Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t invent the moving assembly line process either. What Henry Ford did was unite those two inventions to create the Model T, an affordable, practical automobile that satisfied a burgeoning public demand.
“Success,” it is said, “breeds success,” and soon competitors arose who imitated the methods and strategies of the Ford Motor Company. Offering different styles, features, and capabilities, they reduced Ford’s market dominance—even drawing away some of Ford’s earlier customers. These competitor’s products weren’t necessarily better; sometimes they were simply better suited to the tastes or needs of certain customers.
With its market share dwindling, the company belatedly took action, eventually emerging from its engineering & design studios with the Model A, a more advanced successor to the venerable “Tin Lizzie.” Once again, sales surged.
The period of years from roughly 1965 to 1990 is sometimes considered a sort of “Golden Age” for evangelical Christian schools in the United States. It is said that for a time new schools were opening at the rate of “two a day.”
These schools were not archetypes; they followed in the faithful footsteps of hundreds of existing Christian schools, many of which were already decades old. In Minnesota, for example, today there are six Christian schools that were founded between 1901 and 1917. These include Minnehaha Academy, the state’s largest, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013.
Although not the earliest, the Christian schools founded during the Golden Age, much like Ford’s Model T, caught a broad wave of public demand. The 1962 and 1963 United States Supreme Court decisions banning sponsored prayer and devotional Bible reading in public schools jarred many Christians. Secularism appeared to infiltrate academic subjects once thought nearly sacrosanct. Forms of student rebellion previously confined mainly to university and college campuses began to occur with dismaying regularity at public secondary schools. In loco parentis, the tacit societal tenet which can permit faculty members to exercise de facto parental authority over students during school hours, on and sometimes off school property, was for all intents and purposes rescinded at public schools—a victim of both changing social mores and successful court challenges.
Into this fray arrived these new Christian schools, with their shared purpose of providing additional educational alternatives rooted firmly in God’s word. An old adage observes, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” and amid the flurry of new school openings, enrollments rose among the longer-established Christian schools as well.
Dr. David Doran, of the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, has written of the “fad stage” of the Christian schooling movement, an era “when every church seemed to conclude that it must have its own school.” As can be expected, many of these schools no longer exist. Nonetheless, this initial surge paved the way for further competition to enter the market.
Accelerated Christian Education (A.C.E.) was established as a form of Christian schooling which is by design less costly to operate. Students are largely self-taught in modified classrooms staffed not by teachers, but by proctors who are usually known as “monitors” or “supervisors.” This style of schooling has its proponents. Over the years, some traditional classroom Christian schools have converted to the A.C.E. method, and vice versa. Overall, A.C.E. enrollment has never been more than a fraction of what its founders imagined.
Another, newer style of Christian schooling takes almost exactly the opposite approach from Accelerated Christian Education. Classical Christian education is a teaching-intensive style of schooling which structures its curriculum on the model of the Trivium, with its subject areas of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. This niche movement within Christian schooling began subsequent to the Golden Age, with its main organization, the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (ACCS), founded in 1993. It has shown steady growth, with over 38,000 students currently enrolled in its member schools.
Quietly gaining even greater momentum, however, has been a numerically much more formidable competitor to traditional Christian schooling. It not only does away with a school’s teachers, it does away with the school itself. This competitor is sometimes spoken of in certain circles like it is an opponent of Christian schooling. It is not; it is another style of Christian schooling. In size, this colossus dwarfs both A.C.E. and the ACCS combined. It is known as “Christian homeschooling.”
Meanwhile, many Christian schools founded during the Golden Age are now in critical need of their “Model A.”
Eventually, sales of Ford’s Model A began to decline, like those of the Model T before it. It was once again time for a product-line reinvention, to keep pace with morphing public demand. And every few years an automaker—sometimes Ford itself—would introduce a feature that at first seemed like a nice, but unnecessary, luxury but which quickly had to be adopted by all, as customers widely deemed it a virtual necessity. Automatic transmissions, air conditioning, and power steering are examples. Any automaker reluctant to provide these innovations was sure to experience a steady drop in sales.
Christian schools are not exempt from the whims of marketplace competition. Enrollments can wax and wane due to multiple factors, including prevailing economic conditions and a school’s perceived value and benefits relative to other schooling options. Nevertheless, some Christian schools operate as if common parental concerns such as comprehensive curriculums or valid accreditation are of less importance than other vital concerns such as nurturing the spiritual development of students or providing moral instruction.
Such latter concerns are clearly essential within a Christian school, but they alone should not be a school’s raison d’être (reason for existence). There isn’t a zero-sum, either/or equation weighing spiritual and moral concerns versus academic and other concerns.
In spite of that, this conflict is sometimes clearly seen in the educational philosophies of a small minority of Christian schools. Without giving overly specific examples, why would a school feel compelled to state that it is better for its students to learn how to live than how to make a living? Does this school believe that a Christian education cannot deliver both? Or what purpose is served by a school declaring that its desired spiritual outcomes for its students are institutionally a higher priority than is student academic achievement? Does providing a Christian education necessitate making such a choice?
More commonly, this false dichotomy is seen more obliquely, in that the handbooks, websites, or promotional materials of some schools may provide a wealth of information regarding the school’s spiritual emphasis and focus, but scant information regarding its academics. For example, one Christian school speaks of its goals for its graduates—all three of which are spiritual in nature. If academic achievement is an important consideration in the development of this school’s students, neither their website nor their literature provides much of an indication.
Perhaps you are thinking, “Why does this matter?”
It matters because there is a large constituency of Christian parents who would like their children to receive both a thoroughly Christian and a rigorously academic (emphasis on both words) education, and who don’t see any inherent conflict between these two objectives. In fact, they view these objectives as being scripturally complementary.
Yet these parents are also aware that God has initiated only two institutions, the church and the home, both of which are charged with the spiritual and moral instruction of children. Christian schooling (in the modern sense) is an oftentimes desirable extension of these two timeless institutions, but is itself not scripturally mandated. (If it were, then the church was incredibly lax in its duties for its first nineteen centuries of existence.)
As long as the church and the home are performing their respective biblical functions, such parents view academic instruction as a distinct, separable element; one to be accomplished wherever it gets done “best.” In the eyes of such parents, even the apparent relegation of academics to second-class status by a Christian school can result in the effective dismissal of that school as a potential option for their child’s education—whether in favor of another Christian school, another type of private school, Christian homeschooling, a charter school (where available), or public schooling.
This is a key reason why it is vital that Christian schools distinguish themselves, and be more than simply “not the public schools.”
(Part 2 coming soon.)
Larry Nelson is a graduate of “an exemplary Christian school,” holds a BA in history from the University of Minnesota and has been employed in banking for over twenty-two years. He is a member of a Baptist church in the Minneapolis St. Paul area.