God, Grades, and Graduation: The Surprising Impact of Religion on Academic Achievement

A new study conclusively shows the multiple benefits of a faith-based life for working-class teens — especially men.

As a child living in communist Russia, Ilana Horwitz knew nothing about religion. But after her family emigrated to the United States when she was seven, Horwitz attended a Jewish school and began teaching her parents about Judaism. Years later, as a graduate student in sociology, education, and Jewish studies at Stanford University, she chose to focus on religion as an academic interest.

Horwitz realized that many young mothers living in his college housing community were raising their children as religious Christians. As Horwitz studied the impact of race, class and gender on academic achievement, talking to these mothers led her to wonder: what role does religious upbringing play in academic achievement? school of a child? As a mother herself, she was curious.

Yet she couldn’t find a single published book on the subject and found very few studies. So Ilana Horwitz, currently an assistant professor of Jewish studies and sociology at Tulane University, has herself delved into this overlooked area of ​​research.

Follow the lives of 3,290 teenagers

Using survey and interview data from the National study of youth and religion, she followed the lives of 3,290 teenagers from 2003 to 2012 and the impact of their religious upbringing on their academic performance. The study is based primarily on Christian students as they make up the overwhelming majority of survey subjects. The result of his analysis is his new book, God, Grades, and Graduation: The Surprising Impact of Religion on Academic Achievement (Oxford University Press).

Given the hostility to traditional religion so prevalent in academia, Horwitz expected venomous reactions to his testimony, which conclusively shows that the structure, discipline, sense of belonging and faith in a religious lifestyle are a boon for teenagers. This is especially true for boys from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Dozens of hateful comments were posted in the New York Times in response to an editorial Horwitz wrote about the results of her research, but overall she received mostly positive emails thanking her as an academic for taking religion seriously.

“People feel very validated and appreciate someone like me who has no interest in conservative Christianity and doesn’t portray it in a negative light,” she said. “Going from a zero religion in Russia to a pluralistic Jewish community in the United States has given me more empathy and understanding of religion. I am ready to take religion seriously as a way for people to organize their lives.

Students who were regularly involved in their church and strongly believed in God are twice as likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree as moderately religious or non-religious boys.

Horwitz found that the impact of religion on education varies by social class. Children of professional-class parents do not enjoy as many educational benefits from religion as children from working-class families because they already have many advantages, including greater family and geographic stability, which means less disruption in their lives. school and social. They also benefit from parents’ social and professional networks and a solid social structure.

Without these benefits, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially men, benefit immensely from faith-based living. Religion teaches self-control and discipline, provides a sense of belonging and community support, and a moral framework with which to make decisions, and trusted clergy with whom they can discuss personal issues.

Belief and Belonging

Religious restraint also encourages children to choose better friends and provides the obedience tools needed to get good grades. The religious moral compass also helps them stay out of trouble, like drinking, taking drugs, or falling into a life of crime. As a result, white or black, “students who were regularly involved in their church and strongly believed in God were twice as likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree as moderately religious or non-religious boys,” Horwitz noted.

The absence of religion has had catastrophic effects for millions of American men, who in recent years have dropped out of college, become underemployed or unemployed, and lack stable relationships and male role models. As Horwitz wrote in his New York Times trial, it led to “a drastic increase in the number of working-class men dying ‘dead of despair’ 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.

Today, only 20% of working-class men complete college, and marriage rates among this demographic are plummeting.

Today, only 20% of working-class men complete college, and marriage rates among this demographic are plummeting. In contrast, boys from working-class families who lead active, faith-based lives are twice as likely to earn a high school diploma as moderately religious or non-religious boys. Boys whose lives are organized around religious and faith-based activities such as youth groups and a relationship with a pastor benefit from a “support system that insulates them from the hopelessness that so many of their peers have described”, said Horwitz.

“Teenagers must believe and belong to be protected from emotional, cognitive or behavioral despair,” she added. Religion encourages good behavior in children “because they believe that God encourages and evaluates them.”

The benefits of religion for girls are not as glaring as they are socialized for good behavior, “have an easier time developing social bonds with family members and peers, and are less likely to be caught up in risky behavior,” observed Horwitz. In fact, for several years now, women have been outperforming men in obtaining college degrees, including women from middle- and upper-class families.

Questioning and critical thinking

In a separate study by Horwitz on the academic success of Jewish girls, this same tendency is true. Unprecedentedly, Jewish women now outperform Jewish men in college degrees by a significant margin, most strikingly among those between the ages of 30 and 49. Horwitz speculates that this trend can be explained by the fact that Judaism tends to be more egalitarian than other religions, and that the self-concepts of Jewish girls and women have become more rooted in a prestigious career.

The study also found that Jewish students were much more likely than Christian students to question religious teachings. The historic Jewish emphasis on debating the text and spreading diverse perspectives leads Jewish students to naturally ask questions, a practice that sharpens critical thinking.

Horwitz was surprised by a few of her findings, particularly the tendency of religious children as well as young women of all backgrounds to consider personal values ​​and goals when choosing colleges. This leads to students withdrawing from the most competitive school they qualify for in favor of a college closer to home and/or offering a campus environment that they believe will be most supportive of their values religious and moral.

As a sociologist, Horwitz hopes his findings will encourage people to have more empathy for religious people in America, especially in this time of intense political and religious polarization. “I want people to climb the wall of empathy and understand why people think the way they might… One can agree with the liberal critique of the moral and political goals of conservatism while acknowledging that religion drives the lives of millions of Americans – and that it could provide social benefits.

Norma A. Roth