Is Public School an Option for Christians?

Can a Christian parent send his or her child to a public school? Absolutely! To be sure, there are those who will sharply disagree, thinking there is only one path for the Christian, in terms of education. “It’s a sin for a Christian not to send their children to public school, for how else will the other children hear the gospel?” one might retort, dogmatically. I, on the other hand, hold no such assertions. Whether it’s public school, homeschool, or private school, all options are open to the discerning Christian parent.

While I will argue that homeschooling or Christian private schooling should be pursued and desired above public school, I in no way intend to bring guilt to, say, a single mom, struggling to raise her children in the godliest was as she knows how. To such a person, I want to encourage and confirm that she can indeed raise godly children, and that she is not necessarily in sin for her inability to provide alternative means of education. This post, rather, is for the Christian parent who has options—the Christian parent who could avoid the government school system.

As the somewhat gnomic expression among Reformed communities goes: raising a child is like a three-legged stool. Representing the legs are the home, the church, and the school. When all three work in unison, there is a firm foundation indeed. When one of the legs, however, is missing, the other two need to work harder to compensate. And when two are missing, the one stable leg will be stressed, perhaps, to breaking point. If able, one should strive to have all three components: The solid family life where family-worship is done daily and where the home is like a miniature church; a solid Reformed church life where the gospel is regularly taught, where people are catechized, and where good theology is expounded; and a solid school where every discipline—from math, to science, to art—is taught from a biblical and theological framework and foundation.

A seasoned parent might, nevertheless, rejoin that this is no guarantee that one’s child will continue walking in the faith when they are grown. As if to say the proverb might be proven wrong: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). But what happens if one’s child does in fact walk away from Christ? Two principles must be remembered at this point: First, the Proverbs contain general truths. That is, it is generally true that if you train a child up in the way he should go that he will not depart. Secondly, it should be observed that the parent’s job is faithfulness. This is to say that the parent is not the Holy Spirit; the parent cannot regenerate his or her own child (1 Cor. 12:3). Rather, the parent is to teach and discipline as faithfully as one is able, and the outcome (i.e., whether the child is born again) is left to God (John 6:44).

While there are political, constitutional, academic, and moral reasons for wanting to avoid the public school system, this post will focus on the most important reason, namely, the biblical and theological reason. It will be argued that in the public school, the Christian youth is taught to adopt three dangerous lines of thinking, and is not taught three vital aspects of life.

The first dangerous line of thinking comes from Immanuel Kant. Kant taught people to bifurcate their understanding of reality to the noumenal and phenomenal realms. The former contains things like God, and the latter contains things that can be seen and felt in the natural sphere. Taken into common practice, it is taught to children that there is a “normal realm” (i.e., life without God), and the “spiritual realm” (i.e., an optional category for those who want some sort of faith). By this bifurcation the Christian draws, functionally, distinct lines between Sunday and the rest of the week. That is, one can be a Christian on Sunday, but the rest of one’s life is “normal.” What is more, it is inappropriate to appeal to, talk about, reason from, or stand on those things that are not a part of the “natural sphere” when in public.

Flowing from the previous paragraph, the second dangerous line of thinking is with regard to a secular worldview. After having succeeded in “getting rid” of Christianity from everyday life, the youth is positioned to adopt whatever worldview is popular at the time. Most probable, the child will adopt a naturalistic worldview. Instead of seeing all of creation as personal—that is, revealing the personal God who created everything—he or she will view the world as impersonal and “natural.” There will just be brute facts out there functioning “naturally.”

The third dangerous line of thinking is that of autonomy. The child is not taught to depend on God and His word. Rather, autonomous, Eve-like thinking is encouraged. “You be the judge as to what you think is true or right,” they will be taught. Instead of resting firmly on Scripture—having a revelational epistemology—they will assume a god-like authority and place even God and His word under their scrutiny.

After being encouraged to put God in a category beyond daily life, to adopt a naturalistic and impersonal way of thinking, and to assume autonomy, the Christian youth will not be taught three vitally important aspect of life—aspects that must be taught and continually reinforced. Thinking about what is omitted in the public school curriculum can be somewhat difficult. We tend to focus on what is being committed. If students were forced to reject Christ, we would naturally be up in arms. But when there is a void, we often miss it. We see a similar thing with regard to television. If a show has sex, cursing, witchcraft, or clear demonic activity, those are easy to spot as antithetical to Christ. However, we often fail to recognize the impact of a moral but Christless television show. When you view a moral, Christless family who acts nice but is completely void of church, family worship, catechesis, and biblical thinking, you are viewing a pagan family structure that has more to do with Satan than with Christ. I’m not saying that all television must be abandoned—just as I’m saying the public school system is still an option—but know that you are not viewing a “normal” family on those television programs, nor are you getting a “normal” education by learning subjects divorced from a biblical and theological foundation.

The first missing element in a public school education is a biblical worldview. As Christians, we are called to view the world through the lens of Scripture—to think God’s thoughts after Him. Unless we know the contents of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and sound doctrine, we simply will not have a biblical worldview. While it is true that many churches and parents train their children in systematic theology, apologetics, biblical theology, church history, and biblical counseling, these topics would do well to be taught in a Christian academic setting also. God wants constant biblical instruction for our children (Deut. 11:19).

William Dennison stresses that facts have meaning given their situatedness to the “story,” and in according to their telos. In following Calvin, Cornelius Van Til “sought to show that ‘logic’ and ‘fact’ have meaning only in terms of the ‘story,’” which is to say that “one must operate within the ‘story’ of Scripture (the Christian story) in order to have a true epistemology.” Thus, history becomes all too important. In keeping with his mentor Geerhardus Vos, Van Til understood that epistemology belongs “within the eschatological status of history: either one is a member of the kingdom of God, with a knowledge of the truth (grounded in the triune God of the Bible), or one is a member of the kingdom of Satan, with the knowledge of a lie (grounded in the deception of Satan). In redemptive history, there is no other ground for human knowledge. One either stands with Christ as the source of all knowledge or against him.” In this way, one cannot approach facts as isolated unto themselves, but must see that the fact and the interpretation of that fact are linked together—and it is the God-interpretation of any one given fact that gives it its meaning as God places it within the context of the story of redemptive history with a particular telos. Put simply, no fact can have meaning apart from the Christian story, and thus educating a student about the very world created by God apart from God is nonsensical.[1]

Secondly, the child is not taught to view his life as a pilgrimage (1 Chron. 29:15; Ps. 119:19; 1 Cor. 10:1-5, 11-12;  Phil. 3:17-4:1; Heb. 11:10-16; 13:14; 1 Pet. 2:11-12) walking the narrow path (Prov. 4:25-27; Matt. 7:13-14) on his way to the heavenly city (2 Tim. 4:18; Rev. 21-22). As Jonathan Edwards taught, everything is subservient to this pilgrimage, not the other way around:

This life ought to be spent by us as to be only a journey or pilgrimage toward heaven… [The traveler’s] journey’s end is in his mind. If he meets with comfortable accommodations at an inn, he entertains no thoughts of settling there. He considers these things are not his own, that he is but a stranger… We should… part with all those carnal appetites which, as weights, will tend to hinder us… We should follow Christ; the path he traveled, was the right way to heaven. We should take up our cross and follow him, in meekness and lowliness of heart, obedience and charity, diligence to do good, and patience under affliction… Long journeys are attended with toil and fatigue; especially if through a wilderness…All other concerns of life ought to be entirely subordinate to this. When a man is on a journey, all the steps he takes are subordinate to the aim of getting to his journey’s end… It was never designed by God that this world should be our home. Neither did God give us these temporal accommodations for that end. If God has given us ample estates, and children or other pleasant friends, it is with no such design, that we should be furnished here, as for a settled abode… [Rather] labor to have your heart taken up so much about heaven, and heavenly enjoyments, as that you may rejoice when God calls you to leave your best earthly friends and comforts for heaven… [And] let it be considered that if our lives be not a journey towards heaven, they will be a journey to hell.[2]

Finally, the Christian youth is not taught how to engage non-Christian thought. “Neutrality” and political correctness will teach him that the only way to engage in public conversation is to abandoned his scriptural foundation and to let the other person set the blueprint for thinking and reasoning. He must be taught how one is to engage and converse publicly, being fortiter in re, but suaviter in modo. Propounding this problem is the secular school’s penchant for the practical arts over the liberal arts. In government schools, the lights of theology, philosophy, history, and classic literature have either been dimmed or extinguished altogether. Scott Oliphint explains the problem:

There seems to be far less emphasis on the liberal arts and much more emphasis on practical arts—arts designed to enhance the possibility of employment. This practical emphasis is understandable, even commendable. But one of the negative consequences of a practical emphasis is that one can proceed apace through every program of education, including a doctorate, and never undertake the type of study that used to be touted as foundational for any true, meaningful, and lasting education.

The current bent, it seems, does not bode well for any discipline, theology included, in which a premium is placed on the value of the word and thinking. An education that is focused on practice may produce employment, but it may also produce a society wherein reading, thinking, studying, meditating, synthesizing, and persuading are virtually absent. Witness, for example, any television political debate. No matter which side of the political spectrum one is on, to call what happens on television within an hour or two a debate is, from the perspective of history, laughable… In the “old days” (and by that I mean a few thousand years ago), a student’s curriculum would initially consist of three subjects called the trivium [grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric].[3]

Before leaving our current discussion, I wish to anticipate three common objections to, specifically, homeschooling.

First, it is often touted that homeschool children will lack the social skills necessary to navigate the world. This is a bad argument for several reasons. First of all, the claim is doubtful. Dr. Brain Ray, for example, found that, “Research… reveals a significant advantage in social development for home schooled children”; and Dr. Thomas Smedley, who wrote his master’s thesis for Radford University of Virginia on “The Socialization of Homsechool Children,” reported: “The home educated children in this sample were significantly better socialized and more mature than those in public school.”[4] The reason being, public school students have a tendency to socialize well within their own age-group, but are not as comfortable interacting with, say, adults. The opposite is true for the homeschool student. Rabindranath Tagore, who won the 1913 Nobel Prize Laureate in literature stated, “The consequence is that the ‘social’ skills acquired are those which may be essential for survival in school but have little applicability in the outside world. There is virtually no opportunity to relate socially to adults in school in order to learn wider social skills. Ironically, such skills can only be learned outside school hours.”[5]

This social problem with public school children has other effects as well. Historically, to master the present—to be educated—one must master the past. You had to know the writings of Homer, the ideas of philosophy, the great books of the past, and so forth. The apprenticeship model set the stage for appropriate adult-to-youth interaction. Today, we separate the youths from the adults and teach that one must master the future. We have little tolerance for the elderly, for knowledge no longer resides in the past but in the future we make for ourselves through technological advancements: Our model is a ‘Wayward Pines’ model. It’s no wonder US History and Constitutional studies are waning: to be unfettered from the past allows you to forge a new future.[6]

The second reason this claim is wanting is that, even if it were true, it shows the priorities of the parent is off. From a biblical standpoint, it would be better to know God, know your Bible, and be mighty in your church than to know quantum theory, be a quarterback, or a popular person among your peers. Thankfully, however, it is not an either/or scenario, and, as shown, it is the government school students who need to worry about socialization.

The second objection is that in order to homeschool the parent would have to know every subject. This claim, however, demonstrates the ignorance with regard to the homeschool movement writ large. In many areas the homeschool movement is well connected with numerous families, talents, and gifts. Also, there are a number of other outside places a parent could choose to augment instruction. For example, there are private schools that will allow a homeschool student to take a class or two in a subject the parent is not gifted in, or there are private tutoring agencies, such as Kumon, that give instruction in math and reading. What is more, this claim also underestimates the parent, as if the parent has been stagnated in terms of their education level. Why could a parent not read 5 or 6 books on a topic and then teach it to their children? One homeschool student recounts:

One of the greatest follies of the school system is to believe that everyone is at the same level and they have to know something at a certain age…. Many teachers don’t realize that pressing the child too early will only result in him or her hating school and learning…. I have been homeschooled practically all my life and I am glad I was. Homeschooling has many benefits and although it isn’t for every family, I do believe overall that it is the best way to learn. It allows the parents to be more involved in their children’s lives and to help them reach their fullest potential. Each child is unique and homeschooling gives the perfect environment for the parents to meet their child’s needs. Children are able to pursue their interests without being held back or pressed to learn material they aren’t ready to learn. Homeschooling brings out the love of learning and shows that learning can be exciting. It gives real world application and practice for material and skills learned. Of all the school options out there, homeschooling is the best choice for the education of the next generation.[7]

The final objection, which comes from Christian parents, is that their child will not be able to be salt and light to unbelievers at school. The problem with this notion is that you must first train a missionary before sending him or her out. If a missionary were going to, say, a Muslim country, you would want the missionary to be solid in sound doctrine and the Christian worldview before studying Qur’anic material and engaging proponents of Islam. The same for public school. There is no neutral worldview, and so when the student is learning in a public school, he or she is learning a pagan worldview. The first eighteen years of life is crucial for worldview development, and thus wanting to send your child to be indoctrinated for six to seven hours a day, five days a week in a pagan system of thought and pagan morality is inadvisable.

In conclusion, let us take up our task, with great fervor, to bring our children “up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4); to teach the words of the Lord to our “children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 11:19); teaching them to defend their faith (1 Pet. 3:15); and teaching them that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight (Prov. 9:10). A Christian private school or a Christian homeschool are simply the best options, if available. When the home, the church, and the school promote and teach a biblical worldview, we are giving our children the best possible foundation, in faithfulness toward the triune God of Scripture. Perhaps our churches could set aside funds for those in the church who are unable to afford Christian education?

After them another generation rose up who did not know the LORD or the works He had done for Israel.” – Judges 2:10

© copyright J. Brandon Burks, 2016

[1]William D. Dennison, “Van Til’s Epistemology and Analytic Philosophy,” in In Defense of the Eschaton: Essays in Reformed Apologetics, ed. by James Douglas Baird (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), 18, 30, 32-33.

[2]Jonathan Edwards, “The Christian Pilgrim,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol.2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011; reprint of 1834 edition), 243-246. [Brackets mine].

[3]K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 124. [Brackets mine].

[4]As quoted in: Lily Swan, “Homsechooling is the Best Option,” in Writing.com, accessed on December 6, 2008 (2008, Lily Swan), http://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1494189/printit/1.

[5]Ibid.

[6]I once heard a news report while listening to the radio that the Center for American Progress advised the Department of Education to cease instruction in US history, Constitutional studies, and economics. I cannot find the news article any longer, so I just mention in here.

[7]Swan, “Homsechooling is the Best Option.”

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