If a biblical worldview is the shared distinctive of all Christian schools, regardless of other distinctives unique to a particular school, then it makes sense for Christian schools to spend time thinking about what that looks like. Even in schools where worldview integration is more aspirational, schools generally know what they are aiming for—instruction that reflects the notion of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. However, a presupposition that is more foundational than worldview integration is one’s view of truth and implication on worldview. It is interesting to think about the idea of truth claims presented by Christianity and the role Christian schools play in equipping students to both understand and articulate these claims. The growing understanding of these skills provides new opportunities for Christian schools to successfully communicate this as a distinctive.
In order to make this claim effectively, we have to deliver on the promise that other Christian institutions are at a loss as to how to deal with the need. Consider truisms about the 21st century evangelical church—particularly those in their teens and 20s:
- Less knowledgeable about specific scripture texts
- Less knowledgeable about doctrine
- Unable to articulate a biblical word view
- Unwilling to argue for a truth claim made in scripture
These four truisms may all be connected. Certainly unwillingness can often be related to the lack of knowledge of particular doctrines. The short list above looks like a progression of sorts—beginning with a lack of knowledge of specific texts and ending with the unwillingness to apply truth claims of scripture to individual lives and behavior or ways of thinking and evaluating. However, the larger connection seems to be that only with a solid knowledge and integrated way of looking at facts can one have the ability to effectively argue.
Truth claims beg an argument that depth and breadth of knowledge are required for successful polemic. Polemic is a verbal or written attack on an idea or a proponent of an idea. It is more than just an argument for something, but rather an argument against something. Modern notions of the polemicist often include descriptors like “controversial” or “diatribe.” I feel there is a value of polemic in education in at least two ways: 1) it recognizes the arguments against one’s own position and 2) it recognizes that there is usually something at stake in which side wins an argument. For Christian school educators, effective teaching with these realities in mind can be profoundly valuable toward accomplishing our mission.
There is a big difference between learning facts about an idea and learning how to use those facts to correct errors against an idea. Education ought to prepare us to recognize errors and make corrections—in math as well as in philosophy. The ability to argue demonstrates success in synthesizing the various elements of an argument and thus demonstrates understanding. It is also important to understand that truth claims matter and being able to vigorously defend truth is an important part of education. Willingness to defend a truth claim demonstrates how much one thinks those claims matter.
Christian education should make the case that we prepare students in this way and demonstrate what that means for academic excellence. This element is significant in preparing our students to be able to make articulate arguments for truth in the church and in the society at large. This need and opportunity comes at a time when our students are less willing than ever to make an argument and at a time when society consensus around ideas is changing more quickly than perhaps any other period in modern history. When one looks at the trends and developments within society regarding the ideas around sexuality, life issues and ethics, as examples, sometimes just making a certain argument can violate the listener’s sensibilities. In order to make some arguments, someone else’s supposed equally valid view is challenged. There is this supposed preference for arguments that are in favor of something rather than against—even if the arguments against are powerful.
Christian school educators, leaders and parents, it seems worthwhile to ask how our educational approach has either contributed to or failed to prepare for these trends? In other words have we failed to equip students to engage society with significant arguments and then able to withstand the same forceful response? Has the inability to effectively articulate the argument contributed to our inability to withstand criticism on the other?
In thinking about this subject, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the following: Has the decline of the polemic resulted in an overly sensitive generation of graduates? Are Christian school graduates even more likely to avoid the polemic because of weak notions within evangelicalism around truth?
Paul T. Neal (paul.neal@cace.) is Sr. Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment at Cairn University and co-founder of Charter Oak Research where he serves as Principal and Chief Research Officer. Charter Oak Research is a marketing research and consulting firm focused on resourcing and supporting Christian schools and colleges, other Christian ministries and for profit organizations. Charter Oak brings marketing research to bear on the strategy and tactics of enrollment and advancement needs of clients to improve brand awareness, perception and sustainability. Paul has presented and been published on: the use of normative data in analysis, respondent motives, trends in education and online communities and respondent quality. Prior to founding Charter Oak Research, Paul was a Principal at Olson Research Group for 15 years as well as serving as the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University responsible for qualitative research on political culture and U.S. Public Policy. Paul has served as an adjunct faculty member at several Philadelphia area universities. Paul is a graduate of Eastern (B.A.) and Villanova (M.A.) Universities and attended Temple University for further graduate study.