Friday, August 28, 2015

Why I'm Sending My Kids to Public School

(Illustration from the National Second Reader, 1869)
Next week, my oldest son will be starting kindergarten at our local elementary school, and my middle son will be taking part in a public pre-K program. It's an exciting time for our family, and we're looking forward to getting into a new rhythm. But over the past few months, we've noticed a frequent pattern emerging--from Christian friends, from social media, from online blogs: the expectation that homeschooling is really the way to go for a Christian family. In at least a few of these conversations and online posts, there seemed to be a running assumption that public education is somehow substandard in its quality or that the environment of a public school is decidedly too secular to permit exposing our children to it. I don't buy either of those arguments, and I would encourage any Christian parents out there to consider whether interaction with your local public school might actually be the best course for your family and your community.

Here's why I'm a fan of public schools. But first, a cautionary note based on my international experience in the developing world: it's important to realize that the debate in the American Christian subculture between the merits of public school and homeschooling is very much a "first-world problem." For a large percentage of the world's population, a functioning public school system, where the teachers actually show up (and, more than that, are trained professionals who actually chose this career because it's what they want to do), where educational standards are followed and corruption eschewed, is something that they can only dream of. Much of the world's population lives in places where the public schools simply do not function well, if they're even able to send their kids there at all. Homeschooling is not an option, often because both parents are spending their time working to maintain a subsistence level of existence, and no suitable curriculum is available. So for any avid homeschoolers out there, please remember that our public school system, for whatever shortcomings it might have, is in fact a remarkable institution and a great good for our communities, and it shouldn't be taken for granted or treated with disrespect. I've known kids who would've given almost anything to be able to go to a public school half as good as the worst ones we have here in the US. There are good arguments to be made for homeschooling, but  for someone like me, who's seen the other side of things, any such argument which bases itself on denigrations of the public school system immediately falls short.

I'm a fan of public schools because of my own experience with them. And, full disclosure, I grew up, successively, in a private international school (2 years), a private Christian school (1 year), homeschooling (1 year), and then public school. I come from a family of public school teachers and administrators--two grandparents, one parent, six aunts and uncles, one brother-in-law, and, for a while, my wife, have all worked in public schools from the elementary to the community college level. Based on what I know of them and of the teachers in my church community, I'm convinced that public school teachers are some of the greatest community heroes we have--capable people who usually could have chosen other careers, but yet have signed on to this underpaid and often thankless profession because they love to teach. My interactions with public school teachers have demonstrated to me that the majority are highly skilled and professionally trained both in their own subject areas and in educational practices, and they're encouraged by their school systems to continue honing these skills throughout their careers. Even though homeschooling programs and curricula can offer a lot of ways around the deficiencies and limitations of one or two parents, to my mind there's still nothing quite like an education at the hands of a teacher who's skilled and passionate about his or her particular area. I'm glad I got to learn grammar from Mrs. Espling, biology from Mrs. Thibodeau, literature from Mr. McCormick, American history from Mr. Atcheson (to name just a few of the many great teachers I had in public schools)--their enthusiasm about their subjects, their skill and facility in the knowledge of those subjects, and their conviction that these things really, truly mattered--it was infectious. Though I'm a bright guy who can get a lot out of books on my own, and though I have bright parents who could have ably taught me all those subjects, I know that I gained immeasurably from the breadth of perspective and depth of passion that my teachers brought to their subjects. If it weren't for them, I might not have today the interests that I still pursue in the natural sciences and literature, even though neither of those is my chosen intellectual field. I might not have become an author were it not for the encouraging notes from my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Morgans, urging me towards writing novels even at that young age. I want that kind of experience for my kids. Even though I was pretty great at math in high school, I never loved it; so I want my kids to learn math not from me, but from someone who does love it, someone like my brother-in-law, a public school teacher, who can help them find wonder and joy in their exploration of math. That's something I can't do on my own, and I doubt it's something that many homeschooling curricula can do on their own. There's no substitute for the life-changing experience of a good teacher.

(Colored engraving from The Ladder of Learning, 1835)
Even some of the "negative" aspects of public school have been tremendously formative for me and my wife. The stretching nature of its social environment, though immensely difficult for an extreme introvert like me, really helped me to be able to interact with others in a way that I probably would never have had to learn had I been allowed to do most of my learning at home. And it's not just the social interaction that was valuable (I realize, of course, that many homeschooling programs include intentional social interactions outside the home)--it was the social interaction with a group of kids that were, for the most part, very different from me. Public school in Maine is a very secular experience, and so it was clear to me from the beginning that faith in Christ had to be something that was lived out, or it was no faith at all. More than that, being exposed to the secular values of my classmates led me, from an early age, to conceive of my life as a missional life. My experience of public education turned me into a prayer warrior when I was still in middle school, and it showed me the depth of need that our world has for Christ. If it weren't for the secularism of public school, I might not have ended up as a pastor.

There are, of course, good reasons for choosing homeschooling. I'm not trying to argue against that. I respect the choice of my fellow Christian parents to homeschool their kids--it's a sacrificial, loving undertaking that no doubt will do great good in their children's lives. What I'm arguing for is the same level of respect for Christian parents who choose to send their kids to public schools, because there are also very good reasons for doing that.

One of the things I most commonly hear from homeschooling families is, "We had to do what was best for our kids." That's an admirable motive, and I can see how it could apply. If, down the road, my wife and I see signs that the environment of public education is harming our kids socially or spiritually, we may also end up making that decision. But I want to suggest that, for all the merits of that motive, it's not the first thing that Christian families should say on the matter. The big-picture perspective of the New Testament would have us consider the needs of the world, too. Perhaps the best motive to start with is, "We need to do what's best for our world." And it seems to me that it will not be good for our world if a large portion of Christian families withdraw from public schools.

Finally, a more prosaic reason that relates to our specific familial situation: our kids our high-energy enough, and stubborn enough, that it will probably benefit our relationship with them to send them off for awhile. So, with all that in mind, I find myself thankful for the blessing of my local public school.