On public education, “exit strategies,” and Christian isolationism

As mentioned on previous occasions, I am an education major, and even were that not my professed career choice, I would still have a great interest in the subject. Education, now more than ever, is a vital part of living in a world where information abounds, as does misinformation, and so our up-and-coming children must be prepared to live in such a world by knowing sound principles of reasoning and discernment. In some ways, the task of educating has grown more difficult; in others, much easier. Technology is both a blessing and a curse, and cultural changes pose new difficulties, although children are largely the same as they’ve always been. (As Topper Steinman says, “Kids are who they are; they know what they know; they bring what they bring.”)

What is always curious to me, though, is the underlying theme of one significant change to education in the past thirty years: parental interactions with teachers. Parents no longer work with teachers, trusting in their shared goal of making the child/student into a well-adjusted member of society, but instead work largely against teachers, fighting tooth and nail to get resources for their child, even to the detriment of other students. (This is stated most humorously and cogently in the book How to Handle Difficult Parents: A Teacher’s Survival Guide.) In many ways, unfortunately, Christians seem to exemplify much of what (in my opinion) is wrong with the thinking of parents today.

As a case in point, I was perusing my RSS feeds and came upon an article by Tim Challies called Public Schooling and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies. Now, I must come clean right up front that my interest in Challies is not always positive (I’ve argued against him here and to a degree here), as he and I seem to diverge on a number of different topics. Still, I keep his blog on my RSS reader because it introduces me to material that I wouldn’t otherwise, and I think it’s important to be exposed to a diversity of ideas. (I’ll come back to that point later.)

In this entry, Challies references a forthcoming book by Albert Mohler where he puts forth the notion that the public school systems have devolved so far that Christians are now obliged to start looking for alternatives for their children. Mohler opines, “The breakdown of the public-school system is a national tragedy,” but says that the public schools are now so caught up in diversity that they are now trying “to force a radically secular worldview”. Challies seems to concur with this assessment, even if he disagrees to some extent with Mohler’s contention that Christians need to seek an “exit strategy” from the public school system.

As a product of the public school system, I find this idea absurd. The examples given for the “downgrade of public education” (as Challies puts it) are the reading of a story called King & King that suggests the idea of gay marriage via a fairy tale to seven-year-olds, “diversity book bags” that “teach that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ family and that all family structures are equal in value,” and support for the Day of Silence. First, this is a relatively small sample, but I’ll grant that the purpose of Mohler’s article was not to enumerate all the examples of the degradation of moral values in public schooling. Even so, the examples are not very strong, in my opinion. The controversy over “diversity book bags” (Google search) is odd, but I’ll skip it for the moment. King & King is actually somewhat related to the book bags in that the incident making the controversy was in the same school district, so it may also be the case that this is a more localized issue than is being let on.

Opposition to the Day of Silence, however, baffles me. This event, now observed annually, is not about promoting gay marriage or acceptance of homosexuality but rather about bringing awareness to discrimination and abuse that has occurred to students because of their sexual orientation. If schools support this, they are alone justified in the fact that they should want to create an atmosphere where students from any walk of life can have the right to learn without mistreatment. Why is this a bad thing or even a hallmark of diversity gone wrong?

I spoke earlier of a larger problem with parental attitudes, and here’s my theory: Parents now see education in a very capitalistic sense, where their child is a stock portfolio and they need to get the best funds into that portfolio to see the best return. (This capitalistic sense has crept into the church as well, unfortunately, but that’s a topic for another time.) Education has become so bloated in trying to fill in the gaps for children, and that is no clearer than in how teachers are obligated to act in loco parentis (“in the parent’s place”). This term itself is one of legal significance, but it seems to describe the whole situation aptly – parental involvement in education is dismally low, and so one aspect of education that parents should be undertaking, value education, is thrust upon teachers, and when teachers try to promote values that can appeal to a broad array of student backgrounds, parents can sometimes get up in arms and focus their disagreement on the school system.

Now, the idea of pulling children out of public schooling for other options sounds like parents being involved enough to care about the kind of education their children are receiving, so it’s not my contention that Mohler (and to a lesser degree Challies) is promoting this attitude. What I do think about this “exit strategy” approach is that it promotes Christian isolationism.

Yes, I’m invoking isolationism, that odd attitude the U.S. took pre-Pearl Harbor in regards to the fighting of WWII. Here, however, it’s not Humphrey Bogart suggesting, “Hey, that’s your problem; I’m staying out of it.” Instead, Christians are jumping ship at the thought of someone promoting values different than their own in a public setting. Imagine!

I have long promised myself and my wife that our children would be enrolled in public schools as long as I taught in them as a matter of personal integrity – if public schools are good enough for me to teach in, then they’re good enough for my kids to attend. (The only exception to this might be for a child with special needs, but that’s a different story.) More than that, though, exposure to different kinds of people is a valuable experience for children, and I don’t want to hide children away with little social exposure (as can happen with homeschooled children, if parents aren’t careful) or with exposure only to people that are of the same subset of society (as is sure to happen by enrolling a child in a Christian school). Public schools also tend to have more resources at their disposal for children, and they are taught by individuals with explicit experience in their fields. Parents that homeschool their children rarely have any in-depth knowledge of the topics (imagine a parent teaching cellular biology or – gasp! – evolution without any extensive scientific background), and teachers in private schools are not even held to the standards that public school educators are held to (including a minimal number of course hours in their content area and a teaching certificate).

So as much as I admire the idea of “pulling out the troops” (to continue Mohler’s military analogy) as a way of parents taking control of what their children learn, why not simply be more involved? If parents are worried about being taught “subversive values” about family structure or homosexuality, why not just reinforce the values you should have been instilling in your kids the whole time and trust in that (cf. Proverbs 22:6)? Stop playing the cultural victim and just do what you should be doing anyway: parenting.

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5 Responses to On public education, “exit strategies,” and Christian isolationism

  1. tomgfam says:

    You ask,

    Opposition to the Day of Silence, however, baffles me. This event, now observed annually, is not about promoting gay marriage or acceptance of homosexuality but rather about bringing awareness to discrimination and abuse that has occurred to students because of their sexual orientation. If schools support this, they are alone justified in the fact that they should want to create an atmosphere where students from any walk of life can have the right to learn without mistreatment. Why is this a bad thing or even a hallmark of diversity gone wrong?

    If that’s all that happens in the Day of Silence I might agree. I doubt that it is, though. I’d be interested to see the facts, in case I’m wrong, but I envision it like this: “Why do we harass these students when there’s nothing wrong with what they are doing or what they want to do? Why do we treat them as second-class when homosexuality is just as good as any other lifestyle?” That’s wrong, Biblically, and I have a strong hunch it’s happening.

    I have another concern with it as part of the general sexualizing of society, but that’s a separate issue that I haven’t thought through well enough.

    And I’m a little confused as to how much you want parents involved. You seem very concerned about their being over-involved at school, but at the end you seem to be in favor of it. Maybe I’m not understanding well enough…

  2. Brody says:

    Regarding the Day of Silence: My statement was largely about schools’ support of it. As far as I can tell, it’s a student-led activity, so it would be no different than having a club like GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) for students. I don’t think schools would even have a legal right to deny students the ability to have such a club, anyway.

    I’m also not sure what relevance the “general sexualizing of society” might have on what I’ve posted, except maybe the possible implications of reading King & King to seven-year-olds. To that, I would say that it no more “sexualizes” young children than reading a fairy tale about male and female characters getting married. If a child asked a teacher after reading K&K about the two characters having sex on their honeymoon, then the teacher should hopefully handle it tactfully just as if it were a heterosexual marriage. It really doesn’t change the situation substantially except that perhaps more circumspection should be used because of the sensitivity of the subject.

    I’ll clarify my position on parent involvement: It is, on the whole, a good thing. When I become a teacher, I will welcome parents calling, visiting, and E-mailing me (within reason, of course). The problem is when parents make demands and desire their child to receive the focus of your attention to the detriment of other students (hence part of the reason for my stock portfolio metaphor – gains and losses). You might not think that it happens, but it does. I think that whatever options parents choose – public, private, or home school – they should be involved in knowing exactly what their child is learning. If more parents did that, we’d have a lot better quality of work coming from students, I can almost guarantee it.

    [P.S. Thanks for the comment.]

  3. Kim says:

    “…if public schools are good enough for me to teach in, then they’re good enough for my kids to attend.”

    As a Christian, a former Christian school teacher and now as a public school teacher, I agree with much of what you say. However, it is not as cut and dried as your post might lead one to believe. It is not a case of public schools in general being “good enough” or private schools for that matter. I taught in a high performing school in a high socio-economic area with kids from middle class families with “good values” but I would no sooner allow my kid to attend that school as I would allow them to go without education at all. The teachers there were not worthy my child’s time. They were unprofessional and poor educators because the could be. No one was watchdogging them, and they could rest on high test scores. From whence did those test scores come you ask. They came most decidedly from the children who were prepared for school and had parents who were involved in their education. Sadly, they were not the result of quality instruction. Who loses in that equation? The one group that has no choices – the students.

    My dilemma is, however, would I like to have my child with me at my “low performing” school where the teaching is cutting edge, constant improvement is the goal and data analysis drives instruction yet where most students come from impoverished, painful and violent homes? I have no doubt my child would blossom under the excellent instruction provided by my colleagues but might learn many lessons from their peers on the playground that I would rather he not learn so young or even at all.

    My reason for being in the public school is not that they are “good enough” or that they are necessary for a democratic, pluralistic society to survive. Nothing so grandiose. I simply love kids, love to teach and see public schools (especially those in tough neighborhoods) as a place where I can show Jesus’ love to kids, speak hope into their lives and inspire dreams. It would be unethical of me to preach and proselytize but if a “wife can win her husband without a word” as the Scriptures say, I can be an example of Christ by the way I pursue excellence and show mercy and grace to my students.

  4. Brody says:

    Thanks for your comment, Kim; I especially appreciate where you’re coming from.

    I will admit that my comment about public schools being “good enough” for me to teach in is largely a principled statement – I’m stating that I don’t feel as though I can “settle” for public schools yet refuse to send my own kids to them. There might be reasons not to send my children to a specific public school – I mentioned a child with special needs, for instance – but no principled reason that I can see not to send them to any public school if possible (and if there were, I likely wouldn’t be getting into teaching).

    You also raise some other issues – like “teaching to the test” and top-down instruction – that are somewhat peripheral but still important. I wish I felt like I had the experience to speak on them, but I know I don’t. I will agree with your comments about that sort of educational administration being somewhat antithetical to true learning and especially to the cultivation of lifelong learners, however.

    I’m also glad you mentioned one of your last points – that even if there were a principled reason not to have children in public schools, that doesn’t mean that Christian educators should start looking for jobs in private schools. Comments to that effect were made on Tim Challies’ article, and I don’t disagree with that. I’ve spoken before that I think the primary job of teachers is moral – to teach students how to be lifelong learners, as well as how to be good people qua people and contributing members of society – and teachers can very easily do that without proselytizing.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  5. steve koepke says:

    As a public school teacher myself, I couldn’t agree more! I would only add that as a believer we are called to go into the world, not retract from it. I understand parents are to protect their children from harm, but as believers we are to temper this responsibility with another one. Namely being a powerful force for good in our community. One possible reason the public schools have taken a downward spiral is because good kids have been removed from public schools. Imagine the POSITIVE peer pressure a popular Christian kid could have in their school? Sadly, many of them are being kept home or enrolled in a school where their influence is minimal. Come on Christian parents! Remember, if the salt is removed, how will the world be savored?

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