The case for Mennonite schools is an increasingly complicated one as the values of our religious system and that of the dominant culture, of which we are a part, both change.
On the one hand, the vision of church leaders and parents to instill and formulate distinctive Anabaptist values, beginning at an early age (elementary school) and continuing through university and graduate-level theological training, is needed as much or more than when our immigrant parents wanted protection from government-controlled education with an agenda under suspicion.
On the other, there is another theory that children and young people, properly rooted in our core beliefs learned at home and church, are better tested in their faith formation with integration into the larger culture of public schools and universities. Being forced to defend and articulate their beliefs among peers in a more pluralistic setting, Mennonite young people learn much more quickly how their beliefs and lifestyles are countercultural.
Add to those opposing views the fact that Mennonite schools, as noted in our feature on their sustainability for the future (page 4), are struggling financially and attracting fewer and fewer Mennonite students. With fewer than 50 percent of their student bodies comprised of Mennonites, some high schools and universities, are, by default, becoming good private schools as opposed to those with a parochial curriculum and faculty.
School administrators are wondering increasingly if Mennonite education is indeed a partnership with the church, an enterprise of shared vision with those who claim our particular brand of the Christian faith. I imagine that in their weaker moments they are tempted to give up the struggle.
Parents, too, are feeling the pinch. Is the extra expense worth it, they ask? I am reminded of a humorous photo posted on Facebook of my cousin’s husband posing with their son graduating from a church college. The dad held up an empty wallet. The graduate was the recipient of Mennonite education from a young child—elementary, high school and college. While the grad was smiling, the dad had a very strained look on his face, given he had two more children coming along the same route! I couldn’t help but share the pain.
Is this enterprise a shared partnership among church, parents and Mennonite educators?
The prospects, in all reality, are dim and diminishing. If our schools, at all levels, will one by one be forced to close, all of these partners would be the losers—at many different levels. And we wouldn’t feel the impact until later, as is the sad outcome too often of decisions driven by subtle changes in the culture and in our own ways of being the church.
You have to give large credit to the imagination, innovation and strategic thinking of our educators. At the post-secondary level, our three institutions—Conrad Grebel University College in Ontario, Canadian Mennonite University in Manitoba and Columbia Bible College in B.C.—have created institutional models that have both merged struggling Mennonite schools of various denominational stripes and have located themselves on the edges of provincial universities to take advantage of broader degree programs for their students while maintaining a Mennonite presence in living arrangements and the offering of church-related courses.
At Conrad Grebel, this arrangement happily works both ways. Non-Mennonite University of Waterloo students can take specific Anabaptist-related courses to give Grebel a total enrolment of 2,800 students in any given year.
What is too often lacking is a matching vision on the part of congregations and parents. Kudos to those congregations making school grants available to their students attending Mennonite schools a part of their budget. Hats off to parents making supreme financial sacrifices to send their children to a local Mennonite school or off to a Mennonite university.
In a public education system that doesn’t question the militarism, nationalism and consumerism of the dominant culture—and lacks a specific conscience on creation care in the formation and development of our children’s values—I would opt for the caring, nurturing and highly competent teaching environment of our Mennonite schools.
The cost to our Anabaptist faith, without our schools, can’t be counted in dollars.