Monday, December 18, 2006

School Daze

After having taken a little haitus, let's return to the homeschooling discussion that Tim Challies initiated the other day which sent quite a few reverberations through the Christian blogosphere.

What is never defined in the discussion is "education," which would seem to be fairly necessary to any discussion about what our responsibilities are in schooling our children. Pervading the discussion at Challies, both in Tim's commments and those of many of the responders, is the idea that modes and methods of schooling are merely based on personal preferences, meaning that no Christian should judge another on this matter--or even admonish him to choose differently. He said that he chooses not to homeschool because he doesn't like the insular demeanor of some homeschoolers, and cites a missionary justification for choosing to send his child to public school instead. (The issue of Christian schooling seems not to be dealt with at all in any significant way.)

As I know Challies would agree, though, we need to go to the Bible for our guidance on this issue. What is education? What are our responsibilities toward our children in educating them? Do we see biblical warrant for the view that children of six, seven, or eight years old should be sent out as missionaries into hotbeds of unbelief? Appeals to personal experience and subjective opinion don't help us get to the answers. Unfortunately, however, Challies' two articles don't offer much more than that.

Where the Bible talks about teaching children, it consistently has one (and only one) goal in mind: teaching them to fear God in everything. A starting biblical definition of education might be "teaching God's character, requirements, commandments, and mercy."
'Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.'--Dueteronomy 4:10

These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.--Deuteronomy 6:6-8

You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your sons may be multiplied on the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens remain above the earth.--Deuteronomy 11:18-21

Come, you children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD. --Psalm 34:11

Hear, my son, your father's instruction
And do not forsake your mother's teaching;
Indeed, they are a graceful wreath to your head
And ornaments about your neck. --Proverbs 1:8-9

Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it. --Proverbs 22:6
Etc. etc. etc.

It's only by separating God/religion/theology out as one discipline among many that we can possibly come to the conclusion that it's okay for our children to learn the Bible from us and science from the atheists. It's the same compartmentalization that has rendered evangelical Christianity such an impotent force in a dying culture.

Public schools in America are, by law, agnostic (if not atheistic). At this point in the discussion, well-meaning souls get red in the face and begin jumping up and down. "How can you say that! You don't know the schools in my neighborhood! How dare you paint everyone with the same brush! Why, my husband/wife/brother/friend is a devout Christian, and he's been faithfully teaching in public school for years!" All of which, of course, is quite beside the point.

This is a foundational issue, and it's not disputable. The courts have been quite clear that no public school can teach children that Jesus is Lord. They cannot pray in Jesus' name. They cannot attribute the laws of physics, the rotation of the world, or the development and coherence of language to God. If you doubt my assertion, ask yourself this: could even the "good Christian teacher" at your "good local public school" tell his students in science class that Jesus is the sacrifice for the sins of the world, or that God created the universe ex nihilo by speaking? And if not, why not? Are those things not true? Are they irrelevant to "real" knowledge? Do they not necessarily influence our approach to every area of learning?

"But John, now you're just sounding like a fundamentalist. Certainly my children can get a good education even if the teachers aren't talking about Jesus all the time." Can they? Ask yourself: What is a school based on, anyway? What is it's starting point? What are it's goals? Whether or not a school puts God at the center of this endeavor will affect every single aspect of the way it educates. A school that believes mankind is inherently good will handle disciplinary issues in a vastly different way than Christians will. A school that believes all of life arose by chance will teach (either implicitly or explicitly) a vastly different system of ethics than Christians will. The fact that your local public school hasn't yet started to teach gradeschoolers to put condoms on cucumbers is nice, but it doesn't address the fact that the school is, by law and definition, agnostic about God. The fact that a teacher here or there might be able to put in a plug for good morality or invite a student to "Meet Me at the Flag" day doesn't address the school's foundational, functional agnosticism.

What has happened here is that Christian discipleship is at such a low ebb that even good, Bible-believing Christians think there is a huge swath of neutral territory in education, and that an atheist can pretty much show their child the lay of the land as well as any Christian can. But this, of course, ignores the basic biblical teaching on the subject. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction." (Proverbs 1:7).

The Bible explictly charges parents with the duty of teaching their children about God. Of course, all Christian parents would agree with this. Many would claim, "This is exactly what I intend to do. We'll teach our daughter about Christ at home, and let the school teach her history, science, math, and grammar." But this assumes that there is wisdom in some subjects that can be gained whether God is involved or not. Unfortunately, most modern Christians have signed on to the notion that "Bible" or "God" is simply one subject to be mixed in along with the rest. This has even occured in many Christian schools. Religion is seen as one subject alonside geometry, social studies, or history. But of course a little bit of thought will show the impossibility of this.

There is no neutral ground between the atheistic view of a subject and the Christian view. It's what Francis Schaeffer accurately described as "the antithesis." Where one begins in any subject will necessarily determine where he ends. Is "history" the record of God's acting in the world from creation to glorification? Or is it a randomly-chosen record of evolutionary events produced by time, matter, and chance? Is "science" the pursuit of "thinking God's thoughts after him" in an orderly, created universe, as the great astronomer Johannes Keppler said, or is it simply manipulating physical laws to achieve our ends? And how do we decide on those ends?

"But John, what about math? Surely math is neutral, objective ground, right?" Well, actually no. Vern Poythress (who holds a PhD. in mathematics from Harvard) has a fascinating article demonstrating that presuppositions (wether theistic or atheistic) play a major part even in math. Poythress writes:
It may surprise the reader to learn that not everyone agrees that '2 + 2 = 4' is true. But, on second thought, it must be apparent that no radical monist can remain satisfied with '2 + 2 = 4.' If with Parmenides one thinks that all is one, if with Vedantic Hinduism he thinks that all plurality is illusion, '2 + 2 = 4' is an illusory statement. On the most ultimate level of being, 1 + 1 = 1.

What does this imply? Even the simplest arithmetical truths can be sustained only in a worldview which acknowledges an ultimate metaphysical plurality in the world—whether Trinitarian, polytheistic, or chance-produced plurality. At the same time, the simplest arithmetical truths also presuppose ultimate metaphysical unity for the world&mdahs [sic];at least sufficient unity to guard the continued existence of "sames." Two apples remain apples while I am counting them; the symbol '2' is in some sense the same symbol at different times, standing for the same number.
Now granted, there are many atheists who do just fine at math. But the point is that they've borrowed Christian assumptions in order to do so. Math is not neutral--a Christian worldview has to be adopted to some degree even for math to work. Because we modern Christians have such a segmented view of truth, however, and because we compartmentalize Christ, putting "spiritual" things in a corner of one side of the room while leaving everything else in the physical world as neutral ground for everyone else, we're shocked by even the suggestion that a good public school couldn't teach our children just as accurately as any homeschooler or Christian school could.

As Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch Christian statesman once said, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'" As Christian parents, are we going to teach our children that all things, including math, science, history, art, music, and geography hold together in Christ? Or are we going to implicitly teach them that God is something that applies at home and in church, but that He's functionally irrelevant in the "outside world" to which we're sending them as missionaries?

Interestingly, Challies knows the answer to this question. In another post on another subject only a day or two before the homeschooling fracas, he wrote:
Statistics show that many Christians, and most likely the vast majority of Christians, have a worldview that is functionally secular. Many people who go to church every Sunday, who read Christian books and who read their Bibles and pray every day, still think like unbelievers. Their worldview--their way of seeing and understanding the world--is no different from before they claimed to be Christians. As interesting as statistics may be, common sense and good reason show the problem to be severe. Jonathan Edwards, looking to the refusal of the people of his day to own up to their guilt, realized that 'the liberal Christianity of the new republic would be built around such moral principles.' Modern day evangelicalism is likewise founded on such moral principles.
To which I say: Exactly. I couldn't agree more. But I must ask Tim: wouldn't we be more than a bit naive if we didn't make any connection between this state of affairs and our public school system? Where do you suppose most Christians got that "functionally secular worldview?" Has Challies not provided a strikingly apt description of "non-sectarian" public education through the decades, which has (until recently) taught "moral principles" while excluding theology? And is it possible --since this is a manifest problem, and one that we modern Christians have major blind spots on--that weighing between Christian education and some other kind of education as if both were equally valid options for Christian children could be one very potent manifestation of that "functionally secular worldview?"

Ultimately, we cannot hide our children from sin, as if sin were something "out there." That's legalism, and it fails to recognize that kids have no problems sinning in any environment. Challies rightly decries this tendency on the part of homeschoolers. But that's not why my family homeschools. The reason we homeschool is because we don't want our children to grow up with the functionally secular worldviews Challies rightly opposes, which are all too often the result of the implicit lesson when, say, God and math are separated, or when God is simply glossed onto whatever is already presumed to have been taught--incompletely but correctly--during the normal school day (i.e. "Okay, Billy, you spent six hours today learning biology, math, and history from an atheistic perspective as if they were each closed systems, without any need for recourse to God in the discussion. But just let me add something--God created all that!").

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