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What is a Christian Education? (And, By the Way, What is a Christian?)
An intriguing dispute over private schooling here in Melbourne means a court might have to define who is a Christian.
One of our oldest and poshest boys’ schools, Scotch College, was founded by a Presbyterian pastor in 1851, and the Presbyterian Church still maintains considerable control. It is now seeking to persuade a judge that only Christians should be appointed to the school council.
Melbourne’s numerous private schools – most with church affiliations - do good work. Such is their reputation for excellence that they attract many students from abroad, especially from Asia. My wife and I send our kids to state (government) schools, but we can see that the private colleges provide a benchmark that raises the overall quality of much teaching.
But how Christian are these Christian schools? An article in the Sunday Age attempted some answers:
Michael Balfe, a 42-year-old company director, left Scotch in 1977. He said his personal experience was that the college had "very little to do with religion and a lot to do with values".
"I would be hard-pressed to find somebody who really put a lot of emphasis on religion at school," he says. "I'm planning to send my child to Scotch and its Presbyterian-ness has nothing to do with the decision and, if they start really emphasising the religious side, it could affect my decision in a negative way."
An emphasis on values is to be applauded. The article also quotes former pupils who point to an insistence on consideration for others. Would that our state schools had similar priorities.
Yet I cannot help but return to words I wrote a few years ago in my book Living Water to Light the Journey:
I cannot understand…why so many posh private schools are associated with our Protestant churches. Why on earth do these churches feel that it is their duty to operate schools in places like Camberwell and Kew [suburbs of Melbourne], and in similar leafy suburbs in other cities? I am still searching for that bit of the Bible where Jesus instructs his followers to provide a superior education for the eastern-suburbs elite while virtually ignoring the needs of underprivileged kids from the western suburbs.
Perhaps there are good historical reasons why the churches felt they should establish schools that allowed parents, through a degree of self-sacrifice, to choose a Christian education for their children. But today these schools have become out of the reach of numerous families. And, to justify the high fees they charge, they must provide a lot more than do the government schools. So the Christian-education side is often downplayed in favour of technology labs, music studios and whatever else is needed to attract enrolments.
The result is that, for me, these elite private schools, associated in some way with many of our Protestant denominations (the Catholic Church runs schools too, but they are aimed at all Catholics, not an elite), symbolise the church’s continuing accommodation with the establishment. I would suggest that if the church were serious about its role it would sell all its highly valuable school land, and use the money to provide superior educational facilities for the underprivileged.
November 19th, 2002
December 18th, 2002