Is Christian education the same as indoctrination?

19-02-2022

Opinion

Dr Bram Kunz, RD

A teacher has something of a guide on the mountain. He points in the right direction. Photo AFP, Philippe Desmazes

Christian education is quite vulnerable today. Non-believers regularly speak about indoctrination. That definitely undermines the position of Christian education. Nevertheless, Christian schools should not become defensive too soon but use this criticism to mirror their educational practice.

The reason for the existence of Reformed education in the Netherlands is determined by its responsible task of shaping students’ personalities in line with their Reformed identity. Christian teachers teach their pupils from a biblically oriented worldview. In doing so, they have a guiding function.

They are like guides who lead people over steep paths and, in the meantime, tell them stories about the environment. Teachers do the same with their pupils. They show them the way in the world and teach them to look from a Christian perspective. This world belongs to God, and people are called to serve God and their neighbour in love.

Christian schools usually connect their ideal of education to Psalm 78. Educators have the task of acquainting their children with God’s deeds and commandments so that young people put their hope in God (Psalm 78,7). Of course, this has an influence on them: Christian education is not neutral. Schools should not be ashamed of this; those who do not want to be influenced should not enter into education. “With influence there is life, but without influence, there is no life”, the 19th century English theologian John Henry Newman said.

Stimulate

From the Christian educational mission perspective, there is no reason to be secretive about influencing pupils. He who educates shows the way; just like a guide. A Christian educator guides his pupils to Christ. Christian educators introduce their pupils to the Christian meaning of life: life has a purpose, and things have their secrets. This invites them to get to know this world, live a Christian life, and be receptive, loving, humble, and helpful.

At this point, it is important to distinguish between influence and indoctrination. Teaching cannot do without influence; non-commitment makes education a pointless exercise. Indoctrination, however, is undesirable. Although the word originally did not have negative connotations, in the current debate, it is linked with brainwashing and intolerance. Indoctrination denies other people’s freedom to form their opinion and worldview independently.

It is not surprising that orthodox Christian education is subject to this reproach in particular because of the exclusivity of the Christian faith. According to Dutch educationalist Jan Dirk Imelman, indoctrination becomes a threat as soon as educators present religious convictions as knowledge: this is how it is, and nothing else.

For that reason, Imelman suggests that, from a pedagogical point of view, relativising religious convictions in education is the only way forward. For Christian education, however, convictions are fundamental. Who relativises it, or even wants to keep it out, is questioning the raison d’être of these schools.

Jesus is the only way

In that respect, the accusation of indoctrination hits Christian education in a vulnerable spot. The confession that Jesus is the only way to salvation causes a short-circuit in a culture that values plurality and inclusiveness. From that point of view, Christians are relatively defenceless against the accusation of indoctrination, especially when it stems from an aversion to Christianity. Exclusiveness cannot be massaged away.

However, there is another kind of vulnerability. It is too easy to dismiss the accusation of indoctrination with the argument that there is enmity against Christianity. By doing so, Christian schools take away the opportunity to look in the mirror. The question is: What space is there in the classroom for personal appropriation by students?

Christian education is not the same as putting on a ready-made suit. One pupil is not like the other; there are differences in character, aptitude, upbringing and personal interests. In addition, although the role of the teacher is important, it does not mean that he can take over the student’s formation. They must answer for themselves. According to Psalm 78, the purpose of education is that children place their hope in God.

Pupils need space for formation. The Covid-era has shown how necessary physical interaction is. People are not formed behind a computer screen only; formation requires the physical space of a classroom, a church or a museum. But above all, it requires inner space. Simply imitating the teacher is not formation. It only leads to the desired answers. Where space is lacking, indoctrination is lurking; despite all the good intentions of teachers.

Safe

After all, education is more than teaching values and standards. It is about forming a judgement. This does not mean that teachers should promote simplistic black-and-white thinking or we-sided thinking. It is even more than opinion forming. Judgement formation means that pupils learn to distinguish what is essential; what really matters (Philippians 1,10). In this, the teacher plays an important role. After all, he or she is a guide. According to the apostle Paul, forming a judgment presupposes knowledge. That is why attention to space does not detract from the guiding task of teachers. Teachers’ words matter; their attitude towards their pupils matters even more.

Conversely, however, the emphasis on the teacher’s guiding function should not lead to the disappearance of the pupils’ space. Exclusivity of Christian faith is not the same as massiveness, as if there is no place for difficult questions, doubt and contradiction. Formation is, to quote the Flemish educationalist Hans van Crombrugge, not possible without the diversions of alienation. As long as the Bible remains open, giving space to pupils does not mean sending them into a labyrinth.

Finally, this raises the question of how safe Christian Reformed schools are. Is the school a socially safe place to ask questions and come up with answers? Even if students don’t answer by the book, even if they don’t give the answer we were hoping for. Educators cannot enforce faith, although they must. As far as the latter is concerned: for the space pupils are given, it is decisive whether Jesus is present at school. He never excludes; with Him, sinners are always welcome, with their questions and their failures. Only grace protects from indoctrination.

This is a translation by CNE.news of an article previously published in Dutch in Reformatorisch Dagblad on January 29th, 2022.

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