For most of this year, my wife and I have been agonising over whether to send our firstborn, nearly four-year-old son, to a public or an independent religious school. He’s an energetic child, with a strong appetite for learning and social interaction. He thinks he possesses the attributes of a superhero, while we think he possesses the attributes that will make him a prime candidate for class clown and ringleader infamy. We love him to bits.
So which will be the better fit? And which school will best represent our personal values as parents?
It’s a question many Australians wrestle with, although for some it’s no question at all. Circumstances or convictions automatically rule one or the other out immediately. Then for others still, the question of homeschooling arises. We are seemingly stronger and better equipped than ever for homeschooling after many were forced to ‘try it on’ through the lockdowns of an unimaginable period of human history.
There has been one area of study that made my ears prick up in the last few weeks …
The blessing and burden of choice weighs heavily on us all, and we all want what’s best for our kids so that they can thrive. While I myself am not meaningfully connected with the education sector, it appears to be a goldmine of data, analysis, opinion and policy recommendations for social scientists and education theorists alike. It’s an area of immense study, and rightfully so, as it determines how well the next generation will be equipped for the challenges of their time. And we all have a vested interest in making decisions that will assist our children to blossom, engage and prepare best for adult and civic life.
There are, of course, a myriad of factors that influence these outcomes: socio-economic background, family upbringing, peer influences, parental engagement, access to resources, etc. I’m not going to pretend to be across all of these important areas of study and analysis, but there has been one area of study that made my ears prick up in the last few weeks.
A secular case for religious community
I have a fondness for sociology and, having studied it at university, I love to keep tabs on interesting books and papers that are being published. Unsurprisingly, a great place to follow these conversations can be found on the New Books in Sociology podcast. In an interview with Dr Ilana M. Horwitz, she talks about the findings from her recent book God, Grades, and Graduation: Religion’s Surprising Impact on Academic Success and, as the title implies, religious devotion plays a part in this conversation.
Horwitz herself comes from a Jewish immigrant background and after moving to America, was surprised at how religious it remained compared to other Western countries, particularly around Europe. So she sought to study what sort of difference religion makes in an educational context, as it relates to educational outcomes and attainment. For this, she thought to study the largest block of religion in the US, which is of course Christianity.
Rather than simply studying Evangelicalism or Catholicism as a monolithic group, she drew upon studies that represented a mixture of denominational and ethnic differences. So her study included not only both of the largest religious traditions but also smaller (yet not insignificant) groups, such as Black Protestants, the mainline denominations, Pentecostalism, Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and more.
They were also spread out geographically, covering students from the Southern States, Mid-West, East Coast and all over the US. And what she found was a consistent trend: that religious devotion and connection with a local church had positive effects on student grades – across all regions and socio-economic conditions.
The abider advantage
Horwitz talks about the ‘abider advantage’ where belonging in Christian communities and believing in Christian ideas predisposed students to behave in ways conducive to a school environment. And there are two main benefits that ‘abiders’ enjoy from their Christian upbringing.
The first is ‘social capital’ from attending church services and programs. Being entrenched in a church community helps students connect with a diverse group of people that spans across generations, race and industry. Not only is this an advantage for developing the social skills that make school a natural fit, but it also helps provide students with connections and resources that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them. This is particularly true for people who grow up in poor, working class and even some middle-class communities where finances can be tight and access to public facilities, positive role models and healthy extra-curricular activities are not always available.
But the second benefit is much more specific to a Christian context: ‘religious restraint’. Students that indicated that their faith was a large part of their life are more likely to engage in spiritual practices and disciplines that are beneficial in a learning context. Things like a regular life of prayer and meditation can help prepare them for a disciplined approach to study. Coming from a philosophical base – where questions of God, suffering, evil, morality, hope, goodness, beauty, gratitude, etc. – can prepare kids for exercises that require contemplation, critical thought and comprehension.
Christians are more likely to be ‘good students’ …
Then there are matters of conscience, where the belief in God’s omniscience weaves its way into a Christian’s daily life. Examples include an understanding that God cares about how others are treated, whether one’s elders and teachers are shown respect, how the vulnerable are cared for, how one works hard for the glory of God, and how situations can be avoided so that one’s values are not compromised.
All of this to say that Christians are more likely to be ‘good students’ that do their homework, participate in class activities, show teachers respect (perhaps inadvertently bumping that B into a B+) and are less likely to get caught up in risky behaviour – parties, drinking, drugs and relationships that might impact their relationship with God, let alone their academic results. This is not to say that Christians are necessarily smarter or more intelligent, as much as it is to say they are more likely to be rule followers and students that more readily embrace the current pedagogical models that are features of our schooling systems.
It doesn’t last forever though. The abider advantage peaks in high school and then appears to plateau around college. By the time Christians reach university, they are just as likely to get their desired degree but are less likely to move away to the most prestigious schools, instead choosing to stay tethered to their religious communities (family and church).
Those that do move for their study are confronted with a plethora of changes that can impact whether they stay a Christian. Newfound independence, increased hours and expectations from part-time employers, and feeling disillusioned/disconnected from local churches are just as likely to whittle away at one’s faith. University in and of itself can have a significant impact for some but does not appear to be the secularising bogeyman that it’s often made out to be in some circles. And thanks to the abundance of Christian campus groups, there are plenty of people that become Christians at university as well.
Undoubtedly, being connected with Christianity and church communities has concrete benefits for young people. And while this educational advantage peters out around the college years, there are other abider advantages that emerge later in life.
A second abider advantage
According to a Harvard study in 2017, regular religious involvement correlates with an assortment of positive outcomes. Having a religious community can lead to a longer lifespan (seven years), lower levels of drug and alcohol abuse, better mental health outcomes, stronger social relationships (including more numerous friendships, healthier marriages and higher social support), increased life satisfaction, a greater sense of meaning in life, lower rates of crime and higher rates of civic duty.
So what this means is, don’t simply think about sending your kid to church, but think about bringing yourself along too! The abider advantage isn’t merely a phenomenon for academics to ruminate over but something that can be freely grasped and experienced by anyone.
Jesus himself calls all people to ‘abide in him’ (in John 15). To remain in him. To put down spiritual roots. He talks about it in the context of a vine and its branches, calling himself the ‘true vine’, where a fruitful life only comes about when we’re intimately connected with him. It’s a breathtaking section of the Bible, where the laying down of his life for his friends becomes an open offer of friendship with God. A friendship with immense benefits, though the cost warrants consideration.
We all want what’s best for ourselves and especially for our kids. And we’ll happily sacrifice secondary things to get the things we need for those we love. Joining a religious community will ask you to sacrifice things for the greater good. A greater good that flows out to people in need and, in turn, gives you something you need too: new motives, new desires, new character, new priorities and new values that are forged and remade by the one who made everything, and who makes life that extra bit worthwhile.
Maybe being part of such a community will bring that newness to your family. Maybe your kids’ grades will reflect that. Maybe they’ll experience the abider advantage well beyond their schooling life. And maybe you’ll find something precious that goes well beyond your lifetime too.
Aaron joined City Bible Forum in 2018 and has coordinated local events in Hobart. Recently he has spent more time writing and creating digital content for Third Space, where this article was first published. It is republished here with permission.