Thursday, June 26, 2014

A mishmash of thoughts on schools and education

After sharing a link to an article about public schools on Facebook fairly recently, a few of the commenters asked for me to elaborate on my thoughts on the matter (in a blog post, no less). So—risking the ire of nearly everyone, especially those who have committed themselves strongly to one particular school choice—here I go.

Some background

I grew up in a private school; it was NOT a Christian school, but was, I later learned, a “white flight” school. (I should point out that, while I was there, the tide began to change; that school has, in the last 25 or so years, completely repudiated its white flight roots.) I went there from first through 12th grade, and for a while it was the only real frame of reference that I had.

When I was a Young Life leader, I found myself on campuses in another part of my hometown that were in many ways the polar opposite of my own experience; attending the large state university in my town also enriched my understanding of differing views on school cultures. As I worked as a youth minister in a couple of churches, my exposure to different school models and cultures broadened further.

While in seminary, I taught at a small Christian classical school. There I encountered students with a variety of backgrounds, and came to be intimately acquainted with a form of private school I previously never knew could have existed. Over the course of my first 15 or so years in ministry, I have known students and parents that were in just about every conceivable form of schooling: homeschooling (independent); homeschooling (via a network); small private Christian schools, and large ones; small public schools, and large ones; private non-religious schools, montessori schools, Charlotte Mason schools, magnet schools, charter schools. 

With our children, we have homeschooled, had them in private Christian schools, and had them in public schools. We’ve had the experiences of having children in a public school where the administration celebrated when a grade level reached the 35th percentile, and in a public school that was a nationally-recognized blue ribbon school. We’ve dealt with learning disabilities and with advanced learners. 

I’ve considered schools as a teacher, a youth minister, a pastor, a parent, and as a student myself of course. I was even asked once to write an article for our denominational magazine about schools and schooling options. I’m not claiming to be an expert by any means; but I do think I’ve been around the block on this question at least once or twice.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking

As a brief pastoral aside: in the many occasions that I have had (over more than 20 years of ministry) to counsel those who were struggling, a couple of predominant themes have emerged as prevailing struggles, at least in the generally white, middle-class contexts that I have ministered. One of those is “all-or-nothing” or “black and white” thinking, where everything is seen in an extremely binary form: it is either this or that. It is one thing or it is another. There is no “gray area” in between, no possibility for a third way, and no “and”—it is either/or.

I believe this is a problem with schools and education as well as countless other things. Most of us have reached a point where we are unable to accept the possibility that we might be overly binary in our thinking about schools.

I’ve heard this from the pro-Christian school side: anything other than “Christian” education is a forfeiting of our children’s very souls. I’ve heard this from homeschooling folk: we dare not cede our children’s education even to other adults. And I’ve heard it from public school advocates: how arrogant to think that a parent (or even an unaccredited teacher) could teach as well as a trained, board-certified teacher.

I don’t think every person in any of those “camps” thinks this way, but it does seem like the loudest voices on every side will eventually put forth something like the above. And I would say to them the same that I tell my congregants: it is rarely ever so simple as that.

The Complexity of It

The truth is that there is no one right way to educate our children—and there is no definitively wrong way, either. There are problems with every system. There are obstacles in every family. There are challenges for every child. And what works with one child might not work for another, even within the same family.

One wise friend, who has spent his life teaching and leading in Christian schools, and who received a PhD in education from a secular university, told me point-blank: there is no such thing as a public school that does not have a decidedly anti-Christian worldview at its core. There is at least a secularist and atheistic foundation in all of the curricula, all of the teaching methods—if not an outright anti-theistic bent to them all. Thus, he concluded, Christian parents shouldn't in good conscience submit their children to something that is going to undermine all of their discipleship at home.

I countered: what if my alternative is the Christian academy which pushes every child toward academic excellence and achievement, to the point that the only students that are seen to “succeed” in their midst are those that are admitted to the most prestigious universities? Is that worldview one that is preferable to the secular one? Which of those is easier, so to speak, to supplement with training and discipleship in the home—the one that is primarily intellectual, or the one that is character-shaping? I don’t think there is a simple answer to that question. (He didn’t have one either, and granted my point.)

Other conversations have explored other challenges within the Christian school movement: a Zionist nationalism that equates Christianity with a quasi-idolatry of our country, which is present in so many schools; the almost-universal neglect of accommodation of anyone with special needs; the tendency for cliques to arise and social strife, even bullying, to go unchecked because, after all, these are “Christian” kids; the high tuition costs that effectively eliminate most of those below upper-middle class socio-economic status; the way that many of these schools present Christianity as an “add-on,” just one more subject to be studied, rather than something that shapes all of life.

Not that pubic schools are off the hook: there is the extraordinary inefficiency and financial waste (if not outright corruption) in the administrative systems; an inconsistency from school to school, and even from teacher to teacher, in the quality of education offered; the often-troubling tendency of school officials to assume how they know better than parents; the struggle to undertake the teaching of a student who is advanced in one or more subjects without leaving them bored; the “canned” quality of the education that may well strip children of whatever love of learning you have been able to instill in them; and the aforementioned issues of a secularism and, yes, occasionally (though not, in my experience, universally) anti-Christian thinking.

And then there is homeschooling: if you can get past the economic challenges (which many, frankly, cannot) of buying all of the curricula AND having a parent at home full-time to teach; if the personality clashes of children with one another and/or with their parents are not damaging to those relationships; if your kids are introverted enough to be able to spend most of their school time with just their own family; and if your own education was sufficient, and your capacity to teach others in subjects you may barely remember is adequate; well, then homeschooling might be a good alternative for you.

Every System Has Its Successes and Failures

As I mentioned, I’ve seen just about every kind of schooling option that can be envisioned, and I have seen where every system has had amazing successes. And I’ve seen students that have been failed by their system—in every type—as well.

Sure, I’ve seen homeschooled kids that were exceptionally well-taught, who are socially adept with both adults and children of all ages, and who have been wonderfully prepared for life with a strong faith, a love of learning, and cultural enrichment. And I’ve seen homeschooled students that would not have passed placement tests two grades below their age group, who are socially awkward, or who have become jaded toward the faith their parents pressed on them; or all of the above, in at least one case.

I have seen Christian school kids who I was simply proud to know, who were models that I wanted my own kids to grow up to be like; and I’ve seen those that were arrogant brats, elitist snobs, and/or wash-outs who burned out in 10th grade—or, in other cases, who never learned to apply themselves. I have known public school kids that were high-achieving, despite the poverty of their system, and those that were illiterate graduates; I’ve known ones whose faith was more mature than any other kid in the youth group, and those who were easily wooed by worldliness (both of those from the same family, in one case); and I’ve known public schoolers that were lifelong learners and always fascinated by new things, and those who learned from their school teachers not to bother caring.

One of my dear friends, who is a head of school at a Christian school, has told me many times: it ultimately comes down to the parents and the kids. The system is not irrelevant, but it almost is.

Important Considerations

With all of that said, I think there are some things that all Christians need to consider and take into account, whatever the system that they find themselves in:

  • Every system’s weaknesses demand that, as parents (AND as the church as a whole, since we vow to share in the nurture of children when we baptize them—or when we “christen” them, if our tradition doesn’t baptize infants), we must be diligent in attending to the weaknesses of our chosen system. We have to face the reality of questions like: what is my child hearing, seeing, or intuiting from their peers, teachers, and others in the school that they attend? Are their classmates bullies? Do their friends pressure them toward drinking, drugs, or sexual immorality (yes, these are present in every kind of school)? How am I actively engaging in the discipleship of my child so that they are taught grace, truth, and a faith that can withstand the trials of life?
  • Private schools and homeschooling is a privilege, generally speaking, of the wealthier members of our society. There are plenty of people who simply cannot do either because of economic reasons alone. Even if we choose one of these, we must reckon with questions like: What would Jesus’ claim of the Kingdom bringing hope for the poor and the outcast have to do with our local school systems? Am I inadvertently committing to, and investing in, a system that entrenches the socio-economic divisions in our culture? Is the way that I speak of public schools directly or indirectly stripping the dignity of my brother or sister in Christ who cannot afford anything but public schools? Is there an issue of “doing justice and loving kindness” (Micah 6:8) involved in the issue of school choice?
  • Parents of children with special needs, such as autism and Asperger Syndrome, are almost always left without options when it comes to Christian schools and homeschooling. We should be asking: is there a way for the church to address this inequality? Could we include programs and systems for these kinds of needs in our Christian school and homeschool structures? How can we serve our fellow Christians in their children’s education, particularly when their children present the particular challenges that these needs do?
  • In many cases those outside of the church only understand Christian schools and homeschooling as a decided and intentional self-segregation from the rest of the community, regardless of the reasons for doing either. While our faith is counter-cultural (it already is, without pulling out of society) and we must obey God’s commands to raise up our children in the covenant, this must be an important consideration for every Christian family. We must ask: how am I teaching my children to love their neighbor, and even their enemy, when I pull them out of a school solely because of disagreements—even core theological ones? Am I providing them with contexts where they can love and serve those around them, especially those who aren’t fellow Christians? How am I, and how is my family, extending care and hospitality to fellow citizens whose children attend public schools (or Christian schools, or are homeschooled)?
  • It is too easy—partly because we have all bought into the cultural lie that tells us so—to believe that our children’s education is what matters the most. But it isn’t; if God has saved them, nothing can take them out of his hand. Not even an anti-Christian worldview, whether it is taught by a secularist public school or an elitist Christian school or homeschool association. We must confront ourselves, and one another, with questions such as: have I bowed before the idol of education? Do I believe that God can, and does, sustain the faith of his children in spite of intellectual or social challenges? WHY do I believe that an educational model is so vital to their spiritual well-being? 

“Final" Words

We have changed our children’s educational structure almost every year that we have had children to educate. We’re changing again in the coming year. So obviously I don’t think I have the “final” word on it! 

These are hard choices for every parent. It’s hard enough without someone else imposing a legalistic “either/or” simple answer on me—or on you. My great hope in posting this is simply these two points: that you will recognize that the decision is far more complex than soundbite-theologians would have you believe; and that you would feel free to take your decision for yourself, and not allow someone else’s choices to dictate what you must perceive as a “right” or “wrong” decision.