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Just what is Christian education? Is it Protestant education, is it evangelical Christian education, or does it also encompass Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox viewpoints?…

More than sixty years ago, A.W. Tozer wrote:

There is, unfortunately, a feeling in some quarters today that there is something innately wrong about learning, and that to be spiritual one must also be stupid. This tacit philosophy has given us in the last half century a new cult within the confines of orthodoxy; I call it the Cult of Ignorance. It equates learning with unbelief and spirituality with ignorance, and, according to it, never the twain shall meet. This is reflected in a wretchedly inferior religious literature, a slaphappy type of religious meeting, and a grade of Christian song so low as to be positively embarrassing. [1]

A few ago, husband-and-wife Yale Law School professors wrote:

Groups can also fall precipitously in their fortunes. In the early 1900s, when Max Weber wrote his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Protestants still dominated the American economy. Today, American Protestants are below average in wealth, and being raised in an Evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant family is correlated with downward economic mobility.[2]

Education has become a battleground for competing philosophies. For decades, public education has been means of educating most of our citizens in the United States. Traditionally, there has always been a strong minority of parents who have sent their children to private schools that correspond to their religious beliefs—such as Catholic parochial schools and Jewish day schools. Others send their children to schools that correspond with their economic means and class, such as college-preparatory boarding schools. Recently, Protestant Christian schools have emerged as an alternative to the public school system as a reaction to the sharp decline of moral and academic standards. Many parents decided that they no longer have to subject their children to the lack of quality education in a free country.

The Protestant Christian school movement which fought its legal battles for survival as it grew in the 1970’s is again fighting a battle for survival. This time, the problem is financial, or so it seems. A change in societal norms is hurting the schools, as a faction of parents who pay the bills often insists on a watered-down education, fighting against teachers who implement academic or behavioral discipline. Schools open and schools close, reminding one of a squall line, where thunderstorms form and dissipate as the cold front moves forward.

We will examine the philosophy of Protestant Christian education, taking into consideration the main points, and set a goal that we have yet to attain.

Public schools in the US started out for the good of Christianity, but those days are long gone. Harvard and other top colleges were started to train ministers, but have typically secularized, despite having studies in theology or divinity. Real Bible schools and seminaries exist as the only schools dedicated to training preachers today.

The rapidly-declining morality of the public school system necessitates the alternative of religiously-run education. Its worldview of naturalism, scientism, and socialism stands in stark contrast to the teachings of the Bible. As students this year are being forced to accept not only the alternative lifestyle that has been pushed on them for the last couple of decades, but even students of the other gender in their restrooms and locker rooms, more and more parents are seeking an educational milieu with higher moral standards and just plain more safety for their children.

There are several pedagogies known in education. At one extreme is the Socratic method, in which students read the material on their own, and discuss it in class. This is more common in classical education, and relies on a really motivated student population. The other extreme is the college lecture to many students, in which an instructor lectures to the students, with perhaps a little bit of interaction. Reading typically matches the lecture.

Elementary and secondary education is somewhat in between those two. Although a student might sit in a calculus class with three hundred others in a French high school class, American classes enjoy a better teacher to student ratio, rarely exceeding thirty students in a classroom. There is more interaction between teacher and student. The ideal is when an instructor teaches for a few minutes, then makes sure that the students all understand what has been taught. This can be a tougher adjustment for a professor turned teacher to make, but it needs to be done.

John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching[3] informs us that the first rule is that the teacher has to know his material. This should be common sense, but when a coach is forced to teach history, which he barely knows, or even more commonly in small schools—such as many Christian schools—a teacher must teach several areas, this can become an overlooked area. A Christian school science teacher, for example, must often teach space and earth science, biology, physics, and chemistry. There are no departments in a university setting which offer all these. A college student might become a biology major or a chemistry major, or even a double major (sometimes done for acceptance into medical school), but a university does not have a department of science. This alone is a case for a larger school, where a teacher teaches one course six times a day instead of five or six different courses in a day, but few Christian schools are large enough for that.

This is quite different from what the training of a public school teacher produces. First of all, those wishing to major as public school teachers tend to score rather poorly on the SAT’s while in high school. Second, they go on to major in education, where pedagogy is emphasized much more than subject knowledge. Third, should they want to go on to graduate school, their GRE’s score comparatively poorly with most other students.[4] Fourth, they land jobs under the auspices of the nation’s biggest union, the National Education Association, which values political power more than competence. And fifth, secular humanism has so invaded public education and teacher training that the teacher has been trained under a philosophy rather different from what is presented in the Bible, giving the teacher an unbiblical worldview.

The teacher has to be qualified in the area of teaching, but also must be a disciple of the Lord. This makes Christian education so much more challenging. There are many qualified teachers, although maybe fewer in such areas as science, and there are many Christians totally committed to discipleship, but how many are both? This makes finding a good teacher much harder than just recruiting people from a local church or from the family of the administration and other faculty.

There is another area in which schools vary. The evangelistic model takes in all students and gives them the gospel. The discipleship model disciples students from Christian families.

Students in schools using the evangelistic model often have to deal with bullies. Some of the better students leave these schools for the public schools, finding that the public schools might have better academics and less tolerance for nonsense. We must remember that there are public schools with horror stories of gang warfare and classes gone out of control, yet there are other public schools that do a better job at discipline and academics than many Christian schools, despite the secular humanism found in the classes. We might win the bully, but when the bully chases out the better student, and the administration cannot figure out what is going on, we see that such a model has its weakness.

The ideal student must really be motivated in both academics and behavior. The discipleship model makes for a better learning environment. Classical Christian schools typically use this. The parents are more likely required to be committed Christians, with at least some understanding on the part of the students, if not a full confession, that Christian behavior, attitudes, and even behavior outside school will be required. While the troubled student might not find a home in such a school, losing good students for the sake of the poorly- behaved is less likely in such a place.

The parents should be Christians. This is not always the case, especially when a student is sent to a Christian school due to suspension or expulsion from a public school. The parents must understand that in the classroom the teacher is in charge. Today’s helicopter-parenting throws a monkey wrench into the chain of command, and the idea of partnering with the parents is taking its toll on Christian education, as most Christian schools use this as a policy. The parents need not be academics themselves, but should possess the humility to step aside and let the teacher teach. Trying to control the administration or the teaching faculty should never be allowed, no matter how much money the parents donate to the school.

Most important in Christian schools is the need to integrate everything with the Bible. This is easiest with Bible classes, still easy with history and other social sciences, but harder with science and especially math. Even art, music, and physical education should be integrated in the curriculum.

Biblical integration can be challenging for the following reasons. First, those trained in secular colleges, or even most of today’s Christian institutions, have usually been exposed to secular humanism. Math, chemistry, physics, and engineering courses are great at developing the human mind, with evolution only showing up for fifteen minutes during a biochemistry lecture. Most other subject, and dorm life itself, exposes students to a myriad array of viewpoints rarely based on the Bible.

Second, how can math and science be integrated with the Bible? Genesis 1 is science, and Genesis 1-11 certainly refute evolution, but the Bible, the word of God, remains a book on human redemption more than anything else, and it cannot be the sole text for a science class. Math is even more challenging, with the numbers adding up in the Book of Numbers, for example, but still a neutral field in itself, as one plus one equals two no matter what a person’s religious, political, or philosophical views. Here is where a teacher has to grasp at straws, especially if Biblical integration is required for lesson plans. The integration is there, but it is hard to find, and the statements that God created math and logic, and that the ancient Greeks considered math an extension of logic, are often the best ways to keep from having to try to find something to fulfill this week’s requirement for integration.

Third, parental response can be surprising. Some parents want evolution taught in the classroom. The excuse is that the students need this to be able to understand what is going on in education, to do well on college boards, even to be able to communicate with others. The real reasons probably have to do with college acceptance and the disbelief some parents have in a creation model, reflecting their subtle doubts that the Bible is really true not only in spiritual areas, but also where it touches historical and scientific issues.

Keeping order in the classroom can be difficult in the public schools, but Christian schools are often not much better at it. Tuition drives most Christian schools. How can a headmaster expel a student, when a sibling or two might leave also, and watch anywhere from five thousand to fifteen thousand dollars or more walk out the door? This has tempted administrators to do anything to keep a student in school. A bully might chase out a good student, so the bully remains, one good student instead of one bully has left, keeping the head count the same, and the principal scratches his head wondering what has happened. The desire to minister to the disruptive student can override the better judgment of keeping the good students. Christian schools must remain disciplined.

This brings in what could be a very controversial area of Christian education: Just what is Christian education? Is it Protestant education, is it evangelical Christian education, or does it also encompass Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox students and viewpoints? Roman Catholic parochial schools have operated for a long time in the United States. They take order, discipline, and homework quite seriously, but our fragmented Christianity today often leaves them outside the realm of Christian education as Protestants define it. Christian education today is often Protestant Christian education, whether we admit it or not. And that is part of the problem.

In my own childhood, the best people in education, be they camp directors, a guidance counselor, a gym teacher, an athletic director, a vice principal, or for that matter a young boy who taught me the codes of football plays, have probably all been Roman Catholics, and my town was one-third each of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. The Roman Catholic Church, with some teachings that Protestants love to hate, has often been at the forefront of education since the days of monastery schools and universities. Its educational philosophy reflects its theology and practice; for example, a Catholic must take many church classes before such ecclesiastical rites as first communion and confirmation. In marginalizing Catholicism, evangelicals have left out the best practical philosophy of education in existence. Even if we do not teach Catholic theology, Protestants should consider emulating Catholic discipline (without the corporal punishment of the parochial schools) and education. An example is found in the next two paragraphs.

John Taylor Gatto, New York City teacher of the year for three years and New York State Teacher of the Year for one year, wrote about his time as a child in a Catholic boarding school around the 1940’s:

The intellectual program at Xavier, influenced heavily by a Jesuit college nearby, constituted a massive refutation of the watery brain diet of government schooling. I learned so much in a single year I was nearly in high school before I had to think very hard about any particular idea or procedure presented in public school. I learned how to separate pertinent stuff from dross; I learned what the difference between primary and secondary data was, and the significance of each; I learned how to evaluate separate witnesses to an event; I learned how to reach conclusions a half-dozen ways and the potential for distortion inherent in the dynamics of each method of reasoning. I don’t mean to imply at all that I became a professional thinker. I remained very much a seven- and eight-year-old boy. But I moved far enough in that year to become comfortable with matters of mind and intellect.[5]

Until we do this, until we teach our students to think, until we get them to use as much of their brain power as possible, until we have more of the discipline as found in his book, until we stop sacrificing our good students to keep the troublemakers, we have not reached our goal.

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[1] Frank E. Gaebelein, The Pattern of God’s Truth: The Integration of Faith and Learning, pg. 104. Cf. article entitled ‘Moses’ in His, May 1952.

[2] Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Penguin, 2014, pg. 8.

[3] John Milton Gregory. The Seven Laws of Teaching. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2014.

[4] Martin L. Gross. The Conspiracy of Ignorance: The Failure of the American Public Schools. New York City: HarperCollins, 1999.

[5] John Taylor Gatto, An Underground History of American Education. Odysseus, 2000, pg. 245.

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Published: May 21, 2018
Howard Merken
A Bible school graduate, Dr. Howard Merken also holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemistry from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Texas Tech University. He and his wife Casandra authored the now out-of-print Beyond Classical: The Next Step in Christian Education. A science professor-turned-Christian school-math-and-science-teacher, Dr. Merken is dedicated to teaching people how to use their minds for the glory of God.
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