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public schoolThere’s nothing like having school-age children to get you thinking about education. Yes, I went to college for eleven straight years (from B.A. to Ph.D.), and yes, I have taught at the college level for eleven years, too. But I had never thought so much about education—specifically, what kind of education is best for kids in Christian families—until the last few years, as we have been homeschooling our children.

recently reviewed David Dockery’s book Faith and Learning: A Handbook for Christian Higher Education for The Gospel Coalition. Although this excellent book is focused primarily on collegiate education, it helped me reflect on broader issues in Christian education generally. In the review I asked,

How badly do Christians need Christian education? And what exactly does Christian education entail? The answers are not always obvious. Even among evangelicals, there is no consensus about whether to put children in Christian schools, or at what level. If parents send their children to a Christian school, it is most likely to be at the collegiate level. Students often make key decisions about their faith in college, an unparalleled time of intellectual formation. Many figure that the extra expense of a private Christian college is worth it. Still, factors such as financial resources and children’s personalities weigh in the decision, made for the most part without official pressure from churches (excepting some Anabaptist and Reformed traditions).

With all due deference to people’s judgments about their own children, and to their financial circumstances, I wonder whether churches should prod Christians more directly to consider Christian education, even when public schools are not openly hostile to the faith. (Doing so would require churches to help make Christian schooling more feasible in cost and accessibility, and to make sure that the Christian schools they sponsor or recommend are truly worthy options. Just because a school is called Christian does not make it a good school.)

As I noted in the Dockery review, some very thoughtful writers have argued that Christian education is essential:

Prophetic voices throughout the past century as varied as J. Gresham Machen, Christopher Dawson, Douglas Wilson, and Anthony Esolen have insisted that placing children in state-backed, secular schools at any level is unlikely to produce Christian adults capable of proper thinking. Even if secular education is not overtly anti-Christian, these critics say, it tends to produce people who are vocationally trained rather than seriously educated. As Dawson provocatively wrote in 1961, state schools seek to create functionaries for bureaucratic and industrial systems; they form “worker ants in an insect society.” If these prophets are right, then some formal Christian education is extremely important for training intellectually adroit Christians.

Some Christians will argue that withdrawing Christian children from public schools also withdraws their Christian witness. And I know a number of Christian families who have given serious thought to educating their kids, and for a variety of reasons have settled on public school. But I suspect that many other Christian families have simply given little thought to the question. This may especially be the case in places like Waco, Texas, my current home, where parents can pretty reasonably assume that Christian students at public schools will not be harassed for their faith, at least not by teachers. But still, do the values of public education, even in towns relatively friendly to faith, accord with those of Christian education? (The question of the quality of public education is, of course, a related concern. And please note that I am a product of public schools from 1st grade through my M.A. degree.)

Public education and private secular education are floundering to identify any purpose these days, other than perhaps “math and science” training, and the ever-popular “critical thinking skills.” (Excellent standardized test scores and successful football teams are also good.) The modern public school system was originally intended to form citizens for democratic citizenship; perhaps that purpose lingers in some public schools today. But Christians should be wary even of education for democratic citizenship, which can easily shade into nationalism and cloud a child’s understanding that her ultimate citizenship is in the city of God.

What we know for sure, of course, is that whatever combination of public, private, or home education a child receives, the parents’ influence on a child’s mind is preeminent. But I still think that evangelicals and other Christians need to think hard about what education for their children should accomplish. This deliberation should occur as early as possible. Two great books with which to start thinking are Christopher Dawson’s The Crisis of Western Education and Anthony Esolen’s satirical Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, a book I reviewed at Patheos.

Representatives of the state will tell us that public education is the only normal option, and that only public schools provide the proper “socialization” of children. But Christian parents know better than to automatically defer to the wishes of the state for their children.

Books on the topics related to this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis post originally appeared at Patheos: The Anxious Bench and is republished here by the author’s gracious permission.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Our kids definitely need a Christian education but the question is from where. All of my adult Christian friends went to public schools and yet they are now adults who think as Christians and very strongly so. Certainly, I got hassled for my faith at school but I have this gift of obliviousness so it didn’t phase me. But while at public school, I was also receiving a Christian education. I was receiving that education from my Church. And Church was where most of my friends were from.

    There can be 3 to 4 sources for a Christian education for a child. They are Christian schools, home, friends, and church. And one of the most important of these sources are friends and that is because of the molding effect friends have.

    For the most part, my daughter received a Christian education at home and church. She had a mix of friends so that was not as important of a source for her during her public school years. For my son, he received a Christian education at home, from friends, and then at his friends’ church. In fact, my son roamed around in terms of friends but eventually chose Christian friends because they helped him do what was right, a sense of which he got from the wife and I. And it was then through his friends and their church that he became a Christian and then grew in his faith through his friends and Christian groups at college.

  2. I agree with the sentiments of Esolen and other writers (I love Esolen’s book “Ten Ways”), but most parents are adamant that their children receive educations that will translate into good jobs, and most of those children will not become professional thinkers, Christian or otherwise.

    As a public high school English teacher who happens to be Christian, I lament the diminishing importance of the liberal arts in American society, but I disagree that the public schools are an instrument of the state to create little brainless factory workers. Instead, the vocational thrust of contemporary education is a response by local, state, and federal governments to taxpayers’ collective charge that the nation’s schools provide an inferior education, setting up students for failure in the so-called global marketplace. In other words, parents want vocational training for their children, with particular emphasis on math and science.

    I remember a conversation with a recent graduate of my school who returned this past May to visit his teachers. He proudly announced to me that he had switched his major from engineering to English, noting that his parents were upset with him because of the financial implications of his decision. Although I commended him for having the courage to follow his passion, I could not disagree with his parents’ concerns. Like the characters in Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times,” we live in a grinding, hectic world of pragmatism and utility, and while many of us would love to spend our days strolling the verdant campuses of liberal arts colleges in contemplation of life’s big questions, just as many must set their tables by other means.

    P.S. I cannot italicize titles when I write on blogs, so I used quotation marks instead.

  3. another good book is bradley heath’s millstones and stumbling blocks.

    i’m always surprised when any parent with christian ideas who sends their child to a warehouse that treats them as a product and teaches them that they are the measure of all things and that the purpose of their education is self promotion, primarily what they can get from it financially, tries to sell this place as the best choice for their child’s learning. please take this as the criticism it is intended to be – of the government school and not the parent.

    wood that is soaked in the waters of relativism on a daily basis may be dried and refurbished nightly, bit it will not be as strong or as beautiful as wood treated according to it’s nature.

    my experience with strong christian adults, including my weaker self, that have experienced the government program is that their/my thoughts have been so tainted by it that they/i cannot fathom the extent of its damage.

    but God is faithful.

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