal.
We must understand education in this framework, and consider its implications. One important implication is that it cannot be understood as a part of the church. Its goals are not salvific. Christian schools that set up a requirement of belief for admission are mistaken, in my view. The young are fairly silly. They need training in knowledge, including knowledge of the Christian faith, so that they will know what they are accepting or rejecting. Christian schools that use revival-style pressure tactics to bring about conversions or who foster a social climate where a facile Christian culture is de rigeur make an even more serious mistake. The best thing Christian schools can do is to act like schools: to impart knowledge.
But this imparting of knowledge must take place within a conceptual framework. It always does; and a school that attempts to recognize the kingship of Jesus Christ must accept the conceptual framework of the Christian metanarrative. This must be humble but explicit. One of the most abused dictums in Reformed circles is that “all truth is God’s truth”. I take this to mean that wherever one finds demonstrable truth, it fits into God’s world, since he is creator and reveals himself in Christ. We humbly acknowledge that we know in part, through a glass darkly, but maintain that we know. Some take this to mean that the truth must be carved to fit our understanding of Christianity, its toes chopped off to fit the glass slipper of my particular doctrinal minutiae. If we do violence to truth, we do not serve the kingdom of God. But we can go to another extreme. We can so revel in creational truth that we neglect redemptive truth, forgetting that the grace perfects and clarifies nature (with Irenaeus and Aquinas). This mistake is made by some of the most intelligent and academically respectable leaders in Christian education.
To bring this into the realm of the practical, let’s consider worship in schools (I have in mind particularly secondary schools, because I teach at one, but these principles apply elsewhere, I think). Ought Christian schools and colleges to hold chapel services? Some say yes, because Christian schools are full of Christians who need a time and place to express their love of God in worship. Some say no, because everything about the school belongs to Christ and besides, worship in school blurs the line between school and church. I think the answer is a resounding yes. This is not because all of the students are Christian and deserve a chance to worship (they aren’t, even if they say they are). That is a “gathered-church” approach to worship applied outside of the church. In that case chapel should be voluntary. It is rather because as an institution, a secular institution must bow to the eternal. Taking time from the day or week to worship is an acknowledgement of an institution’s place in the grand scheme of things. It is also an important part of providing the Christian conceptual framework. Daily or weekly reading (I recommend the lectio continua) shapes and forms, as it does in family worship or in church. It is different from church, however. The people are not the gathered and confessing church, and should not be treated as such.
(2) I will make my second point more briefly. Christian education (specifically, secondary and higher education) is at its best the work of a unified Christian church. Educational institutions that are founded by a particular denomination or religious group tend to reinforce divisions between that denomination or group and others – if they are behaving themselves. James Burtchaell in The Dying of the Light chronicles the inevitability of a decline in Christian identity following a downplay of denominational identity. In other words, a school which moves away from its Methodist, Catholic, etc. roots toward a “broader” Christianity tends shortly thereafter to move away from Christianity altogether. Countless colleges and universities could be listed in the United States. I don’t know if a similar study has been done of private secondary schools. So I am not in favor of denominational institutions moving toward a vague, self-guided “Christian” identity. But what about moving toward the founding of schools and colleges that are non-denominational but seek the involvement and support of numerous local churches? A strong charter, an independent board, and a clear statement of faith (such as the NAE Statement of Faith or the Westminster Confession) could form the backbone of a powerful program. This also relieves particular congregations of an unclear relationship with a school that is a de facto “wing” of the church and makes donors (Christian and non-Christian) more comfortable, since they don’t feel that they are subscribing to a particular denomination in supporting the school (this is increasingly important at a time when many, many Christians worship in non-denominational churches and denominational identity itself, e.g. in the PCUSA, can be taken in many different ways).
Will independence, as opposed to single-church affiliation, guard the school against erosion of its Christian identity over the long haul? Probably not. But neither has single-church affiliation. Nothing but countless decisions over a span of time can keep a school (or any institution) on the right track. But independence as I describe it could help a school serve the local population better by getting input and support from local churches that are “on the ground” (as opposed to, say, a lone Christian Reformed Church in the middle of a non-Dutch population), building a better donor base in order to serve needy populations (and make no mistake, providing a high-quality education to underprivileged kids is a huge undertaking), and bringing Christian service back to the local level, which is something that you should all value as good, granola people.
(3) My last point is that evangelical Christianity is in no way ready to take on the responsibilities that come with educational choice. For a
long time, and I have been tracking this for about fifteen years, many have argued for school choice. Dr. Charles Glenn of Boston University has surveyed European educational systems and has concluded that the USA is the only Western country without state funding for private religious education. Former New York Mayor Giuliani has been outspoken in his support of a voucher system. The charter school experiment of the last dozen or so years has been a mixed success at best. And yet school choice continues to sit on the back burner for Republicans and is ignored entirely by Democrats. Why? Giuliani, in a recent speech, pointed out that Republicans tend to live in suburban or rural districts where school quality is relatively high, and so have little incentive to stake tax dollars on an experiment that will at best benefit mainly the poor and at worst bring the poor into their own schools and neighborhoods. Democrats, meanwhile, coddle their addiction to money from the outrageous teachers’ unions. Some care not while others dare not.
I am wholeheartedly in favor of vouchers nationwide, and in particular for students in failing city schools. My school has many more applicants than it can take. Inner city parents want their kids out of dangerous, inadequate schools. They understand that education is indispensible for success in American society, and they also know that schools foster character development, for good or evil. I am at the point of saying that vouchers are a matter of simple, procedural justice.
But if vouchers were instituted tomorrow, would the evangelical world be able to handle the consequences? There are fears among many that “government money” would be followed closely by government interference. Their fears are not entirely unfounded, especially because it is unlikely that the fragmented evangelical world will be able to speak with a unified voice as to what defines a Christian education or even what defines a Christian. Is the problem with Christian education primarily money, or is it also expertise and direction? Is there a surfeit of deeply committed, high quality Christian teachers just itching to get into an inner city Christian school? There may be many, but there are not enough to go around. The truth is that if vouchers were instituted soon a barely significant minority of schools would be recognizably Christian after the first few years. Evangelicalism is thin. Evangelicals do not know their Bibles, do not understand what a Christian worldview is, and often do not lead lives that are recognizably different from those around them. Evangelicalism can seem like a “thick” culture because it occupies only a marginal place in the development of Western culture at this point. We are good at sniping from the sides and saying what is wrong. But if the reins of power were handed to us tomorrow, would we do a better job? I think not. We have lost sight of the kingship of Christ and are paying the price.
So, a couple of practical notes to close. First, base educational policy on the notion that education is a secular and not an eternal thing. Neither education nor the state itself are messianic, though both have aspirations to be (for Republican Christians as well as for humanists). Run consciously Christian schools, and reform once-Christian private schools, in such a way that Jesus is exalted and truth is prized. Insofar as there is a need for new Christian schools (and this is demonstrably an urban need), create and support independent boards rather than church schools. Prepare for the institution of a voucher system by ministering mercy and the Gospel in the name of Christ, and by creating a “thick” Christian counterculture in your church. Only a society that has by and large adopted a Christian conceptual framework can handle the burden of educating the nation’s children in such a framework. Support vouchers but be ready for the evangelical boat to be rocked. “May none that trust in Thee be shamed for my acts of disgrace.”