Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Cardus Education Survey: Christian Schools and Cultural Engagement

Dave Larsen


September 16, 2011
by Dave Larsen

The recent works of Andy Crouch and James Davison Hunter offer divergent views on the possibilities for a Christian cultural engagement. Hunter calls for less triumphant “world-changer” language from Christians and more of a redemptive “faithful presence” in the world. Crouch makes the case for culture creation as the calling of Christians today, the most faithful way to craft the common good. The just-released Cardus Education Survey gives occasion for further thought on the topic as it relates to North American Christian schooling, where most schools use the language of transforming culture to define their purpose.

The critical questions about Christian schooling have always centered on what is meant by “Christian” and the relative rigor of the educational process. I recall a conversation with a parent considering enrollment at a suburban Chicago Protestant Christian school. “I get the Christian piece. It’s clear this school does that well. But tell me about the education piece. How good are you at that?” The Cardus report argues that Christian schooling can and must strike a balance in emphasizing spiritual formation, cultural engagement, and academic achievement.

Cardus interviewed graduates of public, private, Protestant Christian, and Catholic schools and school administrators. The research quantifies similarities and differences between Protestant and Catholic Christian schools. The survey and its findings should be required reading for all Catholic and Protestant educators and school board members.

The findings will also be of interest to those who endorse the vision of the Center for Public Justice. There is a clear call for Protestant Christian education to strengthen its curricular offerings. While the survey reveals that students in such schools are “uniquely compliant, generous, outwardly-focused individuals who stabilize their communities by their uncommon commitment to their families, their churches, and larger society,” it also shows that, compared with Catholic school graduates, they are less inclined to matriculate to more demanding colleges and universities and less likely to end up in the influential, culture shaping worlds of the arts, politics, and public discourse.  As the report states, “academic rigor need not be sacrificed on account of either faith development or commitment to cultural engagement.”

Christian school graduates shaped by the vision posed by Cardus would be the sort of Christians prepared for the good work of the Center for Public Justice, for example. The Center’s Guidelines for Government and Citizenship create the context for enriching public policy discussions which would broaden any curricular understanding of discipleship. Cardus offers this to Protestant Christian Schools: “Refine the theology; establish the pedagogy; then teach students how to understand and lead culture. This, we believe, is how Christian schools can multiply the effectiveness of their graduates in circles as small as marriages, as large as countries.”

Here’s an example of how this might happen. As a second-grader, one of our granddaughters told us about the morning she found that all of the drinking fountains at school had signs above them stating they were all reserved for teachers and teachers only. Within her little heart and among her classmates there bubbled up a healthy sense of outrage. Not enough to organize a student protest or sit-in demonstration. But a keen sense that this just wasn’t fair. If the school had carried this practice forward for several days, even second graders would have organized. And, of course, helicopter parents would have come swooping in to set the school straight.

As it was, this very simple drinking fountain exercise set the stage during Black History Month for a consideration of things quite unimaginable to them: separate washrooms and lunch counters, back-of-the bus laws, schools organized and segregated by race. Imagine that! And thus the seeds of righteous outrage, empathy, and a sense of justice were planted. Even at their young age, they learned about Dr. King and God’s concern for setting things right. All of this happened in a Protestant Christian School.

In small, developmentally appropriate stages, this is how things might change for the better in Christian schools. Develop empathy for victims of injustice, cultivate a holy outrage, engage students with examples of heroes who’ve paved the way for justice, and new worlds open up. How Christian schools take young minds and hearts from early days through high school graduation and perhaps beyond is the stuff of the Cardus Survey—a thorough, convincing and compelling blueprint for change if we are to produce disciples who are also leaders in society, culture creators, and noticed in the world of ideas. Thankfully, as another school year begins, the Cardus Education Survey is also hopeful.

Dave Larsen, Ph.D, is the Director of the Bright Promise Fund for Urban Education.






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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”