Religion and education: Learnings from 3290 teenagers

religion and education

American men are dropping out of college in alarming numbers.

A slew of articles over the past year depict a generation of men who feel lost, detached and lacking in male role models.

This sense of despair is especially acute among working-class men, fewer than one in five of whom completes college.

Yet one group is defying the odds: boys from working-class families who grow up religious.

As a sociologist of education and religion, I followed the lives of 3,290 teenagers from 2003 to 2012 using survey and interview data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, and then linking those data to the National Student Clearinghouse in 2016.

I studied the relationship between teenagers’ religious upbringing and its influence on their education: their school grades, which colleges they attend and how much higher education they complete.

My research focused on Christian denominations because they are the most prevalent in the United States.

I found that what religion offers teenagers varies by social class.

Those raised by professional-class parents, for example, do not experience much in the way of an educational advantage from being religious.

In some ways, religion even constrains teenagers’ educational opportunities (especially girls’) by shaping their academic ambitions after graduation; they are less likely to consider a selective college as they prioritize life goals such as parenthood, altruism and service to God rather than a prestigious career.

However, teenage boys from working-class families, regardless of race, who were regularly involved in their church and strongly believed in God were twice as likely to earn bachelor’s degrees as moderately religious or nonreligious boys.

Theological belief on its own is not enough to influence how children behave.

Religious boys are not any smarter, so why are they doing better in school?

The answer lies in how religious belief and religious involvement can buffer working-class Americans — males in particular — from despair.

Many in the American intelligentsia — the elite-university-educated population who constitute the professional and managerial class — do not hold the institution of religion in high regard.

When these elites criticize religion, they often do so on the grounds that faith (in their eyes) is irrational and not evidence-based.

But one can agree with the liberal critique of conservatism’s moral and political goals while still acknowledging that religion orders the lives of millions of Americans — and that it might offer social benefits.

A boy I’ll call John (all names have been changed to protect participants’ privacy under ethical research guidelines) was a typical example of the kind of working-class teenager I’ve been studying.

He lived an hour outside Jackson, Miss.

His father owned an auto-repair shop and his mother worked as a bookkeeper and substitute teacher.

His days were filled with playing football, fishing and hunting with his grandparents, riding four-wheelers with friends and mowing the occasional lawn to earn pocket money.

Adolescents must believe and belong to be buffered against emotional, cognitive or behavioural despair.

John aspired to attend college, but given his parents’ occupations, income (the equivalent of $53,000 today) and education (both had earned vocational certificates), the odds were not in his favour.

Still, he reached a milestone that has become largely out of reach for young men like him: He earned his associate degree. And his faith and involvement in church played a large part in that.

Children with college-educated parents have many advantages that make their academic trajectories easier.

They tend to live in neighbourhoods with a strong social infrastructure, including safe outdoor spaces.

They have more familial and geographic stability, which means they rarely need to transfer between schools, disrupting their educations and severing social ties.

Children from wealthier families also benefit from a network of connections and opportunities that many poorer children lack.

College-educated parents tend to work in professional organizations and have robust social networks from college where they meet other members of the professional class.

All these social ties — from the neighbourhood, the workplace, and college — provide a web of support for upper-middle-class families, which sociologists refer to as “social capital.”

But working-class families like John’s do not have the same opportunities to develop social capital.

Religion doesn’t just help boys from working-class families during their teenage years — it also deters them from falling into despair in adulthood.

The workplace used to be a central social institution for working-class families, but in the gig economy, it is nearly impossible to feel a sense of stability, acquire health insurance or develop relationships with colleagues.

The lack of social capital — along with systemic problems and inequities — has contributed to the unravelling of the lives of millions of working-class Americans, especially men.

Since the early 2000s, just as the kids in my study were entering adolescence, there has been a drastic rise in the number of working-class men dying “deaths of despair” from opioids, alcohol poisoning and suicide.

But despair doesn’t die: It gets transmitted to children.

It gets transmitted to children. Most of the working-class kids in my study — especially boys — seemed to look out in the world and feel despair physically, cognitively and emotionally.

I found that most of the working-class boys in the study had dropped out of the educational system by their mid-20s and seemed on track to repeat the cycle of despair.

But not John. Continue reading

  • Ilana M. Horwitz is an assistant professor of Jewish studies and sociology at Tulane University and the author of “God, Grades, and Graduation.”
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