Do Christian Kids Need Christian Education?

This week’s post comes from the Anxious Bench archives. It is part of the new Patheos series Passing On The Faith: Teaching The Next Generation.”

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.)

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.)

Christopher Dawson

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, 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. 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.


  • kierkegaard71

    Sorry, a comment on a minor point of yours: I have been out of high school for nearly a quarter century, but I don’t remember “critical thinking skills” as part of the curriculum. And I don’t see any evidence of true critical thinking skills as part of education today. I do see evidence of a lot of teaching people what to think, rather than how to think. Are true critical thinking skills a part of Christian education in America?

    • Thomas Kidd

      It may not have been as much of a buzzword then as it is now. And for the most part, I think that’s all “critical thinking” is – a buzzword. But if by “critical thinking” we mean the ability to understand and critique arguments, then yes, I suppose that is an important skill to pass on to students.

      • kierkegaard71

        Thanks for the reply. It seems to me that education ought to empower people to think critically about any issue of importance. For Christians, I think there is a sensitive balance needed between encouraging faith and critically interacting with issues. It is true – I don’t need to understand to have faith. At the same time, Christian education should certainly accomplish more than merely passing on dogma to students.

  • Susan_G1

    There is much debate in education circles on what to teach (critical thinking vs. rote memorization – esp. important if one is to go further in math related fields – vs. other) so I don’t expect any changes will come for a while. Private schools can move more quickly, and homeschool , of course, can adopt things immediately. In some circles, critical thinking means teaching logic and rhetoric. But is can be as simple as taking the time to ask students, “Why do you believe that?” and have the student defend the position, then defend alternatives. Debate club stuff. The problem is that this takes time, and public schools are paid to teach to tests and grades and college acceptance.

    I homeschooled my kids, trying to incorporate critical thinking skills from the beginning, not just in logic and rhetoric (advanced grade subjects) but in problem solving and organization of thoughts (for example, having one student look at a 2 dimensional object and explaining to a second student how to reproduce it without seeing it. One learns to express oneself precisely so that the second can get it right (they can’t say, “draw a capsaicin molecule”).

    Homeschool, while wonderful for education and socialization (much more free time for the kids), is not for every family. The cons are as strong as the pros. Had I known of a Christian private school that taught excellence in academics, I’d have sent them there.

  • RustbeltRick

    So yeah, this article calls Douglas Wilson a prophetic voice, rather than the guy whose views on race and slavery should be viewed as an abomination. But moving on… I attended a Christian university and now work at a large, public (secular) university. State schools are indeed concerned about developing critical thinking skills as the goal of education; many Christian schools, by contrast, seem to be concerned with the transmission of correct information (there are notable exceptions to this, of course). In other words, you have to choose between open debate at the state school, or dogma from the religious school. And yet Christian schools stubbornly and arrogantly insist they (and they only) embody the values of the Western academy. Sorry, but that hasn’t been my experience.

    • Rick

      Rick, I think that you propose a false dichotomy in your options of schools. There are other options, of course. Some public schools present dogma and the regurgitation of facts and some Christian schools encourage open debate and critical thinking skills. We need to be careful of speaking too broadly and thereby falling into error. It is more likely that ALL schools have strengths and weaknesses in a variety of areas and subjects. Let’s judge each case on its own merits and avoid stereotyping things to death.

  • Brennan555

    Nice quote from Christopher Dawson; I like him quite a bit.