Questions For Christians About Schools

Last week I wrote about Irish churches and primary schools. A tremendously exciting topic, I grant you. I am surprised the internet didn’t break, like a textual equivalent of a photoshopped picture of Kim Kardashian.

Somewhere around 95% of Irish schools are under the patronage of one church or another. I think that Irish Christians should support moves to radically alter this arrangement, but in my blog post I argued that our reasons for divesting control of primary education would be different from the ones that were commonly trotted out in the opinion pages of the newspapers.

In short: Christianity and education both suffer when Christian education is put in a position of such overwhelming power.

Forcing people to pretend to be Christians to get a place in school is the worst discipleship model imaginable. Placing the task of teaching children about the God who raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel out of slavery in Egypt in the hands of people who don’t believe it and only go through the motions because it is the only way to get a pay packet is the second worst discipleship model imaginable.

Christians choose well when they choose to let go of power. So let it go.

But in a great comment on my post, a fellow called “Hmmmmself” asked what is “the ideal relationship between religion and public schools in Ireland?”

Obviously I am the man to ask. I don’t have kids. I am not a teacher. I don’t even live in Ireland at the moment!

But it does give me an opportunity to raise three questions that I think Christians should consider when it comes time to finding schools for their kids.

The Far Side

1. What does it mean to pass on the faith?
One of the reasons why the Catholic church says it is a good thing to have lots of Catholic primary schools is to pass on their “ethos”. Christianity is a strange, mysterious movement and there are many things that can be said about it. One thing it definitely isn’t is an “ethos”. Christianity is not an attitudinal stance towards the world. It isn’t simply a life philosophy. An ethos is made up of values and principles. Show me a Christian value and I will show you a domesticated Christianity. Show me some Christian principles and I will show you a Christ who has been cut down to size.

Christianity doesn’t yield principles. It inculcates practices. As far as I can see, the distinctive way of being that following Jesus entails is ill-suited to being taught as part of a curriculum, as the commenter put it, “sandwiched between a history lesson and a science experiment.” For one thing, it spills out and takes over the history lesson and casts light on the science experiment.

So passing on the faith is something that is primarily, overwhelmingly, done in the community called “church”. Let the school be a place of mission, having been formed in the church. Pass on the faith in song and prayer and sacrament. Don’t think you can out-source it to a harried, under-paid teacher whose own understanding of the parables adds up to “be nice to people.”

Christian schools in Ireland have produced generations of people inoculated with just enough religion to be immune to the Gospel. Stop thinking you can “pass” Christianity on like you pass on your love of GAA or Irish dancing.

2. What does it mean to run schools?
My friend Richard Carson (a graduate of Protestant schools) alerted me to this lobbying website set up by the Irish Protestant schools this year. It presents funding cuts to the sector as a sort of religious rights issue. Notice the “ethos” on display: talk of “Investing in our children,” not a word about austerity, many words relying on rational choice theory, and not even a single mention of Jesus.

Fee paying schools, which Protestant schools often are, are implicitly machines of inequality and bias in society. The staff are paid for by the state and the fees paid go towards add-on benefits. The rich get one (higher) level of education and everyone else makes do with a default. That the rich are also often Protestant is a serious theological problem.

Catholic schools have an untenable and unjust monopoly on the provision of education. Protestant schools have an untenable and unjust economic advantage in the provision of education. Why are churches so eager to do something that the state could arguably do better?

When we run schools, we can point to that as proof of our continued relevance and as a reason for why the powers that be should take us seriously and invite us to their policy formation meetings. We would raise better Christians if we got to do it on our own, outside of school. And the state would certainly create a better educational system, less skewed against the growing number of people without religious attachment and the large Islamic population. We wouldn’t get invited to as many state functions, which is ok because we need the extra time now that we are increasingly forced to create ad-hoc welfare programs to cover the gaps left by state-sanctioned austerity!

3. What does it mean to support the system?
One of the reactions that Christians often make to the under-funding and intellectual stagnation of state education systems is to pull their kids out and go down the home-schooling option. I am going to run the risk of offending friends when I say this, but home-schooling is a poor choice for Christians.

Here’s my reasoning: the people who choose to home-school are almost invariably brilliantly qualified for the task. They are smart and hard-working and committed parents who show patience and ingenuity on a daily basis. But that means they are the exact type of person that you want to have involved in your local, under-funded, intellectually stagnant primary and secondary school! You don’t resist the home-schooling temptation because the alternative is better for your kids. You resist it because you and your kids are better for your neighbours when you are in the local school!

People who choose to home-school might not always be rich, but they are rarely poor. They can afford the time to teach at home, which means they could afford the time to be active in supporting the most put upon people in the Irish education system: teachers. When they pull out and teach their kids at home, it is almost certain that their child benefits. But their neighbour’s child suffers. Irish schools need the families that could home-school but choose instead to stick it out in a crappy, rough school, confident that their own participation in parent councils and management boards and the presence of their kids in classrooms will be a net-gain.

So you are a Christian who wants to see their kids mature into Christians who exhibit a gracious, sacrificial faith that loves God and loves their neighbour? Then form them in the gracious practices of the church. Teach them that the school yard is the perfect place to learn how to sacrifice for their neighbour, by befriending the friendless and standing up for the defenceless. The rest of their life they will be immersed in places where people challenge the very basis of their faith. When they are taught to handle school, they’ll flourish at college and have a spine in the workplace. If you think of these decisions about “investing” in your children, consider how vulgar it is to expect a dividend from your kids! If you think that “only the best” education can “fulfill your child’s potential,” consider what Jesus thinks of human potential. In the end, kindness to our neighbours is what he is interested in. Placing your children into a new, state-directed, diverse, slightly antagonistic school environment might just be the perfect educational environment.

Your Correspondent, His education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten

2 Replies to “Questions For Christians About Schools”

  1. Hi,

    I thought that this was an interesting insight into the world of Christian schools, however, being in one right now, I would like to make some points:

    Firstly, I refute that the state could do better than a religious institution at teaching, and would rather say that both would be equally bad at it.

    Secondly, and more importantly, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that teaching children Christianity with a school-teacher is an awful idea. RE teachers tend either to be members of the clergy (school chaplain etc.), which makes some sense, or, more worryingly, PE teachers who need to teach another subject to justify getting the paycheck. The former category probably isn’t the most inclusive way to teach RE, and the latter is a great way to absolutely phone in the subject.

    Finally, on the topic of homeschooling, while I understand the principle that you should try to fix the system from within rather than giving up on it, I feel that oftentimes this is impossible, as there is a great deal of bureaucracy (that took me 3 attempts to spell, I’m losing my touch) in the system that slows down change to a crawl, especially in private schools.

    Really glad to hear your insight on the topic, it’s something that isn’t talked about enough.


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