I’m taking a short break from my series of Tracts on Anglican spirituality because God has put on my heart to lay out a vision for Anglican education. In Tract V, I will try to persuade you of the necessity of the parochial school, and in Tract VI, I’ll preach the need for a distinctively Anglican university.
Recently, Bradford Littlejohn contributed an article to The North American Anglican titled: “Why Classical Christian Education?” Today, I want to add to this seminal discussion of Christian education by presenting the case for the Christian parochial school.
Let me begin with one note and one caveat.
Note: It may seem like an overstatement to call the parochial school a “necessity,” rather than a recommendation or option. I’ll let you judge what to call it after you’ve read the entire essay.
Caveat: I am not implying that God will not or does not bless those with children in Christian schools, public schools, or who are homeschooled. But I am saying that the best option for providing our children with a comprehensive formation in the Christian life in their schooling is the parochial school, which, being the best option, is needful.
Education and Reformation in the Church
Let me begin by reminding us that every great reform movement in church history has involved a reformation of education. When the Roman Empire began to implode in the fourth and fifth centuries, and the light seemed to go out of the Western world, British monks preserved the accumulated wisdom and learning of the ancient world in the West and faithfully transmitted a particular Christian learning. The consequence of this reform in education was the preservation of the Western church and a foundation for the medieval Christendom that would follow.
When Charlemagne desired to create a Christian empire, he knew that he needed a common culture based on a common moral vision. The fear that educational deficiencies, at all levels of society, were jeopardizing the salvation of souls drove the Carolingian Renaissance enacted by Charlemagne’s chief catechist: Alcuin. The Carolingian Renaissance had two essential goals: first, to establish correct, legible, and uniform copies of religious texts, and second, to raise the general level of education within the Frankish Empire, especially among the clergy. To do this, Charlemagne recruited scholars from around Europe to his court at Aachen, and Alcuin and his cadre of scholars scoured Europe for the best texts and prepared new editions of the Bible, the Rule of St. Benedict and others. Charlemagne also created both cathedral and monastery schools and decreed in 789: “Let every monastery and every abbey have its school, in which boys may be taught the Psalms, the system of musical notation, singing, arithmetic and grammar.”
The Protestant Reformation was a manifold reformation, but one aspect that has often been overlooked is its reform of education. The Protestant impulse to translate the Bible into vernacular languages had an educational goal: that every Christian could read the Bible for himself. The abolition of the stark medieval contrast between clergy and laity implied the education of the laity, which, in time, necessitated Christian schools.
The Failure of Christian Catechesis
One of the reasons for the necessity of the parochial school is the systemic failure of Christian catechesis at all levels in our age. Whether we are talking about churches, families, schools, universities, or seminaries, the contemporary church is largely failing in the Great Commission task of catechesis.
Instruction in the church is, for many Christians, limited to the sermon. Sunday school isn’t what it used to be. Fewer Christians are attending, and the average time allotted for instruction is usually around thirty-five minutes per week – and that’s for the ones who perform the supererogatory work of actually coming to Sunday school. In Sunday school catechesis, there is rarely a scope and sequence or long-range plan: instead, themed classes are offered ad hoc.
Families are floundering. Very few Christian families have any devotional practice inside the home, and parents wouldn’t know what to do even if they made time for it. Christian schools are experiencing their own difficulties, and Christian universities and seminaries are becoming progressively liberal.
But Christians continue to receive a comprehensive cultural catechesis in postmodern life. Our smartphones, the internet, our jobs and the American dream, our materialistic lifestyle, our choices of amusement and many other things are very faithfully communicating a secular, a-Christian (if not anti-Christian) culture to us, and the majority of American Christians are not even aware this is what is happening to them and their children.
The Threefold Cord
“A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
When we conceive of education or catechesis in our lives and the lives of our children, we must imagine it in its most comprehensive terms. Everything we participate in is catechizing us into a certain religion or way of life. Education and spiritual formation take place in every part of our lives but, for the Christian, most especially in the Christian church, family, and school.
When American culture was more pervasively, if imperfectly, Christian, it was easier for some kind of Christian formation to take place because every American institution, to some degree, partook of this generic Christian formation. When, however, the public schools became less and less influenced by Christians and the Christians who still go to the public schools have been taught to leave their Christianity at home, the public school is not only no longer an ally of Christian education but is, in fact, the proponent of and catechist for an alternative religion.
The Christian family, devastated by decades of divorce, consumerism, secularism, and materialism, has long been distracted from its primary role in making disciples of Jesus Christ. Often, an informal kind of Christian catechesis still takes place, but it is neither intentional nor comprehensive and is no match for the catechetical pyrotechnics of our smartphone culture.
Churches can still be effective disciple-making bodies, but even their influence is drastically reduced, if a Christian chooses to be a one-hour a week churchgoer and Christian.
There is no silver bullet; there is no magic pill. But there is still one hope, and it lies in what we may call The Threefold Cord of Christian Catechesis. That three-fold cord is that to which I have already alluded: the Christian church, family, and school, working in harmony.
The three catechizing institutions, the church, the family, and the school must labor harmoniously in the Great Commission task of education. While it’s possible for any given family to have one church, a different school, and its own family-generated piety, this is far from ideal.
What we need and what our children need is a consistent Christian catechesis. When a Christian mother and Christian father practice different forms of Christianity, the faith of the children is usually weakened, and when Christians are taught by three or more different communities, their allegiance and formation is divided. The best catechesis or spiritual formation for our children is one where the same theology, spirituality, morality, calendar, etc. are taught by all three catechizing institutions working in unison.
What does contemporary Christianity offer to counter the cultural catechesis propagated by public schools and universities, politicians, the news media, popular music, TV and movies, and social media?
It should offer The Threefold Cord of Christian Catechesis.
Parochial Schools vs Christian Schools
One of the most significant reasons for the failure of Christian catechesis today is the separation of the task of education from the church. An examination of the trajectory of education in the last several centuries yields this illuminating truth: (in general) when Christian education is separated from the church, it leads in time to heterodoxy, liberalism, secularism, or the creation of a sect.
Regardless of our assessment of the public schools in the past, it is safe to say now that the official teaching, and most of the unofficial catechesis, in the public schools is inherently teaching a different gospel than the gospel of Jesus Christ. The failure of the public schools is not just a failure to teach basic content to all but even more a failure to train the hearts, minds, and bodies our children to love and serve God.
The Christian school movement provided a viable alternative to the increasingly secular and anti-Christian government schools. As far as content, this was a great improvement over anti-Christian presentations of history and other inadequacies of the public schools. While Christian schools have not uniformly pursued academic excellence, in terms of the moral environment for children, the Christian schools were a noticeable improvement.
However, in many ways Christian schools commonly have adopted the public-school model of education, with a few tweaks to Christianize them. Most Christian schools teach the same classes as the public schools and employ the same methodologies. The catechesis of the heart and the training of our loves, as well as a vigilant attention to the habits we instill in our children, are often lacking. And even the moral environment of Christian schools is often no longer particularly healthy for our children.
To add to the woes cited above, the trajectory of the typical Christian school does not look good. Frequently, mission drift sets in, and schools begin to cut corners on their original vision. The vision for the local Christian school is not tethered to any deep, shared theology of education, and it must minister to a kind of lowest common denominator Christianity.
The parochial school, on the other hand, is directly under the authority of the local parish and its theological and catechetical vision, and not some ever-changing school board filled with members with very different church backgrounds, concerns, and worldviews. Should trouble arise, or differences about direction, there is no higher court of appeal for the Christian school. On the other hand, the parochial school can always appeal to the rector or vestry, and, in extreme cases, even the diocesan bishop.
When compared to the public schools, many Christian schools look good. When compared to what we should truly desire for our children, they look deficient.
Content and Pedagogy
In some ways, the content of the parochial school curriculum and the way it’s taught (pedagogy) might look and be the same as that of other Christian schools, but there are also important differences. We should recognize that the current curricula we employ, the scope and sequence of “subjects” which we teach at each grade level, is not God-given. We have inherited from the public schools a certain framework that we should feel free to revise. And so we might choose to teach the core subjects of math, language arts, science, and history to all students in every grade, but we should also feel free to modify this core.
While parochial schools must strive for academic excellence, this does not mean that their curricula should be governed by a college-prep mindset. The game, as usually played, goes like this. Our kids should go to college, and there is stiff competition to get into the right college and get scholarships. Therefore, students should take all of the math, science, and other classes necessary to get into a good college. However, higher education is an institution looking for its purpose in life, and it’s far from certain that all of our children need to go to college.
The content of parochial school education focuses on teaching our students to love that which is true, beautiful, and good. We should not focus as much on mastering a large body of content (though we should not neglect it). Our children now have access to this content via the Internet, and what they really need is a love of learning and what have been called the tools of learning. It’s not necessary for a parochial school to consciously structure its curriculum around the Trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, but this is a useful framework, and, as a faithful representation of stages of learning, is in many ways inescapable.
Along the lines of classical education, we should make space in our curricula for what have been called the 4 Pillars of Education which, taken together, create a full life under God’s watchful eye. The four pillars are: oratio (prayer), stadium (study), labor (work), and recreatio (recreation). Education is for the whole man, and not just the mind, and we should think of our parochial school curricula in terms of all that we teach during the school day.
We should teach our children to read and read well, learning to distinguish excellent literature and how to engage with it deeply. They should learn to place each part of the curriculum in its proper place, in relation to God, the world, and man. We should teach our children to teach themselves and to be lifelong learners, for every disciple of Jesus Christ is compelled to learn more about his Master throughout his life.
Escaping the Procrustean bed of curricula we have inherited from the public school, the parochial school is free to teach other things. Public schools are abandoning the teaching of art and music: we should reclaim these. We might also consider teaching more practical knowledge, such as home economics, home maintenance, carpentry and woodworking, and gardening.
Teaching our children in this way will necessitate a reimagining of our pedagogical practices.
The Place of Chapel
Nowhere is the difference between what is and what should be in Christian education more salient than in the chapel services of Christian schools. At the majority of Christian schools, chapel is once a week, and its music is a student-led praise band that performs contemporary Christian music for its audience. Its speakers are a potluck of the following characters: a 40-ish youth pastor who wants to be the cool youth and who spends his time telling jokes or otherwise entertaining; a speaker from a local church who is giving some self-help advice or teaching some seriously bad theology; a speaker from a local church or a faculty member who actually teaches something meaningful from the Bible.
Compare this to what could be. Chapel services begin and end every school day with Morning Prayer and Evensong. The music is taken from the best of Christian hymnody and also includes singing canticles, the Lord’s Prayer, and responses in the liturgy. The message is a five-minute homily taken from a continuous reading of the Proverbs, a Gospel, or an Epistle.
Chapel is not an interruption in the catechesis of the Christian school: it is the crown of Christian catechesis. It is instruction in the corporate worship of God by listening to His Word, responding with prayer and song, and framing the entire school day as a kind of catechetical parenthesis that incorporates the rest of the curriculum.
As with reading, writing, and ciphering, we need to be instructed in how to worship God. And that is what the chapel services of the Christian school are supposed to do.
Feeds the Parish’s Children
The arguments in favor of parochial education are weighty and numerous. Not only are parochial schools a primary means of instructing our kids in worship, they are also the primary, delegated, catechists for our children. When we choose which school to put our kids into, we are choosing our children’s surrogate catechists.
Many parochial schools have risen from the need for a local parish to more fully and faithfully catechize her children. If the parochial school did nothing but this, it would already have justified its existence and the immense amount of sacrifice and labor required to plant and sustain it. If the local parish and the parish’s parents are incapable of a comprehensive catechesis, in part due to the few hours they have the children (relative to the school), and in part due to the ignorance of how to catechize, then the necessity for the parochial school becomes more apparent.
Schools are inherently institutions of religious catechesis. They are always, by all that they do, training our children in the vision of the good life that it holds before them. The question of which school to choose is then transformed into the question of which school we think will do the best job of instructing our children in the ways of God, for the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom – not the ability to read or write.
The parochial school is the best bet for any elementary and secondary school to work in concert with church and family in fulfilling the Great Commission task of teaching our children to be disciples of Jesus Christ and obey all that He has commanded, in keeping with their baptism and new identity in Christ.
To which school shall we entrust the immortal souls of our children?
Catechization of Parents
We often forget that parents need to be catechized, and not just children. As every parent discovers to his or her terror, life does not provide us with a how-to manual! While parents want what’s best for their children in education (and everything else), they often don’t know what’s best for them.
Parents are pastors, whether they like it or not. God has entrusted the spiritual guidance of their little sheep to them. But who will shepherd the shepherds? We’ve already discussed the sad state of most parochial catechesis, and few churches offer meaningful instruction in parenting. How shall the local parish instruct parents in godly parenting?
Hidden from most assessments of elementary and secondary education is the effect that a particular school culture has on parents and families, and not isolated children. The expectations, presuppositions, and unwritten rules of public schools are constantly catechizing parents in many ways. The parochial school has the opportunity to catechize parents in terms of the following things and more: liturgy, the life of prayer, the church year, a calendar of God-honoring annual events, hymnody, Bible memory, good choices of peers, a good pool of like-minded parents and families, and an enhanced understanding of the role of the church in the lives of Christian families.
Creates Intensive Community
One of the distinguishing marks of postmodernity is the disintegration of intensive communities. Since the end of World War II, for a variety of reasons, Americans have transformed themselves into modern nomads, uprooting themselves every five years and willingly divorce themselves from their families by moving far away for the dream job.
Communities are also failing because of the extraordinary fluidity and degree of choice we have today. Combine this with the American religion of individualism, and it’s a recipe for the disintegration of all community: church, family, school, neighborhood, nation, and others.
The local parish should be the intensive community for Christians, but this is often not the case. For most American Christians, the church family is only one of the multiple tribes of which they are members, and often not the strongest one. Frequently, Christians will commit themselves to the local parish for only one hour a week, and that as passive spectators.
One of the greatest hopes I see for the local parish creating a community that will draw people in more intensively is the parochial school. If there’s one issue to which people are still highly committed, it’s their families: this is especially true for parents. Parents and children are more likely to form deep relationships with parents and children they see every day in the context of a task for which they are passionate: the good of their children.
Also, it’s highly likely that the church that oversees the parochial school, and not just the school itself, will also be the recipient of the passion and urgency of parents, especially when they see their fellow parents in that church community.
A Net to Catch Men
One of the reasonable expectations of parochial schools is that the parish school will become a net that draws men into the local parish. This expectation is probably not realized to the degree for which it is hoped. For years, our hope at Good Shepherd Reformed Episcopal Church in Tyler, TX was that the parochial school, Good Shepherd School would draw people to the church. For three decades, this was only minimally true. But in the last decade, our parish school has been the primary means by which the church has attracted visitors and seen them become members of the church. Not only this, but when a key family becomes members, they often invite their friends and relatives to come, even those from out of state.
Training Ground for Priest and Other Ministers
One of the most fruitful effects of the parochial school is the possibility it has for attracting and training people, especially young men, for ministry. Learning to teach at and help administrate a local parochial school is the perfect training ground for pastoral ministry. In my own experience, it was through my service at a few private schools that I discerned the call to the ordained ministry. Over the thirty-two years I’ve been associated with Good Shepherd School in Tyler, we have attracted and helped train eight men who are now all engaged in ministry either as priest and pastors, or teachers and administrators at private schools.
The fruit of men trained in the parochial school yields compound growth. Such men trained at the parochial school are now equipped to begin parochial schools of their own when they become rectors or ministers at their own parishes.
Choosing Your Children’s Tribe
One final, critical element (often overlooked) in education is the way that children catechize children. As a parent, I’ve been conscious that the company my kids kept made as much of a difference in their spiritual formation as all of the rest of what happened at school combined.
Attitudes, manners of speech, choices of entertainment, social events, engagement with social media, work ethic, topics of conversation, and many other things: all of these are profoundly shaped by the company our children keep. I don’t know whose brilliant idea it was to gather a bunch of seventh-graders all together for eight hours a day to learn, but whoever it was drew the wrong lesson from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies!.
At the parochial school, parents, teachers, and children at least have a chance to establish and find a community that genuinely fosters the Christian virtues and inculturate children into godly habits and desires. Just as importantly, such a school provides a ready pool of parents and children who will assist parents in training their children in the ways of the Lord, and not lead them astray.
I hereby rest my case for the necessity of the parochial school. Even if you have not found my vision convincing, I hope and pray it has at least caused you to think more deeply about the spiritual formation of our children and the place of the parochial school in this most essential of tasks.
Learn about how to start a classical Christian school or co-op from the Anglican Schools Association.