Schoolhouse Rocks Rots (Part 3)

Educational Alternatives and Hope for the Future

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I argued that public education is not neutral, but rather functions as a cultural engine that propagates and promotes ideas and habits at odds with reality and truth. Now in Part 3, we conclude by considering some educational alternatives and hopeful signs for the future. There is no way to address all educational alternatives or concerns here, but it is possible to outline options worth further development.

As mentioned in Part 2, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I know I felt that way as a public-school teacher. What we’ve invested in for so long, what we’ve assumed would work for our kids, and what might have even worked for us, now seems up in the air. While a difficult feeling, it is precisely the honest starting point for reimagining educational alternatives.

Of course, we will not all make the same decisions in regard to education, and I make no attempt to bind one’s conscience on such matters. Rather, I’ll offer some personal reflections on the main educational options today and some guiding principles no matter what options are pursued.

Option 1: Public Schooling with “After-Schooling”

One option is to continue to use the public school system, but to heavily supplement with at-home materials, conversations, and a diligence second to none. This can be done successfully, but it seems to me that this approach would cause children to wonder, “if you are spending so much time counteracting what I’m being taught in school, why are you sending me there?”

Also, how much time do parents really have to devote to “after-schooling” efforts? Is it sustainable to ask children to do this every day? Does this option shift the difficulty onto our children so that we may maintain a certain lifestyle standard for ourselves? If we are devoting so much time de-programming what our kids are learning in school, are there other options that are better uses of our time?

Some will respond and say that our kids are like missionaries in public schools. While I understand the sentiment, I think it is a big ask—like expecting a carpenter with no tools to build a house. Have we given our kids the tools to analyze what they are being taught and then winsomely communicate an alternative? When would we have given them such tools if they’re at school all the time?

I also think the idea of students as missionaries misunderstands the purpose of education. Education is not supposed to be a daily battleground of suspicion, resistance, and pressure for kids; it’s supposed to be a joyful place of human formation into truth and wisdom. And lastly, the student as missionary approach frequently doesn’t go as planned. By the time the last few years of high school arrive, all bets are off. This line of thought might make us feel better, but I wonder if the outcomes are better.

(Note: For the purposes of this short essay, I am including charter schools in this category, because, although they may have some independence and freedom from the public school system, they are still ultimately beholden to state funding and state control.)

Option 2: Private Schooling

Another option is private school, which may be the most direct one-to-one replacement for public schooling insofar as it doesn’t really change the structure and schedule of schooling or family life. Obviously private schools range widely in cost, curriculum, and religious commitment. For simplicity’s sake, we might put private schools into two camps. Those that attempt to mimic public education, and those that accentuate their unique identity.

Private schools that try to compete with public schools by adopting the same pedagogical approaches, technologies, curricular programs, and extra-curricular activities end up being more like public-school replicas with a tacked-on religion class having the comparative value of gym class. If this is all a private school does, then this option isn’t much different from the public school—and costs a lot more money to boot.

Then there are private schools that embrace their identity. For Christian private schools in this camp, all subjects should be permeated with a Christian ethos and ongoing engagement with the true, the good, and the beautiful, as revealed in the Divine Logos. Such a school is certainly a worthy option. I would caution here, though, that it is easy to conclude that “I have done the right thing by sending my kids there, therefore I don’t have to do anything extra at home, since they’re getting all they need at school.” No matter what path we choose, a “drop-off” mindset won’t work. As parents, we can’t outsource our primary responsibility to educate and form our kids in knowledge and in faith. We need to lean in, dig in, and own it, not avoid it.

Option 3: Homeschooling

A third option is homeschooling, which usually brings with it the question: how will kids be socialized? This reveals just how deep John Dewey’s influence goes. Perhaps the best retort is “socialized into what?” At what other time besides school are people put into artificial, age-segregated groups to only socialize with people their age? Is that the best way to form mature and refined social habits?

Homeschooling demands a significant amount of time and restructuring of family life. It usually requires becoming a one-income family, at least temporarily, or summoning a lot of creativity to keep multiple income streams going. As students advance into upper-level courses it also gets more challenging for parents to teach.

There are certainly homeschooling flops, and substantial questions must be addressed if one is going to homeschool successfully. If sufficient attention is not put toward meeting the unique needs of each child, it can be a real disservice to children. But, with proper planning and discipline, the outcomes of homeschooling can meet or surpass those of other educational methods. When scheduled properly, the wasted time of the school day also disappears, freeing up time for deep-dives into areas of interest, much-needed imaginative play, extracurricular activities, or simply enjoying being at home.

Guiding Principles: Fortify Family, Retain Control, Lean Classical

In addition to these three overarching options, there are all sorts of permutations and combinations worthy of consideration. Micro-schools and co-ops, online schools and hybrids, and cottage schools and university model schools are all getting a fresh take as families have been forced to rethink the relationship between work, home, and school in recent years. No matter what options we choose or what new ideas emerge during this time of transition, three principles remain.

  1. Fortify Family. The family unit must be central to any option that is chosen. This is a profoundly counter-cultural move that requires creativity and ingenuity to pull off.
  1. Retain Control. Similarly, educational control should reside in the smallest unit possible, primarily the family. Don’t give up this responsibility.
  2. Lean Classical. Education should tend in a classical direction since classical education is not built upon the philosophies that have driven American education for the last century. Instead, classical education provides a unified curriculum based on the proposition that truth, goodness, and beauty objectively exist and are knowable.

No matter what educational path we take, there will be hard decisions. Are we going to ask children to do the hard things, or are we as adults willing to do the hard things too? We might re-prioritize, pause, or change careers. We might set aside money in preparation for educational and familial changes. We might re-structure family life, reduce extracurricular activities, and develop a more intentional family devotional life. There is no easy option. There is no magical place to move. There is no simple solution.

Despite the hard decisions, this moment is exciting for the possibilities it offers: forming new alliances, creating new schools, unifying education and catechesis, transforming the home into a place of generativity and creativity, forming thick community centered around our churches, working with other families to try something new or recover something old. We aren’t called to be spectators in the lives of our children. They are given to us—not to the state, the school, or the sports team. Now is a time to build.

is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and vicar at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.

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