Reviews | How religious faith can shape success in school
American men are dropping out of college in alarming numbers. A slew of articles over the past year portray a generation of men who feel lost, detached and bereft of male role models. This sense of hopelessness is particularly acute among working-class men, less than one in five of whom complete college.
Yet one group defies 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 adolescents from 2003 to 2012 using survey and interview data from the National Youth and Religion Study, then linking this data to the National Student Clearinghouse in 2016. I studied the relationship between adolescents’ religious upbringing and its influence on their education: their school grades, the colleges they attend, and the level of higher education they attend. they finish. My research focused on Christian denominations because they are the most prevalent in the United States.
I have found that what religion offers teenagers varies by social class. Those raised by professional-class parents, for example, do not enjoy much of the educational advantage of being religious. In some ways, religion even limits the educational opportunities of adolescents (especially girls) by shaping their academic ambitions after graduation; they are less likely to consider a selective college because they prioritize life goals such as parenthood, selflessness, and service to God over a prestigious career.
However, teenagers from working-class families, regardless of race, who were regularly involved in their church and believed strongly in God were twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree as moderately religious or non-religious boys.
Religious boys aren’t smarter, so why do they do better in school? The answer lies in how religious beliefs and religious commitment can protect working-class Americans — men in particular — from despair.
Many members of the American intelligentsia—the elite, college-educated population that makes up the professional and managerial class—do not hold the religious institution in high esteem. When these elites criticize religion, they often do so on the grounds that faith (in their eyes) is irrational and not based on evidence.
But one can agree with the liberal critique of the moral and political goals of conservatism while acknowledging that religion controls the lives of millions of Americans – and that it could provide social benefits.
A boy whom I will call John (all names have been changed to protect participant privacy under ethical research guidelines) was a typical example of the kind of working-class teenager I study. He lived an hour from Jackson, Mississippi. Her father owned an auto repair shop and her mother worked as an accountant and substitute teacher. His days were filled with football, fishing and hunting with his grandparents, riding quads with friends, and the occasional lawn mowing for pocket money.
John aspired to go to college, but given his parents’ professions, income (equivalent to $53,000 today) and education (both had professional certificates), the odds were n were not in his favour.
Yet he reached a milestone that has become largely out of reach for young men like him: he earned his associate’s degree. And his faith and his involvement in the church played a big part in that.
Children whose parents have a college education have many advantages that facilitate their educational trajectories. They tend to live in neighborhoods with strong social infrastructure, including safe outdoor spaces. They have greater family and geographic stability, meaning they rarely need to change schools, disrupting their education and breaking social ties.
Children from more affluent families also benefit from a network of relationships and opportunities that many poorer children lack. College-educated parents tend to work in professional organizations and have strong social networks from college where they meet other members of the professional class. All of these social ties—from neighborhood, workplace, and college—provide a support network for upper-middle-class families, which sociologists call “social capital.”
But working-class families like John’s don’t have the same opportunities to develop social capital. The workplace was once a central social institution for working-class families, but in the labor economy it is nearly impossible to feel a sense of stability, acquire health insurance, or develop relationships with colleagues.
Lack of social capital — along with systemic issues and inequality — has helped unravel the lives of millions of working-class Americans, especially men. Since the early 2000s, just as the children in my study entered their teens, there has been a drastic increase in the number of working-class men dying of “desperation” from opioids, alcohol poisoning and suicide.
But despair does not die: it passes on to children. Most of the working-class children in my study — especially the boys — seemed to look out into the world and feel physically, cognitively, and emotionally hopeless. I discovered that most of the working-class boys in the study had dropped out of the education system by their mid-twenties and seemed on track to repeat the cycle of despair.
But not John. He and dozens of other boys in the study had a support system that insulated them from the hopelessness described by so many of their peers. During his teenage years, John regularly attended his local evangelical church and was active in its youth group. There were organized social activities like rafting and weekly gatherings at the minister’s house to talk about what was going on in their lives.
Being involved in his church reinforced biblical teachings, leading John to think of Christ as the person he most wanted to emulate (most teens respond by referring to an actor, athlete, or family member). By observing how his parents and other members of his religious community behaved, John learned to see God as someone he “can talk to and say personal things to.”
The academic advantage of religious working-class children begins in middle school and high school with the grades they earn. Among those who grew up in the working class, 21% of religious teenagers took home report cards with A’s, compared to 9% of their less religious peers. Grades are also the strongest predictor of entering and leaving college, and religious boys are more than twice as likely to earn grades that help them compete for college admissions and Scholarships.
Religious girls from working-class families also see educational advantages over less religious girls, but there are other factors that help them succeed academically besides religion. Girls are socialized to be conscientious and compliant, have an easier time developing social bonds with family members and peers, and are less likely to get caught up in risky behaviors.
Why does religion give boys like John an academic advantage? Because it offers them the social capital that affluent teenagers can get elsewhere. Faith communities keep families rooted in one place and help children develop trusting relationships with youth ministers and parents of friends who share a common outlook on life. Collectively, these adults encourage teens to follow the rules and avoid antisocial behavior.
Although John cited peer pressure as the most stressful issue facing teenagers, he avoided falling into a pattern of drug and alcohol abuse that often hinders children from academic success. The research for my book focused on Christians, but I found that religious communities are also a source of social capital for Jews.
Theological belief alone is not enough to influence children’s behavior. Teenagers Must Believe and belong to be protected against emotional, cognitive or behavioral despair. I have discovered that religion offers something that other extracurricular activities such as sports cannot: it encourages children to behave in extremely conscientious and cooperative ways because they believe that God encourages and values them.
As John said, religion “helps me with my problems or when I’m depressed.” When he doesn’t know how to handle a situation, he turns to his minister and the scriptures for answers. John suspects that if he weren’t part of his weekly church youth group, he would “do a lot of things wrong”.
Religion not only helps boys from working-class families during their teenage years, it also keeps them from sinking into despair as adults. We can see it in the way John’s life has unfolded. In his early twenties, John stopped reading the Bible and no longer participated in his church fellowship. Other parts of his life also began to crumble. He dropped out of college and was arrested for possession of marijuana.
This was a wake-up call and John decided to return to church. Within a few years, he managed to get his life back on track. John now lives with his grandmother, whom he takes care of, and his girlfriend, to whom he plans to propose. He believes that God called him to serve others by working in the medical field. He returned to community college while working as a paramedic and plans to become a paramedic or nurse. He attributes much of this to his faith.
In his last interview with researchers at age 26, John said, “The most important things in life for me are my family and my relationship with God.
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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