I am a product of Christian education. Having attended Alabama Christian Academy as part of my upper school schooling, Harding University for both my undergraduate and graduate school years, and have taught at two Protestant day schools, I feel qualified to offer an opinion on why many faith-based schools should reevaluate what Christian education looks like.
I am coming from a few days of deep reflection, rejuvenation, and intellectual growth after attending the St. James Conference on the campus of the St. James School in Hagerstown, Maryland – an Episcopal boarding school. While attending this wonderful conference, I heard papers from a group of the most brilliant and passionate Christian scholars. I believe all of them define themselves as being Episcopalians. The papers they read articulated a passion for Christian education and a true dedication to being scholarly; both are clear goals needed in defining Christian education; however, I contend that being a scholar as well as a positive role model and good teacher carries more weight than being a Christian teacher. I say this because Christian students will encounter both during their schooling. And particularly, when they move on to higher education. Even schools like Baylor (I believe) Notre Dame, and Boston College encourage such diversity of thought. The great thing I must add about Christian education is that they do offer a venue for students to discuss and delve into topics of faith and religion. My criticism of public high schools is that they fail to offer such a venue. Part of growth and education is understanding the beliefs of so many people around the world. And in the process, discovering what he or she believes.
Let me explain.
During my 22 years of experience in Christian schools, I have observed a great emphasis of instruction being placed on moral integrity, righteousness, honor, and hard work. However, these virtues are also inculcated in non-sectarian schools. This list would be incomplete if I did not note that Christian schools look to develop one’s sense of faith. Unfortunately, a popular misnomer conveyed to Christian school students is that they need a Christian school with Christian teachers to develop their faith. The misnomer often applied is that the world is wholly secular and dangerous. If students leave their Christian school without a proper base of faith and self-development, they will be lost in the world.
Bright young students will encounter a number of experiences that will challenge their faith. Part of intellectual and spiritual maturity is learning from each experience. Assuming that students have reached that point by the time they have finished high school is false. Fearing that students will deviate from the Christian faith after high school is normal; and for some, if not many, this is a great reality. With age comes more experiences; it also offers greater contact with ideas that promotes or reinforces one’s thinking. Yet, in developing students’ sense of faith in terms of a personal journey, it would seem that exposure to greater diversity of faith is required. Here are a few outlined points to consider.
1. Christian schools that recruit and hire only faculty members of their particular denomination (i.e., Baptist schools employing only Baptist teachers; or, Church of Christ schools employing only Church of Christ teachers) are not fully embracing religious growth. They are operating under the guise that their “denominational” sect is the only real faith. I cannot speak much for the Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterians, but unfortunately I do know a vast many of the Churches of Christ who believe their “denominational” way to Heaven is the only way. They will tell you that they are members of Christ’s church, which voids the notion that they are a denomination. Schools that behave this way tend to construct courses and organize chapels in a fashion to reinforce a very narrow way of thinking.
2. Christian schools should recruit and hire non-Christian teachers. I recently told a colleague that if a school’s mission is to uphold the belief and teachings of Jesus Christ, faculty and staff members should be expected to honor that mission, and to do so without presenting malice. If schools focus their efforts on hiring mature academics with students’ interest, one might find that this works. There are Christian schools in which faculty members are not expected to sign a statement of faith; however, they are expected to sign a mission or honor code noting they will uphold the school’s mission. Currently at a number of faith-based schools, students move from class to class and from day to day knowing they will be challenged in their faith; however, over a period of time, that message can dull a student’s mind. It is like saying the Pledge of Allegiance everyday of your schooling career – it becomes dull with very little reflection. It is just another thing you do. But, if I student were to leave his religion course in which he or she was informed of one point regarding faith, that student might learn why others in the world believes something else.
Christian students at all schools are already receiving this type of information. I teach this in my class. But imagine the power of thought and faith if students were to get this information from a Muslim or agnostic teacher; it would promote a far more enriching discussion. When students leave their Christian school campus for college, they will be exposed to a diverse range of ideas. Why not introduce students to those ideas while they are in high school? Keep in mind, public colleges and universities teach courses on religion. They offer religious ceremonies. I am not sure why state legislatures do not allow public high schools to do the same. Religious studies are important in one’s social development.