A Coming Paradigm Shift in Christian Education?

I do not often read James White’s website, but my friend kepha pointed out to me this interesting short article that I thought I’d share.

For reasons that were spelled out ad nauseam in my long controversies with him a couple of years back, I’m not all that interested in White’s views on “the Gospel” or what exactly constitutes the quality of maintaining “fidelity to Scripture,” but as someone now moving full time into the field of Christian education I do find his comments about the seemingly coming paradigm shift in Christian education worthy of some follow up.

Obtaining state-approved accreditation is sometimes a big hurdle for Christian schools and colleges, because it is an unfortunate fact of our Modern world that the State thinks it has a right to be involved in every area of our lives and that if we do not have its Official Stamp of Approval for whatever we are doing, we are lacking something of true importance and may need to have pressures applied to us to get us to conform. We are so mentally attuned to this silly idea, even as Americans, that we are very often simply sheep allowing The Government (capitalizations on purpose) to lead us about by the neck as if we cannot handle much of real life for ourselves without Its help.

Yet there is something legitimate buried beneath the abuses. On the one hand, accreditation per se is certainly not a bad thing. Having widely-recognized standards of academic excellence provides a handy way for students to have their work for one institution recognized by another. It facilitates certain proper modes of social interaction, including the very important need to get a decent job that recognizes achievement and pays for it accordingly. In this sense, Official Accreditation is just a basic function of the social community that is the world of education, and in this sense I don’t believe that Christian schools are wrong to desire formal accreditation even if it comes from the State.

States are not inherently evil things, and when they do perform their lawful functions under God (per Romans 13), their approval or disapproval can actually mean something important. For example, as a general point of just getting along in this worldly life we live in, surely it is a good thing for there to be standards of achievement recognized by the authority that has lawful rule over us under God, so that someone who graduated from a Christian school will be able to apply for a job and have the prospective employer accept his High School diploma, or even his undergraduate or graduate degree, as a legitimate qualification for seeking the job.

But on the other hand, White is correct that “the Secular West,” as he puts it, is morally and culturally collapsing, and that in its death throes it is beginning to exert significant political pressures on Christian organizations. White characterizes the dilemma of Christian schools as having to decide to bow to Molech or lose the Money that helps keep them going. No doubt this decision actually does face particular schools, and equally no doubt, the only thing a Christian could do in such a situation would be to kiss the Money goodbye. There can be no bowing to Molech for Christians.

White’s idea that Christian schools “should now be decentralizing, getting “lean” and finding unique ways of utilizing modern technology to do high quality education that does not require bowing and scraping before the governmental altar” is a point I think worthy of consideration by Christian educators.

We would not necessarily need the modern technology to do high-quality education (indeed, the prevalence of uncritical acceptance in our world of high technology and its increasingly intimate marriage to assumptions about education is itself a problematic thing). PowerPoint presentations and other forms of multimedia may, if extensively used, actually inhibit robust education (see Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death for the principles of why this might happen). On the other hand, for small Christian schools, especially if deprived of Government Money, technological options such as Google Books might be required since real, physical libraries are extremely expensive.

Likewise facilities. It is all well and good to say that people who are serious about the educational enterprise ought to be able to provide safe and properly-equipped facilities in which to educate the students. But what happens if some City Council overly attached to a particular concept of “zoning laws” thinks a Christian College ought not to be allowed to buy a presently unused and untended building for use as a school merely because it is Christians who want to do it and the local non-Christians are whining about it because they don’t like the fact that these Christians don’t think Faith should stay inside the four walls of their homes and churches? What happens if The Government thinks it ought to be able to shut down a Christian school because it meets in the spare bedrooms of a house instead of on a posh, multi-million dollar campus that generates vast revenues for the State from “permits” and taxes? Regardless of what people too wrapped up in externals might think, you can, in fact, get an excellent education in a spare bedroom of a house, and you do not need to have filled out reams of Official Government Paperwork costing large amounts of money to make that true.

Likewise again the teaching staff. There is nothing wrong with expecting someone who is claiming to be a teacher to have had some sort of serious training for the job – and preferably training that is recognized bya wider circle than his pastor, his parents and his friends. Yet, who says that one ought to have to go $50,000 or $100,000 dollars into debt to The Government in order to obtain a piece of paper that says The Government thinks you are alright to be a teacher? Perhaps other options for certifying people fit to teach could be imagined and then implemented.

But there’s another angle to all of this. In my view, American Protestants generally speaking have a theology that is riddled through with pietistic, anti-intellectual, quasi-gnostic Fundamentalist obscurantism, and as such they generally make too much out of the supposed virtue of withdrawing from active engagement with “the world” in order to create “more pure” alternative institutional structures. I agree with Douglas Wilson who some years back wrote that the problem with a lot of Christian schools that are premised on this sort of view is that they are really just secular schools with a Bible class or two added to the curriculum. The Fundamentalist withdrawal from culture has played into and magnified the broader loss in America of truly robust, world-engaging and transforming education, and in this sense has not remained faithful to Christ’s Kingship over the world of space and time.

Nevertheless, White’s argument is disturbingly provocative. While it is becoming increasingly recognized even by many non-Christians that Government-run education is simply a horrifically rotting mess, because the Government has an exclusive monopoly on coercion, it may be that Christian schools have to eventually decide they cannot be concerned with obtaining Government accreditation because the cost in things that are far more important than Dollars will simply be too high. It may be that in order to survive as distinctively Christian institutions, Christian schools may have to actually create their own standards of accreditation and work with local churches to have those standards widely recognized within the Christian community alone.

Such an eventuality would undoubtedly create some hardships for students who would not then be able to freely take academic records from Christian schools and transfer into any other school in the nation. It might create some problems with getting certain types of jobs, particularly ones based on having obtained a higher-level college degree. It might mean even further cultural marginalization and mockery of Christians as backwards nincompoops who just aren’t “in step” with “Modern Times.” Perhaps it might even mean some open persecution.

I have my serious disagreements with James White, but I think he has put his finger on some very important considerations on this topic.

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