“Worker Ants in an Insect Society:” The Case for Christian Education

Can government schools produce anything except totalitarian drones?

The folks at Patheos: The Anxious Bench recently re-ran a consideration of this question by the accomplished historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University.  But does this conservative criticism assume too much about America’s public school system?  Are bad schools more like bad haircuts than anything else?

Source: Sodahead

Source: Sodahead

More on haircuts later.  The question of public schools and Christian students has long exercised conservative intellectuals.  I’ve described the history of this perennial concern among American conservatives in general and among conservative evangelical Protestants in particular in a couple of academic articles and in my 1920s book.  As Professor Kidd notes, this question of separate “Christian” schools has long been a central concern among conservative religious thinkers.

Professor Kidd lays out the case: even in his hometown of Waco, “where parents can pretty reasonably assume that Christian students at public schools will not be harassed for their faith,” public-school values do not pretend to match the values of evangelical Protestantism.  The problem, as Kidd notes, has been trumpeted by conservative Christian intellectuals for generations.  Kidd cites J. Gresham Machen, Christopher Dawson, Douglas Wilson, and Anthony Esolen as varied exemplars of this intellectual tradition.

Kidd cites Christopher Dawson’s 1961 accusation that public schools were only fit to produce “worker ants in an insect society.”  The problem, Kidd argues, is not simply the familiar laundry list of evangelical complaints.  It is not simply that public schools teach evolution, or that they discourage prayer, or that they teach a skewed secularized history.  The deeper problem is an utter lack of purpose in public education.

As Kidd puts it,

Public education, and private secular education, is floundering to identify any purpose these days, other than perhaps “math and science” training, and the ever-popular “critical thinking skills.” (Excellent standardized test scores and successful football teams are also good.) The modern public school system was originally intended to form citizens for democratic citizenship; perhaps that purpose lingers in some public schools today. But Christians should be wary even of education for democratic citizenship, which can easily shade into nationalism and cloud a child’s understanding that her ultimate citizenship is in the city of God.

At a fundamental level, Kidd argues, parents must spend more time asking what purpose they hope their children’s education will serve.  For conservative evangelical Protestants, in general, even the most efficient public schools may seem only efficient paths to damnation.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we must ask: Are public schools really so profoundly anti-Christian?  And, perhaps more important, what does any of this have to do with poodle haircuts?

After all, the public schools also take their share of accusations from the left.  Liberal watchdogs such as the Texas Freedom Network blast politicians for using schools as catspaws in a rabid anti-leftist witch huntAmericans United for Separation of Church and State warns of the “Religious Right’s Plan to Force Fundamentalism on Our Public Schools.”  Academic leftists such as Michael Apple accuse twenty-first century public schools of being profoundly dominated by the conservative shibboleths of “Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality.”

Is this only a matter of perspective?  Are public schools centrist institutions, forced to muddle down the middle of cultural controversies?  From the left, schools appear dominated by conservatism.  From the right, they look like secularist left-wing indoctrination centers.

Or could this be the oldest public-school question in the book?  That is, could these critics be making the mistake of treating public schools as if they were a single ideological entity, when in fact they are a ten-thousand-member cluster with no discernible goals or guiding ideology?  In other words, if you want to attack the ideology of the public school system, you’ll be able to find convincing and terrifying examples of all sorts of ideas.  With such an incredible diversity of schools and school districts, it is all too easy for commentators to accuse “public schools” in general of problems that may not trouble the majority of real schools.

Now, at long last, let’s consider what schools have to do with haircuts:

Blasting “the ideology of the public schools” in general might be like attacking America’s hairstyles in general.  Of course, there are fashions and historic trends.  And of course, anyone can pull up terrifying examples of how they can go wrong.  But America’s hairstyles, like America’s public schools, have no controlling central intelligence.  Both are the result of thousands, millions, of decisions by individuals on a daily basis.

Of course, parents and pundits of any religious or political persuasion should make the decisions that fit them best.  But when those decisions are pushed as a simple rule about the ideological nature of the public schools in general, we may have veered off into poodle-haircut territory.

 

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