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Many of us assume that Christian day schools foster a strict and conservative environment that is very different from the rest of the United States. Christian educators themselves foster this view when they say that following biblical strictures requires that they not always conform to this world. Melinda Wagner goes beyond this stereotype to portray the way these schools foster American popular culture and "professional education culture" as well as "Christian culture." In her participant observation study of a variety of Christian schools (sponsored by fundamentalist, evangelical, new charismatic, Holiness, and pentacostal Christians), Wagner describes and interprets how such compromises are made.
In American culture, children are taught to meet challenges, to compete, and are rewarded for individual achievement. Conservative Christians label this individualism as "secular humanism," and find it antithetical to their view of the self. Instead, these Christians seek a culture of love, compassion, orderliness, noncompetitiveness, and separation from the material trappings of this world.
But in reality, Wagner finds that the schools mix Christian values with the values of American culture. She discovers that even in Christian schools students compete fiercely and are recognized for individual achievements. Christian schools incorporate norms and strategies from mainstream American education. Alternative Christian schools are not as alternative as they could be; they are walking the Christian walk the American way.
The Christian schools serve as a case study of the process of culture building. Conservative Christians are trying to revitalize their culture. Yet all along the way, they quite consciously compromise.
Melinda Bollar Wagner is a professor of anthropology at Radford University.