Education without tribalism
What parents should look (and listen) for at Christian schools and colleges
Gene Edward Veith is a scholar but not a scowler. He shows joy in his writing and did so in his teaching: He is professor emeritus of literature at Patrick Henry College, where he was a dean and provost. Before that he was a dean and professor at Concordia University in Wisconsin, and then WORLD’s culture editor. He has written more than 20 books, including Modern Fascism, Reading Between the Lines, State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe, and Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. Here’s an edited and tightened version of the interview we had at the Veith home in Blackwell, Okla.
What should parents look for in a Christian school? Two things: Christianity, of course. That’s not always something you can take for granted. Secondly, a school that isn’t just a place for socialization: It’s a place to learn knowledge.
Let’s say parents are aware of the decline of public schools and have decided to send their children to a Christian school. If several options exist, what should parents particularly look for? I’m excited by Christian classical education that emphasizes forming virtues and focuses on content, truth, objectivity, and a Christian worldview. A lot of schools are self-consciously cultivating that.
What questions should a parent be sure to ask? Ask about the reading list. What do the students read at different levels? If they are classic works, that’s a good sign. If they read exclusively contemporary works with an obvious ideology behind them, not good. It’s good to teach students about the world God has made and its history, so they don’t think Christianity is a narrow thing we are walling off from the rest of reality. They should learn how Christianity is the bigger reality that embraces every area of knowledge.
What questions should parents ask about the creation vs. evolution debate? Ask about the science curriculum. That is a very telling point of division. Some Christian schools, particularly colleges, say, “We teach creation in our theology classes, but we teach evolution in our science classes.” You should see that the science course accords with the theology course: What students learn about creation in Bible classes should shape how we approach the natural world and its wonders in science classes.
Students should exercise critical thinking about evolution? Yes, since it’s the dominant view today, they should recognize evolution’s blind spots, weakness, and implications. They should be exposed to a lot of the bad ideas that are out there so they can recognize them and not be influenced by them. Otherwise, a lot of times students will think their church or Christian school was sheltering them and didn’t want them to know about certain theories, so they must be true.
As my wife and I drove into Blackwell, we saw signs about the many wrestling champions who grew up in this city. How important are sports in a Christian school? Sports grow out of a classical education. Plato thought the highest part of a liberal education was gymnastics because that taught how the mind can control the body. Overemphasized sports can be a distraction, though. So here’s the critical question: Are sports unconnected to learning, or part of a curriculum designed to develop the whole human being to the highest degree possible?
How have we misdefined science? There were three sciences. First, the natural sciences, the knowledge of the objective creation that God has made. That includes most of what we think of as physics, chemistry, and the like. There were the moral sciences, knowledge of human beings. History was a moral science: You could draw moral lessons from both the good and the bad. The third science was theological science, the knowledge of God, His revelation, the Christian faith. It’s God who is the source of nature, human beings, language, mathematics. That’s what gave everything its coherence.
Have we wrongly defined “practical”? A lot of people, even Christians, when they talk about being practical, mean “How can I make money from this? How can my child get a job?” But God’s calling is not limited to what you do to make a living. Learning to become a good parent or a good spouse is probably more important than learning to be a good worker at a certain specialty that brings in a lot of income. Working and getting paid are important, but a comprehensive vision will look at other things too: What do you do in your leisure time? Do you waste it? Do you do harmful things with it? A full education is about how people actually live their lives.
I used to think it was good for Christian students to go to a secular university, as long as a good church and a good Christian student group were close at hand. It’s true that students need the support of a good church and a good campus ministry. The big challenge to students’ faith is not necessarily what they’re taught in the classroom, but the social pressure to have sex apart from marriage, the temptation to be popular.
I’m rethinking that question of going to a state school, given the way colleges have moved so sharply to the left. A lot of Christian students will go to the local state university for economic reasons, or because they have a certain interest in a highly specific field, such as nuclear engineering: That’s their love, they feel called to it, and very few Christian colleges have a program in nuclear engineering. That’s workable: At most big universities, because there’s so much choice, a Christian student who really tries can find some old-school professors. Many of them are terrified of their colleagues and their administration, but they’re still plugging away. A Christian student needs to identify those professors.
Sometimes those professors are hard to find, since job longevity may mean staying under the radar. It’s a big task. Talk to other students. A typical Christian church in a college town will probably have some faculty members attending: ask. That’s one way you can identify kindred spirits. You can also read their published works. The pressures do affect Christian faculty members too. Many want to be accepted by peers, but that means eventually sharing their views: Professors start hiding their faith, and when you start hiding it, it can shrivel away.
It’s a challenging environment. Yes, and sometimes it’s good for us to be challenged. Some Christians facing the challenge come out more devoted than ever because they’ve fought the battles. It depends on the individual. A secular environment maybe isn’t right for those who are weak or delicate in their understanding and in their faith.
What should students and parents touring a Christian college look for? See how the people talk about their Christian identity. An admissions adviser who was showing around one student said, “Yeah, we’re Christian, we’re connected to the church, but it doesn’t hold us back much.” Read mission statements carefully and see if there’s a desire to minimize their importance, or to say merely, “We are historically related to the Reformed church,” or “We support Christian values,” or “We offer a values-based education.” Some will mention “tolerance” for all. I would also look at their core curriculum, although they probably won’t call it such. Are these presented as classes to get out of the way, or are students excited about them? Do students continue class discussions over meals? Hang around with students: Are they going to help you be a better person, or turn you into a worse person?
How can Christian colleges help students to identify with Christianity as a worldview and not as a tribal identification? Christianity is not a tribe. We need to be careful not to let it be one, as in, “Here’s the Christian tribe, there’s the Muslim tribe, here’s the gay tribe, here’s the black tribe, the white nationalist tribe.” We need to resist the fragmentation of society into different tribes at each other’s throats, where the trick is for your group to get power, with ideology as a way to get power. That’s the death of education, certainly the death of freedom and democracy. Christians have to combat that and show there’s a better way than just dividing society into victims or oppressors.
You wrote in the 1990s about postmodernists who were moral relativists and tolerant. How has that changed? Today we have moral zeal that comes out of a feeling of resentment: You’ve been oppressed and you desire to pay back in kind the people who’ve oppressed you. That will leave our society in rubble, but in Post-Christian I write about the opportunity for a Christian view to put things back together again. For example, racism is a problem, but the Christian response to racism is different from the critical race theory approach. If the critical race theorists are right, there is no solution to racism because white people intrinsically oppress black people, who become victims and can merely fight for reparations.
The Christian view is different. It’s a transformative view that recognizes sin but shows how God transforms people. We can be salt and light that can make things not perfect, but better.