‘Christian Education’: What do we mean?
We call ourselves ‘EurECA’, the European Educators’ Christian Association. We think of ourselves as Christian educators and we talk a lot about Christian education but what do we mean by this phrase – ‘Christian education’? I suspect that we may sometimes use the same words but mean different things. In other words, we may be ‘talking past’ one another rather than truly communicating.
My two-fold aim in this short article is to help us to clarify what we mean by ‘Christian education’ and, at the same time, to call for a more holistic view of what it is. It is therefore a plea for both clarity and comprehensiveness.
What is meant by ‘education’
For a start, we can mean very different things when we talk about ‘education’ even before we start talking about whether it is ‘Christian’ or not.
On his Transforming Teachers website, EurECA member Harold Klassen has a very helpful and thought-provoking article on this subject. In this article, Harold points out that there can be confusion and miscommunication when translating between languages. For example, where the English language uses one word (‘education’), German uses two (‘erziehung’ and ‘bildung’) with quite different emphases.
However, even if we are using the same language, Harold says, there can also be confusion. For example, the English word ‘education’ can cover a range of meanings, including training, instructing, indoctrinating, socialising, schooling, evangelising, catechising, and nurturing. He also mentions that the Bible uses at least 25 different words for the teaching-learning process. (To see Harold’s article, click here. If you are not already acquainted with his website, I heartily recommend it as one of the very best that I know for Christian teachers.)
What we mean by ‘Christian education’
I am not going to say more about meanings of ‘education’. Harold and others have already said it better than I could. Instead, I want to focus in this article on what happens when we start talking about Christian education (whatever it is that we mean by the word ‘education’).
I shall approach it by looking at the kind of answer that we give to several important questions about education: Where? Who? What? How? and Why?
The where question
The where question asks about the context in which Christian education takes place.
I often hear people use the phrase ‘Christian education’ when it is clear from what they are saying about it that they are really talking about education that takes place in Christian schools, often referring to the ‘new’ Christian schools that have come into existence in the last thirty years or so in many countries across Europe and elsewhere. This understanding focuses on the context in which Christian education is taking place and carries with it the (sometimes explicit) impression that Christian education is best done in this context or even that it can only be done in this context.
Other people use ‘Christian education’ for education in the older denominational schools that are found in many countries across Europe, many of which receive state support. Others use the phrase for education in older independent Christian schools, some of which have been established for centuries.
Still others in the growing home education movement use ‘Christian education’ for education that is provided in Christian homes. (They generally prefer not to call it ‘Christian schooling’ because they wish to question the dominance of the schooling paradigm and may argue that the whole idea of schooling is unbiblical.)
And to still others, especially in the USA, ‘Christian education’ is what happens in church contexts, especially in what is sometimes referred to as ‘all-age Christian education’ on Sunday mornings.
All of these share the understanding that there has to be something Christian about the whole context in which education takes place if it is to be termed ‘Christian education’ and the implication is that Christian education cannot take place outside such Christian contexts. Others would argue against this understanding, pointing out that Jesus and the apostles taught in a whole range of contexts, many of them quite hostile to Christian teaching. The life-transforming impact of a Christian teacher’s life and work cannot be confined to particular kinds of educational context. Christian education is not and cannot be confined to them either – it can take place in a whole range of contexts, formal and informal, ‘Christian’ and ‘secular’.
The who question
The who question is related to the where question and can be dealt with more briefly.
It seems less arguable to maintain that Christian education requires the activity of Christian educators than to insist on a particular kind of context. Some would want to restrict the who of Christian education to the educational activities of Christians who are professional teachers but that would exclude Christian parents, pastors, youth workers and the like who may well be very accomplished teachers, albeit lacking in formal teaching qualifications. I suppose that many of us, as parents, have sometimes experienced the arrogance of professional teachers, even Christian teachers, who seem to assume that they are the only ones who really understand our children and their educational needs!
Against such a restricted view, I would argue that the ranks of Christian educators can and should include pastors, youth workers and, most importantly, parents who have a primary responsibility and should have a primary role in the education of their children. And those of us who teach in schools are also those who learn from those we teach. Our students can contribute to our own ongoing Christian education. Christ who is the Great Teacher and the ultimate source of all that can truly be termed Christian education can teach through anybody!
There is another who question – not who educates but who is educated. Some limit their definition of Christian education to the education or discipling of those who are Christian believers or, at least, children from Christian homes. Others would say that this is an arbitrary restriction that would, for example, deny that Paul’s teaching on Mars Hill (pictured left) was an example of Christian education.
Some say that all that is needed for Christian education is that the teachers are Christians. In other respects including what is taught and how it is taught, a school may be no different from any other school. If the teachers are themselves Christians, then, it is said, it is a Christian school. This seems to me an inadequate criterion for Christian education and it brings us to the importance of answers to the what and how questions.
The what question
The content of education has received quite a lot of attention from Christians in recent decades.
There is a spectrum of approaches here. At one end of this, we tend to talk a lot about the importance of a ‘Christian worldview’, the development of a ‘Christian mind’ and the need for ‘biblical integration’ in the whole curriculum.
At the other end, the focus is on the strictly religious part of the curriculum, on Bible lessons and religious education, and the rest of the curriculum is taken to be unaffected by Christian beliefs. This focus may also be supplemented by an emphasis on having Christian assemblies in school and/or the extra-curricular voluntary activities of Christian clubs for students. A church may pray for a Christian teacher in a state school if she or he teaches religious education, leads assemblies at the beginning of the day or helps to organise the Christian Union at lunch-time or after school but loses interest if the teacher is fully involved in the so-called ‘secular curriculum’.
On this latter approach, Christian education is reduced to the what of teaching Bible or religious education. The fact that our core beliefs affect everything and every subject that we study or teach is not recognised. This approach seems profoundly mistaken to me. However, I also have hesitations about the Christian worldview emphasis at other end of the spectrum. I would suggest that it can also be reductionist in that the whole focus is on the mind, thinking, beliefs, knowledge and content rather than on the development of the whole child in relationship with others, with God’s world and with God himself.
The Christian worldview approach can also fall into the error of thinking that, because Christian belief affects everything, Christians must always have something different to say from others. It may fail to realise that all truth is God’s truth, no matter where it comes from or who says it.
The how question
The focus on content in recent decades has been accompanied by a lack of attention to how we teach, to our classroom approaches and methods, our pedagogy. (Our 2009 EurECA Conference with David Smith – pictured left – as speaker sought to address this imbalance.)
Too easily we assume that our approaches are merely a means to the end of imparting curriculum content or achieving our aims as Christian educators. We think that it doesn’t matter how we teach as long as it is successful in obtaining the responses that we are looking for.
This also seems to me to be profoundly mistaken. Christian content may be taught in ways that are unchristian, ways that do not fit with our view of the child as being made in the image of God. Students may be manipulated into believing something or behaving in certain ways. It is possible to teach the truth in an ethically unacceptable manner!
It is also sometimes assumed by Christian educators that traditional methods, the methods we may have experienced ourselves as children, are more Christian than modern/progressive methods. In Christian forms of the classical education movement, this assumption is linked with a call for a return to study of Latin and the great works of past centuries. It seems to be based more on the belief that we have moved away from a past golden age than on a radical study of what is biblical. Do the teaching approaches of Jesus, the Great Teacher, fit well with traditional teaching methods? I doubt it.
The why question
Last but by no means least, we turn to the why question. The importance of this has rarely been better expressed than by Neil Postman. He plays on the ambiguity of the English word ‘end’ (which can mean either ‘purpose’ or ‘finish’) in the title of his book The End of Education, in which he writes, “there is no surer way to bring an end to schooling than for it to have no end”, i.e. no purpose, no vision (p. 4). He goes on to say, “Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not houses of attention” (p. 7).
We need a big picture, a big story, an overall vision, a purpose and aim, a reason for it all. This brings us back to the range of meanings of ‘education’ itself that Harold Klassen tells us about (training, instructing, indoctrinating, socialising, schooling, evangelising, catechising, and nurturing). Each of these is related to a different kind of aim for Christian education and they therefore carry with them different understandings of the aim of Christian education.
I know of no better statement of a Christian vision for education than that set forth by Professor Nick Wolterstorff in his writings about teaching for shalom. Shalom is not merely the absence of hostility for, as he memorably puts it, ‘to dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy living with oneself’ (Educating for Life, p. 101). He goes to argue that it is not enough to see Christian education as the development of Christian minds. We are made for right relationships with one another rooted in a right relationship to God through Christ. Education for shalom is therefore education for justice in how we treat others. This is a vision of education for human flourishing in a Christ-honouring way of being in the world that God has made. (For further detail of Nick Wolterstorff’s Christian vision, there is a review of two of Wolterstorff’s books on the EurECA website. Click here (***UPDATE LINK***) to see it.)
I started by saying that this article is a plea for clarity and comprehensiveness in our understanding of Christian education and I conclude on the same note. Let us be clear in what we mean in our talk of ‘Christian education’ and let us seek to be holistic by not allowing it to be reduced to particular and narrow kinds of answer to important questions about its context, content, approaches and purposes. God’s vision is bigger than ours – let us be open to more and more of it.