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The Christian Education Conundrum
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The Christian Education Conundrum

What is at the core of Christian education?

Phillip Jensen: Schooling is a pretty touchy subject that can easily divide Christian congregations, but we thought it would be good to talk about education in part because it's in the newspapers a lot at the moment. One newspaper in Sydney seems to have another article every week attacking and expounding the evils of Christian schooling, boys single sex schooling and private schooling. In recent times, many significant old schools and even some state schools are moving from single sex boy schools to co-education. In my area at Randwick, the Randwick Boys’ High School and Randwick Girls’ High School are scheduled to be joined together, which has led to some controversy in the local area. The boys school doesn't seem to mind but the girls school is objecting, or at least many members are. So there's been lots of discussions as to the pros and cons of single sex schools and the evils of boys schools. And then, of course, the evils of Christian schools, which then leads to the real evils of Christian single sex boys schools. 

Now Talar, where did you go to school? 

Talar Khatchoyan: I went to an ethnic Armenian school from Kindy to Year 6 and for some of Year 7, and that was co-ed as well. 

PJ: How big was that school? 

TK: About 300 students in total from Kindy to Year 12. So it's not a big school, and all Armenian at that time. 

PJ: I see. And how much of the schooling was in Armenian? Did you do physics in Armenian? 

TK: No. So we would have multiple Armenian lessons in the week, and that would be not just learning the language, but learning Armenia’s history and geography in Armenian. We had the rest of the curriculum in English, but the students and the families were mainly Armenian and they were keen for their children to grow up knowing the language and the community and be part of it. And some of the teachers were Armenian. 

PJ: So that was primary school. Where did you go in high school?

TK: I went to a Christian school in high school. It was also co-ed and that was my first experience of having friends that weren't just Armenian. So that was a bit different. But it was all Christian teachers and majority Christian families in that school, and it was a parent-controlled school. 

PJ: We've got many types of schools: parent-controlled Christian schools, just Christian schools and denominational church schools, which are all quite different in their ethos. You taught at another school too, what type of school was it and what were you teaching? 

TK: I taught English and a bit of Drama at another Christian school–but this time not a parent-controlled one. And I taught there for about three years. 

PJ: Contrasting those three school experiences, what was it like moving from an ethnic school to a parent-controlled Christian School? 

TK: I think in an Armenian school, everything was about being Armenian and maintaining the culture. And even though it was technically Christian because Armenians are Christian, most of them are Armenian Orthodox whereas my family was evangelical. And so there was a bit of a tension at the Armenian school because there was resistance to the gospel, and that was hard to come across as a student. So going to a Christian school was just a wonderful relief. I had wonderful Christian teachers who wanted to talk to me and encouraged me in the Lord. I think it was my English teacher who first told me about Moore College when I was talking to her about wanting to do ministry and she was encouraging me about that. So it was just a radically different experience for me as a student to have that kind of encouragement in living as a Christian. 

PJ: Yes. Whereas I went to a state school for primary school. There were a lot of Jewish people in that particular part of Sydney, but Christianity was part of the experience of school. We sang “God Save the Queen” every morning, so God was there every day, mentioned in the national anthem. You never felt that it was anti-Christian. Everyone went to Scripture, either to the Jewish Scripture or to the Protestant Scripture. There were no non-Scripture people in the school. So it was a state school, but it still had that sense of the Christian ethos at that time. 

Then I went to a church school–a denominational school–and that's where I really came across non-Christians because the school was really about wealthy people and had very little to do with Christianity. They had their divinity lessons and exams and there was chapel, but no one paid any attention to it. It was also a boarding school, and I think the driving force of the school was sport. That's what held us all together. 

TK: How often were you playing sport? 

PJ: Every day we could. There was training practice every day except for Friday. You played Saturday morning and then you watched the Firsts on Saturday afternoon. There was every kind of sport available, though many of them were driven by the boarders. That's why you had school six days a week and all day sport on Saturday which was compulsory. You had Sunday chapel for the boarders but not the day boys. 

So all this to say, we've got different school experiences between the two of us. And I've taught Scripture in state schools, in high schools and primary schools. And that, again, is different. But one of the problems I have about generalizations is that each of the schools I have taught in has been different. I taught at Mackellar Girls High and I taught at Balgowlah Boys High when they were just a couple of miles away from each other and gathering students from the same area, but the cultures of those two schools were completely different. The experience of teaching in them was different. I couldn't just take the lesson from one and use it in the other. 

So we've got lots of different school experiences, however, we've got to be careful not to generalize society from our own experience. The only thing you know about primary school is Armenian.

TK: I teach Scripture as well, just to put that out there. I love my scripture teaching.

PJ: Ah yes. Is that in that same area of Sydney?

TK: I've taught in Bankstown and now I teach in Cammeray. 

PJ: Close to whether your Armenian school was? 

TK: Not that close, my Armenian school was in Ingleside. 

PJ: I see, that was a trip in itself each day. 

TK: Yes it was. So Phillip, if we're not going to generalize from our own experience, how do we think about education biblically?

PJ: Well, from the Bible's perspective, I think education starts in creation, because God has created us as humans in this world to have dominion over this world. We are humans in his image, not because of our abilities, not because we can speak or make tools or things like that, but because he has given to us the responsibility of caring for this world. And because he's given us the responsibility for caring for this world, he's also given us the abilities to care for this world. It's not the animals who make musical instruments or who speak to each other in the sophisticated languages that you and I are using now, or who create metalwork or buildings or trains or planes; it's humans who are able to do it. But that's because God has created us to be the stewards of his world. 

TK: So what has education got to do with that? 

PJ: Well, one of the characteristics of humans is, of course, that we're born with great incompetency. A little baby can't do very much at all except let its opinions be known as it screams. And it's not till you're in your mid 20s that your brain is developed into an adult brain. The last part of the brain development that is responsible for the awareness of danger only fully develops the mid 20s, which explains why insurance policies for drivers are set for 25 years old. It's a long period of raising children into the adult responsibilities that God has given to humans and so that's what our education is about. 

TK: Yes, indeed, because when I read Proverbs, which is about raising a son, you see all these different villains–the sluggard, the liar–all throughout Proverbs. And it strikes me that the sluggard, the liar, the thief are all things that we do as children, right? We contribute very little as children. We lie as we take what we want, without care for who we're taking it from. And so it looks like Proverbs is about raising a child through those years and teaching them what it is to be a man. 

PJ: Yes. And with Proverbs, of course, it's the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.

TK: Yes, the beginning of wisdom. I've been pondering about that because it's just the beginning, implying there's a continuation. And so the life of fearing the Lord, that's the continuing life. You start by fearing the Lord, but continue in it and grow in wisdom. Age in the Christian life is a wonderful thing. 

PJ: And so you grow in wisdom in living, isn't it? So education is much broader than passing the High School Certificate or the A Levels or whatever the system of education is that you may have. It's hard to live. It's hard to be wise. So who is responsible for this?

TK: Well, from Proverbs it seems like it's the parents who are responsible for teaching their children.

PJ: Yes. God created us in His image, male and female, to create one humanity. And so the first thing that is said is not good in the book of Genesis is for man to be alone. It's the unity of the male and female which creates the family. There’s a passage in Malachi that is very strongly spoken about divorce. It tells you why God has united the man and the woman: not just that we would have offspring, but so that we may have godly offspring. And so in a sense, one of the first elements of educating your children has to do with being united with your spouse. Offloading your children to school and offloading your spouse for somebody else is not raising children in godliness. That is actually damaging to children. And so the family responsibility is very important. When you're a teacher, did you perceive the impact of family life on children?

TK: Oh, yes, absolutely. I can think of a lot of negative examples of when a family was breaking down and just how it impacted the children in their relationships with their peers, with their teachers, with their ability to even learn in the classroom. It was terrible to see that. 

PJ: It’s like housework, isn't it? When house work is done, you don't notice it. It's when it's not done that it's noticeable. And so when mum and dad love each other and they're loving the kids, it's not noticed, although the outcomes of their education is noticed. There's a demographer who writes in one of our newspapers here in Sydney. He’s from a Roman Catholic background and in a recent article, he said, “I won the lottery. I was one of six children in a family that loved each other. We were poor, we were in Housing Commission, we had a lino on the kitchen floor and the same lino on the kitchen table, which my father had built himself. But it was full of love. And therefore, we had all the benefits that come from a stable family.” 

You see, in the end, the best indicator of educational outcomes–even the academic educational outcomes–is family background. The size of the class is not the most significant factor, nor is the education of the teacher as significant as family background. And so the people who are responsible for education, really, are the parents. You bring children into this world, you are to raise children in the fear of the Lord, to teach them the wisdom of living.

TK: So if it all relies on parents, could there be a fear in parents thinking, “Am I good enough? Am I doing enough for my children?”

PJ: Yes, it’s a reasonable fear, and yes, you're not doing enough. Whatever it is you're doing, you can't ever do enough. But we need to have more confidence. What I'm saying is the family that functions well will also function well educationally, whether it intends to or not. Our children are great imitators of us, and so if we are loving each other and caring for each other and treating each other honestly, the children will pick it up. Whereas when the family dynamics are in disaster territory, the children will pick that up as well. 

So we have to be careful to not be the hover parents who are down at the school complaining about everything that's happening all the time, as if they can't let the children go. Part of the confidence of good parenting is to put the children out into the world. But good parenting means they keep debriefing the children when they come back from the world and talking with them about what's happening and praying for them about it. And the quality of family life is not something you can just “put on” like a tool to make sure that your children do well; it is just what will happen naturally when you have a good family life. 

TK: Yes, that's right. So Philip, if it’s all about family, how do we think about public education? 

PJ: Well, most of the education in the Bible is about family or it's about teachers and disciples in terms of Christian teaching. There's very little about public education. It's not that it's a wrong thing; in fact, Christians are the people who created public education because of our concern for society and for children. And you can think of examples of people in the Bible who went through some form of non-family education, such as Moses learning at Pharaoh's court and Daniel learning at the Babylonian court. So it's not a wrong thing, but it's not the fundamental thing. The fundamental thing is what the family does. The government over stretches itself all the time; you see, the fundamental work of government is justice. That's what Romans 13 teaches us. In terms of education, it's important that they exercise justice in terms of caring for the children whose parents are evil, because sadly, there are evil parents in this world–parents who won't educate their children, parents in another generation who put them into factories in early ages and didn't care for them. And so the government needs to create standards of education and provide for widows and orphans. That’s a good thing to do. Christians have done it in the past, but we should also be encouraging governments to do it. And so there's nothing wrong with government education. But the trouble is, governments want to take over education and use the educational systems to promote governmental policies and ideas.

TK: So in one sense, governments should be reactive to the injustices of the world, but there's an issue when it functions in the reverse.

PJ: Well, sometimes your reaction can be preventative; you know that there will be bad parents who don't send their kids to school, so you can set up the policy that school is compulsory and have truancy officers already trained up to go and look after these problems. So it can be preventative and anticipatory, but it's there to make sure that everybody has opportunity. The problem is, they want to do much more than that. They keep wanting to interfere to the point of censorship and social engineering–that these are the books that we all must read, this is the curriculum we must follow, which has to do with them imposing their value system on the society. And in a society where everybody has a cultural agreement, they can do it. But in a society like Australia, which has embraced multiculturalism, it now runs into a contradiction because it is promoted that everybody should be free to be educated in their own ways. For example, Armenian schools, which is a lovely thing. We have a whole Armenian community living with us here, so we have a school for them to preserve their culture and to learn how to live in our culture with an Armenian worldview. But the problem is, society wanted to create an educational system in the Enlightenment worldview, where everybody is going to learn the same thing. Everybody is going to think alike and the culture is going to be united. They can't have it both ways. So inclusiveness always excludes people, and our education system has run into that difficulty. 

TK: How does it cope with it?

PJ: Badly. Our schools are in problem. Why are we interested in schools? Why are schools in the newspapers and media all the time? Well, it's because this is where the rubber hits the road, where the people who run the country are confronted with every citizen in the country. And it doesn't work. You have a school where there are Jewish children and Palestinian children. That is not going to be a happy environment at the moment when this war is raging. And so it doesn't work. 

It used to be lined along sectarian terms–whether you're Catholic or Protestant–but today, it's lined around secularist terms–whether you accept God in creation or whether you are against God ever being mentioned in the world. And since the late 20th century, we've seen the rise of Christian schools and ethnic schools and other religious schools, which is constantly undermining the secularists’ hope of one education system for everybody.

TK: How did this come about here in New South Wales?

PJ: The Christian started the schools. Then in the push for everyone to go to school, the fights about sectarianism raged in the 19th century and were confused with the issue of secularism as well. Secular is one of those ambiguous words which Christians use because we believe in God in our world. But secularism is the view of the non-Christian that there is no God; there's only this world. And so you use the word secular and the two groups hear different things. The state of Victoria disagreed with New South Wales about the meaning of the word secular. It was sectarianism we fought against. However, by the mid 20th century, there were so many children in the Catholic school system that there was an injustice in the government. That is the Catholics were paying taxes which were used for the public education system, but then also had to pay fees for their schools. They complained, and in the early 1960s the Bishop of Goulburn (the Catholic Bishop) closed all their schools so as to force the hand of the government to start funding private schools. Mr. Menzies then fought the election in the early 1960s, promising state aid to private schools. He won the election and brought that in, which was a huge change in the system in the 1960s. Gough Whitlam expanded it even further, to the horror of the secularists. But the reaction came from a group called the Defense of Government Schools–an acronym which spells D.OG.S.–who took it to the High Court. The High Court made a very important ruling in 1981: they established that the Constitution of Australia did not uphold American separation of state and church nor did it uphold the English system of a recognized state church. What we had was an anti-sectarian constitution. The government could give money to Christian organizations and Muslim and Buddhist and Jewish organizations, provided they didn't make any distinction between the different sects. And so since the 1980s, enormous amounts of money has been poured into private education in New South Wales and in Australia, because there's an Australian constitutional issue. But that's had some funny consequences. It has meant the development of new Christian schools–the kind of schools you went to and taught in–didn't exist before then. The old church schools are very old, but the Christian schools started up not as Christian schools but as Armenian schools.

TK: Yes, because it was coinciding with Australia becoming more and more multicultural as well at that time. 

PJ: Yes. And so now, I don't know the figures precisely, but it's something in the order of one-third of our children are educated in private schools, and that number is growing while the state schools are getting smaller. But it has also had another collateral damage, that is, Christians have withdrawn from state schools, which means the state schools are becoming increasingly secularist in their viewpoint. And so the D.O.G.S. have won and lost; they lost the argument in the Constitution, but they've now won the state schools into the kind of secularism that they wanted. We still have religious education, you still teach Scripture in schools, but there's direct pressure to stop that as well. And that's sad because it's confusing to our society. Yet it's also in the curriculum, isn’t it? When you taught English, what were you teaching? Were you teaching how to read English and how to speak English?

TK: No, we were teaching students to deconstruct text. That's what we kept doing in English and that was what the curriculum was about. It was very sad. 

PJ: Yes. And so you now have a philosophy being taught which is very religious, but because it's an atheistic religion, it's not called religious. Yet it's in the state system. And rather than teaching people to read English or write English, we're teaching people not to trust. And then we find out that lots of trust in the community is being undermined. But it's part of that secularist worldview. 

TK: Yes, indeed.

PJ: So education is important to us all. And the Christian involvement is complicated. There's also been a growing number of homeschooling, which again, is a Christian reaction to the secularization of the old state school systems and the dissatisfaction with the church schools. 

And so it’s like the referendum. We had this referendum recently about changing our constitution with regards to Indigenous Australians. All the leaders of the community in terms of the academics, the school systems, the local councils, the sporting heroes, the entertainment people, they all were for it. And people in the inner city, the people who are educated, people who are young, voted yes. But 60% of the population voted no, which shows that the intellectual, cultural leadership of the community, unbeknown to them, were out of step with the society as a whole, and they've been horrified by the result. 

It's an interesting illustration of the kinds of problems that you see also at schools because everybody has to go to school. And so there is a big gulf in the conflicts over schools that happen between the community as a whole and their intellectual, cultural leadership who run the school system, which is creating considerable unhappiness. 

But Christians are involved because God is the creator of this world, who has created us as families to educate our children that we might raise them in godliness. So you can understand why when we talk at church about whether we should send our children to the state system or homeschool system or the Christian school or church school, we are in conflict when we shouldn't be. We should just support each other because each parent has to make the choice for their own children.

TK: And every child is different. 


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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