After seven years of public schooling, my son is now being schooled at home. His reluctant parents made this decision with great difficulty. I want to explain why we did it, but not because I am trying to convince anyone else to do the same. I am in no position (or mood) to tell anyone else what to do. I am writing this instead as one Christian parent’s testimony. More and more, public schools are confronting Christians with difficult choices; what follows is my recounting of the pressures that inspired us to make the move.
A Clash of World Views
As have many others before me, I have felt a growing tension between my Christian world view and the direction my culture is going. Francis Schaeffer said that we are living in a “post-Christian” era; this is becoming more obvious with every passing year. This tension is particularly acute in the public schools; I am painfully aware that most educators look at the world very differently than I do.
Don’t misunderstand; my complaint is not that I am a Christian and most of the people in public education are not. I am not an isolationist; I think it is healthy for children to be exposed to different points of view. I don’t expect public school to promote Christianity. Public education must be essentially pluralistic. Christians can believe in absolute truth without wanting government to enforce a particular religion or philosophy.
Furthermore, I don’t believe in some sort of humanist conspiracy to brainwash my children away from me and my values. Actually I should qualify that; there certainly are those in education who have an agenda for my children very different than mine. If the positions taken by the National Education Association are any indication, some educators are trying to do an end-run around parents with convictions like mine. And on an individual level I know that some teachers do have an agenda; they are consciously out to override, if they can, my influence on my children’s thinking. There are new-age teachers who are trying to convince children that we are all God; there are gay teachers who want to convince children that sexual orientation is a morally neutral issue; there are atheistic teachers who want to convince children that all religion is unscientific superstition. They don’t just disagree with me; they see me as an obstacle to be gotten around. However, I don’t believe the majority of teachers are like this; most of the teachers my son has had have been very conscientious, and they try to be as objective as they can be concerning controversial issues.
So what is the problem? Let me be blunt: in spite of, and sometimes because of, teachers’ efforts to be “objective,” I see the public schools producing a generation of moral dunderheads. I don’t ask that schools promote every value that I believe in, but they should be teaching children to think deeply about the issues of life. Atheists can still understand what the great questions of life are, and can help children to understand the issues involved, even if they themselves have not come to sound conclusions. Even when I was an unbeliever, I understood that the answers to these questions MATTERED; either God was there or He wasn’t. Either there is one basis for morality, or another, or none. These questions preoccupied me, and I learned a lot from both believers and unbelievers as I struggled to make sense of it all. I can’t complain that teachers don’t agree with me on the answers to the questions; but many don’t even seem to see the questions.
Fewer and fewer people in our culture seem to have any philosophical understanding or curiosity. Most of us seem to believe that the only real evil is to limit someone’s personal freedom. Freedom—this is the absolute; this is the reality which is self-evident to our culture. Death is bad, because it is the ultimate intrusion on my freedom of action; intolerance is bad, because it presumes to evaluate the free choices of others. All other questions—questions of ultimate truth, value, morality, religion—are seen as matters of personal choice; just grab a philosophy and season to taste.
This comes through loud and clear in the schools; I can tell from how my son’s thinking has developed over time. School walks gingerly through topics like sexual morality, religion, and the ultimate meaning of life. After all, we have a separation of church and state; we mustn’t promote one point of view over another. Meanwhile, day in and day out, the kids are unambiguously exhorted to celebrate diversity, save the planet, and guard against unwanted pregnancy and AIDS. They can’t help but get the message: most questions which religion deals with are personal, relative, and irrelevant. Freedom and tolerance are so obviously valuable that they need no defense; religion is so obviously “personal” and “subjective” that it is of no practical value. Children are getting the picture that if a women sleeps around, gets pregnant, has an abortion, and then becomes a lesbian, she has made a personal lifestyle choice; if she drinks from a styrofoam cup, she has done something morally wrong. Nobody has said this out loud, but what teachers don’t say speaks just as loudly as what they do say.
To many people in our culture—to many teachers in the public schools—it is self-evident that intolerance is bad, and that everything else is up for grabs. But the self-evident is often the unexamined. Thus well-meaning teachers end up doing their students a disservice. Just at the time when children’s minds ought to be stimulated and challenged concerning the central issues of human existence, their teachers are fostering an intellectual and moral stupor.
What is an Education?
I like the picture of education that Mortimer Adler presented in his Paideia Proposal. Education ought to do three things: 1) impart a broad range of knowledge, 2) teach a diverse range of intellectual skills, and 3) foster a profound understanding of ideas and values. In actuality, public education doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job with any of this. The educational experience is being carved up by too many competing forces:
• Some see the goal of education as producing skilled labor for our work-force; we’ve got to keep up with the Japanese.
• Others see public schools as the ideal place to do a bit of social engineering. Pollution, sexually transmitted diseases, intolerance—these evils can be nipped in the bud if we only “educate” children soon enough.
• Others have recognized, rightly enough, that more and more children have been cut adrift by their parents. Teachers are becoming less like educators and more like surrogate moms and dads. Even the best teachers are forced to spend more and more time dealing with unruly, disrespectful kids. Teaching becomes, by necessity, a luxury which happens between crises, especially as class sizes grow.
And so on. I don’t blame the teachers; I respect them immensely. But I can’t come to any other conclusion: the kind of education I would like my children to receive is becoming an impossible dream in the public schools as I know them.
At first my wife and I thought to “supplement” what we felt to be lacking in our son’s school experience. But that is very difficult to do. School takes up a big chunk of a kid’s time, and homework takes hours more. I’m sure many parents have felt the same frustration we felt. At the same time that schools say “we need the parents’ help,” the hard facts of time management make it very difficult to be much involved with a kid’s education. And frankly, a lot of the homework seemed like busy-work to us. It was incredibly frustrating to feel that our opportunities to interact with our son were losing out to dumb, make-work assignments.
The Family Factor
Ultimately, it seemed to us that the school system was taking something valuable away from us. I suspect that children need to be more closely involved with their parents than usually happens in our culture. Now, I absolutely believe that my job is to lead my child to greater and greater independence; I don’t want to pathetically cling to my children, desperately trying to keep them dependent on me. But children build that independence on the foundation of strong parental involvement and support. Already modern life has removed many opportunities for children to work alongside their parents, to learn what we know and what we believe. Our society believes that modern life is so complicated that it requires specialists to teach our children what they need to know. But by handing our children to the specialists, we have reduced our own role in their lives at a time when they still greatly need us.
All parents have to decide for themselves where the balance is in all this; we came to feel that something really good could result if we kept our son at home. Already I can see the truth in that; he and I have had many more opportunities for important conversations than we ever did when he was in school; there just wasn’t time.
In the end, the problems I have discussed seemed to require us to do something. School was filling my son’s head with a bogus world view; it was taking a huge chunk of his time and giving him a poor education in return; it was taking from us some of our best opportunities to be a family. Those are the problems as we saw them; home schooling seemed like a good solution—difficult, but well worth trying.
Can we do the job? I think so; I hope so; we are certainly going to try.