Why Christian Schooling Matters
The founding headmaster of the Stony Brook School synthesized the church fathers into five words: All truth is God's truth.
In the fall of 1941, my parents enrolled me in first grade at the public school in Beamsville, Ontario. Like most members of their generation, my father and mother—the young pastor of Calvary Gospel Church and his Scots immigrant wife—were school drop-outs, victims of the economic circumstances of the Great Depression. But both were keen readers and had taught me to read and memorize and recite what I had learned—at age six—before I entered the little Queen Anne schoolhouse on the village’s main street. I now know that there were Christian schools in that region of the Niagara Peninsula, but it never occurred to my parents to enroll me anywhere other than in the Beamsville Public School.
I’ve been told that, when that first day of school had ended, I burst through the parsonage door, announcing in full-throated volume, “I love school! I can write my name, I can count to 100, I can draw a house. Do I have to go back?” My mother—wise woman that she was— perceived that, although my enthusiasm was commendable, perhaps I had not yet taken all knowledge to be my province; so she gently suggested that I return the following day, just in case there might be something else to be learned. I obeyed and—at age seventy-seven— have been going back to school ever since. In fact, I attended ten more schools—all of them public schools funded by tax revenues and now, in the twenty-first century, increasingly devoid of the moral framework that characterized their ethos and its curriculum in my childhood. Most of them were located in the Province of Ontario, whose earliest advocate of public schooling was Edgerton Ryerson, well known for his Christian testimony. In 1829, he wrote, “Instruction in the schools would be but a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal when not founded upon and sanctified by the undefiled and regenerating religion of Jesus Christ.”
Let me illustrate my own experience in Ontario’s public schools from three books I treasure on my shelves at home today. They happen to be the literature textbooks assigned by my teachers in grades two, three, and four in Guelph: A Garden of Stories, Golden Windows, and Gateway to Bookland. These books are musty and their spines ragged, so I handle them with care. But in each of them—threescore and ten years later—I can still find affixed to their pages silver or blue stars, indicating that I had memorized and recited satisfactorily a passage of prose or poetry. And what selections did I learn and declaim for those public school teachers? “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want . . .”
“And there were in the same country shepherds . . .” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” No such citations from the Bible will be found in the table of contents of textbooks adopted for use in today’s North American public schools.
Nonetheless, beyond my parents, the most influential people in my childhood and adolescent years were teachers and coaches in those public schools. Dora Martin was my sixth grade teacher in Haslett, Michigan, who encouraged me in reading more than seventy-five books that year; she also brought a radio to class so that we could listen to the final game of the 1945 World Series and cheer as the Detroit Tigers beat the Chicago Cubs. Donald Davidson was both principal and eighth grade teacher at Chester Public School in Toronto; he was also my first track coach and helped me to a second-place finish in the 100-yard dash at the city’s age-group championship race. Miss Jessie O’Neill, a formidable little woman with a fierce persona not unlike some of the goddesses of classical mythology, taught me both Greek and Latin, and I responded to her demanding expectations. So too with David Carr, Wil Rice, Joe Kottman.
I say again, each of these people was a public school educator-employee at a time when one’s personal faith—if at all evident—was not misinterpreted as somehow in violation of the public trust. And yet, when my own professional career began, I responded to a calling to something other than public schooling. I have friends who chose to make a commitment to public schooling; in fact, my own wife Lory gave more than thirty years to teaching health education in our local public elementary schools. So, why didn’t I—and what have I learned by having taken “the road less travelled”?
Reality From God’s Perspective
This is now my fifty-sixth year as a professional in education. I began as an instructor of English and assistant coach of cross-country and track at Wheaton College, Illinois. But after only one year, I shifted to college-preparatory Christian schooling, a vocation which I insist on differentiating from other modes of Christian education. The full panoply of a church’s educational ministries includes Sunday School, small-group Bible studies, pre-marriage counselling, bereavement counselling, confirmation or pre-membership instruction, Friday night youth ministry, and so forth.
Christian schooling stands apart from all of these forms of Christian education. In particular, none of them reports to a secular official or satisfies a provincial or state legislation requiring compulsory attendance by children or obligating their parents to provide a comprehensive education in readin’ and ‘writin’ and ‘rithmetic. Never mind that only Christian schooling sets tuition and fees, as a church’s education or youth ministry program does not; only Christian schooling requires its adult leaders to possess university degrees and professional credentials; only Christian schooling demands a mastery of content as indicated by rigorous testing; only Christian schooling suspends or expels its unruly clientele, as seldom occurs in church discipline; only Christian schooling adequately prepares its graduates for the next level of formal education. I insist, therefore, that Christian schooling is a unique element within the broader scope of Christian education.
But far more important than these external differences are the theological, philosophical, and pedagogical distinctives that ought to mark Christian schooling from other forms of elementary and secondary teaching-and-learning. For only in Christian schooling-at-its-best can one discover the foundational principles of a biblical taxonomy identifying and defining wisdom, knowledge, and understanding and their effect upon education. Furthermore, only in Christian schooling is the teacher free to set the education being offered in a context of biblical worldview, biblical epistemology, and biblical integration.
A Christian school stands upon the belief that wisdom is a divine attribute belonging only to Almighty God, unless the Father chooses to reveal some element of that wisdom to human beings. So, in a Christian school, we rely on God’s wisdom already revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ, in the canon of Scripture, in the history of the Church; what is not revealed remains as mystery. Human knowledge, however, is a universal mandate upon us and a gift to our succeeding generations. No realm of human inquiry is foreclosed to us, and so—by the grace of God and the power of human curiosity—the frontiers of knowledge are constantly being extended. But both a revelation of God’s wisdom and the acquisition of human knowledge are weakened—if not powerless—without the blessing of Spirit-imbued understanding. Any teacher— however much she or he claims divine wisdom and can point to a string of academic accomplishments— is unlikely to be effective unless that teacher also possesses understanding, the discernment, tact, and grace to understand how that wisdom and that knowledge may be applied to the experience of the learning student.
Using this framework, a Christian school can build its philosophy of worldview, epistemology, and integration, derived from biblical interpretation and exemplified in curriculum and classroom. Worldview is the metaphor for a comprehensive vision of reality based upon presuppositions of what constitutes truth. For example, a political worldview is derived from certain presuppositions about the individual citizen’s freedom and the scope and role of government in preserving and protecting such freedom in any citizen’s life. Epistemology is the science of knowing and its limitations, for which the operative questions are “How do I know what I know?” and “How do I know that what I know is true?” Integration is a technical skill that calls for and enables the restoration of wholeness in a world otherwise fragmented and disintegrated by the brokenness of ignorance— or from a biblical stance, the effects of The Fall.
An authentic Christian school will appoint classroom teachers well-educated in their respective art or science and well-prepared by their knowledge of Scripture. These teachers will offer students their academic content— whether physics, poetry, or physical education— based on both a sturdy grasp of their scholarship and their commitment in faith to a God who is Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and partner in a Covenant of grace. So while the laws of thermodynamics may not be expressed in different language nor the rhyme scheme of Shakespearean sonnet redefined nor the kinesiology of the pole vault altered, the underlying premise of their instruction is this: Teaching-and-learning in a Christian school derives from a triad of biblical pedagogy which weds wisdom to worldview, knowledge to epistemology, understanding to integration.
By acknowledging that wisdom is a divine attribute, the learner attains the humility to see the world’s reality from God’s perspective. A typical secular worldview may find its metaphorical place to stand behind the bars of a prison or in the monotony of a treadmill or in the randomness of a cosmic casino. By contrast, a Christian’s biblical worldview takes its literal and geographical stand in history at both the foot of the Cross and at the door of the Empty Tomb. The Christian scholarteacher- learner sees, first, the reality of a world cursed by sin, injustice, betrayal, and cruelty; but then that wretchedness is overcome by grace in the form of resurrection power and everlasting life. Thus the lens through which a Christian sees is a biblical worldview marked by what St. Paul called “the blessed hope” (Titus 2:13, NIV).
The acquisition of knowledge tied to biblical epistemology also teaches us humility because it recognizes not only how we know anything at all but also how much remains to be learned. And while some of what we know has been attained by reason and experience (the scientific method), much more has been accepted by us as axiomatic: without ourselves having ever measured a straight line or a triangle or a circle, we accept and attribute the number of degrees in each of these shapes to the scholarship of some ancient mathematician. We accept by faith that which we have been taught in tenth grade geometry.
Understanding involves finding whatever reasonable connections exist between one aspect of wisdom or knowledge and another; thus, our delight upon discovering instances of integration among seemingly disparate fields of knowledge. Christian believers have a long legacy of recognizing practical integration in the expression of our faith, going back to the Sermon on the Mount, the parables of Jesus (for instance, the sower and the four soils), and St. Paul’s discourse on Mars Hill. In the Early Church, we see examples of Justin Martyr and Augustine of Hippo, both of whom argued that truth undergirds all elements of God’s sovereignty over human experience. Justin told the Roman senate, “Whatever has been uttered aright by anyone in any place belongs to us Christians,” and in his treatise On Christian Doctrine, Augustine wrote, “Every good and true Christian must know that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord’s.”
But over the centuries, a heresy arose within the Church that divided our lives into a sacred versus secular or holy versus profane dichotomy. Reformed Christians struggled best to retain wholeness, as urged by the Canons of Dort in 1619; but evangelicals largely succumbed to a “Sunday-go-to-meetin’” practice which separated the workplace from worship and career from spiritual commitment—except in the instances of so-called “full-time ministry” for pastors and missionaries. School teachers were not included.
Then, in 1954, Frank E. Gaebelein published The Pattern of God’s Truth, his Griffith Thomas Lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary given two years earlier. In this landmark book, the founding headmaster of The Stony Brook School—an international boarding-and-day school originally for boys, on Long Island, New
York—synthesized the teaching of the Church Fathers into five simple italicized words: “All truth is God’s truth.” This maxim revolutionized the evangelical attitude toward “the integration of faith and learning.”
Wheaton College obtained a grant from The Lilly Endowment to hold summer workshops for tenure-seeking faculty members, taught first by Gaebelein, then Vernon Grounds, then Arthur Holmes. In 1973, this program was expanded to include teachers from other member-colleges of what is now the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities; I served as facilitator for those faculty members in the humanities seeking to implement integration into their teaching.
But in their enthusiasm over the past sixty years, Christian professors and other leaders in evangelical liberal arts colleges and schools mistook the priorities and elevated integration to a cartbefore- the-horse position. Integration in isolation from biblical theology became the focus, and methods of achieving integration took precedence over developing both a biblical worldview and a biblical approach to knowledge and its limitations. I acknowledge my own complicity in this error.
I now believe and teach that constructing a biblical worldview must be the starting point, followed by recognizing the wide variations of how one comes to know anything at all. Then we may arrive at learning how to put the pieces of a puzzle together as a technical skill acquired after some years of deepening one’s knowledge of the art or science being taught and the Word of God in context. Knowledge of the Bible is essential because no one can integrate out of ignorance, and there is no short-cut, no fillin- the-blanks manual, to achieve integration.
Furthermore, no competent teacher can impose an example of integration upon a student: Integration must be perceived, recognized, identified, and claimed by the individual; otherwise, it is of no more significance than any other authoritarian dictum weighing down a confused student’s mind.
I return to my own professional experience. Following our year at Wheaton College, my wife and I spent thirty-four years at The Stony Brook School, the first half-dozen years working directly under Frank Gaebelein’s administration. Upon his retirement in 1963, I was blessed to be granted his influence upon my career, including writing a history of the School’s first fifty years, The Way They Should Go, and editing a posthumous collection of his essays, The Christian, the Arts, and Truth. Since 1965, my work—throughout the world and the agency of PAIDEIA, Inc.—has been to provide counsel and encouragement to others called to the vocation of Christian schooling. In fact, as I write this text, I’m about to leave my office at The Dunham School, an evangelical Christian school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to join a group of high-school students at their noon meal in the dining commons. There, as the cafeteria line ebbs, a student will step forward to lead her schoolmates and their teachers in a prayer of thanksgiving for the food and other blessings through the name of Jesus Christ. As classes resume this afternoon, students bound for selective universities will receive their instruction from teachers who themselves are capable of sharing their own knowledge of an art or science through the lens of a biblical worldview.
“Never Considered” Christian School?
And yet, given a North American environment more hostile to the Christian gospel than at any time in my life, and given the still-astonishing number of people who claim to be at least “religious” if not indeed “born-again,” the scope and influence of Christian schooling on society- at-large and family experience in particular appears miniscule. Among the thousands of self-proclaimed Christian schools in North America, very few can be said to be thriving in the current adverse economy. Most are totally dependent upon the current academic year’s tuition revenue, so that a shortfall in enrollment of as few as a half-dozen full-paying students might have severe financial implications.
Yet far more than a faulty business model detracts from the effectiveness of Christian schooling in North America. The late Kenneth O. Gangel estimated that, for a variety of reasons, eighty percent of evangelical families had never considered enrolling their children in a Christian school. Often a principle reason is the mediocrity—if not, indeed, the inferiority—of a Christian school’s academic reputation. Certainly there are defects noted in the 2011 and 2012 Cardus Education Survey reports—studies of Christian school graduates now in their twenties and thirties—that point to a need for greater authenticity as places of academic teaching-and-learning, not merely as adjuncts to Friday night youth ministry. But another corrective measure might be to adopt a more open and evangelizing approach to admissions restrictions that now require a school to enroll only children of professed believers or, in some instances, only children whose parents attend a particular type of Protestant church. Instead, I have been calling for Christian schools to reinterpret the Wedding Guest parable: Because Christian schooling has been rejected by the vast majority of professing Christian parents, why not invite those who want what we have to offer and are also willing to have their children exposed to the possibility of encountering Jesus Christ as Lord?
At a time when North American government schools are increasingly committed to driving out the influence of the Christian Gospel, Christian schooling matters more than ever before. But Christian schooling must always earn its place among parental options. The biblical command in Deuteronomy 6 is clear: parents have a spiritual obligation to provide their children with instruction in righteousness. But whether or not to do so in a Christian school is a choice, not a command. Thus the challenge for The Stony Brook School, The Dunham School, and every other Christian school must be to make that choice for parents accessible and obvious for the glory of God and the advancement of the Kingdom.