God’s Schools: Choice and Compromise in American Society

Author(s): Melinda Bollar Wagner

Source: Wagner, Melinda Bollar. 1990. God’s Schools: Choice and Compromise in American Society. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Link: http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/product/Gods-Schools,4622.aspx

An intimate look into conservative Christian schools, God’s Schools: Choice and Compromise in American Society described religious schools that, while separate from the mainstream public and private schools, were not as different as many might have believed. Researcher Melinda Bollar Wagner presented religious schools as a combination of conservative Christian ideology, professional education culture, and American popular culture and as places characterized by compromise between religious ideology and the broader culture.

About the Book
Published in 1990, Wagner offered a new take on conservative Christian schools, presenting them in a light far different from the total institutions (i.e., closed social systems that control aspects of participants’ lives) that previous researchers had suggested. Wagner found Christian schools, and those who attended and worked in them, far more similar and far less countercultural than public opinion and rhetoric of the time portrayed.

Method and Study Design
God’s Schools is an ethnographic study of 7 conservative Christian schools in the Southeastern United States conducted in the late 1980s. Wagner engaged in participant research at the schools with the anthropological goal of seeking to help people of different backgrounds come to understand one another. In addition to visiting schools, she attended conferences and conventions for Christian educators and courses for Christian teachers. The 7 focal schools varied in denominational affiliation and size as well as membership in national organizations, accreditation, and curriculum used. The median school size or example (?) in the study was a K-12 school with an enrollment of 47 students and 5 full-time teachers, but enrollment in these schools ranged from 17 to 530, and the number of teachers from 2 to 30. All of the schools were fairly young, having been founded between 1967 and 1983. By using this variation of school types, Wagner was able to find that denomination did not predict the school operation, and while not all conservative Christians share the same beliefs, a common core of belief was present in the schools’ statements of belief.

As a participant observer, Wagner conducted fieldwork in the schools by participating in the culture at the same time she was observing it. She collected field notes each day to which references are made throughout the text. In taking the field notes, she was interested in finding patterns across the experiences she witnessed and recorded. In doing so, her goal was to be a neutral observer, an aim she had to reiterate often to the schools and teachers she was observing, particularly as she built rapport and became a trusted member of the school communities. She takes as high praise one parent’s view of her work and the book: “At least she got to know us” (232).

Through this ethnographic work, Wagner found that  the culture of these schools was a combination of three strands: conservative Christian ideology, professional education culture, and American popular culture. Her work then outlines the three cultures and how they influence each other within the conservative Christian school, necessitating decisions regarding compromise.

Conservative Christian Ideology
In presenting conservative Christian ideology, Wagner considers the goal culture for which Christian schools strive, reflecting their beliefs and worldview. She focuses on the Christian conception of self in relationship with God as a primary source of tension between Christian schools and the larger American culture. Wagner presents American (and Western) culture as characterized by individualism, personal achievement, and competition. The polar opposite of this culture would be one of collectivism, seen in cultures where identity is embedded in the collective and action is motivated for the good of the larger community. Wagner places conservative Christians in between these two polarities in what she describes as a Christocentric orientation. The Christian recognizes his or her own sense of self but also recognizes that the self should be subject to God’s will and desire.

School leaders and teachers also reflect this sense of relationship with God in the administration of the Christian school. They believe that the school and all that goes on within it exists for the glory of God and is a result of God and the Holy Spirit working within and through school leaders. They look to God for guidance in decisions and actions and believe that it is God’s guidance that leads the way forward rather than the individual. She also notes a sense of the sacred as pervasive in all things and a desire to keep the sacred and secular as one rather than as separate entities.

Popular American Culture
Wagner also sees the influence of popular American culture in the character of the schools. Examples of this can be seen in the tension between Christian humility and self-recognition and between fruits of the spirit and competition. While both teachers and students despaired of competition in school, they also fostered it at different times in the classroom. Teachers often used competition in the learning process, with student insistence on knowing who won and who lost. Student work was displayed and recognized within the school, with awards recognizing individual student achievement. Several of the schools also had extracurricular sports teams that were competitive in the area.

Wagner also highlighted tension between separatism and materialism. While the acceptance of material goods exists on a continuum for Protestant denominations, Wagner found that teachers and administrators did not necessarily eschew the material world. While they did not seek the material as an end, they believed that God provides for them and wants them to be comfortable and happy. Elements of this could also be seen in students’ belongings and fashion, which often reflected American popular culture, including such items as Swatch wristwatches, earrings, and t-shirts, and for younger children, lunchboxes with cartoon characters. Here Wagner found some of the greatest compromises with popular culture that the schools and teachers made on a regular basis.

Professional Educational Culture
Regarding educational culture and the role of the Christian school as a place of learning, Wagner found the schools to reflect much of the curriculum and goals of mainstream schools. Students were organized into age-based classrooms with an assigned teacher, and classrooms consisted of mainstream norms and artifacts such as bulletin boards, desks, chalkboards, and chalk. Curriculum involved student textbooks, and assessment included letter grades and standardized achievement tests. While religion was evident in every classroom, secular items and norms were evident as well. The school day and calendar were similar to public schools, and school rituals such as graduation were modeled after traditional school rituals.

While the school day at the Christian schools also included worship and religious content, Wagner found that the amount of time spent each day on spiritual activities ranged between 3% and 13% of the school day across schools. This amount of time ranged between 9 and 50 minutes each day, leaving the rest of the school day to more traditional and secular subjects. While religious belief did factor into classes such as science and history, other classes such as math had few references to religious matters. Christian school textbooks reflected the diversity of the Christian school experience and the range of beliefs and denominations of Christian school students. While some schools used Christian textbooks for the entirety of grades and subjects, others used a mix of religious and secular programs. Christian textbooks included references to religion and belief in examples and practice exercises as well as Scripture references. While the schools were unapologetic regarding their conservative Christian character, they took seriously their responsibility to educate their students, the next generation of Christian business, political and professional leaders of their community.

Making Decisions
In navigating decisions regarding the school, from everyday matters to issues of compromise and culture, school administrators and teachers turned to God and discerned God’s will for the school. Wagner found that even with God’s will as the basis for decision-making, not all decisions were made purely from a sacred viewpoint, but incorporated practical elements as well, demonstrated by decisions regarding curricular materials. While Wagner points out that she draws distinctions between the sacred and the practical, the administrators she observed would not consider the decision-making process as one or the other, but rather that the choices are God’s choices and that he is directing their footsteps. They discern his will through prayer, Scripture, the counsel of others, and evidence from daily life in the form of signs, personal witness, and opportunities that arise.

Conclusions Regarding Choice and Compromise
While the schools Wagner encountered were not the total institutions suggested by previous studies of conservative Christian schools, she finds that the schools are aware of the compromises they make with the larger external culture, compromises conservative Christians make daily as part of life in the U.S. The schools have a goal culture for which they strive, and they navigate the existing culture of their surroundings, becoming a transfer culture connecting the existing world with that of the ideal. While they teach that they are separate from the world, they make compromises and accommodations in order to provide for the continued existence of their schools. They trust that God will lead them in their decisions and in the complicated navigation of faith and culture.

As school choice expands to include religious schools, including state funding through vouchers and scholarships, religious schools are becoming a viable option for families that for monetary reasons may not have previously had the opportunity to attend. In some cases, voucher and choice scholarships provide a much-needed boost in student numbers and revenue that help to make conservative Protestant schools viable. While opponents of these parental choice options decry the use of government funds for religious schools, it may be instructive to consider that according to Wagner’s study, conservative Protestant schools share much in common with traditional public schools and are not as different as some might expect them to be. That may be just the problem from the perspective of the Christian schools, Government funding, especially if it brings significant requirements for the school, may create additional challenges for conservative Protestant schools as they attempt to navigate what it means to be a legitimate school that serves essential public functions and what it means to be a legitimate Christian school.  Given Wagner’s analysis, we expect that in most cases Christian schools are willing and able to devise creative solutions to these problems as they try to stand in between mainstream culture and Christian conviction. The Mennonite school in Indiana that was required to display the American flag in every classroom despite their long-standing concern with the dangers of “God and country” patriotism was able to maintain Christian conviction and fulfill their public function through an Olympic inspiration: a colorful classroom of the U.S. flag standing among the flags of all the nations. Not that melding state requirements and Christian conviction in schools is not without conflict, but Wagner shows us that Christian schools are not isolated enclaves and there are cultural and organizational elements that could be built on.  

Limitations and Extensions
Wagner’s ethnographic study is by nature limited to both time and place. While she is not able to generalize on a regional or national level, she is able to provide rich description of the schools and their place both within and separate from the mainstream culture. Wagner does, however, make some generalizations regarding the Christian schools that may not accurately reflect the individual variations among schools. Almost three decades later, it would be interesting to learn how the young Christian schools of this study have fared and matured, and how they have weathered cultural conflict over time.

Keywords: conservative Christian, ethnography, religious schools, Evangelical Protestant

Sector: Evangelical Protestant

Outcomes: Academic,  Religious and Spiritual,  School Organization

Date Posted: 2014-03-12