Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Why we chose public schools

My wife and I (more my wife) have been asked often why we chose to send our kids to the public schools. Below are some of the reasons we opted for the public option. We believe it was the right choice for our kids given our specific location. We would certainly reconsider if things changed dramatically in the schools our kids attend, if we didn't think it was safe, if our kids needs weren't being met, if we were overseas, etc. We completely understand why some believe Christian schools and homeschooling are better options for their kids. We see the benefits (and drawbacks) to all of the options, including the public school option. Both Lynn and I have experience in Christian schools: me in grades K-6 (awful experience), and Lynn in grades 7-12 (great experience). I want to make that clear because the conversation can be heated (in some circles parents who send their kids to public schools are 'sinning'; in other circles, homeschoolers and those who opt for Christian schools are said to be shirking their responsibility to be salt and light).

Anyway, this post could die the death of a thousand qualifications. Here's why we are sending our kids public schools:

1. The public schools can teach my kids better than I can. In essence, this is the reason we didn't consider homeschooling. Could I teach them English. No. Could I teach them Spanish. Not on your life. Could I teach them Macro Economics. Not really. I know I couldn't have gotten that from my mom and dad either. They're bright people, as are Lynn and I, but not experts in every field. I know there are great resources out there, but I know my kids too. They have fantastic questions. Caleb stumps me regularly on Bible/Theology - topics I have some expertise in. He'd definitely stump me on any of those topics I'm not an expert in, and I believe that would stunt his educational development.

Some argue that kids in the public school are just taught to memorize and regurgitate facts. First, I don't see it. Not in my kids education so far (early on, to be sure). Second, I don't see that as a bad thing. Knowing facts is incredibly important - something we've neglected in recent 'discussion based' learning methods. Stephen Prothero writes, "when I finished graduate school and became a professor myself, I told students that I didn't care abut facts. I cared about having challenging conversations, and I offered my quiz-free classrooms as a place to do just that. I soon found, however, that the challenging conversations I coveted were not possible without some common knowledge - common knowledge my students plainly lacked." Prothero traces the problem, the lack of common knowledge, back to "John Dewey and other Progressive-era educational reformers, who gave up in the early twentieth century on content-based learning in favor of a skill based strategy that scorned 'the piling of of information.'" (Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't).

Basically, it boils down to this: I don't care if my kids learn soccer from Christians, why should I care if they learn how to do math from a Christian? This is why one of the factors that led us (me; honestly, while Lynn and I came to the same conclusion, we arrived via different paths) to choose public over Christian school. Some will argue, "Oh, but history and science are different." I understand what they're saying. Scientific data needs to be interpreted, as does history (and everything else for that matter). Will my kids be learning how to interpret science and history through a Christian lens? Not in school - but I'm ok with that. What I want them to learn in school is the necessary skills, facts, etc.

In the end, how will a Christian scientist's evaluation of a germ cell differ from nonChristians? How will a Christian historians teaching of Napoleon's exploits differ from a nonChristians? In penultimate discussions, not at all. Only at the level of 'ultimates' will there be any difference. A Christian historian will understand that behind all the historical details, God's sovereignty and providence are at work. A Christian scientist's research will leave him in awe of the complexity of life, the universe, and lead him into the worship of the Almighty. But, to get there, they will still need to know how to look through a microscope and observe things, how the Kreb cycle works (pulled that one out of my butt - I was listening all those years ago), the speed of light, the constant of gravity, etc. They'll have to know the facts of history before they can have discussions about how to interpret those facts (see Prothero above). I don't feel it's necessary for those facts and skills to be taught from a Christian perspective. In fact, arguing they should seems to beg the question, 'Is there a Christian perspective?' or 'Which Christian perspective?' More on that in point three.

2. In the public schools my kids will learn to interact with pagan culture while I still have tremendous influence on them. I won't always. I do now. I want them to see that the world we live in isn't always in agreement with our beliefs, values, etc. In fact, at times, it's quite hostile. I want them to encounter those things while I have the influence I have. Kids are impressionable. I understand that. I also understand that right now, their mom and me have the greatest influence on them. I want them to see and understand that they are 'in the world', and we'll teach them what it means to not be' of the world'. I don't want that sprung on them in college. I don't want them having to think about how to have conversations about sexuality, materialistic naturalism, etc, for the first time when they are out from under my roof. At the same time, I don't want them having to deal with it in Kindergarten either, and luckily, we haven't had to deal with that.

Moreover, I want them to learn how to take stands, even if they may be costly. Debating the merits of gay marriage or the belief in the exclusivity of Christianity in a Christian school is one thing. Doing the same in a public school where it may cost you (a letter grade, retribution from an angry teacher, friends, etc.) is quite another (I have experienced it). It may seem rather Spartan, but I want my boys to learn that being a Christian can be a costly affair and will take courage, commitment, and a good deal of faith. And I want them to learn it while I'm by their side.

3. The public schools don't teach Bible or theology. What?! Yep - that's a plus in my book. I may sound like the oddball, but I got the worlds most credentialed fundamentalist on my side - J. Gresham Machen. I'm learning more about Machen recently, and I admire him (though he scares me too. He was such a libertarian, he was against traffic signals!). Machen, a great champion of Orthodoxy, founder of the OPC and Westminster Seminary, was against reading the Bible and praying in the public schools. He believed public schools should be limited to teaching to the "impartation of knowledge". He didn't even want the schools teaching values/morals except where practically necessary. That was the duty of the family and, secondarily, the church. He advocated dismissing the children, with parents consent, for an hour of the day to receive religious instruction (catechesis along denominational lines, if I understand him correctly).

I am happy that the public schools don't teach the Bible and don't pray. Do I really want my kids learning the Bible or learning how to pray from people who might not believe it? Or who's theological commitments might be dramatically different than my own?

In fact, that concern spills over to the Christian schools (I hinted at it above). Most Christian schools are broadly evangelical. Here in Bloomington there is not a Presbyterian school, a Reformed School, a Lutheran School, etc. There are two broadly evangelical schools (that I know of). I want to emphasize the word broad. Until recently I knew nothing of Lighthouse Christian. After researching them I have a lot of respect for their approach to education and integration of the faith. However, their website announces that they draw from 37 area churches. On one hand, that unity and ecumenical spirit excites me. On the other hand, I'd be very hesitant to send my kids to some of the Sunday schools of some of the local churches in Bloomington.

I know I run the risk of sounding like a religious snob (understatement is a gift of mine), but I don't want people I don't know teaching my kids how to interpret the Bible or how to think about God. It's too important. Same thing for prayer. Nor do I want teachers in a school teaching my kids 'the Christian view' of _____________.

Again, I want my kids to think about, learn, and know the Bible, a Christian worldview, etc. But my kids are so precious to me, and these things are so important, I don't want to entrust that responsibility even to Christian school teacher. It's my job - mine and Lynn's.

In addition, I don't want Christianity/Bible taught as an add on, but as a whole way of viewing the world. From my experience, that's how it was taught in the Christian school I went to. We had math class, spent time doing science and history, then Bible class and chapel a couple of times a week. The Bible become just another subject to learn. It wasn't integrated. (Thankfully, many schools do a better job at that than what I experienced).

4. Public Schools are good for society, hence worthy of my support. I want to live in a society where kids, rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged, Christian and nonChristian have access to educational opportunities. Public schools are good for society. If so, I should support them (I could cite biblical precedent, but I won't. Ok, yes I will - see Jeremiah 29:4-7). I support them with my taxes. Don't have a choice there. In addition, I choose to support them with my prayers, my involvement, and the salt and light of my kids too.

5. Not because I'm shirking my parental right/authority, but because I take it seriously. I grant that many people pick public schools because it's cheaper than private Christian schools and easier than homeschooling. That's not why we've done it. In a way, I feel like we are homeschooling - teaching our kids what's most important, teaching them how to integrate what knowledge they learn at school into a fully Christian worldview (they don't even know that's what we're doing; not yet). It's not easy now. It will get harder. We know that. We aren't trying to shirk our duties as parents. We take it seriously, so seriously we're willing to do the job of teaching our kids Bible and theology, not passing that job on to a Christian school teacher. We're taking it seriously enough to embrace the harder job of teaching our kids how to engage a culture, how to discern biblical patterns of thought from nonbiblical.

Please, don't read this as saying that others who send their kids to private schools or homeschool are shirking their duties. I am simply trying to express that we didn't choose the public option because we thought it would be cheaper and easier. We take our job seriously, understanding that we can and should do better.

I know many will disagree with our reasoning. I respect that. I may disagree with yours, please respect that. Let's choose respect rather than jugementalism and honor Christian freedom rather than become legalistic and pray for one another and our children. They do not live in an easy world and they don't always have the best, wisest parent. God help them.

3 comments:

Lisa Joy said...

Thanks for this! For a long time, before we even had kids, we were seriously considering homeschooling. But now that our currently only child is approaching school age and our family is different than we had planned, we've been thinking much more about the merits of (good) public schooling.

Pam and Bob Phillips said...

What a great statement that approaches the issue thoughtfully addressing each concern. Your concluding paragraph is particularly compelling. Katy shared it with us. Thanks for writing this.

Candice said...

Hi Dan! I really love this post. Andrew and I have discussed the merits of homeschooling/public and private schooling and I love to hear all kinds of opinions from Christian people (who have great kids, btw)! One of the best things about the Church is the wisdom and help we can give one another, and I know this will spark and interesting discussion later when I have Andrew read it. We, of course, have quite a few years before any of our kids will be getting near any type of school, but its good to start thinking about it sooner rather than later, I suppose! :)

Thanks Dan!