Do Christian Kids Need Christian Education?

There’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. (We are part of a Classical Conversations homeschooling community.)

I recently reviewed David Dockery’s new 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 factor into 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:

Christopher Dawson

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, is 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. And this deliberation should occur as early as possible, certainly before the kids reach high school. 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 last year.

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 families.

  • http://educationcanbesaved.blogspot.com/ Robert Bortins

    Very good article. Another point would be can education be neutral? Meaning that if a child is not being harrassed for their faith is that the goal of a good education. Can you learn history from someone who says it doesn’t point to HISstory and think that will help your child know God. It would seem to me education either points to our Lord and Savior or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t the parents will need to spend countless hours at home just to undue the damage done at a school that would be considered ‘tolerant’.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      agreed, Robert–education always comes from a perspective. and thanks, by the way, for the great work you all are doing to help and facilitate homeschooling!

  • Katie James

    I love this article! Having been a child who attended both private (Christian) and public school, I was dissatisfied with my education. I found what I later understood as Mark Noll’s “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” to be true in Christian school, and I experienced such spiritual emptiness in public school. I then attended Baylor, which, as you know, has attempted so well to educate its students in a way that will also draw them closer to God. I was able, finally, to make connections between my faith and my knowledge. After my wonderful experience as an undergraduate, I set out to teach at a private Christian school here in Waco, where I discovered that many parents were paying not for their child’s education but for their child to be given a happy, naive picture of a world in which there is only God and no evil. As a Latin teacher attempting to introduce Roman paganism as historical fact and as a means not only to understand modern secularism but also Paul’s writings to the Christians, I was shot down as one trying to infiltrate their minds with sin. Now I am once again at a secular school, where I can teach paganism as an interesting piece of history while asking students desperately in need of Christ whether Truth exists.
    Now a parent myself, I am torn and asking the same questions you posed. What am I to do with my own child? Where is the “happy medium?” How can I help my child make connections to Christ while also teaching her that the world is a hostile place?
    Thank you for your thoughts above.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      Thanks, Katie, and glad to hear that Baylor was so helpful to you. May it be so to many generations! Thinking about the balance is an excellent start. I don’t think that isolationism is the answer at all, but I also think that all education comes from a perspective–we should equip children to think “Christianly”–and realistically–about what they will encounter in education and in the world around them. In any case, thank you for your thoughtful response.

  • http://www.rickmcopy.com Rick

    The critique of public schools is slanted, and it then assumes that religious education will by default be somehow superior intellectually and morally. But I look around at the people who graduated with me from a religious university and I see a profound inability to think critically. I attended public schools (K-10), Christian high school, evangelical college, and public graduate school. Honestly, for every one example of secularists “skipping over” subjects they found uncomfortable (ie, Creation), there are five examples of well-meaning religionists dismissing or spinning data they don’t like (such as carbon dating, global warming, etc.). As an evangelical Christian with a Master’s degree, my takeaway is that 95% of the people you encounter (both in the Church and out) are biased, relatively close-minded, and eager for you to share their agenda. When you find the 5% who are able to see other perspectives and who are not threatened by you, keep those friends close.

    • John

      Rick has a point. This article is much too critical of public schools. The effectiveness of an education is ultimately up to the student. If the student is uninterested and lazy with his or her studies, then he/she isn’t going to get much out of it. It doesn’t matter if the school is a christian one or a public one.

      As far as a public versus christian education goes. I personally feel like having a christian based education would get in the way of your other studies. I feel like it would be odd to study, for example, physics while attempting to factor Christianity into the equation. I do not know how christian schools work, but I have this feeling that there are things like prayers before each class, lessons taught with a christian lean to them, and a general focus on Christianity, rather than the actual study it self. I may be giving a completely wrong idea of what christian education would be like, but generally I feel like if you are concerned with getting a good education, go with a public one, one that is purely focused on education.

  • children bible stories

    I enjoyed your article. On a positive note, Christian education does tech morals, ethics and knowledge of the Bible. Often times, the Christian schools have high standards of discipline and academic achievement. Christian schools offer mostly the same subjects as any other school but find ways to include the ideals of Christianity and knowledge of the Bible. If you are a Christian this is a great way for you to know that your kids are getting taught the ideals you think are important. On a negative note, the knowledge in some fields including science and evolution are usually covered lightly or completely left out due to the preconceptions of the Christian faith and finally it does not allow social interaction between children who follow a different religion or simply none which is also a great disadvantage in how a child sees the world. Christian Schools can also can deny or at least hinder the ability of someone not from the Christian religion joining. This can cause segregation from the outside world, unlike public schools that can provide a very multicultural experience. This limits their social interaction with different types of people.

  • http://exceptionnoted.wordpress.com/ David Pitman (@PastorPitman)

    Well said. Next year we will complete the home education of our fourth child. We began with our first in 1985. Our logic at the start touched on all the issues you raised. It has proven to be the right choice for us. Keep up your great work!

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      thank you pastor–and thanks for your example of long-term home education.

  • johnturner

    Great post, and it is a thorny question.

    We are not considering home-schooling our daughter, partly because my wife and I had such good public school experiences. If there is active, involved Christian parenting coupled with a congregational home that helps older children grow in their faith, I think a good public school is a very good option. I’m primarily concerned that American public schools by and large are not very good, but the schools at our future home have a stellar reputation. With God’s help, I am confident we can effectively shape Evelyn’s values, behavior, and worldview during non-school hours, and I believe that what she learns from us will have a strong influence on how she approaches school and other activities outside the home.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/ThomasSKidd Thomas Kidd

      thanks, John–like I said, parents are the most significant factor regardless!

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  • http://www.teach4theheart.com/ Linda Kardamis

    Well said. Every parent must consider before God what His plan is for their family. But I believe the argument that kids need to witness in the public school is seriously missing a key point: They are kids – they are impressionable and are still learning themselves. Typically they are not yet ready to go out and battle a secular worldview. They need sound Biblical training as children and teens – so that they will be ready to make a true impact for Christ as an adult.

    I wrote some about this too….

    http://teach4theheart.com/2013/08/01/is-christian-education-really-important/


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