Transmitting a Vision: Religion in Independent Schools

by Daniel R. Heischman

Daniel R. Heischman is director of the Council for Religion in Independent Schools in Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 19, 1989, p. 417. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Few other intellectual disciplines in our modern technological world go as unattended as moral and spiritual awareness among young people.

In an independent school in Tennessee, a class on world religions gets sidetracked when a tenth grader mentions the controversial movie The Last Temptation of Christ. Two Southern Baptist students insist that they would never go to see the movie because of how the screenplay may have distorted the New Testament portrayal of Jesus. Their classmates are stunned. "I can’t believe you really mean that," one student exclaims, doubtless never having encountered a conservative Christian perspective. As the class breaks up, one of the Baptist students remarks, "My heart was really pounding during that discussion!"

During a faculty meeting at a venerable Roman Catholic girls’ school in California, teachers struggle with what it means to be a Roman Catholic high school today. "Look at our student body," one teacher complains. "Nearly half of our students are non-Catholic, and many are non-Christian. How do we be true to our Catholic heritage, given those circumstances?"

At a workshop in the Midwest, faculty from secular and religious institutions discuss the moral climate (or lack of it) in their respective schools. One teacher from a secular school points to a colleague from an evangelical Christian school as he talks about problems of cheating. "Of course, you’re a religious school. You don’t have moral problems such as these." "Are you kidding?" the Christian school teacher responds. "We have as much of it as you do."

Finally, the head of a thoroughly nonsectarian school answers one of my questions this way: "What is the most important goal I have for my students? While I rarely mention the word ‘religion’ in our thoroughly secular setting, I would have to say that I wish, above all, for my students to obtain a vision of God. Pure and simple."

These vignettes form a fascinating somewhat uplifting, somewhat disturbing picture of religion in independent schools across the country, and of the way schools understand themselves as religious (or non-religious) institutions in relation to a rapidly changing society. They also help to tell the story of how some families in this country -- mostly affluent, highly ambitious, well-educated families -- want independent schools to provide a religious or moral context for their children.

The Council for Religion in Independent Schools works with some 500 schools across the country, kindergarten through grade 12, of varying denominations or of no denominational tradition, and of different educational philosophies, as they seek to develop the religious and ethical dimensions of education. Most of these schools refer to themselves as "independent," meaning free from any direct control by church, diocese, synod or parochial board. However, over half have some form (in many cases quite a revered tradition) of religious emphasis. CRIS also has contact with Roman Catholic parochial schools, evangelical Christian schools and Episcopal parish day schools. In all of the schools, head-masters, faculty and chaplains are grappling with the spiritual and moral dimension of their programs in light of the changing, diverse, demanding and ambivalent character of the constituencies they serve.

Walker Percy once wrote, "I am trying to ask a serious question -- that is a difficult thing to do these days!" The school that feels it is important to raise serious questions with young people and their families may be discouraged by prevalent modes of relativism, hedonism and pragmatism, not to mention an individualism that puts free expression above the needs of the community and seems frequently surprised that people still hold to a belief in God.

At the same time, schools are playing an increasingly custodial role. Whether it be providing extended day-care programs, parental support groups and increased education in the areas of substance abuse and human sexuality, or responding to the clarion call to return to traditional values in the classroom, schools are being asked to provide new kinds of care and guidance.

In the midst of such needs and expectations, what is the place of religion in a school’s life? Does the spiritual have any voice (save that of one crying in the wilderness) in schools, which are accused of being increasingly secular, of compromising on their religious traditions and oftentimes being the starting blocks for the fast track? On these questions, I can discern some nationwide patterns of response.

First, schools increasingly view their religious function in terms of the climate or ethos they foster. While in many cases independent schools have expanded their offerings in religious studies, the focus is increasingly on how they teach and what they teach, through example, through the establishment of a humane environment, and through, as one teacher put it, the "atmosphere of expectation" they promote.

A school is religious no longer simply in terms of courses offered or instructional areas covered. Its spiritual dimension is fostered and gleaned through the interplay of relationships in the school, how people treat each other, and the ritual gatherings that evoke a sense of continuity with the past and give a community its identity.

One headmaster proudly reported an observation made by a visiting committee during his school’s ten-year accreditation evaluation. Members of the committee stopped students in the hallways and asked them, "What’s this school’s principal purpose?" Almost every reply was a variation on the theme, "This school cares, most of all, about what kind of person I am." That is eloquent testimony regarding a climate many schools wish to foster.

Sadly, schools that cherish a religious emphasis find themselves battling religious illiteracy on all fronts. Religion teachers in highly competitive, academically elite institutions, where students possess considerable knowledge of history, science and computers, find themselves doing remedial work in the study of religion. "When I teach the Bible to 11th graders," says one chaplain, "I don’t assume my students know anything, and they usually don’t. So I begin at square one: this is a Bible. Why are the pages thin? Why is it divided into two parts?"

In my days as a school chaplain I remember a shocked English teacher reporting: "Do you know that today I asked my sophomores if they knew who Job was, and only one student raised her hand?" Countless numbers of our brightest young people have had no prior training in Bible, ethics or world religions. As one chaplain at an academically strong, prestigious school remarked about her students’ religious training and awareness, "These students don’t come from very much."

With little experience of church or synagogue, many students have no knowledge of what it means to sit and listen to a speaker or to a musical offering. Similarly, school chaplains report that they are frequently the only religious authority figure families in that school will know. "Some of these socially adept people don’t even know how to talk to a person in my profession," says one school chaplain.

Religious illiteracy inevitably carries over into moral illiteracy and the increasing reluctance of students (and their parents) to take principled stands on school policy or student behavior. One boarding school counselor remarked, "They [the students] know so much about English and geometry, but so little about what it means to be a good person, or even that it’s okay to be a good person." Few other intellectual disciplines in our modern, technological world go as unattended as moral and spiritual awareness.

Parents seem desperate to provide a secure haven for their children in an increasingly dangerous, uncertain world. One parent explained, "I am looking for a sense of protectiveness and watchfulness that I fear may be lacking in the public school." The religious dimension of a school is perceived by increasing numbers of non-Christians and non-churchgoers as adding to the aura of security. But families do not necessarily want the substance of that religious emphasis.

This situation poses enormous challenges for the religious school. Students and parents sometimes express shock over requirements for chapel attendance or courses once the student has enrolled, or oppose the moral posture of a school on an issue of academic or social integrity. A school is often caught defending the content of its spiritual and moral philosophy to an audience attracted increasingly to an image of stability, the by-product which that philosophy projects.

Given the increasingly diverse character of school communities, the temptation is to emphasize ethical values as opposed to religious principles. Schools have to deal with the dissonance created by the blending of a religiously diverse constituency with the school’s particular religious tradition. How can the Quaker school be true to its roots when most of its students have had no prior acquaintance with the Society of Friends? Can the Christian Science school keep up with the competition when its pool of Christian Science applicants diminishes each year? What does the Roman Catholic school do when non-Westerners constitute a substantial portion of its population? Here the religious values of a school can clash with the hidden (or not so hidden) values of schools today: the need to market the school, stay competitive, attract good students, or simply survive.

The solution for many schools has been to assert values, such as honesty, loyalty, respect, compassion, justice and responsibility, that presumably all traditions can adhere to and derive meaning from. Does such emphasis, however, dilute the richness of a school’s particular tradition? Is worship compromised, are church-school relations strained and the school’s philosophy diminished by stressing only ethical values?

In spite of the enormous challenges and ambiguities schools face, tremendous hope lies in the ministry of chaplains and teachers. Whether it be ordained clergy on the staff or teachers who embody the life and vision of a school, adults in schools are engaging in a tremendous, pioneering ministry. They give human shape to the philosophy behind the school. In many cases they are the only representatives of a school’s religious tradition, and in some cases they are the only individuals a young person will encounter who will say proudly (albeit subtly) that they believe in God. If the young person is drawn to that adult, they will also be curious about what that adult believes.

In many ways, the school chaplain or the religion teacher is doing much of what the church should be doing with young people -- namely, taking them seriously, reflecting with them on their moral priorities, sometime challenging their values, offering them a greater perspective in which to deal with their pain, their hopes, their questioning. Chaplains are seeing the firsthand results of materialism, secularism and interfaith marriages and are dealing with young people where they spend most of their time and energy -- in school.

Most significant, perhaps, such an adult is frequently able to bind this diverse group of young people together through narrative, the telling of stories from the tradition. Narrative ministry, so to speak, finds no more receptive audience than a group of young people, particularly a group of high-powered, pressured children and adolescents who have not frequently experienced the joy and luxury of having stories told to them.

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson wrote:

We adults are rarely aware of our essential function in conveying to young people -- deliberately or inadvertently -- that they do (or do not) make sense. Without knowing it, or indeed, appreciating it, we may find ourselves in a strategic role as uncles or family friends, as teachers or physicians, as neighbors or significant strangers. Now and again a quotation comes back to us of something which, for all we remember we may or may not have said, and which nevertheless remained a memorable judgment -- for good or bad -- in a young person’s life.

In an age when so many young people have minimal contact with adults, yet clearly are in need of the care and presence of adults, those of us in churches have not caught on to the need for ministry to take place in the arenas where young people live, move and have their being. A blessed exception is the adult who holds to a conviction of faith, and to whom the young can look in hope and trust. Increasingly, that individual is found in school.

No doubt the head of the secular school knew that fact when he wished for his students a vision of God. The ambiguities, diversities and conflicts of modern life do not necessarily preclude the transmission of that vision.