One more post on education

Alright, Tony, I’ll go one more round. (If you haven’t already, read Tony’s previous blog posts and my previous response.) Last night he tweeted me a link to his most recent post about an adult who got caught plagiarizing and said he never learned about it because he was homeschooled. I don’t think Tony brought this up because he thinks it proves his point (although I think some of the commenters may have.) He brought it up because he’s been frustrated by the number of personal anecdotes people have used to respond to his argument. I don’t blame him on that, so I’ll forgive him for the silliness of the idiot guy who used the lame homeschool card to get out of his mess, because that’s not really the point.

I’m not sure if my follow up post will help either, since I’ll begin by saying that I disagree with Tony’s basic premise, which is:  “Homeschooling is bad for society because it weakens public education, and we’ve decided that public education is one of our most important societal institutions. Every family that is Christian and committed to faithful citizenship should keep their kids in public schools.”  In theory, and on the surface, this sounds correct. But it just doesn’t stand up when you start thinking about the way we actually live things out. For example, I’m going to start with that second phrase, that “we’ve decided that public education is one of our most important societal institutions.” I’ll grant you that I believe we ought, as a country, to provide free public education to every citizen through high school. I also believe we ought to have publicly funded hospitals and clinics, publicly funded highways, public libraries, publicly funded broadcasting such as C-SPAN (dare I mention PBS in lieu of Big Bird’s recent spotlight), publicly funded programs to provide food stamps and subsidized housing for those in need…I could go on and on. The point is, I don’t USE all of those things, despite my affirmation and willingness to help PAY for them. It means nothing about my support of food stamps that I have never used them, or my approval of federal roads because I haven’t driven on an interstate in Montana. I use some of the programs, and I am in favor of many others I never will use, and either way, I have no problem whatsoever helping to foot the bill for them through my taxes. So my first response is to say, yes, I agree as a nation we have chosen to provide free public education. I do NOT agree that this mandates I must send my children to public school to prove my support, or my supposed involvement in that educational social contract.

To the next point- “homeschooling is bad for society because it weakens public education.” Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m no homeschool advocate, personally. I don’t feel the need to wage a war against it, but it’s just not something I’d choose for my own children. So I’m not going to speak directly to that, because I don’t know the first thing about homeschooling. I will reiterate what I said in my first post, which is to say that you can’t outright say that homeschooling/private school is bad for society, because it’s not that black and white. As is the case with all forms of education, there will be benefits and there will be drawbacks, and if they were as clear as Tony imagines, we wouldn’t all be having this conversation, and this topic wouldn’t be so hotly debated in our country. It’s complicated, and it’s likely that there is not a silver bullet to fix all that’s wrong with education in our country. So, this is just a gross overstatement. Now, to the second phrase “it weakens public education:” I don’t know if Tony would say the same thing if you substitute “private school” for “homeschooling” but I do know plenty of other people have said things like this to me, so I’ll address that instead. And I’ll say quite simply I disagree wholeheartedly. In fact, I’d say the opposite. I’d say that it’s far more likely that because private schools are allowed and encouraged to attempt new things, to test-drive new curriculum, to develop new ways to educate, and to experience far fewer bureaucratic hurdles in the process, they actually provide a very helpful and necessary asset to our public education. Private schools are often capable of strategic innovation in ways an entire public school system simply cannot due to size and structure. Private schools can be laboratories for new and innovative practices, which can then be streamlined and shared with a much broader audience.

I’ve debated whether to make this analogy or not, but I’ll do so now… The relationship between private and public school is not unlike the relationship between emerging churches and denominations. The first are lean, open systems with a DNA that encourages innovation, trying new things, creative engagement, and consistent re-invention. We have learned a lot in my small offbeat church that I hope has and will continue to be a help to those far beyond our walls. And I dare say it has, judging by how many denominational people have come visiting in the last 13 years to see what we’re trying and doing, what’s working and what isn’t. They couldn’t have attempted X in their big historic church with many layers of committees and necessary approvals. On the other hand, at Journey we can have one conversation about it and within a week we’re giving X a test run. The emerging church, because it is “outside” the ruling system, can offer a lot of valuable resources to the denominational church. Certainly, the resources and gift-sharing flow both ways. To return to our main point, to say that private schools weaken public education is to deny their good and necessary contribution to the changing face of education. Because they don’t have to spend 1/3 of their time focusing on teaching to standardized tests to secure federal money, they have more time to practice new ways of implementing technology in the classroom, or developing more in-depth cross-discipline curriculum. And the public school system can learn from what they learn, and can benefit from what they’ve attempted and developed. And, just as my role as a pastor of an emerging church outside of denominations doesn’t mean I don’t care about what happens to denominations, my role as a private school parent doesn’t mean I don’t care about public education.

Also, if we take “public education” and define it in its broadest terms- meaning that our American public is being educated so that we have a group of adult citizens who are capable and informed- Tony’s statement holds no water. Go ask the top colleges and universities in the country whether they accept homeschooled or privately schooled students, and if they graduate them. Go ask Fortune 500 companies if they hire these students. Go to your next town hall meeting and get a show of hands. In terms of our general public being educated so that we have capable adults as citizens, homeschooling and private school are doing just fine- and often, better.

Now, to the last sentence: “Every family that is Christian and committed to faithful citizenship should keep their kids in public schools.” I’ll first point out that this is a significant turn in focus from Tony’s previous statements, because the first two were sociological and this is theological. I think that’s part of the reason why these arguments have been a bit muddied, because the responses for each are their own respective oceans. Above, I gave my sociological responses. Now, I’ll turn to reiterate my theological response, which is, again, that to say public schools are the only -or even primary- place where Christians can/should be missional is dangerously dualistic. Whether or not I’m living missionally has to do with my posture toward the whole world, and with my posture inside the respective “sections” of my world.  It’s over-reaching to say a person is by default not missional because s/he homeschools or uses private school. That may be true, and that may not be true. It’s certainly not definitive. God is everywhere, and need is everywhere, so it doesn’t matter where you’re standing. You’re called to be missional wherever that is.

To the point of schools in particular, I don’t want to get too geeky here, but I feel I must bring Alaisdair McIntyre’s argument in After Virtue into this conversation at this point. To grossly simplify his assertion, McIntyre argues that the best way to create a person of virtue is to do so within the confines of a community which has a clearly defined end-game-purpose (telos) through which all things are filtered. The reason, he argues, that modern society is in such a shambles is because we have no clear shared purpose because we’ve replaced it with a vague sense of subjective individualism and an impotently universalized morality. If you don’t agree with that, then you won’t agree with the rest of my argument. But I know for a fact that Tony loves this book as much as I do. :) So I’m moving forward with the confident assumption that we agree on that.

IF we believe that the best way to train our children up to be people of faith who make a positive and lasting impact on the world is to give them an environment in which a community shares a common end goal purpose and commits to filtering everything through it, and IF we could do this not only in our local churches (one community) and our families (another community) but also our school where our children spend the lion’s share of their days 9 months out of the year, then this would seem to be a theologically appropriate choice to make.

If we agree that to be missional means, at least in part, that we must be about the work of creating persons of virtue (and becoming them), and if we believe that to create persons of virtue we need a community which agrees upon and shares and commits to a common end-goal, then a private Christian education is missional.

I realize this comes from my own personal experience and is therefore an anecdote, so you can toss this paragraph out based on what I said at the beginning of this post. But, to provide an example of what I mean by a clearly defined purpose, my children’s school’s motto is wisdom, honor and service. (Wisdom, not knowledge, mind you.) This means they enter into a covenant each year to live by the code of the school. And the parents enter into a covenant every year to abide by them (not to reject them or defend their children from them), or to leave. So, if a student is caught cheating or being disrespectful, the school has every authority in the world to address it as an integral part of education. The goal is not grades or standardized test scores or assured entrance into Harvard. The goal is wisdom, honor and service. The goal is the whole child. The goal is to create mature and responsible educated people who have so long practiced wisdom, honor and service that these virtues are deeply embedded and evident in the actions of their lives.

I suppose the crux of the question is, “What does it mean to be missional?” To some, it means moving to the poorest section of town and selling most of their belongings and starting a community vegetable garden (all of which I am highly in favor of doing, for the record. Bravo!) To Tony it means, quite specifically in this case, you must send your child to public school. To me, it means your approach to life in total ought to be intentionally geared toward the good and the just, as defined by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s my strong belief that being missional is a life-long pursuit, and in so being one must consider the long game. And if becoming people of virtue who can live out the gospel in the whole of their lives requires us to be very intentional about how we are formed, then we should absolutely pay attention to the systems in which we are being formed, and what their end goal purpose is, and whether or not it helps or hinders our ability to become missional people. Obviously, I think placing my children in their private school is in line with our desire for them to become missional adults (and to learn how to be missional children and adolescents, too). And I’d argue that it is possible to have that environment in a number of educational systems. So perhaps the more specific question as missional living relates to education is how we judge what makes for a good system and what makes for a bad one.

Lastly, I will concede there’s a justice aspect to this that shouldn’t be overlooked. (And frankly, I’m surprised at how few people in all those comments has brought it up.) There is inequity in the current distance between the education my children receive and the education provided by my tax dollars at the public school down the street. And we should do what we can, as Christians called to make the world better, to address that. If you want to argue that it is unfair that my children receive a better education and that all children in a perfect world deserve the education they are getting, I will agree with you. I don’t know how pulling out my children and putting them in a failing school system helps that problem directly, but I would be remiss in not stating this openly as fact.

In the same way, I think it would be best in a perfect world for every family to be able to have organic produce and healthy food on their tables. I realize that organic food costs more, and that grocery stores in lower income neighborhoods don’t often even give their shoppers the option. And I think that is wrong. I do not know if I would count it as missional to its fullest degree to say that I am attempting as best I can to support the growing organic and local produce economy with my wallet so that it will show interest in organic produce and perhaps encourage more farmers and agricultural conglomerates to make healthier choices, but I certainly hope it helps. I certainly don’t think removing my dollars from organic local farmers is going to fix anything. I’ll do all I can to sign petitions and to support legislation and to vote in favor of those practices that will help local organic produce become available to more and more people in America. I’d love to see Journey start a community garden that brings a small bit of change to lower income neighborhoods in our city. I can’t fix the whole problem, and I don’t think just buying organic is enough, but it’s something. And it’s intentional and driven by a desire to be missional. So is my decision to place my children in an Episcopal private school. I can’t fix the whole DISD problem, but I can foster the cutting edge of education in the hopes that what we are doing will be of help to a much broader group of students down the road. I can do all I can to create an environment where my own children have multiple communities that encourage them to live up to their best selves as God’s missional people in this world. I can vote and engage and volunteer and pay tax dollars in a school system in which I’m invested, even if my kids don’t attend. I can’t fix the whole problem, but what I am doing, I am doing in the hopes that in some way it is faithful living. It’s not perfect, and I wouldn’t dare say it’s perfectly just. But it’s something.

And I absolutely disagree that it isn’t missional.

 

6 Comments

  1. Scott MillerOctober 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    I am anti-homeschool. 100%. But not for Tony’s reasons. My many problems with homeschool have more to do with parental attitudes and competency, inbreeding of philosophies and beliefs, and an all-around inferior social experience for the children. So to me public school is not the only option. I think private school is a perfectly viable (sometimes even preferable) alternative for those who can afford it.

    Things would have to become quite dire for me to homeschool my own child. He/she would certainly deserve better, and I would be quite vain to think that I could teach my child better than every trained professional out there.

    Sorry if this isn’t very peacemaking. :) But it is my honest opinion.

  2. Shawn SmuckerOctober 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks for writing this. Interesting point regarding our duty to provide something but not necessarily take part. I need to think about that.

  3. For the record, we homeschool our kids. The oldest one is 5, so we are just beginning. Both my husband and I are trained teachers with quite a bit of experience under our belts. My husband currently directs a local charter school. I am an advocate of a bit more regulation for the entire homeschooling population, but it ought to remain a viable option for families. We contribute to public/charter schools through our professional work, our taxes and our positive moral support. We homeschool our kids because in our case, we most certainly can provide a better academic education and orchestrate a more positive and diverse social experience for our children than our local public schools or even the charter schools we are associated with. We cannot afford the private schools in our city. Given our situation, we gave it much thought when we decided to not send our children to the charter school the rest of our ethnic community is sending their children to. We came to a similar conclusion as your post–there is more than one way to contribute to our public school system and we’re doing it in more ways than one. I am all for working with a child’s school to change it for the better. However, the reality is that school systems change slowly if they are small and limp forward even more slowly if they are large. I cannot imagine as a parent trying to teach one’s child’s teacher effective classroom management. It simply wouldn’t work and it is not appropriate. If parents have the means and the will to take their child’s education more directly into their own hands, this should be supported and it should be recognized that not every teacher is a good role model and not every teacher is able to effectively teach, despite ongoing training and support. When i taught in a classroom. I encouraged a few parents to withdraw their student and homeschool them. The result was happier children and happier families. I’ve strongly cautioned other families to not homeschool since I did not think they were in a position to do so effectively and positively.

  4. Emily, thanks for your thoughtful and reasoned comment. You are a perfect example of the diverse situations in which we as parents make our education choices- and how all of us can be concerned and involved in the role of public education. I wish you all the best as you continue to homeschool your children- and with you and your husband as trained educators, I’m certain they will do far better than mine would under similar circumstances! Thanks for reading.

  5. This comment is elxctay right.Neither of my parents were academics. Neither attended university (except some night classes my father took at Sir George Williams). But in our household, academic virtues were celebrated and practiced:- the radio was tuned to CBC (Canadian public broadcasting) and so we would hear world news, scientific programs, ‘Ideas’, and more…- there were always newspapers in the house – we all ended up delivering newspapers – and articles of importance, such as the current membership of the Cabinet (in the Canadian government) were posed on the wall. There was always a big map of the world on the wall.- my mother bought a complete set of the classic works of literature for the house (these were very specifically my mothers, and I had to ask to read them), very cheap Pelican’s (low-cost Penguins) that fell apart when you read them. Everything from Shakespeare to Butler to Thoreau to Twain. I read about half the 120 book collection before the middle years of high school (talk about an advantage!)- I joined the Book of the Month Club with my father, through which I learned a lot of history – Pierre Berton, William L. Shirer, and Albert Speer all stand out, as do my Complete Sherlock Holmes – there was also technology, and an evident interest in technology, in the house (we weren’t just about academics). Our house radio was built from a kit. Bits and pieces of telephones were always about, as my father worked for Bell. We had telescopes and microscopes (much to the distress of the local bug and amphibian population). My younger brothers benefited from my father’s interest in computers, but by then (1980s) I had left home. Still, I got my first model, a big 300 baud box, from my father.- somehow I came into possession of an old Underwood typewriter (the reason I can’t type to this day, because the keys took too much force to push) and a limitless supply of paper.- I also somehow had access to tools – hammers, saws, screwdrivers, the works – to build things (and we built numerous things, including clubhouses, tree houses, go-karts and even a stage coach).- we had a (large) garden and learned how to grow food. We were involved in preserving and canning the food (I can still remember piles of beans, a supply that would last the entire winter). We could cook basically whenever we wanted, so I took the opportunity to bake some cakes and pies.Things like this – which, really, began with my first set of blocks, which had letters stamped on the sides, characterized my childhood. Knowledge and learning were always valued and supported.At the same time, though, none of it was forced on me. These things were always in my environment, but I wasn’t required to read the books (though the garden work was not voluntary – everybody helped because everybody ate). It was all about the environment, and not some rigorous academic regime.

  6. Sounds like an enriching and enchanting childhood, Naina!

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