Learning (Re)formation: An Ethnographic Study of Theological Vision and Educational Praxis at Grand Rapids Christian Schools
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The West Michigan Dutch enclave of the Christian Reformed Church has made private, Christian education a centerpoint of its tradition. While Horace Mann was advocating for national common schools, forming youth into civil religious adherents, this group chose to be separatist. What began with one school in 1856 has now become a network (Christian Schools International) of nearly 500 Reformed Christian schools enrolling 100,000 students. When Grand Rapids Christian High School was founded as a spin-off from Calvin College and Seminary in 1920, there was a clear theological mission steeped in a Kuyperian worldview. Although there have been numerous studies of schools in America, none focus on the significance of mission statement (its evolution over time and its implementation within the educational community). This school developed in a city whose racialized geography allowed the community to prosper as white American Protestant citizens insofar as they were willing to assimilate. This school currently displays American capitalism and an evangelicalism which extends beyond strict Calvinism. Although it began as an insular site for ethnic and religious formation, Grand Rapids Christian High School now aims to prepare American Christians for success and servant-leadership in the world.
This dissertation seeks to describe the historical, sociological, and theological foundations of Grand Rapids Christian Schools and to trace changes over time; to observe the formational practices which occur in this educational community; and to consider which theological and pedagogical precepts might be useful in this particular context. This project involves an ethnographic study at Grand Rapids Christian High School and a constructive theological and pedagogical response. Along with data gleaned from historical archives about the school’s founding and development, there are daily observations and interviews. The goal is to explore the explicit manifestations of the school’s theological vision and the implicit practices that reinforce or undermine it. Potential results include heightened awareness of the school’s theological vision throughout the school community and increased connectivity between theory and praxis. By using the microcosm of one school, this research will highlight the place of myriad Christian schools in the American educational landscape. My work brings history, theology, and pedagogy together in order to trace the cultural forces that shape learning communities.