I started school at age 5 and never left once. My formal education was entirely secular: public schools, then a private college, followed by graduate school at a state university. My teaching career began in Sunday school, continued in a business school, then two Catholic colleges, a state university, a Christian secondary school, a women's college, and an evangelical university. I even served a six-year sentence as a high-school principal. I am no mercenary: in matters of education, I don't believe one size fits all. Still, ideas have consequences, and the ideas that undergird a philosophy of education will bear their fruit.
So the results of the Cardus Education Survey, published in August, intrigued me, to say the least. The survey is touted as the largest known representative study in North America examining education's long-term effects on students now aged 23-40 who represent various kinds of schooling: Catholic, non-religious private, religious home school, conservative Protestant, and public. The findings are fascinating and surprising.
One major finding is that the students from conservative Protestant schools were least likely to be involved in politics. Another is that the students from religious homeschools were the most likely to get divorced. Given that a primary focus of conservative Christianity over the past several decades has been political activism and family values, these findings are striking.
Because I've spent the past 20 years teaching in institutions aligned with these interests, the results hit home. Yet long before this survey, I was troubled by similar trends among some of my own students: More often than not, the students who've expressed to me the deepest doubts about the tenets of conservative Christianity, its social and political positions, and even the faith itself, had once been among the most committed.
Beyond this personal experience, I see no shortage of well-publicized poster children for the findings that show where Christian education is failing to fulfill some (not all) aspects of its mission. The natural family planner who kissed dating goodbye is now divorced and contracepting. The one-time creationist has evolved. A missionary kid is flirting with atheism. And one raised right has turned left. I don't begrudge any of these young people their soul-searching, truth-seeking journeys. To the contrary, I heartily applaud such growth.
But while I understand slow, steady progress toward solidified beliefs and views that naturally change over time, swings from one extreme to another give me pause. I'm reminded of the truism, "The bigger they are, the harder they fall."
At first glance, it might seem ironic that one-time cheerleaders for conservative Christian views land so far afield. Yet, if the unexpected happens often enough, perhaps it's not so unexpected after all.
My own conversations with Christian students who have undergone such revolutions in thinking suggest that their earlier stands—despite appearances—were built not on foundations strong enough to withstand the inevitable rattling from opposing views. Their beliefs rested on weak scaffolds gradually dismantled by each successive encounter with a previously unconsidered idea, fact, or phenomenon.
Human history is a series of pendulum swings from one extreme to another. This can be as true of individual growth as it is of culture, and some swings should not be prevented. But in the faith journey, perhaps such severe swings point to a systemic problem more than a personal one. Perhaps the deepest systemic weakness in conservative Christian education is the failure to distinguish between education and indoctrination.
To educate means to bring out or lead forth. Education opens up. It frees as only truth can.
To indoctrinate means to imbue with an idea or opinion. Indoctrination closes in. It debilitates like a sweet poison drunk deeply.
In the pursuit of truth, education leaves no stone unturned. It sallies forth bravely, unafraid to encounter or examine notions, politics, facts, and beliefs that might challenge previous learning. Education is a gentleman who recognizes that all truth is God's truth, and that truth is to be held dear no matter what stone it might be found under or what star might illuminate it.
Indoctrination—which need not be intentional in order to be indoctrination; in fact, indoctrination might be most nefarious when it goes unrecognized—pursues dogma not truth. Indoctrination is a bully who cowers or bristles before contradiction, pummeling it when possible, fleeing when it proves too great to fling off easily.
Several educational "blind spots" identified in a recent article in a homeschooling magazine illustrate powerfully the differences between education and indoctrination. These include emphasizing outward form, depending on authority and control, relying on formulas, and sheltering students. Such an approach to education, among its other dangers, discourages young people from healthy exploration of doubt.
And it appears that doubt is a key to lasting faith. According to a fascinating study by Fuller Theological Seminary, young people who are allowed to express and explore doubt are more likely to keep the faith as adults It seems like a no-brainer (although apparently, it's not), but, as one of the study's authors explained, "If all we're doing is preaching at them and telling them what to believe, their faith doesn't become their own.
The students I know who have been disillusioned by their once unblinking faith represent an array of faith backgrounds and experiences. But they all feel that doubt was an aspect of faith that dare not speak its name.
But if it's true, as "Jesusy" Anne Lamott has observed, that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty, then perhaps it's certainty, not doubt, that's the real enemy of both faith and Christ-centered education.
Education embraces doubt in an awkward dance that grows ever more graceful with each step in time; indoctrination, a shrinking wallflower, shuns doubt until the ball is over and goes home unkissed.
Christianity Today magazine covered the Cardus Education Survey this month.