I sometimes write arcane stuff that will have a specialized audience, and what follows may be an example. However, before anyone goes confirming stereotypes, I'll explain why I am writing on this subject.
I never set out to teach in religiously affiliated schools specifically, but, at this point, I have been teaching in them for more than twelve years. I have taught in schools aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and now with the largest Protestant denomination. While I have been a practicing Christian since eighteen, I am the product of public education. I went to public primary and secondary schools, and I went to state universities for my graduate work. I certainly noticed sneering from other intellectuals, but I never saw anything in public education that impeded my spiritual expression.
The problem is that, despite being a practicing Christian and a believer, people who advocate "Christian education" scare me. I am terrified today, because each school, each head master, each board of trustees, that enunciates a clear commitment to "Christian education" either has such an amorphous definition of the term that it amounts to "professional conduct" or one with such idiosyncratic terminology that the phrase seems to be no more than a way to fire faculty -- a language trap rather than a pedagogy.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has more registered aliases than any other online journal, apparently. There is a reason: teaching at the collegiate level is tenuous, and "academic freedom" exists only in stories we tell about the 1970's. For those working at religiously affiliated schools, the sand beneath us is even weaker, because there is always a new purge in the offing, a new awakening, a new movement that begins with the assumption that all of the present faculty are part of the problem.
Five or six years ago, my former college president assigned each faculty the job of writing up how we were pursuing "Christian education" in our courses. We were to submit these reports to him. Fortunately, he was easily distracted and never followed up, but, when he issued that order, I heard a fire alarm. I knew what I would say, but I also knew that any answer could be attacked by interested parties.
Now, my college has a new, extremely controversial president, and I am scared. I do not know what will happen, but I wanted to take a look at "Christian education" as a phrase and try to start with what most of us not inside the evangelical and home school movement would assume it meant and then discuss what the term can mean in the mouths of those who use it as a battle cry.
In ten years or so in graduate school, I heard about how thoroughly and wretchedly "the canon" and "the traditional classroom" needed reform. Reformers insisted that these two things were Christian, heteronormative, "great man" centered, hegemonic, and patriarchical. I read, and met, critic after critic who said that all that I had been taught, and all that my teachers had been taught, had been a near conspiracy of Christian traditionalism.
I never could believe in the rage of this criticism, and, in particular, it exaggerated enormously the effect on students of reading Robert Browning instead of Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Henry Fielding over Horace Walpole. Worse, whenever critics went after the "canon" and the "traditional classroom," they seemed to be attacking a chimera, because the "traditional classroom" and "canon" were always assumed to be back there somewhere but never actually ever given in evidence. Furthermore, I thought there was a little bit of self serving going on, because these criticisms always made the critic the true hero, because she or he had managed to escape the clutches of the evil plot.
Nevertheless, there was truth in the claims. To the degree that "canon" and "traditional classroom" had been Christian and patriarchical, then no one today would need to go out and create "Christian education." To the degree that the canons and traditions had not been actively ideological but rather practical decisions made by educators and methodological blindness by people caught in their own historical moments (i.e. the product of ideology rather than instruments of it), then any effort to create "Christian" education would be an effort to change the already dormant ideology by redefinition, pruning, and militating it.
Let me put that more simply: My personal response to people who want Christian education is that we already have it. One way or another, the dominant culture of Germany, the UK, and the US as it influenced our education is Christian and Jewish, both passively and actively. University teachers can try to be silent about the religious conflicts and beliefs that shaped history, scientific advances, technological spread, and revolutions, but it takes a conscious effort to avoid knowing that everything from vacuum pumps to the borders of political states come from Christian conflicts and Jewish and Christian moral qualifications of base conditions.
So, if people do not mean "aware of and discussing Christian thought" when they say "Christian education," then why did my friend quit his nice job to do "Christian education?" What do these words mean? Let's examine the possible meanings.
1. "Christian education means a Christian curriculum"
If you think of "the curriculum" as education, then we already have Christian education. People who use the phrase to intend this seem to mean either moral education or an undefinable excision from education. For them, "Christian education" is not defined by the books in a canon, but by the books kept out of it.
For people who believe that college "turns students liberal," it's frustrating. They don't know what it is, exactly, that those professors teach the kids that makes them liberal, but they know it's bad.
In its crudest form, a "Christian curriculum" reform is an effort at clipping away specific items that challenge the ideology of the donors or perceived power structures of the school. Clumsy attempts mean banned books lists. More sophisticated ones target critical thinking. After all, what makes students "liberal" is not anything in the curriculum, but rather a sum of skills that result from the practice of inquiry. In my experience, college students are not, in fact, liberal: they're skeptical of all assumptions and idealistic of values. They think critically and believe deeply. This makes them excellent activists, and it makes them quarrelsome when they come home over break.
The better form of Christian curriculum is a critical curriculum that simply includes Christian church history, moral education, and/or church positions. This type of education, which some of the Jesuit schools had leaned toward, may still have a black list of books, but it's a far cry from the anti-critical approach now taking root in Protestant schools.
For myself, I have always agreed with John Milton's statement in Areopagitica:
"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but sinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."It cannot be a question of what I refuse to teach, but rather the fact that I teach omnivorously, with only the addition of a base of values, perhaps. I may offer a reminder to my students of what the Gospels say, or where the churches stood at the time, or how the various figures responded to an idea, but they do not grow as souls or minds by staying behind the walls of ignorance. However, if I bring this up to people who do not know who John Milton was, or that they are themselves related to the Puritains, it does me little good.
2. "Christian education is not a curriculum. It is a Christian activity."
I tend to think of myself as a person who spent twenty years getting trained in a body of knowledge. It took an enormous amount of work to gain that knowledge. This blinded me and deafened me to the discourse of fundamentalist and evangelical schools who proclaim "Christian education" and by it mean "education in a Christian way," not "with Christian content."
The problem with suggesting "in a Christian manner" is that it implies that whatever currently is, is not Christian. Further, it leaves unstated a "Christian manner" that is presumed to be obvious to the speaker. If the listener cannot both apprehend its meaning and how it diverges from the current practice, then the listener is indicted as an outsider, an unbeliever.
There are two meanings for "Christian manner" that I can discern, and both of them can raise one's blood pressure as an imperiled academic.
2B: "Teaching students to be Christian" is para-academic or anti-academic. The subject here is that Christian education is an education designed to make the students into Christians from what is presumed to be unbelieving or immoral persons. This, again, kicks the definition of "Christian" back into a parochial or private definition, and it asks for skills that Ph.D.'s and M.A.'s will not have acquired.
2A: "Education along Christian principles" is potentially merely an ideological bend for teaching. By itself, it is neither good nor bad. After all, the Ethical School movement produced some of the greatest figures of the 20th century, including J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Schweitzer. However, in its enunciation of "Christian" as a form that is distinct from "moral" or "ethical," the schools again have a shibboleth -- a token that only those already within know how to speak, presumably.
I have, so far, found no Christian school that will, point blank, equate "Christian" with any political party -- either from the rebelling Roman Catholic traditionalists nor the evangelical side. However, the evangelical movement does have a common, if not universal, narrative of the 20th century that justifies its rise as a purging and saving fire in the churches. Over at Wonkette, they have been reading the A Beka 8th grade U.S. History book for Christian home schools and marveling at its narrative. A Beka is from Pensacola Christian College, which is. . . well, best explored on one's own.
Their narrative is not universal, but it is common. The twentieth century was a century wherein "liberalism" led many astray. The public schools hit their nadir with the "ban" on prayer in schools. Great evangelists tried valiantly to save America from its decadence, but to no avail. By the time of the 1970's, the public sphere had become one completely dominated by Satan. "The World" belongs to Satan, and Christians conduct "spiritual warfare" against this enemy by saving the unsaved, who are seduced by libertines and liberalities.
This narrative coincides nicely with the narrative that William F. Buckley pushed in God and Man at Yale. Interestingly, 1970's criticisms of amorality (not immorality) and lack of definition fit as well. However, the stridently, militantly besieged viewpoint, whereby third century persecutions of Christians are equated with civil pluralism, is unconvincing on its face unless the people coming to the belief have some other sense of loss or threat propelling them.
2a: Education along "Christian principles"
When a school has an inaudible presumption that it is "Christian" to the degree that it is not a public institution, then the principles being proposed must also diverge. In this, the school rejects simply moral or ethical education. For these people, "Christian principles" are already subsumed into the background -- perhaps so deeply that they themselves cannot think to enunciate them as an ideology -- and there is a narrative of the Godly fighting back against the forces of Satan who were triumphant in the World in the 1960's and "deceived many" with "false prophets." Their mission -- and the school's -- is to wage war of reclamation. There are no facts that are not in line with this. Any values the school, or scholars, share with the wider community are suspect and need to be justified. Therefore, the values behind the educating will not be ethical or moral education in the traditional sense. Instead, they will be from clippings of Paul speaking to congregations on various matters recontextualized as broad guidelines to all matters of life.
When Paul tells a congregation that telling rude jokes during a prayer service is unseemly, the take-away is that "bad words" are disallowed and unChristian. When Paul tells another congregation that the heretics telling them that the Gospel of love was a gospel of free love are not to be trusted, that turns into prohibitions on boys and girls holding hands. It reminds me of what Hooker said of the earliest Protestant churches:
"But a greater inconvenience it bred, that every later endeavoured to be certain degrees more removed from conformity with the Church of Rome, than the rest before had been; whereupon grew marvelous great dissimilitudes, and by reason thereof, jealousies, heartburnings, jars and discords among them” (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity I, 2.2).Because the mission is to be not like public schools, everything that is in common with the state must be rejected and repudiated. A teacher in such a place who says, "I am teaching what is known" or "according to the latest scholarship" will be speaking a different language, and one who says, "But this is exactly as Horace Mann advocated in a curriculum that was essential to our Christian nature" or, worse, "I think that Felix Adler was right and that industrialism has introduced ethical and moral problems that have to be examined in a framework of active values rather than merely by reference to dogma" will be confirming an allegiance to the enemy.
2b: Teaching "to be Christian"
Of all the possible meanings, this is the most frightening to me. While it could only signify a Jesuitic emphasis on a church's catechism, parochial schools tend to be overt about exactly how they intend to teach. At the same time, we all know that some of the fiercest critics of religion, and specific churches, were the products of that sort of education. Such teaching only tends to produce highly moral individuals with a strong education, and those churches that value free will probably accept ferocious critics as a side effect.
For the evangelical "Christian educators," though, teaching to be Christian is evangelism on and with the students. While these institutions recruit from church-going populations, they either view the students as needing to convert or be born again -- as that simply is the mission of the school -- or they regard the students as missionaries in training. In either case, "teaching students to be Christian" is teaching them to perpetuate a very particular understanding of the faith, a partisan one in my estimation, and to either conform intellectually or spiritually to a practice of faith that may be brittle and definitely is (intentionally, because devised in the framework of war) narrow.
For parents frightened about the potential trouble their children may get into, the idea of a school that will preach revival weekly or daily is comforting. However, the schools are not preaching good behavior: they are preaching the saving moment when a prior "sin nature" will be destroyed and a whole new person will be made.
Imagine teaching a music class and being expected to ask your students if they have been born again. Imagine doing so while teaching accounting. If not, imagine administration and deans alike encouraging faculty to offer a "personal testimony" to one's own conversion. Even setting aside whether or not every Christian has had an awakening or conversion (and I'm not willing to do that, personally), there is a serious question involved here. Of what value is the personal narrative of the singular moment? What does it teach, except that moment? A faculty that repeats, over and over again, that they had a defining moment will inevitably teach students that Christian life is all about a single moment, that there is a Before and After akin to a diet commercial.
When a Christian faculty is assembled, it could be a resource for a much more rare and difficult well of narratives than conversions, and that is "Christian life." There are hundreds of crises in the life of faith, in and out of the academy, that are communal. Optimally, these are part of a congregation's lore, but if a college is going to ask its faculty to speak as persons on only their own authority as believers (i.e. as congregants), then speaking about how they were born again twenty or forty years ago is a very peculiar, if not stunting, choice. It is a choice that, like listing what not to teach, achieves its "Christian" education by what it refuses to say rather than what it does. (Teaching "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord, If I Contend with Thee" and "Good Friday 1613 Riding Westward" and "Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God" are disappointing experiences when students have never heard anyone speak of spiritual drought.)
Additionally, the students "won to Christ" by such a means are probably in peril. Far from Jesus's parable of the seed that falls upon ground that is sometimes stony, sometimes mixed with thorns, and sometimes good (Matthew 13:1-9), this is a forced cultivation. One despairs of the roots, and the fruit, of such hothouse flowers.
As for the idea that all other persons in America are victims of the World, which is the province of Satan, and that all of them are in need of missionaries, I will be silent here. I can say, however, that people with such a belief suggests we are repeating prior historical moments, and, if we are, there will be a response or an internal contradiction that will lead to bitter disappointment among the faithful. As an educator, though, I can say that this is at the best a para-educational, or even parasitic impulse. There is a conclusion first, a set of assumptions about the content of the characters of others, before inquiry, and inquiry that comes to a new answer may be met with hostility.
The meaning of "Christian education" as "distinct"
When an institution argues, in its mission statement, that it is "God's own university," or when a school willingly loses accreditation in order to be more "godly," then the faculty, as well as the parents and students, are at risk. Additionally, the silent assumptions behind the anodyne phrase must come forward. Education by Christians is easily found. Education with an awareness of Christian tradition is easy. Education with Christian morality, too, is laudable.
After all of this time, I actually favor religious education. I find that even parochial education rarely makes demands on the teachers that are onerous. Partisan education, on the other hand, and politically reactionary education scares me to death. Those who define their education as a way to prevent people from learning some thing, or becoming some thing, who define their education as a means of performing a secondary civil or cultural effect, are always going to view people who train all their lives for knowledge, in all of its messiness, its coat spattered with the mud of the world, with suspicion.