Education in America is in a predicament. As the country polarizes, so do the nation’s schools. State-run institutions are managing conflict over book bans and sexuality (again) while Christian-run ones go to war over origin-of-life science and critical race theory.
Although the public-private education debate has gained fresh momentum in the postpandemic era, educators across the spectrum (including homeschoolers) still face an old challenge: how to define success.
“Data confirm that parents are right to seek out better neighborhoods, early-care environments, and K–12 schools,” writes Nate Hilger for The Atlantic. These variables and others “can mean a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars in future income,” which is correlated with health and happiness.
For Christians, this kind of analysis offers a helpful but very limited picture of success. Of course, faithful parents across the socioeconomic spectrum are morally bound to pay attention to social and academic factors as best they can. But it’s easy to go too far by overvaluing elite schools, special programs, and college acceptance contests.
Our own institutions, too, can reflect these superficial commitments. Private Christian K–12 administrators like to talk about character formation, but that sometimes turns out to be thinly veiled upper-middle-class etiquette training. These same school leaders tend to praise kids’ test scores and conformity to classroom codes more than, say, their volunteer time at the local soup kitchen.
“The idol of academic achievement entices us with its promise to win success,” writes Chelsea Kingston Erickson for The Gospel Coalition. And Justin Giboney, in a CT piece on evangelicals and education, argues that socially conscious Christians often suffer from “more than a hint of elitism.”
Irrespective of where our kids go to school—public, private, or home—we’re called to modify this achievement-centered model by doing something uniquely Christian: viewing education in light of eschatology.
As parents and caretakers, the vision for our kids’ flourishing starts here on earth but extends all the way into eternity. We’re teaching them to govern creation now but also raising them to co-rule with God in the new creation. As we shape their lives, then, we should pay attention to the principles of eschatological education.
First, we need to see our kids’ future influence, earning capacity, and social mobility in the context of stewardship, not success. Do we want them to do well? Of course. Success and stewardship aren’t mutually exclusive. But one serves the other, so our worldly goals for our children have to be continually subjugated to higher purposes. Did our children “store up [God’s] commands” within them (Prov. 2:1)? That’s the most important “acquisitive” metric.
Second, we treasure knowledge, but not at the expense of wisdom. Our communities need young, smart Christians who can harness their intellectual powers for the good of the church and the world. But they also need discerning prophets who understand the spirit of the times. That requires teaching our kids not just to gather information and develop critical thinking skills but to “hate what is evil [and] cling to what is good” (Rom. 12:9).
Third, we value God’s general revelation to our children through science, nature, art, and literature. But we also seek and receive his special revelation by way of Scripture and the Holy Spirit. In the context of discipleship, we can teach our kids to explore realms seen and unseen (Eph. 6:12) through listening prayer and other practices.
Fourth, we pay heed to the spiritual formation that happens in community. In Christian circles, schooling discussions tend to focus on curricula, library offerings, and mandated programs (on sexuality, for example). But the nonpropositional aspects of education are just as important as the propositional ones. The question of peer influence is especially key: Who is shaping my child in the lunchroom, by the water fountain, and on the soccer fields? Those relationships affect our kids’ temporal and eternal lives (1 Cor. 15:33).
Fifth, we raise our kids to worship. The Bible instructs us to sit in awe and fear before our Maker—what Daniel Block calls a posture of “submission and homage before God the Father and Jesus the Son.” As caretakers, we model that disposition for our children as we prepare them to someday fall before “him who sits on the throne” (Rev. 4:10). Nothing could be more central to an eternity-minded education.
And finally, we raise our kids as pilgrims. Although parents have a duty to give their children the best available education, the end goal is not frictionless living, nor is it feeling at home. Instead, Scripture calls our sons and daughters to be strangers in a foreign land with hearts “set on pilgrimage” (Ps. 84:5). Their final “goal horizon” is the new creation, not this one, which means they need the courage to suffer.
Success in this world is not intrinsically bad—it depends on how our children use it. But as caretakers, our main measure of gain still starts with a different, more demanding question: Did we prepare our kids to co-rule the cosmos with God? Of all the tests, that’s the one worth passing.
Andrea Palpant Dilley is online managing editor at CT.
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