Homeschooling and the Christian Duty by Sally Thomas

12 Jun

From First Things:

By withdrawing from the larger culture, homeschoolers aid and abet the culture’s failings—or so, at least, the charge goes. Christians have a responsibility to be not “of the world,” but, we are told, they also have a responsibility to be “in the world.” And therefore it’s our duty to send our children to public school. After all, Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and how can we possibly be those things if we stay at home all day?

According to this logic, we are called not only to witness, via our children, to a diverse population of people but also somehow to salvage public education itself, as if this would right everything that’s out of whack in our society. To decline to do so is, in this view, both personally selfish and culturally destructive.

Though at this stage in my life I have a hard time understanding why I should feel a greater sense of responsibility to a government institution than I do to my children, I must confess that it has not always been so. Our oldest daughter spent four years in an English working-class neighborhood school, where she was conspicuous not only for being American but also for having parents who were actually married to each other and actually both the parents of all children in our home. Aside from the Bangladeshi Muslims who comprised roughly a third of the school population, ours was the only family with any discernable religious orientation whatsoever.

As such, we did feel responsible for the well-being of that school. The education on offer wasn’t brilliant—“random topics” seemed to be the general theme of the National Curriculum as taught at this particular school—but, as we told ourselves, it was OK. We could supplement at home. And meanwhile our daughter was receiving a valuable cultural education, right?

This is what we told ourselves even in the face of, for instance, the sex-education program we encountered in Year Four, the English equivalent of third grade. We were the only parents who asked to preview the materials; when we discovered, among other things, that they included an animated video sequence of teddy bears having fairly graphic sex, we exercised our right to opt out, and took the children to the British Museum that day instead, for cultural education on a different level, for once.

Random topics we could deal with. Animated teddy bears boinking we could avoid, at least in the short run. I suppose we could have gone on indefinitely telling ourselves that all this was OK—not great, but OK—if our daughter had been happy and thriving. But she wasn’t. Over time, most of her close friends moved to other primary schools with better test scores. The remaining school population was, as the English say, rougher. The overall atmosphere becamerougher.

Well, we said, this is not good, but we can’t just abandon the school. Meanwhile our daughter, always reserved, became almost paralytically shy. On the playground, as she told us later, she concentrated on not being called ugly names by the boys. In class, she cried a lot rather than raise her hand. At home, she cried herself to sleep. On one occasion, as I distinctly recall, she was upset because in Religious Ed—no separation of church and state there—another kid had announced to the class, “God’s stupid,” and the teacher hadn’t said anything to him, and she had felt that this was wrong.

The incident had happened months earlier, it emerged—we certainly had known nothing of it at the time—but it still ate away at her. As I comforted her, my first impulse was to say, “Well, that’s not anything to cry about.” But of course it was. An adult might have spoken to the kid in question. An adult might have spoken to the teacher. What could an eight-year-old child do? Cry, that’s what.

Certainly Jesus tells us all to be salt and light. In the Christian tradition, however, we use phrases like “the age of reason” for a reason: recognition of the fundamental difference between an adult’s understanding and a child’s. The classical model of education uses the language of the Trivium—grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric—to describe stages of cognitive development in terms that provide, I think, a useful and accurate model for spiritual as well as intellectual formation.

A child in the grammar stage, a third-grader, say, is developmentally geared toward the acquisition of basic facts, memorizing Bible verses or the Corporal Works of Mercy. Even a bright third-grader lacks the powers of higher reasoning necessary to discern the truth amid conflicting messages.

Middle-schoolers, in the dialectical stage, are ready to learn to argue—learn to argue. As anyone with a middle-schooler knows, this dovetails nicely with certain natural inclinations of the age, but the average eighth-grader is hardly prepared to play C.S. Lewis in social studies class.

Even high-schoolers are still in the process of acquiring the rhetorical sophistication they will need in college to defend their faith to others and to themselves. Consider how many college freshmen allow themselves to be talked out of Christianity during the fall semester, in the course of Intro to World Religions. If college freshmen can’t cope, it seems unrealistic to expect third-graders to bear the burden of evangelizing their schools. What seems far more likely is that, to one degree or another, the schools will end up evangelizing these children.

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