Over the past century and especially during the last fifty years, much work has been done at both philosophical and curricular levels to justify and define the distinctive character of an education that takes place in reformed Christian schools. Most Christian day schools have vision and mission statements emphasizing their commitment to instill a Christian worldview in their pupils and to help parents educate their children to become devoted followers of Jesus Christ and responsible, ethical citizens.
Yet, however much these schools profess to be distinctly and radically Christian, they are as much creatures of the secular culture in which they exist, and their structure, curricula, and day-to-day operation are only superficially different than that of the state schools from which they claim to be uniquely different.
Do we expect too much of Christian schools?
Although Christian parents are willing to make a substantial sacrifice to have their children educated in Christian schools, most of them are also eager to have their children become successful citizens. They want their children to go to good colleges and universities. They want their children to get good, well paying jobs and to enter prestigious professions such as law and medicine. For Christian schools to be recognized as providing the kind of preparation that these aspirations require, they must be appropriately accredited. The teachers in these schools must be state or provincially certificated, the schools’ curricula must meet government standards and the students must write government achievement tests and graduation exams to be awarded a recognized diploma. Furthermore, at the high school level, students must be prepared to write college/university entrance exams set by various secular bodies such as the Educational Testing Service or other agencies. With all these secular accrediting requirements and with secular bodies setting the standards for further education or entry into various professions, how many degrees of freedom really exist for the Christian school to be distinctively Christian? And, if Christian schools can’t be distinctively Christian because of all the secular requirements placed on them, is there any point in having them, considering the enormous cost involved?
Of course, we must be realistic enough to realize that we cannot escape our culture and its historical development. The question of whether the continuing existence of schools is historically inevitable is an open one, but schools as we know them now are going to exist for quite some time yet. Confessing, as they do, that God is also the God of history, Christians must accept the need to work within the historical framework in which they find themselves, even though they know that much of what has happened in history has been anormative. Christian teachers and administrators must recognize their limits. Schools are, to a large extent, a product of their wider culture, and reflect the local communities that they serve. To the extent that there is confusion and disagreement in Christian school communities about exactly what it means to serve the Lord in the world, to that extent schools will mirror that confusion and uncertainty, and so will have difficulty in clearly defining their nature and task. Thus, Christian educators live and work in an environment of considerable stress.
We should not, however, expect the school to fulfill those functions which are more properly the purview of the entire body of Christ. The central role for the entire Christian community is, I believe, to (re)capture the Biblical sense of knowledge as an inseparable unity of faith and action. In other words, Christians must come to realize more fully that to know God is not only to confess certain beliefs about God, but it is to do God’s will. It is however, appropriate and important to distinguish among the different tasks that various institutions have in fostering such a world-and-life view and practice.
What makes a school Christian?
At a very basic level it seems straightforward: a Christian school is staffed by confessing Christians who believe, teach and practice Christian principles. Such principles might well include the belief that the Bible is God’s divine revelation and that Jesus Christ is both our personal saviour and the saviour of the world. Additionally, the Ten Commandments, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, the Apostles’ Creed, and various other historical statements of faith provide guidance for a life of Christian service. But, of course, all of this could be said of a Christian church as well. What makes a Christian school a school?
To answer this question, we need to make clear distinctions among three terms that are often used interchangeably in discussions about schooling, namely, nurture, education and schooling.
Nurture is the broadest of these terms and incorporates the others. Nurture is the sum of the human influences which further the development of the child into a mature, integrated person capable of exercising his/her full religious calling. Nurture begins in the home with the family and includes the provision of biophysical needs such as food, clothing, shelter and health care as well as psychosocial and spiritual leading.
Education is that part of nurture that concerns itself with consciously leading or introducing the child/person into an understanding of the customs, beliefs, aims and perception of reality of a given culture or subculture. Thus, education involves socialization, enculturation and a general leading of a child into a particular “walk of life”. Education takes place both implicitly and explicitly. Agencies such as the family, church, state, voluntary organizations, mass media and the school all have their role to play in the process.
Schooling is a formal process of education characterized by the analytical examination of creation and culture and is founded in the historical unfolding of society. Although every school activity should be considered an element in the total nurturing and educational process, it is the unique examination of the structural ordering of creation and culture that sets the school apart from other societal institutions such as the family, church and state. Schooling should thus be a limited and distinct aspect of nurture and education and should not usurp either the prior role of the family or that of other institutions and agencies that have a legitimate role to fulfill in education in general.
Teaching whole persons
I believe it is essential that every educator understands these distinctions. Failure to distinguish among nurture, education and schooling leads to a lack of clarity about the role of the school and accounts for the phenomenon of the school and its teachers taking on ever increasing responsibilities that do not clearly belong to them. And that, in turn, leads to stress and burnout that contributes to the alarming departure of many teachers from the profession, especially in the first few years after graduation from teacher education programs.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not arguing that the school should be a place for theory as opposed to practice, of liberal arts as opposed to vocational arts. Students are whole persons and teaching is a human relations profession. My point is that school is first and foremost a place where conscious analysis of the multifaceted nature of creation is stressed. It is not, in principle, primarily a place where children are to be fed, catechized, trained for a specific occupation, entertained, baby-sat or counselled – although all of these are fine and good things to do for and with children. The school may in fact have to do some of these things before it can engage in its primary task, but in doing so it should not assume these tasks to be or become normative. In that sense the Christian school also has the task of pointing out to the broader Christian community – parents, church, business – how the community may be neglecting its task in nurture and education. For example, shutting down the school for three days to go skiing is an instance of the school usurping the function of the family or the Christian club, whereas a three-day field trip devoted to a detailed ecological study of a local ecosystem is clearly within the parametres of the school’s task. Devoting tremendous capital and human resources to developing a competitive football program at the expense of a well considered physical education program for every student is another example of a school misunderstanding its central, limited task.
Developing a transformative praxis
What the Christian school must do to distinguish itself from its secular counterparts is to very consciously develop a curriculum that is more than just an icing of Christian piety on an otherwise secular cake (No Icing on the Cake: Christian Foundations for Education by Jack Michielsen). Christian schools must consciously work at developing a transformative praxis that challenges the dominant conformist ideals of a secular culture that measures success primarily in economic terms. Such a “teaching for transformation” model is starting to take hold in several Christian school communities. I have been privileged to serve on the board of one such school community in Edmonton, Alberta where the Edmonton Christian Schools in conjunction with the Prairie Center for Christian Education is actively developing a transformative curriculum based on infusing several Biblical “through lines” throughout the schools’ programs. Students from K-12 are challenged to consider how these “through lines” are evident in their lived experience. Currently, and in no specific order, these through lines are: God Worshipper, Image Reflector, Order Discerner, Earth Keeper, Servant Worker, Idolatry Discerner, Justice Seeker, Creation Enjoyer, Community Builder, and Beauty Creator.
Not all of these “through lines” are embedded in every lesson or school activity, but it should not be difficult to see how these Biblical guidelines for Christian living can be explored in the traditional subject divisions of the typical school curriculum as well as in a more fully integrated approach to studying all of God’s creation.
I have spent 35 years as a teacher, teacher educator and Professor of Education (Emeritus) at The King’s University in Edmonton; I am aware of the complexity of the task of Christian schooling. I have not addressed many other issues that should be considered in the quest of what counts for truly Christian schooling. For instance, we must come to grips with defining the role of vocational education in the Christian school: not just for the “non-academics” but for everyone. Clearly, we must allow more students to leave school sooner and more gracefully than they do now. Analytical knowledge is only one variety of knowing and not everyone can or should be equally challenged in this regard. The role of Christian schooling for children with developmental and cognitive challenges needs greater attention. Christian schools must also resist the never-ending credentialing rat-race that has little to do with real learning.
Finally, Christian communities and their schools need to view themselves as “communities of resistance” to the dominant secular idolatry of consumeristic excess to ensure that the answer to the question posed by the title of this essay can be a resounding “Yes!” rather than an inconclusive “Maybe”.
This article is an excerpt of “Are Christian Schools Worth Having?” by Robert Bruinsma that appeared in Pro Rege Volume XLVIII, Number 4, June , 2020, pp. 9-25.