Christian Parents and Educational Choices

Gather any group of Christian parents in a room to discuss education and fairly quickly lines are drawn. As parents, we are very eager to justify our beliefs, whether we believe in Christian education, whether we are enthusiastic homeschoolers, or whether we are advocates of the public school. We can use Bible verses to support one view or the other, arguing for public schooling on the basis that our children need to grow up learning to be “in the world but not of the world” (John 17:16), so they can be “salt and light” (Matt. 5:13-16), or, on the other hand, arguing for homeschooling or a Christian school environment on the basis that we should be “training our children in the way they should go” (Prov. 22:6).

Arguments of that sort pretty quickly reach an impasse; if we take a step back from our immediate circumstances and choices then we can get a larger picture of how Scripture informs the decisions we make as Christian parents about the education of our children.

A Biblical Mandate

As we look at the Bible, we see that formalized education is actually a cultural construct rather than a biblical one. Education in Bible times was not exactly institutional; Jesus may have gone to the temple or synagogue to learn but most education happened in the home or in the wider family context. The Bible doesn’t offer a 1-2-3 action plan on educating your children, which brings freedom of choice based on personal preference and convictions.[1]

Parents are entrusted and commanded to educate their children in how to live righteously in a sin-filled world.

What isn’t optional, however, is that the Bible clearly shows that parents are entrusted and commanded to educate their children in how to live righteously in a sin-filled world. Parents are repeatedly instructed to tell God’s truths to their children. As Deuteronomy 6 shows, parents are to love the Lord their God, to keep his commandments, and to “…teach them diligently to your children.” (Deut. 6:7a, ESV). So, while the how has freedoms, the what does not. Ken Dickens states:

Christian parents have freedom to decide how they are going to carry out their responsibility for Christian education. That they have the responsibility is not in question. Rather than beginning the conversation with what school the children should attend, it would be more profitable to first establish the biblical imperative for parents to raise children Christianly.[2]

This then should be the mission for all parents when they consider educational options: to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).

A Brief History of Australian Schooling

Educational choice is not a universal human experience but a luxury of late modernity: even in Australia, the majority of children didn’t attend formalised schooling until the 1870s. Prior to this time, if a person had two years of formal schooling in their lifetime, they were considered above the average; school education was only attainable by those could afford to pay for their children to attend church-run schools. This meant formal schooling became as much a sign of social status as it was an expression of religious affiliation, and perpetuated the divide between the educated elite and the rest of the population.[3]

The educational divide between rich and poor within the colonies was lessened somewhat by the emergence of an energetic and rapidly-growing Sunday school movement, aimed at enabling the children of the poor to read and, in particular, to read the Bible. The first Sunday school was established in Parramatta in 1813 by the children of the Hassall and Marsden families.

Between 1852 and 1895, colonial governments chose to set up state-run educational departments that were able to provide education for all.[4] These state educational systems were able to set the curriculum (what children should learn) and also began to enforce compulsory education for all children regardless of their parents’ financial status; these schools also provided an alternative to private institutions.[5]

After World War II, students attending formal secondary schooling increased, with Public Education being formalised more fully in 1948.[6] While the emergence of the state schools provided greater equality in access, they were also often unable to compete with the resourcing of their church-run and private counterparts, so there was still a divide between the quality and generalised success of students who attended the different school systems.[7] The control of the curriculum for the public schools was also held by the State, meaning that they used the education system to educate the masses and sway public opinion on issues of morality, discipline and politics through explicit and hidden curriculum agendas.[8]

In our current educational climate, it is precisely this education in issues of morality that has many Christian parents concerned. In the decades immediately following the Second World War, a growing number of Christian parents held similar concerns and sought Christian alternatives. This setting up of schools by local churches or groups of Christian parents followed the practice of many other Christian church traditions across the globe, perhaps most famously stemming from the Protestant Reformation.[9]

The new wave of Christian schools that began to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s still required fees to be paid, even after the Commonwealth government decided in the mid-60s to begin offering funding to non-government schools. Whilst the provision of government funding meant that the cost of educating children in non-government schools was now shared between parents and the state, decisions about schooling were still influenced, to some extent at least, by parents’ financial circumstances and social aspirations.

Although the precise understandings of the relationship between school, church, parents and the State varied somewhat between different sectors of the Christian schools movement, there was in most cases a broad consensus that the Christian school’s primary mission was to support Christian parents as they raised their children to know, love and worship God.

Raising Christian Kids

During my teacher training, as I wrestled with anxieties over upcoming curriculum changes, I took comfort in a catchphrase that had been drummed into us: “at the end of the day, teachers teach who they are, more than what they know.” Now, as a parent, it becomes core to the Biblical mandate for Dave and me to raise our children in the knowledge of God. Whoever is teaching my children, in both overt and subtle ways is modelling for them, training them and indoctrinating them with the way they are to be, the way they are to see, and the way they are to exist in the world around them; and the primary “who” charged with shaping our children is us, as their parents.

Every time they open a textbook, log on to a website or read a poem, our children are being presented with worldviews and need to be equipped with a Biblical map on how to navigate this. It is our job as parents to provide this map and to teach our children how to read it as they travel the terrain of our cultural context.

Every time they open a textbook, log on to a website or read a poem, our children are being presented with worldviews and need to be equipped with a Biblical map on how to navigate this.

Last year’s anxiety over Safe Schools and the morality it was teaching on one level shocked parents, however I can’t help but think this is because so many of us assume the rest of the curriculum and teaching is neutral, absent of any moral code that may differ from our own. No-one learns in a vacuum; all are influenced by culture and context. Meaning is constructed, influenced and impacted by our framework for understanding and how we learn to navigate the world. The sexual revolution is extremely concerning for our children, yet so is the casual embrace of blasphemy, the culture of greed and hedonism, and the selfish individualism that we find all around us; it would be naïve, too, to assume that the influence of the unbelieving world is felt only in the classrooms of a State school. We are accountable before God for the knowledge our children have of who he is and the gospel call on their lives. We are also accountable for how we go about teaching them to respond to that call in a world that does not know Christ.

We have the freedom to choose how to educate our children. Depending on our resources and the options available to us, we may choose the public school across the road or the Christian school a suburb over, or even the dining room table as home schoolers. All can be righteous, all can be God-honouring. However, whatever setting we place them in, we must not neglect our calling. As parents, we are to educate them in the ways of God. We are to equip them with the skills to navigate the world with a biblical worldview and we are to plead with God for his gracious mercy to be extended to them.

If we choose to send them to a public school, we need to be engaged with what they are learning, get to know who is teaching them and stay up-to-date with course and curriculum content. If we send them to a distinctly Christian school, we still need to be involved and on peer-to-peer matters and some doctrinal issues we may also need to re-educate. In the home-school setting, we need to ensure we are exposing our children to worldviews that oppose our own in order to equip them with how to navigate a world in opposition to God.

Regardless of which means we choose to educate our children, in every subject we need to encourage our children to explore how God’s word speaks to that issue or piece of knowledge. Our children need to be encouraged to pray, to ask questions and think critically, in order to deepen their understanding of who God is and their capacity to live wisely in his world. While our training does not guarantee conversion, for this is only a work of the Spirit, we can lay the groundwork, teaching them the truth-content of Christianity, explaining why we believe it, and teaching them how to live it out.

Parenting is a tough gig; may each of us be discerning in who, how and what we choose to teach our children, for this is paving the way for their life.


Footnotes

[1] B. V. Hill, “Is it time we deschooled Christianity?” Journal of Christian Education 63 (1978): 5–21.

[2] K. Dickens and C. Parker, “Christian schooling, why bother?” The Christian Teachers Journal 17 (2009): 19.

[3] P. Miller and I. Davey, “The common denominator: Schooling the people,” in Constructing a culture: A people’s history of Australia since 1788, ed. V. Burgmann and J. Lee (Melbourne: McPhee Gribble, 1988), 18–35.

[4] Ibid.

[5] S. Marginson, Education and Public Policy in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 200–220.

[6] J. S. Shellard, “The Christian Component in Colonial Education: Some Perspectives on the Development of Public Education in New South Wales,” Journal of Christian Education 77 (1983): 61-83.

[7] Miller and Davey, “The common denominator.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] D. Oppewal, The roots of the Calvinistic day school movement (Grand Rapids: Calvin College Monograph Series, 1969), 8-33.

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