the public school apologist

Click around a few Christian parenting websites, and before long, someone will invariably suggest that private school or home-schooling are the only biblical learning options for Christian families.

That is ridiculous, of course.

I have much respect for home-school parents, and Jim taught at a fantastic Christian school in Pittsburgh. Both can be great options for families. However, not only are those choices out of reach for many because of income and access, plenty of Christians desire to send their kids to public school. No one education model is right for every child uniquely created in God's image.

Too often, we want churches, youth groups, and Christian education to play the role that God has given parents: to raise up children in faith. Churches and ministries like Christian schools and camps provide invaluable support to parents in teaching kids to live out their faith, but that instruction begins (and continues) at home:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

My mother modeled setting aside time everyday to scripture and always prayed with us and for us. She watched television with us, and taught us to think critically about the choices and assumptions presented. It was horribly annoying and embarrassing at the time ["Should Brenda sleep with Dylan?" "How should Mike have handled that situation on Growing Pains?"], but in retrospect, I'm grateful.

When we teach kids to identify and critique messages that may or may not not align with our values, public school playgrounds and classrooms are not the insidious faith-squelchers that the culture warriors make them out to be.

I went to public school from kindergarten through college and continue to grow in the faith journey I began as a small child. Of course, no schooling choice guarantees that kids will believe or behave the way we want, but public school did give me a context in which to live out my faith and opportunities to interact with people who were different from me.  

In his book Fearless Faith: Living Beyond the Walls of Safe Christianity, John Fischer questions the bubble we've created with (often sub-par) Christian alternatives to mainstream movies, music, coffee shops, and even gyms. How will we minister if Christians opt out of life alongside people who don't share our faith?

The central scripture of the book is Jesus' prayer for his disciples in the gospel of John: My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one (17:15). 

Public school is not best for every child, for myriad reasons. However, if we take seriously the call to shine God's light in the darkness, Christians cannot advocate a total retreat from the public schools, and we'd be foolish to imagine God is not already present and at work there as everywhere.

Christians need not fear exposing kids to ideas and people we don't agree with and can't control: Jesus has prayed God's protection over us in the midst of the world. I am not saying to let kids watch or listen to whatever their friends like. My point is simply that Christians need not be afraid. We all need to practice discernment and learn that delicate balance of living within the world and yet as people "set apart."

If anything, my faith is stronger for having received a public education. My university professors may not have been Christians (although some were), but they respected religion. Learning about Christianity and other religions within historical context helped root my own faith and grow it into something beyond what I inherited from my family.

I wonder if the Christians who vehemently oppose public education are less afraid of secular threats against faith than they are of progressive political influences. An informal Facebook survey of Christians I went to public school with reveals that our politics are split pretty evenly. My politics lean left. Did public school education influence me that way? It's impossible to say for sure; so many factors shape a person's values and beliefs. I do know that liberal politics are not synonymous with permissive morality or secularism.

Shaping a Christian worldview is crucial in helping kids make their faith their own so that they don't graduate from faith when they graduate high school, but we can emphasize that without sounding the alarm. Public school and the liberal arts are not the boogeyman they are sometimes painted to be, and thriving faith communities can be found on the most "secular" campuses.

Liberal arts education did not mold me into an atheist or a relativist. Seventeen years of public schooling made me a more critical thinker and a lover of learning, and equipped me to serve as a youth minister in my first job after graduation.

My parents didn't try to protect me from the world. Instead, they prayed over me and equipped me to live out my faith in every context, and I remain grateful to this day.

images:  daintee, rudenyarwich

What's your take on the relationship between faith and schooling? Would you do things differently for your kids than you experienced growing up?


Mrs. Small House said...

This has been on my mind a lot as my oldest is ready to start kindergarten in the fall. There is a strong need to protect our children and I think as parents we need to do that as best as we can. I've thought of sending mine to private parochial schools so I wouldn't "have to worry", but like you said, it's my job to teach religion to my kids, not the teachers. Do I really want to hand over that responsibility? Even if we are the same faith, they're going to have different takes on things and there will still be kids who are bad influences. Regardless of where they go to school, it's always the parents job to teach values and how to handle situations that go against those.
I'm still a huge advocate of homeschooling and school choice (and for now we're choosing public), but we can't think there's an easy way out. Even homeschoolers have to deal with outside influences.

Melissa said...

Wow. You are an amazing writer! I agree with much of what you have said. Some I have not processed yet - really hadn't given it any thought. I DO completey agree with the fact that Christian are NOT meant to live in a bubble. It is soooo easy to have only Christian friends and ONLY go to church activities, but what does that do for the joy of the Lord? Love the word malarky and it's nice to find SOMEONE else who does not just blindly vote republican because that is "what christians are supposed to do"!

pinkdaisyjane said...

As a Christian school teacher, I agree that every option is not for every family. We need to assess our options, our children's natural bent, and what our convictions are.

I can also add that enrolling in a Christian school with Christian teachers does not guarantee that your child will be protected from "the world" (dun dun dunnnnnnn). Even families walking in faith have convictions that vary greatly. You may send your young child to Kindergarten and still have them learn language you consider inappropriate on the playground. It happens.

Great writing.

Bonus points for the HP reference.

Dad said...

What an outstanding, thoughtful essay! As an evangelical Christian and an amateur social critic, I believe that our culture has coarsened considerably and probably declined as well during my lifetime. However, I do not believe the blame lies with public education per se.

I had to smile at your memory of Mom's habit of exploring moral issues on the TV shows you watched as teenagers. I'm sure she will appreciate your retrospective comment.

Kelly said...

Hi Suzannah :) I appreciate this post. We personally have decided to begin the homeschooling process with our kiddos, whereas we were both grew up in public school. I had a great experience in the public school, but definitely think I was (in high school, when I became a Christian) negatively influenced more than I was able to positively influence others. I think that the main reason for this, though, was not that I was in public school as much as my home life was not preparing me for how to be a light in that situation. The home and family does have a huge influence on our children. Our desire to homeschool is not so much to SHELTER them, but rather to SHEPHERD them. We feel that we would have a much more successful time doing so in the home school forum because we would have much more time with them, one on one. That's not to say we will always homeschool them, however. And I wouldn't ever go to say it is the only biblical choice. I think God calls families to different things. And maybe calls them to different things at different times. There definitely isn't a one size fits all. And its good to know our God is ultimately in control of it all!

Kelly Miller said...

I am a proponent of public school education. Schools (and life) are what you make them.

This is a short comment to your extremely well-thought-out post, but I don't feel qualified to discuss home school/public/private as I'm not the type of Christian who falls into this bracket.

I will say that the only reason I accepted Jesus into my heart (though I was raised to believe in God) was via friends I made in public school, college, and grad school.

Penny said...

"i went to public school from kindergarten through college and continue to grow in the faith journey i began as a small child. i never even went through a wild-child rebellion period. of course, no schooling choice guarantees that our kids will believe or behave the way we want. what public school did give me was a context in which to live out my faith and opportunities to authentically interact with people that were different from me, without them becoming projects to evangelize. " <--- yeah me too.

I worked in a Christian school as a librarian for a while. Really enjoyed being in the environment but it was like being in a comfy chair in some ways. I did notice that some children with learning difficulties did find the environment a lot better for them than the public school. But I also noticed that moving from Year 13 to university was a challenge for some of the young folk because of the protected environment they'd been in.

Tracy said...

I feel very conflicted ~ you've raised so many very valid points! We should not take all the Christians out of the public system, and yet God does not call all of us to the same type of education. One size certainly does not fit all!

I could ramble on for quite some length about this topic, as I am passionate about it. However, despite my passion and where my heart lies, I believe that above all, we must each seek God for guidance and direction as to where HE would place our children for school.

There are many education options available to us these days ~ surely it is only in obedience to God and His call on our lives and His plans for our children that we can make such big decisions about how we approach education for our own children.

Kendra Cameron-Jarvis said...

Please read my post What You Ought to Know about Teachers. I am a National Board Certified middle school teacher and a Christian. Thanks for posting this.


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