Education of children in the United States is a lottery system. Children in suburbs and college towns typically have access to schools with first-rate facilities, skilled teachers, and well-behaved, motivated peers. Schools in large cities are often a different story, where as much effort is spent maintaining order as on education. Those who can, escape these holding cells to magnet schools, to charter schools, to private schools, or they pack up and move to the suburbs.
There are two great hurdles facing inner city schools, one deeply entrenched and the other seemingly intractable. The first hurdle is that unions have enormous influence on public education. The National Education Association (NEA), with more than 3 million members, is the largest union in the U.S. While the NEA has its merits, its inclination to protect all its members has the negative effect of preserving incompetent teachers. Additionally, the NEA tends to stand in the way whenever meaningful educational reforms are proposed. Such feet-dragging has harmed public eduction, particularly in underperforming institutions.
The greater hurdle for inner cities schools is the two-headed monster: poverty-and-fractured-families. The two are not absolutely connected—it’s possible to be wealthy and from a fractured family, and it’s possible to be from a stable family and still be in poverty. But there remains a high correlation between the two problems and, together, they tend to produce unruly, unmotivated students. Such students waste their years in school and (maybe) graduate with limited skills, which feeds them back into the poverty/instability cycle.
But inner city public schools are not alone in failing at education. Children who have “won the lottery” and are attending top notch public or private schools are still frequently handicapped by the ideologies of their learning institutions. Education is a tool and, like any tool, it is only useful when used properly. A hammer can be used to drive nails, or it can be used to smash car windows. When a system produces highly educated, highly skilled, narcissistic, megalomaniacs (who become CEOs and high ranking government officials), it’s a window-smashing institution.
Public educators broadcast their commitment to rational purity, shunning ideas that hint of “faith” origins. In practice, this agnosticism has defaulted to scientific materialism, a faith system that teaches children they are accidental products of a meaningless universe. “Good education” has devolved into meaning a program for equipping children to acquire the pleasant life. (Pleasant Valley Sunday school.) This philosophy is an embrace of all that is superficial. Some students learn how to block out the dark implications of materialism; some buy in and become dangerous; others believe but hate what they believe, and are driven to cynicism, recklessness, despair, escapism, and self-medication, all of which result in diminished functionality and self-harm.
This is why Christian education is so concerned about meaning, ethics, and personhood. The core of Christian education is helping students recognize what it means to be human. The first step in the process is to ask, “Who is God?” Everyone has an answer to this question, whether derived consciously or unconsciously. For many, the answer is found in one of the religions. In the 21st century, the answer is just as likely to be provided by some form of humanism, whether Social Darwinism, scientific materialism, existentialism, utilitarianism, etc. However a person defines god becomes the blueprint for what that person strives to be. A Social Darwinist will strive to live well, without regard for what harm his kind of living may cause others. A scientific materialist will love stuff, grab all the gusto he can, because he “only has one life to live”.
The God of Christianity is a creator—his brilliance can be seen in all of creation, whether at a glance or through microscopic or telescoping study. He is intimately involved and in control of history. Similarly and more fundamentally, he is love. To worship such a God is to love him back, to seek to obey him, and to be like him, all of which are much the same thing.
The more specific explanation of personhood begins in chapter one of Genesis, where it is noted that God created humans “in his image”. This means that people are designed to be like God. It does not mean that people are designed to be all-powerful or omniscient or to be spirits unbounded by space and time. What it does mean is that humans are designed to be creators, builders, and communicators, guided by love.
The same chapter of Genesis explains that God created male and female humans. Humans are either male or female, not both, or something in between, or something waffling back and forth. Humans do not determine their sexuality any more than they choose their parents (however liberating such an option might seem). Parents know that allowing their children to play in traffic is not liberation. Sexual identity experimentation is similarly not liberation. Encouraging children to “self-actualize” is an abdication of parental responsibility. Identity confusion contributes greatly to anxiety, social awkwardness, depression, sexual and chemical experimentation, and self-obsession.
Eve was made for Adam and, implicitly, Adam was made for Eve. Male and female are intended to be complementary. The most obvious aspect of this complementary design is procreation. The complement of male and female produces children and, just as importantly, provides for the nurturing of those children. Human identity is significantly realized within the context of family. While all children are uniquely individual, to live as a human is to live in relationships. The committed, supportive relationships of family are extremely important. The Christian school must honor the primacy of family. Parents should be encouraged to be involved in their children’s schools, not as “helicopter parents” but as sources of support, and as contributors to the educational process.
God made male and female in his image. While God is generally referred to in the masculine form, it is incorrect to imagine him as solely masculine. Masculine and feminine characteristics are found in him. God puts something of himself in all humans. As image-bearers of God, all humans are assigned great value by God. Consequently, all humans are entitled to respectful and just treatment…and all humans are required to give respectful and just treatment. At a Christian school there should be an underlying social awareness, even a sense of awe, at the God-image present in students, in faculty, and in staff.
Shortly after the creation, Adam and Eve sinned, throwing a gear-cracking monkey wrench into the mechanisms of creation. Three major disturbances immediately affected humanity. The first disturbance was mortality. Human bodies became subject to corruption. Secular society casually announces that death is “just part of life”. For the Christian, death is the result of sin, and it is the enemy of life. Degeneration is not well understood by the young, whose bodies are in the process of growing stronger, but time overtakes everyone. Children do observe this in the adults they know. Christians are to be filled with the joy of life, not obsessed with death, but death is real and it is a real problem. However, in Christianity death does not have the last word.
The second disturbance of sin was that it was passed along to all humans like a genetic disorder. Parents see their precious babies display tempers, willfulness, and destructiveness long before they begin to speak.
Pick a subject. Politics today is characterized by ideological polarization, finger pointing, name calling, bought politicians, and a dearth of civic-minded policymaking. The news outlets are filled with stories of men who have long practiced sexual predation. The social media are filled with gossip and vitriol. The algorithms of the Internet, designed to sell product, direct readers to sites that reinforce their ideological biases. The Internet is inundated with spam, viruses, and thieves; has become a weapon of autocratic governments; and has otherwise served to mesmerize the population into watching funny cat videos. Careless consumption continues to deplete natural resources, eliminate life forms, and contribute to climate catastrophes. The world is constantly at war. Over 15,000 people were murdered and over 47,000 people committed suicide in the U.S. in 2017.
People are dangerous. Sin is a huge problem that must be faced. Children must learn to be careful of others, as well as to battle sin within themselves. Children must learn about the Society that will help them to overcome sin (the Church), as well as the Holy Spirit, who protects and adds spiritual strength. To deny sin is to remain naive (and defenseless against all sorts of foolishness).
The third disturbance of sin was that it caused a breach between God and humanity. The human race is in trouble because it is unfamiliar with him. The human race doesn’t like God much, either, because he makes plain what is right and what is wrong, and this plain truth is frequently in conflict with human desires. People have always invented replacement (controllable) gods, or ideologies that lined up neatly with their chosen lifestyles. But false ideologies lead to false decision-making, and ultimately lead to death.
God loves us so much that he determined to absorb in himself the consequences of our sin, i.e., he died in our places. Granting us freedom from physical and spiritual corruption, he asks in return that we trust him and love him.
Salvation is a gift. Grace cannot be separated from the heart of God—it is the core of his disposition towards his children. It is wonderful to be a recipient of grace, but the gift of grace comes wrapped in responsibility. Recipients of grace must also become dispensers of grace. Those afflicted with sin but who want to live in peace must be practitioners of forgiveness. Children must learn to be gracious with one another, gracious towards their teachers, even as they learn to rest in the knowledge that they are forgiven of all the wrong they have done (and will do).
Christians are named “Sons” and “Daughters” of the King of Creation. This is an upgrade of the idea about being made in his image. For the child, this is not an invitation to entitlement; it is a reminder that he or she is to be like the Father. This calls for students to be humble, honest, disciplined, determined, respectful of teachers and peers, cooperative, interested in learning, joyful in creativity, courageous, and confident in their futures, knowing that the all-powerful Father is watching over them.
Christians are also called to be “stewards”. The earth belongs to the Lord. What God puts in the hands of his people is to be cared for by them. Christians, therefore, must be environmentalists. All humans are a part of the planet, as well, which means caring for all humans is a part of stewardship. Christians must pursue justice and care for the needy, whether they are nearby or far away, for those of like mind and for the antagonistic. Christians are to be innocent but not naive—they must recognize that sometimes evil must be addressed with force. But Christians are to be ready to make costly compromises for the sake of peace. Christians are the salt of the earth. This means they are called to do the dirty work, do the heavy lifting, and maintain discipline while those around them fiddle and let the cities burn.
This emphasis on human identity within Christian education is not an invitation to academic apathy. When purpose is added to study, the result should be a greater motivation to learn. Students who complete 12 years of education should be able to read complex documents; should be able to spell; able to write with clarity and in an organized way; be computer literate; be facile in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and domestic finance; be familiar with world history and geography; should understand civics and politics; should understand human physiology and health care; should know basic home maintenance, should be acquainted with the arts, and should experience various extra-curricular activities that teach teamwork, creativity, and provide opportunities for gaining poise in public settings. They should be familiar with the Bible, revering it as God’s authoritative revelation and the framework for all human understanding
History is to be taught, not with the aim of revising it according to politically correct trends, but with an awareness that there are both good and bad examples in history from which students can learn. Students need to wrestle with historical events, understanding them within their contexts. Students should be exposed to history through variant narratives, in order for them to understand perspective and to help them address present social complexities.
Christian history is also different on the macro scale. World history is not seen as an aimless series of factoids. History is the recording of God’s work in the lives of people, both those who serve him willingly and those who serve him unwittingly, to reveal his goodness and power, and to create a glorified society of wise and loving people.
Within the study of civics Christian students should learn more than the mechanics of government. Students should learn why government is necessary, and how various forms of government work. The strengths and weaknesses of government models make plain the sinfulness of the human race, and reveal the need for contracts, checks and balances, laws and punishments. The student should learn the reasons for responsible citizenship, even as earthly citizenship is recognized within the context of the overarching eternal citizenship of Heaven.
The student should learn to wrestle with being a good citizen in both realms, recognizing that the Heavenly kingdom demands first loyalty, and that the two kingdoms are frequently at odds. Today’s pluralistic society is full of crusaders insisting that “religious” people should refrain from bringing their “faith” concepts into the otherwise rational Public Square. Even Christians will say, “You cannot legislate morality.” But this is nonsense. If there is legislation at all, there is legislation of morality. Every law expresses an ought. The only question is, on what basis are the oughts determined? Every citizen brings his own faith to the table when determinations are made about the oughts society is to follow. Christians must not abdicate their responsibility of influencing society towards wise regulations.
For Christians the difficult problem is not whether to exert political influence; the difficulty comes in understanding how to apply Christian ethics to a pluralistic society. Or, maybe more to the point, knowing that the pluralistic society will overrule Christian positions on many issues, to what extent do Christians accept bad policy as opposed to saying, “Absolutely not.” This is not a unique problem for Christians, of course. There are many non-Christians who have sensitive consciences, who would find themselves at their wits end if America became like Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Russia, or present-day North Korea. Still, Christians are required by God to practice good earthly citizenship, even as the countries in which they live embrace laws and pathways that are foolish and wicked.
But the Christian can never become complacent about foolish State regulations, and must always work to make those laws more just. The stances Christians take within a secular society are not always certain and certainly not always safe, but being a good citizen does not mean being passive. Mordecai understood this. Wilberforce understood this. Lincoln understood this. M.L.King understood this. Christians are not to be hiding in the suburbs, keeping their heads low until they find themselves safely resurrected.
Being “salt” in the earth means far more than evangelizing and maintaining personal purity. In any case, Christian children need to learn that the ends never justify the means. They can try to drain a swamp with a wrecking ball but, likely as not, the wrecking crane will become mired in the mud. The means define the end. For the Christian, the means are as important as the end (because the End is in the hands of God). Christian students need to understand that, in many situations, the world is going to despise them. Nonetheless, the world needs them. God sends them as ambassadors of his grace.
Math enables students to become skilled at money management, construction and engineering, accounting, investment, sales, etc. But math skills provide opportunities for the exploitation of those who lack them. One example of this is the lottery programs promoted by State governments. The Christian student must not be an exploiter. The Christian student must learn how to use math skills to accomplish good.
Skill with language is a crucial part of study. Words can be used for great harm. For example, we see in politics and through media platforms that words are frequently used to abuse or misdirect. These are language skill abuses. Children taught to read and write must also learn how to tame their tongues. Words can be used for various purposes, such as providing entertainment and expressing creativity but, most importantly, words should be used to promote understanding.
The arts are taught with an awareness of the creativity of God. God can be recognized through the stunning beauty, complexities and variations within his creation, including the variations among humans. The arts testify that God has made humans to be creators, like him. Students should learn the disciplines of the arts, while also exercising their unique creativity, which is a delightful journey of discovery. Good education is largely about exposing children to what is known, but there must also always be a sense that students stand on the shoulders of their predecessors in order to bring something new and valuable into the world.
Athletics are taught, not so that children can learn to be “winners”. Winning games is of small importance. The value of athletics comes from learning to play games well, both individually and cooperatively. And there is the pure joy of growing in strength and skill, and the joy of high-level performance. Athletics are for fun (even for those gifted enough to earn scholarships or to play professionally). Physical play is a celebration of God’s gift of the wondrous human body. Humans are not brains on sticks. Bodies guided by the Holy Spirit are good, crown-to-toe.
Science should be taught to help students understand the physical world. The scientific method of hypothesis, test, retest, and assess should be employed and recognized for its value. At the same time, science cannot be presented as the source of knowledge, particularly since scientific knowledge, by definition, is provisional, as well as limited to the physical world.
Christian students should learn that science can be used for good or for ill, and that being able to do something is not a sufficient reason for doing that thing. When the atomic bomb was built, it seemed like a crisis-induced necessity. Perhaps it was. But most who were involved in that development were rightfully apprehensive about it. Can the genie be put back in the bottle? Technically, yes, and the pursuit of that end should be national policy, but given international distrust and ambition, the likelihood of success is small. Is seed hybridization wise, given the consequence of a diminishing seed types? Will the proliferation of robotics reduce work opportunities for humans? Will the proliferation of internet data make societies subjects to capitalists and autocrats? Will the proliferation of life-prolonging machinery and medicines drain resources to such an extent that basic medical care is unaffordable for the masses? Will population growth and modernization stretch the earth beyond its capacity to support life? Every beneficial invention provides opportunities for negative consequences. The world can ill afford science to be disconnected from ethics.
There are other disciplines, of course. But no matter the discipline, it is fundamentally changed within a Christian context.
Christian education must be characterized by fearlessness. While exposure to false ideas is not an objective of Christian education, a practice of facing challenges to Christian thought should be. Christians are Christians because they believe Christianity represents the truth. God only speaks truth. If Christianity is false, then Christians should abandon it. We say to any ideology, “Let us go where the truth takes us. Let us examine your claims and our claims in the light of day and measure whose claims stand the test of reality.
Not all questions are easily answered. Where do Christians stand on free market capitalism vs. socialism? What is a good immigration policy? What do we need to do to be environmentally responsible? How was the Biblical canon determined? How is free will possible? Why does a good God permit suffering? What is the Trinity? Why are there so many different views among Christians? A Christian education claims that there really is truth, and that every question has a best answer. At the same time, a Christian education must be honest enough to acknowledge that those answers are not always clear. Sometimes there is a range of possible answers. But feeding children pat answers or, worse yet, shielding children from hard questions only undermines their education. What happens when students find themselves in secular higher education institutions or secular jobs and they are challenged by brilliant minds. Make no mistake, there are brilliant people who can skillfully defend bad ideas. Will Christian students be crushed by such challenges because they have never tested Christianity themselves? A Christian education must include significant exposure to the best arguments of other ideologies.
The education of young Christian students should provide them with a clear idea of what it means to be human, but it should also launch students into discovering their particular gifts, interests, and options. They should be encouraged to imagine with a sense of optimism about the calling to which God is calling them. This optimism must be tempered by the recognition that God often has different plans for his people than they have for themselves. Sometimes God’s assignments seem humble, mundane, and even mind-numbingly repetitive. But, in Christ, sin is a reason for shame; humble circumstances are not. Christian students should be able to step forward with confidence, knowing their lives will not be wasted. They are to “cast their bread upon the water” and trust that their work “will not return to them void”. They should also learn that life’s trials and difficulties will serve to refine them. They will come to understand themselves, not as hurried transients but as everlasting beings embarking on a grand adventure.
Why would Christian parents choose to send their children to any other school than a Christian school, knowing that to do so is to expose them to constant false teaching?
Sadly, there are reasons. Some “Christian” schools are run by charlatans. Some Christian schools are run by well-meaning Christians who lack educational qualifications. Some Christian schools become bent by the weight of their own narrow visions, becoming islands of legalism and sectarianism. In such schools Christianity may become so obscured that their claim to Jesus Christ may be in doubt.
Many Christian parents cannot afford the costs of private schooling. Christians ought not to have to choose non-Christian education because they cannot afford Christian education. One way to address this problem is educational vouchers. Advocates of public education howl at this suggestion, insisting that such a policy mixes Church and State. The complaint is illogical. Currently, all Americans are required to pay taxes to support an educational system that is married to materialistic, humanistic ideology. People whose faith contradicts materialistic humanism are financially coerced into subjecting their children to an alien faith system. Today’s public school system is a marriage of “church” and State. The only way to truly separate Church from State is to allow all taxpayers to designate the schools to which they would send their educational tax dollars. Enacting this policy would radically and swiftly improve education in America.
A second and more promising answer to the funding problem is for local churches to commit to the support of Christian education. Many Christians argue that taking Christian kids out of public schools only contributes to the degeneration of those schools, and to the harm of the kids left behind. No doubt this is true. But while Christian influence is a valid argument for encouraging Christians to become teachers in public schools, it is a weak argument for sending children to them. The phrase “formative years” makes its own point. While Christian children are receiving good training at home, this does not make them immune to bad training at school, whether in the classroom or on the playground. It is not fair to expect children to be mature Christians; if they were mature they wouldn’t be children.
Churches need to consider that, while the Church has always grown through evangelistic effort, much more of its growth has come through the raising of children in the Church. The Church must avail itself of the benefits of formal Christian education. Churches should start by generously subsidizing educational costs for children in their own congregations. Congregations that have few children should send support to a local school, or support a sister congregation. A renewed interest in Christian education would certainly have a positive effect on Church growth.
Western society has become highly secularized. The turmoil of terrible ideas in the public square is disorienting. The Christian Church, God’s stewards, must not permit this disorientation and chaos to infect its children. The Church must equip its children to know truth from falsehood and to love God. The Church must teach its children how to live in the world and serve in the world but not become like the world. Many individual families cannot afford Christian education, but if the Church behaves as the Church should, i.e., providing mutual support, Christian education becomes affordable. The Church cannot afford to do otherwise.