Are middle and high school students being prepared to engage an increasingly diverse population and culture in the U.S.?
Given a few of the recent national headlines, it does not appear so.
- USA Today’s front-page article giving U.S. schools an “F” for teaching slavery: “Schools sanitize it or shy away from it.”
- A 2019 Pew Research Poll finding almost half of white Americans saying “the USA becoming a majority nonwhite nation would weaken American customs and values.”
In an attempt to better equip Gen Z students to engage their peers on challenging issues such as media discernment, faith, and race, the Imago Dei Leadership Forum commissioned The Barna Group to ask a series of questions to 979 diverse teens (ages 13-17) from around the country in November 2018. (This research will be featured in Part 3 of In Whose Image?)
The results were both insightful and telling.
First, when Gen Z teens were asked whether or not “There is a lot of anger and hostility between the different ethnic and racial groups in American today,” they overwhelmingly agreed—with African American students strongly agreeing by a 20-percentage point difference.
However, when asked whether or not they agreed or disagreed that “Racism is mostly a problem of the past, not the present,” the disparities began to grow more—especially among African American and white Gen Z teens.
The divide became even more apparent among Gen Z teens when asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “People of color are often put at a social disadvantage because of their race.”
When it came to historical questions, the polls were equally telling—especially the variance in Gen Z teens’ beliefs on the cause of slavery in America and whether or not statues of Confederate soldiers should remain in place.
The most disconcerting of all the polls, however, was how few Gen Z teens (particularly white students) could explain the hard lessons of U.S. history to someone not familiar with them—particularly the mistreatment of minority groups in America, whether it be Asian Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, or women.
When I sat down to review the polling data, it confirmed what I had witnessed firsthand over the past five years teaching a racially diverse leadership group of Gen Z teens in St. Louis.
- First, Gen Z teens are clearly aware of the growing hostility in America. Therefore, they should be encouraged to be in community and conversation with peers of different races, so they can better understand how racism is still alive and well in America today and the ways people of color continue to face disadvantages. Students especially must be taught how to listen to one another—considering different views from their own and hearing the hearts and perspectives of others.
- Second, if Gen Z teens are not in a diverse classroom setting, they will not understand why there are differing views on the cause of slavery in America and why statues of Confederate soldiers (particularly those erected during the Jim Crow era) are painful reminders of the evil institution of slavery and the discrimination and persecution African Americans faced for the next 100 years after the Civil War (leading up to the Civil Rights era). In addition, teachers in non-diverse settings must be equipped to show the differing worldviews to their students.
- Third, if Gen Z teens are not educated with a balanced view of history—showing both the successes and sins of our nation—they will not have the proper perspective and empathy necessary to treat all people as equals and speak into our past and present injustices.
Given the above findings, if they haven’t already, schools have about five years to prepare their teachers for the current 2nd graders (the most-diverse class of students in U.S. history) to enter 8th grade. Studies show that 8th grade students are emotionally and intellectually prepared to learn and discuss the challenges in America (past and present) at a much deeper level. More importantly, to do this effectively, schools must ensure that the proper approach and training is in place for teachers to lead these diverse classes of students well.
While these statistics should be no surprise to most U.S. educators, the greatest clarion call is needed among non-diverse Protestant and Catholic schools. It is important that these schools prepare for and/or seek racial diversity so they will remain relevant and prepare their students to thoughtfully engage the culture—especially as their admissions pools become more and more dependent upon justice-minded, Millennial parents who are seeking diverse, culturally engaging, Gospel-centered environments for their children.
With the continued polarization and racial divide in America, coupled with the coming of the 2020 Presidential election season, we need the biblical teaching that played a major role in righting wrongs throughout history to address the moral issues of our day—that we are all created in the imago Dei (the image of God).
Consider St. Paul’s challenge to the Church of Ephesus and the Church of Galatia: To Ephesus, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” To Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Followers of Jesus should be leading the charge when it comes to speaking into today’s issues—centered upon the idea of being an image-bearer of God.
For when students understand what it means to bear God’s image, they are free to view themselves not as the world defines them but as God created them—pursuing their place and purpose in society, all the while growing and solidifying their faith in Jesus and loving and treating others as equals.
As we approach the Easter season, I want to share an excerpt from U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black’s powerful keynote address at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast. (Chaplain Black speaks to our Leadership Forum students each year in D.C.!) Discussing his mother’s challenge for him to memorize Scripture as a young boy, Chaplain Black shared about a verse that changed his life.
“One day I memorized 1 Peter 1:18-19. I was only 10 years of age. It says, ‘We are redeemed not with corruptible things such as silver and gold but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ.’ Even at 10, I had sufficient analytical skills to know that the value of an object is based upon the price someone is willing to pay. And when it dawned on me, a little guy in the inner city, that God sent what John 3 calls in the Greek the monogenesʹ—the only one of its kind—His only begotten Son to die for me, no one was ever able to make me feel inferior again.”
The power of the Gospel never ceases to amaze me.
As both a Christian educator and parent, my vision and prayer for my students (and my own four children!) has been for them to engage the diverse culture around them—particularly as they navigate issues of faith—while treating others with dignity and respect. For by equipping them with an others-centered framework to see people as fellow image-bearers of God, they will better develop a genuine concern for the poor and disenfranchised—bringing a much-needed Gospel-centered message to today’s hyper-polarized culture.
John A. Murray is the President of Imago Dei Leadership Forum in St. Louis, MO, and author of the forthcoming e-book In Whose Image? Image-bearers of God vs. The Image-makers of Our Time