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Reaching Millennials With Religious Education

Beth Green, program director for Cardus Education, talks to Convivium’s Peter Stockland about new research showing the benefits of religious education for members of the “lost in transition” Millennial generation.

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Topics: Education, Homeschool
Reaching Millennials With Religious Education April 20, 2018  |  By Beth Green with Peter Stockland
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Peter Stockland: Cardus Education has just released a research paper looking at the Millennial generation and the effect religious schooling has on helping them overcome the challenges they face in a rapidly shifting culture. What is meant in the paper by the “Lost in Transition Phenomenon"? Who’s lost? How did they get lost?

Beth Green: The “lost in transition” phrase is drawn from the title of a very significant book by Christian Smith, a professor of the Sociology of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, and his colleagues Kari Christoffersen and Hilary Davidson. Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood was based on a longitudinal study of the Millennial generation, the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR). It looked at the religious and spiritual life of teenagers in America. We're very fortunate that our Cardus Education Survey data interacts with the NSYR data. It's important because that study opened the eyes for the Church in America – for people who work in Christian formation, spirituality, and youth – to what the experience was of an entire generation that's been called the “lost generation” of Millennials.

Christian Smith put flesh on the image of how growing up has changed, particularly with reference to the institutional spaces in which young people grow up. The Christian world, and we can also say this about other secular institutions like schooling, has been slow to catch up with what this generation are facing, feeling, thinking, what their assumptions are about their religious and spiritual identity.

Until the Cardus Education Survey (CES) came along there wasn't an awful lot of data about the role of the school sector and education in this conversation about the religious and spiritual lives of teenagers. Lost in Transition opened eyes, but obviously wasn’t written from the (specific) perspective of the influence of schools.

CES supplemented (Smith’s) data by asking some specific questions about the relationship of school and education. So it’s the first time we've had relevant data for people who are working and thinking about the culture of the school and the culture of the classroom. And while the study in the “lost in transition” paper is of U.S. schools, the results do trickle across the border.

Part of the reason is that we have a history of independent religious schooling and networks of religious school associations that extend past the border. There would be some differences. For example, I suspect we would see less marked differentiation (in Canada) around the marriage and divorce statistics. We also have other school sectors to take into account here in Canada, like the separate Catholic school system.

Peter Stockland: So the “transition” is late teens in the U.S., and by extension Canada, moving into preparation for adult life. But why have Millennials “lost” the tools to make that transition?

Beth Green: How we prepare young people for a rapidly changing world is a huge conversation in education. People are asking about the best tools, or pathways, to build up resilience and maturity. Education has always had to prepare people to take their place in the world, but it's the sheer pace of change that feels different and unsettling. It's the sheer multiplication, in the Western world anyway, of options, choices, changes, particularly technological change that has such big implications for how we set young people up in good ways for mature, stable, adult life and relationships.

PS: Being a bit of a devil's advocate, though, couldn’t someone find the word “lost” in the “lost in transition” phrase perhaps judgemental, even pejorative? What if someone says, Wait a minute, what you consider lost is simply a new way of adapting to an entirely different culture.”

BG: It is important to avoid that sort of unhelpful polarization of the generations, as if all the characteristics of being a Millennial are fixed and negative. The talk about the Millennial generation does make sense in sociological terms. I know that in other ways, for the reasons you're talking about, the term is very contested. But in terms of the data, it does seem to describe a discrete set of experiences and practices. We do have to be very careful about how we make value judgements in relation to that. It will always be the job of education to prepare young people, to help them to establish good norms for themselves, and to manage life, relationships and work.

I think it's wrong to make value judgements en mass; to say: This generation is completely lost. No good teacher ever says that. Good teachers recognize each generation brings new ways of thinking and being. Schools need to understand how they will prepare young people to think critically. To help make their own world of tomorrow, we have to be honest and recognise that Millennials are going to inherit a lot of junk from us while they do that.

PS: The paper is very clear about its findings being tentative. They point in a certain direction. “We do not have conclusive or entirely consistent evidence that religious schooling is a bulwark against getting lost in transition during the young adult years,” it says. It is not making a claim that if parents send their kids to a religious school, on balance they'll come out  “less lost” than their peers who went to non-religious schools.

BG: Absolutely right. It's not making that claim because we can’t assume that everything about being a Millennial is about being lost. Millennials who attended all types of schools face similar issues around adolescence, and for all them adolescence has extended. This data shows us that religious schools are not monastic enclaves away from such experience where you don't have to deal with these social, and cultural, and spiritual currents. I wouldn't expect them to be. I would expect for that complexity to be present in the lives of young people in an independent religious school.

My questions are more about the kind of socialization that is happening in the religious school sector and the connection between school and a young person’s religious life, family life, spiritual life. Is it noticeable? Can we see something different happening there because of the presence of those connections even if it doesn't mean that you're somehow excluded from the experiences of adolescence?

PS: That question percolates through the paper. The data does point to the overall answer being positive. I was struck by the way, on a variety of fronts, religious schooling varies remarkably in terms of what the tendencies are that it produces. For example, the Catholic school experience tends to produce much more educationally driven graduates. Yet it also seems to prepare them to delay marriage and family in order to get that all-important undergraduate degree. Evangelical religious school graduates, on the other hand, are more family-oriented, though far from giving up on education entirely. And the homeschoolers, the paper says, come out  much more pragmatically focused on doing what needs to be done to get on with life. So, can we really speak about tendencies from religious schooling when just those three forms of religious schooling tend to cultivate such different effects?

BG: It's important to draw attention to the complexities. The categories are more diverse than the way we typically talk about them. One way the Cardus Education Survey data helps is (challenging) a lot of stereotypes around religious schooling as a sector. For example, the assumption that religious schooling leads towards more political fundamentalism or being more socially sequestered. We have to hold ourselves to the same standard that we use when we counter those stereotypes, and actually say there isn't just one religious school experience. But there are commonalities for some of these sectors as a whole, for the Catholic sector, and the Protestant Evangelical sector. Those commonalities are going to relate to the kinds of culture formation, the kind of theological discourse, the kinds of communities that are being built in those religious schools.

The homeschooling experience is really interesting. The research throughout the Cardus Education Survey basically told us that in many ways homeschoolers defy the categories we want to put them in. So they're making hugely different choices about work, family life, and university in the light of individual priorities. Homeschoolers kind of resist the boxes that we as researchers want to put them in. That’s really important for people who choose to homeschool. There are nuances as you look at the whole picture of extended adolescence.

PS: In terms of the tendencies for homeschoolers, in a paradoxical way, they're actually the most consistent. Their experience starts from the premise that institutional structures are not necessary for you to learn, and to make your way in life. You can learn at the kitchen table as well as you can learn it at the bricks and mortar building down the street….

BG: They get the education they need for what they’re focused on at the moment and these things will run much more, potentially much more holistically in life. Maybe homeschoolers are the forerunners of the gig economy. They do it anyway. They build their educational experiences around the values of their own home and family.

PS: Whereas at least in raw terms the Catholic and Protestant Evangelical experiences seem almost contradictory to the faith traditions they are aligned with. The Catholics are prepared, as I said earlier, to defer family and defer children when the Church itself makes a centrality of the importance of those things.

BG: Yet they may also be making very meaningful decisions in the dominant economic context they're in about when they're able to provide financially for marriage and family. This is a hypothesis because these are not questions our research posed in this paper, but I think one of the things this discussion throws up is how influential some of these social norms are even when they're counter to some of the theological premises that operate in religious schools.

The other thing I've been wondering as well is the data around Catholic students making these informed decisions about earning their bachelor’s degree, completing it by the time they're 25. That tells us a lot about the cultural value of a degree these days. It doesn't tell us about the nature of that degree experience or how well they find it has equipped them later on in life to do the things that they wanted to do. So there's a lot more I'd like to ask about that. And about whether we are all just jumping on the conveyor belt, or is being in an independent religious school giving you a different way of making some of those choices: to get a degree or not get a degree; to get married or not get married.

PS: One very practical thing the paper points to as being beneficial within independent religious schooling is in the area of sexuality. It says in extended adolescence, marriage is delayed but sexual experiences are not. In religious schooling, there's a tendency to be much less likely to report having sex before 20. There's also a sense of the school peer group not engaging sexually at an early age, either.

BG: I think one of the things that is important here is not to over-claim and to be careful to talk about tendencies towards certain choices and behaviours. The fact is that in this survey students are asked to comment on their peers. They're not being asked to self-report their own sexual activity and engagement. It's anonymous. They're not under pressure to give any particular answer. I still think it's a fairly clear-cut demarcation that tells you something is really different about the discourse that are embedded in these religious schools and the kinds of ways in which they're making value judgements about what sex means for their human flourishing, which is very countercultural.

PS: It's framed to reflect student expectations of peer behaviour to sex or hook-up relationships. The institution transmits a sense of how to behave. Is that fair?

BG: Yes. It makes you think about those issues in a markedly different way. There's something very different going on in the mix here and that's part of how this formation happens.

PS: Is that a function, BG, of religiosity? Or is it a function of any strong central belief? Would an education experience around, say, a belief in a virtue such as courage or loyalty function the same as a belief in God having an active part in your life?

BG: I think we artificially separate those things particularly when both belief in God and virtuous practice is part of how a religious community functions. The one re-enforces the other.

PS: The paper quotes Tolkien’s saying, There are some things worth fighting for. But is the tendency the paper identifies just the result of “a thing” worth fighting for, or is it actually the thing of God active in your life that makes the difference?

BG: But God being active is what may give you what you're fighting for, right?

PS: I was struck by this sentence: If religion offers a protective effect against being lost in transition, there's further evidence that religious school graduates are not likely to take entirely the same path as graduates of other sectors.” Why would that be? Why would they differ once universities send them out into the world and they become part of the larger culture?

BG: To answer that in sociological terms, you're talking about the kind of formation of belief and practice that have an effect beyond school-age years. These patterns of behaviour, of promise keeping, of decision making, are being continually reinforced. The Catholic sociologist of education, Gerald Grace, would talk about spiritual capital here. These beliefs and behaviours become things that you fall back on that keep interacting with decision-making choices and patterns of behaviour. They're like a resource that you draw on in the same way that we might talk about social capital or intellectual capital.

I also want to say that your point about the way that God acts in making a difference is important here. The ways God acts in life, together with a commitment to living your life out in a particular way in the light of God’s action, doesn't just switch off then when you graduate.

PS: There’s a powerful quote affirming that: Religious school graduates see the hand of God in their life. That also perhaps reflects the greater likelihood that they will have a sense of direction and purpose during the young adult years. So in a world of constant change and flux, there is something that endures.

BG: Teaching confessionally, sadly, is not a guarantee that truth, practice, belief will be taught well. Pedagogy matters. I've seen confessional accounts delivered in a secular context that speak very powerfully to the truth, particularly for the believer.

That said, there absolutely always has to be pedagogic space for the confessional. Confessional accounts can be very different from studying religion through a purely historical, or economic, or sociological lens. From the perspective of the believer, religion is never hived off as just a unit of study. It is part of a way of being in every subject. Teachers should be skilful enough to draw in those religious accounts for in every part of the curriculum. I want teachers to be skilful to bring in the confessional accounts of religious believers. Otherwise, it's just treating it as an object of curiosity.


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