I agree that “academic training in a Christian context IS spiritual formation.” While there is more to spiritual formation than training the mind there should not be less. Intellectual training is an important component of spiritual formation and the one the school can most easily address.
Of course, “being smart” doesn’t inevitably lead to being more spiritual, but those who are zealous for God but don’t know why they believe what they believe are those most likely to be “faith dropouts.”
I saw and talked with a lot of faith dropouts and potential faith dropouts while working at L’Abri in the 70’s, and the great majority were those who had been told, “Don’t ask questions; just BELIEVE.” (It was this phenomenon among other things that led two of us former L’Abri workers to begin The Imago School.)
A lot rests on what “academic training in a Christian context” looks like. I think it needs to begin with a clear understanding by all those involved that Christianity is the truth about reality, all of reality. The students should get the message directly and indirectly that knowing who God is and what He says is crucial for a right understanding of everything, and not just for one narrow area of life. Hence, we go far beyond teaching information, and we talk about ideas and how to make judgments about whether ideas are true to what is.
We also are consciously shaping the moral imaginations of our students based on a Biblical view of goodness as we teach literature and history, including biblical history, and see models of virtuous behavior. Students taught to think Christianly about every area of study will come to see Christianity as not just a limited set of rules, beliefs, and practices but as the truth about reality.
I would go so far as to say that a school with a chaplain, a great chapel program, and a separate class in character development or spiritual disciplines but with little concern for a Christian view of reality being presented across the curriculum is actually doing a disservice to students and families by furthering a split view of reality—the view that academic learning and spiritual growth have little to do with each other. All our teaching, along with all our interactions with students, should be infused with the understanding that Christianity is first of all TRUE.
Another way that this kind of teaching about objective reality and true ideas aids in spiritual formation is that it helps students get out of themselves. An inflated view of self and the importance of my feelings and opinions is the main obstacle to growth in godliness. Those who learn to submit to the truth of what is and wonder at its beauty and unity are in a better place for the work of the Holy Spirit to go on in their lives.