jasonbwatson

October 9, 2013

“…the answer is increasingly no.”

Al Mohler begins his article “Is Public School An Option?” with this questions and statement: “Should Christian parents send their children to the public schools? This question has emerged as one of the most controversial debates of our times.” As I suggested in the previous post, I would have said “sure” if asked this question anytime prior to the early part of this century, and that was even after I had spent three years teaching in a Christian school. I felt that I had turned out just fine having attended public schools my whole life and, frankly, what I had heard and seen of some homeschooling and Christian school education made me cringe. I was convinced that public school education was usually more rigorous and better prepared students to be lifelong learners. Bottom line, I thought public school education was more legitimate.

Mohler writes, “Until fairly recently, exceptions to this rule [the expectation that parents would send their children to public schools] have been seen as profoundly un-democratic and practically un-American. Homeschoolers were seen as marginal eccentrics, Catholics were seen as hopelessly sectarian, and those who sent their children to private schools were seen as elitist snobs.” Perhaps not exactly, but that fit my way of thinking pretty well.

Of course, as Mohler also points out, public education in America was under the oversight and influence of parents and the local community for hundreds of years; “public schools were public in the sense that they were community schools maintained for and by the citizens of a community.” That way of thinking has certainly changed, and beginning with John Dewey the influence of the parents and local community members on the curriculum and policies of the local schools has significantly diminished.

As Mohler states, “decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court secularized schools in a way that separated the schools from their communities and families.” Of course I am not old enough to remember when there was prayer and Bible reading in school, so that removal happened before I came along. And in that small Midwestern town where I went to high school there was still release time once a week when students could leave the public school during the school day and go for an hour to the church of their choice for “religious instruction.” Students who did not wish to go could stay at school for a study hall. My public high school choir performed their year-end concert in a church and the performances included doctrinally-sound Christian hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” So maybe my experience had not been the norm… And maybe the decreasing influence of the local community had not become the reality in the Midwest yet by the time I graduated high school.

What eventually changed my mind about public schools as a viable option and the legitimacy of homeschooling and Christian schools was the realization that schools were not ideologically neutral, which I had deluded myself into thinking they could be. Mohler writes, “The ideological revolution has been even more damaging than the political change. Those who set educational policy are now overwhelmingly committed to a radically naturalistic and evolutionistic worldview that sees the schools as engines of social revolution. The classrooms are being transformed rapidly into laboratories for ideological experimentation and indoctrination.” If I may be so bold I would disagree with Mohler on that last part, because I am now convinced that classrooms have not been transformed into “laboratories for…indoctrination” but rather always have been. “Indoctrination” means “the act of indoctrinating, or teaching or inculcating a doctrine, principle, or ideology, especially one with a specific point of view.” Public schools have always done that because it is impossible to teach without doing it. Christian schools do it, too; in fact, that is the whole reason most parents who send their children to Christian schools do so!

Am I suggesting that it is not possible to take a non-ideological position on any subject or that a teacher cannot impartially present information to students? No; that can be done–though it often takes real intentionality to do. What I am suggesting is that every teacher has a belief system, a worldview, that influences their way of thinking about every subject, and that worldview comes through in their teaching.

What has happened is that the right and wrong that public schools used to teach have become various versions of right and debate over wrong because everything is relative. What has happened to the public schools is the removal of certainty and absolutes and facts and the substitution of questioning and relativism and opinion. This is what has led to the ridiculous stories we hear and read about graphic sex ed classes, infringement of student rights to gather or pray or express a minority viewpoint and the support by public education leaders for teaching an acceptance and even and embrace of sinful behavior.

What caused me to change my mind about public schools, and to pretty well determine that my own children will never attend a public school, was the realization that what the schools teach–even the decent ones–is almost always taught from a perspective and toward and end that is completely at odds with what I believe and what I want my children to believe; specifically, what the Bible says. Local control of public schools is increasingly rare. There is more local (and school-level) control than many of the loudest conservative voices claim there is, but it is not enough. The tidal wave of mental manipulation and cconvictionless character has crashed into the public school system and as the water settles the ruins are increasingly visible.

Paula Bolyard, blogging for PJ Lifestyle, has responded to Mohler’s article, too. She correctly writes, “This is one of the most difficult questions a Christian family must wrestle with as school curriculum and speech and behavior codes increasingly stand in opposition to Christian teachings.” I am not by any means attempting to make light of this issue or suggest that it is an easy decision. There are people I know well and respect (indeed, people I am related to) who have chosen to send their children to public schools, and I am not sitting in judgment of them. I personally think that many of their reasons are flawed, but that does not mean they do not hold them sincerely. I will address some of these arguments in a future post.

I think what it comes down to is this assertion by Bolyard: “The stakes are very high. Consider the effects of thirty or more hours a week in a government school where you have no control over what your children are taught — where your local teachers have little or no control over the content of their lessons. Where the federal bureaucrats — many of whom have antipathy toward your Christian values — dictate what your children learn, all day long. How much time are you willing to invest in debriefing your children?” That’s just it. Students will spend some fifteen thousand hours of their lives–their most formative years–in school. Does it make any sense for me to knowingly and willingly place my children for that length of time into an environment that I cannot control and that I increasingly am in opposition to? I don’t think so. If I do, I will have to deal with these candid questions Bolyard asks: “How will you convince them that you are the authority on any given subject — that what you’re teaching them is right — and not their teachers? Is it fair to put a young child in the position of choosing between what their teacher is telling them and what their parents and Sunday school teachers say?”

Nearing the end of his article Mohler asks and answers the question that is the basis for the entire article. “Is public school an option? For Christians who take the Christian worldview seriously and who understand the issues at stake, the answer is increasingly no.” I absolutely agree. In fact, I may well have left the word “increasingly.”

October 8, 2013

Changing My Mind

Now back to our previously scheduled programming…I will resume my multi-entry look at education in America.

In the October-December 2013 issue of Answers Magazine Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. wrote an article entitled, “Is Public School an Option?” The title of the article struck me for two main reasons: (1) As a Christian school administrator I was curious to read what Mohler would say, and (2) I am well aware that my own position on this question has changed completely in the past decade and a half. Mohler writes, “I spent every minute of my school life from the first grade to high school graduation in a public school.” I can say the same thing, but throw in kindergarten for me, too.

I had some cousins who attend Christian schools, but they did not live in my community. Other than them, I do not recall knowing anyone who went to a Christian school. I grew up being in church every time the doors were open. No one in the two churches our family attended between my ages five and thirteen attended Christian schools that I know of. I surely do not remember anyone who was homeschooled, either. When I was thirteen my family moved from just outside of Washington, D.C. to a town of 20,000 in the upper Midwest. (At the time I thought that had to be the smallest town in the country. Ironic, given that I now live thirteen miles outside of a town of about fifteen hundred people…not all that much bigger than my high school in that town of twenty thousand!) I was satisfied with my education in public schools. I had good teachers, there were minimal blatantly unbiblical influences that I recall, and only once do I remember my parents having me “opt out” of viewing a movie that was being shown in class. I went on to attend a private college, but not a Christian one.

Interestingly, after college I was teaching in a Christian school and even then I was adamant that there was nothing wrong with most public schools. Given that I was back in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I was well aware that there were some poor public schools (and some dangerous ones) but I was not a die-heard devotee of the Christian school movement. I was even further away from the homeschooling movement. I was skeptical of the ability of most parents to effectively teach their children, skeptical of the quality of the education those children who were homeschooled were receiving, and skeptical of the futures those homeschooled children would have. I can remember telling my wife early in our marriage that if we ever had children we would not homeschool them and I was not even sure I would send them to Christian school. This was a bit brazen for me to say given that my wife had only ever attended Christian schools until she was in high school when her parents began homeschooling her and her five younger siblings. My in-laws were, in fact, still homeschooling until the end of the last school year.

In the years since then my mindset has changed dramatically. I have been married for fourteen years and now have two children, neither of whom has ever attended a public school. We have homeschooled and both are now in a Christian school where I am also the administrator. How did my mind change so completely? What does Al Mohler have to say in his article, and do I agree or disagree with him? Come back next time to find out….

May 1, 2013

The Real World

I have one other issue with the column I addressed yesterday by Joy Pullman on the topic of online education. At the conclusion of the column Pullman quotes Angelika Weiss, the pastor’s wife and homeschooling mother of four from southern Minnesota who provided most of the material for Pullman’s column, saying this: “With online education, there is so much time not wasted in the classroom. My son can be out in the community volunteering or working. Let’s face it: The inside of a classroom isn’t the real world.”

That’s true, Mrs. Weiss, the inside of a classroom is not the real world. But then neither is the inside of a church. Should we all skip church on Sunday morning so we can spend more time working or maybe volunteering in the community? After all, we can read the Bible on our own, listen to Christian radio and watch or listen to sermons from respected pastors on our computers, so why go to church? Going somewhere where everyone either professes to be a Christian or to be open to the gospel, where we sit in classrooms to study the Bible together and in pews or padded chairs to sing hymns and praise songs before listening to someone teach the Bible…none of those things are anything like “the real world.” Given that Mrs. Weiss’s husband is a pastor, though, I suspect it would be safe to assume that neither she nor her husband would agree that we should all skip church in order to avoid “wasted time.”

Now I can already hear Mrs. Weiss and others responding with utter shock that I would suggest such a thing. “That’s not the same,” I can hear. Really? And why not, may I ask? Why do we go to church anyway? I mean sure, the Bible says we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together but why not? What do we get by going to church with fellow believers that we cannot get by staying at home and tapping into the multitude of resources available online, on TV, on radio and in print? We get interaction with other human beings. We get the accountability. We get the fellowship. We get to talk and question and wrestle with how to deal with “the real world” when we leave the church. With all due respect to my pastor and yours, I could find “better sermons” from “better preachers” than I am going to get when I go to church (and the people who sit and listen to me when I preach surely could!) but that does not mean I should skip church.

Sitting in a classroom may not be “the real world,” but it does prepare students for the real world. As with church, the experience of being in a school with other students–and teachers–provides a much richer educational opportunity than does sitting in front of a computer screen and interacting through typed text. That kind of interaction has its place, don’t get me wrong–and the opportunity to interact with people from around the country and around the world makes that kind of interaction very valuable as an element of a well rounded education. But I would suggest to Mrs. Weiss and to anyone else who laments the “wasted time” in school classrooms that–at least in a good school with effective teachers–there is not really much time that is truly wasted…and even that which might be is probably far better than the multitude of other ways students waste time every day.

April 30, 2013

Undermining Beliefs

A couple of months ago I read a brief news column in WORLD Magazine by Joy Pullman about the variety of online educational opportunities available today, and how homeschooling families are utilizing these opportunities to provide classes for their children that either they are not qualified or capable of teaching or their local public schools do not offer, classes like logic, Latin and church history. I should state here and now that I am a huge proponent of teaching Latin and logic, so I have no qualms at all with this idea. I also agree that there are an abundance of educational opportunities made available through the Internet that would have been unthinkable not all that long ago, and I support families utilizing whatever options they believe will best meet the needs of their children and will be consistent with their worldview.

That said, Pullman includes a few things in her column with which I take issue. Pullman includes several quotes from Angelika Weiss, a pastor’s wife from southern Minnesota who utilizes online courses for at least one of her four homeschooled children. First, Pullman quotes Weiss’s assessment that “online high school is a lot cheaper than private school.” That is true, and it is no wonder. An online class does not require classroom space or the costs associated with heating/cooling and lighting the classrooms, the cost of insurance, and the various other expenses involved in operating a “real school” within four walls (not least of which is the cost of teachers). Furthermore, online schools are able to enroll students from all over the country or the world, providing a much larger potential student body–which can both decrease expenses per student and maximize possible profit. Too, online schooling offers a lot of flexibility that cannot be found in a formal classroom setting.

Pullman also writes, though, that “many Christian families are also choosing tax-sponsored online education because it costs less than private schools without undermining their beliefs.” Maybe…but probably not. Not to the expense aspect–of course online schooling will cost less than private schools. After all, private schools do not accept government funding, meaning the full cost of operating the school must come from “paying customers” and any donations and grants received. Interestingly, though, private schools do cost less than public schools in most instances when you look at the cost-per-student. Since the private schools do not get government funding, however, the cost must be paid by the family of the student, and anything is more expensive than the “free” education in public schools.

No, my concern is with the statement that the online education does not undermine their beliefs. That depends on their beliefs, of course, and on which online school they utilize (there are a number of Christian ones), but given that Pullman is talking about “tax-sponsored online education” that does not seem to be the case here. Rather, Pullman is referring to public schooling offered online instead of in the local school. I have to respectfully challenge Mrs. Weiss and others who think this option does not undermine their beliefs. How does it not? There is no such thing as a neutral education; all instruction is informed and shaped by the worldview of the educator and the educational institution. If Mrs. Weiss would not send her children to the local public school, why does she feel it is okay to invite the local public school into her house through her computer? If her argument is solely the availability of courses not offered at the local school, fine; but she is deceiving herself if she thinks that by using the online public school instead of the brick-and-mortar public school that she is not undermining her beliefs.

Another important issue, of course, is the fact that the more people who utilize anything the more of it is going to be available. In other words, by utilizing the “free” (tax-sponsored) online schools instead of the Christian online schools requiring tuition payments or the local Christian schools requiring tuition payments Mrs. Weiss and others are contributing to the expansion of the former and the decline of the latter. If every Christian who claims to want to avoid having their children influenced by the worldview of the public education system in the United States would commit to an online Christian school option or a local Christian school the cost would become manageable and the Christian schools would flourish.

I am not suggesting, by the way, that all Christians are required by God to send their children to Christian schools. I believe that is a decision that must be made after prayerful consideration by the family, after seeking the Lord’s will for their children. My point is simply this: just as James says that someone who claims to be religious and does not bridle his own tongue is deceiving himself (James 1:26), so any parent who thinks that by utilizing the tax-funded online school is avoiding the influences of the tax-sponsored local public school is equally deceived.

March 21, 2013

A “particular social group”

This story has received a fair amount of attention in select news outlets in recent weeks, so you may have heard about it already: Uwe and Hannelore Romeike have six children, five of them school age, and the came to the United States from Germany in 2008. Why? Because homeschooling is illegal in Germany, and the German authorities had threatened to take the Romeike’s children away from them because they were homeschooling. In 2010 a U.S. immigration judge granted the Romeikes political asylum because, in the opinion of the judge, the family had a legitimate fear of persecution in Germany due to homeschooling. There are documented cases of other Christian families in Germany that have been fined, imprisoned and even stripped of custody of their children for homeschooling. Why? Because, according to the Germany authorities, homeschooling families are creating “parallel societies.”

The laws in Germany are more than 80 years old. In fact, according to Aaron T. Martin’s article entitled “Homeschooling in Germany and the United States, published in the Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law in 2010, “the draconian policies that are on the books in Germany today were originally implemented by Hitler in 1938.” Why did the Nazi government abolish homeschooling? Because “Nazi leaders proceeded systematically to attack books,
music, films, and radio programs that forwarded any view of the world
inconsistent with the Third Reich’s agenda.” It was this climate in Germany that drove many of the nation’s leading intellectuals out of the country–including Albert Einstein to the United States.

One could question why Germany still has such laws on its books, and I do. In fact, interestingly enough, so do the state legislatures of Georgia and Tennessee, which both took the unusual approach in 2009 of passing resolutions calling on the German government to legalize homeschooling. Among the reasons stated in the Georgian resolution is the statement that “parents hold the fundamental responsibility and right to ensure the best quality education for their children, and parental choice and involvement are crucial to
excellence in education” and “the importance of religious liberties and the right of parents to determine their child’s upbringing and the method in which their education should be provided.” Apparently the Bundestag is unimpressed by the opinions of two states from the American south, as no action to change the law has been taken, to my knowledge. And while I agree that Germany should change their laws in this regard, I am more concerned with what the U.S. government is doing at the moment.

After the immigration judge granted asylum to the Romeikes in 2010 the government immediately began backtracking, concerned that the European Union would be offended and that key European allies would consider the decision an affront to their national sovereignty. The Department of Homeland Security disputed the decision, and last May the Board of Immigration Appeals sided with the government. Now the Romeikes await a decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on an appeal filed on their behalf by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).

Attorney General Eric Holder has argued that Germany’s ban on homeschooling does not violate the “fundamental rights” of the Romeikes. He further argues that homeschoolers who are persecuted for homeschooling their children do not constitute a “particular social group” requiring protection from the United States. What kinds of people do make up groups warranting asylum? Well, the United States has granted asylum to torture victims and victims of religious persecution, as well as to some political dissidents. According to an article by Mary Jackson in WORLD Magazine, the U.S. has also expanded asylum status over the last decade to include “several hundred harassed homosexuals.”

HSLDA Founder and Chairman Michael Farris wrote on the HSLDA web site on February 11 that “The Supreme Court of Germany declared that the purpose of the German ban on homeschooling was to ‘counteract the development of religious and philosophically motivated parallel societies.’ This sounds elegant, perhaps, but at its core it is a frightening concept. This means that the German government wants to prohibit people who think differently from the government (on religious or philosophical grounds) from growing and developing into a force in society.” For those reasons, and the fact that the U.S. Attorney General’s office is arguing that such a ban does not constitute the persecution of a “particular people group,” Farris believes that the “argument revealed some very dangerous views of our own government toward our freedom.” I have to agree. If the United States government is willing to deport a family that entered the U.S. legally, followed the rules to obtain asylum, and–to my knowledge–have been law abiding residents of the United States for nearly five years because the government does not think that the right to homeschool one’s children is a “fundamental right” then we have a serious problem, and we better be on the lookout. What’s next?

February 17, 2012

Unschooling

Filed under: Christian Education — jbwatson @ 8:28 pm
Tags: , ,

I was introduced to a new concept last month by way of an article in WORLD Magazine. The article, in the January 14 issue, is titled, “Setting Their Own Limits,” and the concept is “unschooling.” Despite being involved in Christian education, having a master’s degree in educational leadership, and (I think) staying pretty current on trends in education, I had never heard this term or of the idea the term represents.

The first two sentences of the article, written by Grace Howard, should provide you with a good introduction of what unschooling is all about: “For Bethany Drury, an Iowa State University senior, school was whatever she wanted it to be. She was ‘unschooled’–a homeschooled child with complete control over her education.”

Howard describes Drury’s unschooling education as being focused on horses, the outdoors and veterinary skills, with Drury spending time watching National Geographic specials on television and reading books from the library on her favorite subjects. All of that was probably quite fun for Drury, I imagine, but the challenge came when she reached college. By her own admission, there were subjects that she had not been interested in or wanted to spend time studying as she grew up, so she was not ready for the challenges of math and chemistry in college.

While the concept of unschooling is difficult for me to fathom, what completely blows me away is that Howard quotes the National Center for Education Statistics as estimating that one-third of the homeschooled children in the U.S. are actually unschooled. That translates to somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 children who are calling the shots on their education (or lack thereof) and spending all of their time doing whatever their little hearts desire.

Howard defines unschooling as giving “children complete control over their subjects, schedule and interests. If children do not want to learn science, they do not have to. If they enjoy art, literature, or computer programming, they can spend all their time pursuing that subject.” The article goes on to quote one unschooling mother who has written this on her blog: “The goals of unschooling are different than all the other methods. … The goal of unschooling is not education. It is to help a child be who she is and blossom into who she will become. … Learning happens as a side effect.” Howard goes on to explain that the most “radical forms” of unschooling carry this principle ever further, allowing children to exercise this same freedom in every aspect of their lives, including mealtimes, bedtimes, and chores. The unschooling mother quoted above, Joyce Fetteroll, has explained that parents should let children make their own decisions and thus “sculpt their own lives,” with parents “giv[ing] them what they want.” She continues, if “they are happy and free and are making these choices because it brings them joy, then we should trust that it really is what they want or need right now. … We need to trust that when it is enough for them, then they will stop. Their ‘enough’ may be different from where ours is.”

Well, I tell you what…I can pretty much guarantee you that their enough will be different. It would be for any child! I understand that there can be some compelling arguments made for letting children pursue things that interest or fascinate them, to follow their natural bent. But there can also be some compelling arguments made that children need to be introduced to things that are not naturally appealing to them, that parents need to train and teach their children certain expectations and requirements of life. Not only do I have two children of my own, but I have worked with children for my entire adult life, and I can only imagine the things that most children would do, and how they would spend their time, if they were left completely on their own to decide. I think it is safe to suggest that their eating habits would favor junk food at the expense of vegetables, their recreational activities would tend toward video games and indoor activities at the expense of legitimate exercise, and their sleeping habits would tend toward staying up quite late and waking up even later.

Since the very idea being discussed here is an alternative form of education, perhaps it would be helpful to define exactly what education is. Wikipedia provides this deifnition: “Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts. In its narrow, technical sense, education is the formal process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills, customs and values from one generation to another, e.g., instruction in schools.”

Whether or not instruction takes place in schools–and I have no problem with the notion of homeschooling, by the way–I find it difficult to believe that aims and habits can be passed on by letting children do whatever they want, whenever they want. I certainly struggle to see how knowledge, skills, customs and values can be passed on. After all, unschooling mother Elissa Wahl has says she lets her children do “whatever they want. … If they want to learn about rockets for 5 years, or 5 minutes, that’s okay with me.” So, perhaps a child who wants to learn about rockets for 5 years–or 15 years, for that matter–would become a brilliant scientist or engineer, but at what cost? Would that child truly have received an education? Only in the very narrowest sense, I would suggest. Furthermore, I would go on to suggest that the child that is left to pursue his own interests to his heart’s content has been deprived of an education by not being exposed to other fields of study, taught how to interact with others, and trained in how to develop and use his intellectual gifts.

This notion of letting children pursue their own interests is another of those proverbial slippery slopes. After all, suppose a child decides he wants to pursue something that is not acceptable for whatever reason? Then what does the parent do? Because when someone suggests that a child should be permitted to do whatever he or she wants it is extremely important to think about just how big a word whatever really is. And, in case you missed it, the very nature of my question–about a child choosing to do something that is unacceptable–is built on the presupposition of there being a right and a wrong and that one or more persons will pass on to each generation some understanding of what right and wrong is.

One of the classic ways for political scientists to explain the concept of personal rights and how eventually the rights of the individual may conflict with the rights of another individual or of society is to say it like this: your right to swing your fist ends where my nose starts. But again: says who? Doesn’t that also presuppose a right and a wrong? Doesn’t that presuppose that parents and/or society will pass on to each generation the understanding that there is a limit to individual rights? But if we do that–if we limit anyone’s activity in any way–we are necessarily saying that it is not okay to do whatever you want.

In order to tell anyone that it is not okay to do something though we have to tell the person that there is a limit to what they can do. That is not a terribly profound statement because it is a restatement of itself, but it is important to recognize the consequences of our ideas. And since I suspect none of the parents who are “unschooling” their children would sit by quietly and let their child continue to choose to cause his fist to make contact with the nose of his sibling, neighbor or parent, there is no parent who really thinks his or her children should be allowed to do whatever they want to do. And…brace yourself…since no one really thinks that, there is no parent who does not believe that it is necessary and important to educate their children. In other words, unschooling doesn’t really exist. The question is simply what kind of education to provide, where and how to provide it. More on that next time….

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