The current issue of Ordained Servant has an exchange between David Noe and Benjamin Miller about Christian education. Miller is critical of Noe’s original piece in the April issue in which he raised questions about what actually constitutes a Christian education. Noe’s response is here.
What is worth recalling is a small remark that Noe made in his original piece. In his concluding paragraph he wrote: “the most we can say about “Christian education” is that it is education delivered or provided by Christians. This, of course, is not an unimportant claim.” In fact, it is a very important feature of Christian schools that they are populated by believers.
The reason is that in a Christian school it is possible and even encouraged for students and faculty to reflect on what a believer might think about Andrew Jackson’s policies on native Americans or Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s feminism. That kind of consensus is hard to come by in many colleges and schools and it creates an environment where students are freer (conceivably) to ask questions than they would be an a private secular or state institution. Such a consensus also works in not overtly Christian settings like Hillsdale College where faculty may presume that most students consider themselves politically conservative or culturally traditional. It is much easier to teach when you can take some ideas for granted rather than having to start from scratch or assume that any kind of normative assertion is contested. At the same time, the answers come to Hillsdale students from a variety of directions — libertarianism, Straussianism, paleo-conservatism, neo-conservatism — such that a shared conviction will not necessarily yield intellectual agreement. That kind of diversity actually encourages students to think and faculty not to become complacent. Even so, a Christian school or college has real value if it creates a setting where students are free to ask questions about important convictions.
The problem — there is always a black cloud in the blue sky at Old Life — is that faculty and teachers at Christian institutions often have merely a Sunday school understanding of the faith which is supposed to integrate their academic expertise. In which case, students may often hear moral arguments that come across as the Christian position on banking policy or aesthetics when in fact the idea is mainly the opinion of the professor with a patina of religious conviction. Such a college has as many potential problems as Godless State University if students are not sharp enough to discern when their professors are merely teaching and when they are exhorting. Most undergrads, in fact, do not have that kind of intellectual discretion. But a pious older adolescent does have enough sense to be concerned that what he is hearing from his professor may not always conform to Christian convictions.
Be that as it may, Christians schools at their best play a useful role in the education of Christian children and all the controversy around Noe’s article should not let this point be missed.