Sunday, August 29, 2010

Thoughts on Schooling: Junior "Culture Warriors" or Vulnerable Lambs?

A recent conversation with a friend got the wheels turning in my head on the subject of education again, which isn't necessarily good for anyone -- that is, the turning of the wheels in my head, not education. Although...


We talked about education in general; in particular we talked about whether homeschoolers' alleged lack of interaction with a broad spectrum of students and peers is a genuinely negative aspect of the practice of homeschooling. We agreed that this is not necessarily the case, or even probably the case. He spoke from experience; I, from theory and observation (though I was homeschooled for Kindergarten, during which time I was hooked on phonics). My friend (we'll call him Ben) was homeschooled all the way from Kindergarten through high school, whereas I attended a Lutheran parochial school for eight years before going to public high school. Our theretofore dissimilar paths crossed, then, at Hillsdale College, a school whose student body includes a sizable proportion of homeschoolers -- somewhere in the ballpark of fifteen percent, by the latest data I have.

Anyway, Ben mentioned in a somewhat offhand way how foolish he thought it was for parents to let their children be friends with just anyone. I agreed, recalling the hellions whose company I kept and whose behavior I aped as a child. Ben and I bartered anecdotes which proved the point, some positive, but mostly a slough of negative ones. It was just banter, and surely not dispositive of the issue, but a further point which Ben raised seemed noteworthy (I'll digress from the boring, pseudo-Hemingway, blow-by-blow narrative for this):

There is a view prevalent among many pious, God-fearing Christians that Christians should send their children to public schools, because the public schools present opportunities to witness to non-Christian children. Perhaps it's more nuanced than that, and the contention is more that public school stands as a viable option among the various methods of schooling, and it has this (i.e., its "mission field"-quality) to recommend it. Either way, the public school classroom, hallway, playground, locker-room, and cafeteria comprise a battleground where devoted and sincere junior culture-warriors can reach people with the Gospel and win souls for Christ. So the line goes. When I make a snarky synopsis of it without attempting to appear unbiased.

Negatively, the argument sometimes runs that homeschooling's isolated character deprives children (and, presumably, the Holy Spirit(?)) of the opportunity to win souls for Christ. Instead, they end up "sheltered" (I've been holding back on mocking words and phrases with quotation marks, but there's no stopping them here), which -- it is usually implied -- is a terrible fate, as evidenced by the fact that, later in life, an entire category of humor and conversation based on pop-culture will be closed to them. As an aside, it is interesting to note that people who use the term "sheltered" as an epithet seem to assume that shelter is undesirable. (And here I was thinking that it was necessary for , along with food and water. Think metaphorically as you read on.) Anyway, a similar criticism of private, Christian-schooling states that students will live in the same sort of Christian greenhouse, wherein their faith will not be properly tested, and thus will not grow, and they will -- like their slightly more backwards compatriots, the homeschoolers -- have no opportunity to evangelize the lost. Also, they might become part of a banal, clique-ish and highly obnoxious Christianized pop-culture which equals "true" pop-culture in absurdity and surpasses it in tastelessness. (This last objection, not usually stated thus, has a lot of merit, but does not in itself constitute a reason to send one's children to public school, but only a reason not to send your children to a large, Christian school of this particular type. More on that later...perhaps.) The message is the same, and at times it is couched in the broader argument first mentioned: Christians not only can, but should, send their children to public school so they can evangelize the lost.

This all sounds very noble, in a certain sense. But there are more than a few problems with this perspective. A great many, in fact. A host. A multitude. Men with far greater minds than I have written and show no sign of ceasing to write books on the topic, if one can even call the question of "How now shall we [Christians] then live [in the world]?" a discrete "topic." Yet one problem in particular concerned my friend and I as we hashed things out, and this time it was I who possessed experiential knowledge, I am sad to say. But before I delve into things, let me issue a few caveats in order to preempt certain comments which would be par for the course in this sort of discussion (to which I am no stranger). That is assuming that comments are, in fact, forthcoming, which is, I know, a bold assumption.

  • Caveat 1: What follows is not a categorical statement of what happens to all Christian students who go to public school.
  • Caveat 2: Obversely, what follows is not written in ignorance of the fact that there are a million-and-one ways to get messed up as a homeschooler and a private schooler, as well. People are creative.
  • Caveat 3: "Public school" is not monolithic. There is some variety among public schools. Likewise, there is a degree of commonality among them. I don't propose to go into that here.
  • Caveat 4: My own experience with public school come from four years in public high school. Since this is the case, my generalizations might be tinged. I am sure that there is some variety among public elementary and middle schools. Likewise, there is a degree of commonality between them and public high schools. I don't propose to go into that here.
Savvy? Good. Then we're all agreed. The government should return to the gold standard.

Parents who send their children, often as young as five years old, to public schools must have either a serious ignorance of the type of formation their children will receive there, or a supreme confidence in their children's ability not only to withstand the onslaught of secular doctrine, but shrewdly and ably parry its thrusts and launch a counteroffensive for the Gospel, to boot. I suspect that such parents usually possess a combination of these two perspectives: ignorance, and/or ebullient optimism. I can think of a third thing that parents could perhaps have which might warrant them making their children wards of the State: some kind of desperation, analogous to a medical emergency which warrants state-subsidized health care. Other than these three things (ignorance, optimism, or desperation), I don't know what would suffice to explain, let alone justify, Christian parents' decision to send their children to public school.

It is my belief that there is usually no good reason for Christians to send their children to public schools. That is my contention which I am prepared to defend in the comments, the general makeup of which I can all but predict already. In any case, it is general. It is the statement of a rule, if you will, for which there are exceptions. I will not argue against exceptions; I will argue for the rule -- please mind the distinction between the two.

To send one's children to public school is to send them to government school. "Public school" sounds nicer, because the word "public" makes you think of a park, or the fountain at the library where you toss pennies. "Government school" makes you think of the USSR, bureaucracy, and -- not without warrant -- prison. So there's a clear organizational problem, to say nothing else. Today's public school system is a typical socialist enterprise replete with all of the problems which that sort of thing usually entails. I'm not interested in writing about this, though, because it's boring, and not really as important as the other dimensions of the problem.

To send one's children to public school is essentially to outsource parenting to people whom you have little reason to trust, and ample reason to distrust. Might there be a situation in which one might need to "outsource" parenting? Sure. They might arise (probably less frequently than moderns are wont to assume). In such a situation, however, the advice of Martin Luther, found in his excellent exposition of the Fourth Commandment in his Large Catechism is apposite:

"For all authority flows and is propagated from the authority of parents. For where a father is unable alone to educate his child, he employs a schoolmaster to instruct him; if he be too weak, he enlists the aid of his friends and neighbors."

The implication seems to be that this cooperative effort occurs on a small scale, on an ad hoc basis, and in extenuating circumstances. The rule which Luther speaks to, as did others in his day, is one in which parents raise (i.e., educate) their children. I can assure you that the history of the transformation of default cultural assumptions here is peculiar indeed, to say the least and to put things neutrally. Suffice it to say, however, today, instead of "friends and neighbors," children learn from government employees with whom the parents have no prior relationship, teaching a curriculum which secular "experts" have determined is beneficial. No?

Why the erasure of the dichotomy between the "raising" and "education" of children in the foregoing paragraph? I want to be cheeky here and say, "Why not?" because I really don't believe that the onus is on me to say. It's patently obvious that a father, in sending his child to the proverbial "schoolmaster," relinquishes a significant proportion of the task of raising his child to "the schoolmaster." I think it's fair to say that the proportion varies from "some" to "most." Most kids who go to public school spend most of their time with professional educators, not with their parents. I'm just saying it. There may be a good reason for it, in some cases, but to stick with my rule, I'm going to say that in most cases, there is not. 

Some Christian parents seem unconcerned that their children spend a disproportionately greater amount of time with non-Christian strangers than with them, their actual parents, raising the paltry "quality versus quantity" distinction. It is in light of the current discussion that I begin to grow cynical about the phrase "quality time," as it sounds a little like protesting too much when faced with the evidence that one is not, in fact, raising one's own children.

I won't waste any further commentary on those parents that fall into the "ignorant" category. If it's a simple problem of ignorance, it could be fixed easily enough. If this is you, shoot me an email, and we'll talk. We can get that fixed right away; I guarantee it. It's the "ebullient optimist" category that really baffles me. The father who thinks that his job of raising his child in the fear and love of the Lord has been completed to some point of sufficiency, such that his child can stride forward in unshakable faith and cast down the high places in the public school academic and social scene, and "reach people for Christ" (the dam burst; there go the quotation marks) -- such a man astonishes me. The root of this kind of optimism is a worse kind of ignorance, to say the least. There are some deeply flawed theological and psychological presuppositions pursuant to such a perspective.

One (largely theological), is that the average elementary, middle, or high school-age child (not that any parent would ever admit to their child being average) has the sort of consistent, sufficiently formed worldview which they would need for such a foray. Such a child must already be alive to all the subtle ways and means through which falsehood is substituted for truth in a public school environment. Understandably, none of them are. Instead, they are all possessed of something which makes their judgment tenuous at best: original sin -- the same thing that makes all of our judgment tenuous at best. Children, however, have a volatile combination of original sin and naivete. Yet this certain class of parents convince themselves that their progeny are firm enough in the faith once passed down to the saints (or started in Toronto) to go around evangelizing their peers.

Does it ever occur to these parents that their peers are evangelizing back, and that their task is far easier, their message more vociferous? The task of the latter is akin to pulling someone into a river; the task of Christian students in such a context is to pull someone out. We all know which one is easier, especially if the person on the shore, deep down inside, has always kind of wanted to jump in anyway. Notably, the teachers are on the side of the peers, as far as their disposition towards faith and morals goes. At best they are neutral. By law.

The argument would have to run that once a child has shown evidence of being "saved", he's at no risk of falling or being wounded, and no longer needs parenting, per se, but rather just education and social opportunities. It is also assumed that in the latter category, potential friends have everything to gain by becoming acquainted with Junior, while Junior has nothing to lose. He will edify them, but they won't influence him for the worse. It's a one way street, supposedly.

So, by these lights, Junior's on a mission, with clear vision and singular focus. He's between the ages of five and eighteen, and he's read, marked, learned and inwardly digested life lessons from his parents in the five years of boot-camp he had before heading off to the culture wars in Kindergarten. After that, he had weekly refreshers in Sunday School, and sometimes in the evening before he went to bed. But he spends at least six hours a day, one-hundred-fifty days a year, fighting the good fight in the Temple of Moloch, and things are going swimmingly. People are getting saved all over the school due to his bold and compelling witness of the Gospel.

I am, of course, being intentionally satirical. This is not what all that happens (it usually isn't what happens at all) when a Christian student goes to a public school. They hear things, see things, learn things, and come to know things, which, even if they intellectually reject, they will never forget. They may do things which, even though they repent of them, are wholly devastating in their mental, emotional, physical and or spiritual consequences. Why? Because Christians are at once saved and sinners. They sin. They fall.

So is it worth it? Who knows. I don't think so. This certainly begs other, far deeper questions which I am sure further dialog would elicit, notably, whether or not the Christian must live in anxiety on behalf of all the souls he could have reached but didn't, as if somehow his inaction limited God's ability to save them, or deprived them of essential opportunities to come to faith. But more importantly, it begs the question of what direction the Church is headed when Christians engage in this practice of outsourced parenting. Is family just training for "real life," which is lived elsewhere? Is the home just a dormitory or some sort of base? Or are family and the home properly the wellsprings of life and the loci of culture? This certainly begs these and other questions. But for now, I'd welcome thoughts on the matter at hand: is the positive argument for Christians sending their children to public school a compelling one, and does it accord with God's Word or plain reason?

I say no, and no.