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A Letter to a Friend
S. M. Hutchens on Choosing Schools
I have always been willing to give the public schools a chance. One reason is that one never knows how much bad one will encounter in private or religious schools or how much good in the public. I think it a reasonably common experience, for example, that parents who want a sound religion-based education for their children find the local choice to be vaguely liberal Catholic or firmly sectarian Protestant. Some “protection” is provided in either case, but at the cost of nurturing a form of Christianity that is insufficient to withstand the harder challenges the culture provides.
In the public schools there is less apparent safety, but lines between good and evil, Christianity and anti-Christianity, stand out in higher relief. Faith is challenged, but this provides the possibility of its strengthening, so that when the Christian child emerges from public secondary education, if he remains a Christian, he is more likely to be a confirmed one.
The decisions made on public, private, or home education depend as much on the child’s qualities of mind as they do on the school itself, both of which the parents should know well enough to evaluate. We send our children to the public schools, debrief them when they encounter things contrary to the faith, and watch them for signs of depression.
There is enough tracking in our local system, and there are enough good teachers, that an intelligent child can still receive a decent education despite the mediocre overall quality produced by the combined efforts of the United States government and the citizens of Racine, Wisconsin, neither of which is constitutionally able to acknowledge that a school (or any other) system committed to the dual principles of equality and excellence is insane. Given that, the principal question for us has been whether our children can thrive in the strange and disorderly society that is the typical modern public school.
Mere dislike of school is not in itself cause for removal. School at its best involves discipline and labor in the face of which the child’s desire to be somewhere else, doing something else, is normal. A child consistently depressed by the school, however, is something else entirely, and calls for decisive action. To this end I think it good that the parents should decide where to send their children by considering, and periodically reassessing, four things: (1) the child’s strength of character—including his tendency to be depressed by school, (2) his academic aptitude, (3) the school’s academic competence, and (4) its orderliness, or lack thereof.
“School” as we have come to know it is not the best place to learn or grow, at least socially and intellectually, and even the best of school circumstances has inevitable negative effects. The bad in school is principally that it is a mirror of its society, demanding regimentation without true order and encouraging freedom without the responsibility of true liberty, swinging between these aspects of life it does not understand, unable to grasp the real requirements of either.
Because of this the sensitive and thoughtful child who has the advantage of good teaching and discipline at home will likely be frustrated by much of what he meets in school. This does not mean that he may not use it to his advantage, since it will teach him how the world is and give him the great advantage of learning to cope, and even to work creatively within it.
The parents, however, must view most schools for children, public or otherwise, differently than we once did here in the United States, according to the old song: “School days, school days. / Dear old golden rule days. / Reading and writing and ’rithmetic. / Taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick. . . .” The schools may rarely be relied upon, as the verse implies, to teach morality or academics, much less trusted to enforce the discipline necessary to do so.
Whatever fragmentary competence for these things remains must be critically assessed by the parents and supplemented at home, and the child who is being harmed rather than strengthened by his overall school experience should be moved, if possible, to another environment. For us, chronic depression (not mere overall dislike) was the sign that a removal had to be made.
Parents can no longer regard the school as the principal provider of the child’s education—doing so was a brief luxury now past—but rather as a thing apart that may be used to advantage, both academic and social, up to whatever point the advantage actually exists. Schools may be used in the process of education, but they should not be relied upon to “provide” it.
It is here we will run into trouble with the utopians and social engineers who want laws to keep our children in the schools they can control, who wish to have the kind of schools they approve as the central and irreplaceable locus of the child’s early education. They really do believe in that old song, and are coming after us apostates with the hick’ry stick wherever they can.
A Particular Child
If a parent were to ask me about a particular child’s situation, I would probably advise him to watch the child closely, observing his academic progress, and even more, his state of mind. Let him know how you think—and what you are presently thinking—about his training. Invite his thoughts on the various options that are open, and about which you must make decisions. (Children will not usually treat such inquiries lightly.) Tell him what you want ultimately to provide for him, and how you are presently thinking of doing it.
Thus you will identify yourself as the principal teacher, and let him know how you see the lay of the land. This should be comforting to him, for it lets him know that his parents, whom he trusts, are in charge, and are keeping an eye on things.
Do as much as you can to free him from obligations the school places upon him that you would not, helping him to see school not as an end, but as a partial means to an end to which his responsibilities are only as heavy as you, his parents, make them. My wife and I have exempted our children, for example, from our expectation that they earn grades reflecting their actual level of ability from teachers who use grades as rewards for ideological conformity. We have always made it clear to them that they are under no obligation to believe everything their teachers (or textbooks) say, and that while teachers are always to be treated with respect because of their office, their personal veracity, competence, and reliability varies widely.
We have also made it clear to our children that they must be especially careful to mistrust the view of history that their textbooks provide. We have demonstrated to them how modern liberalism, which is now in fairly complete control of this area, has rewritten history since we were young, particularly in providing a strange new canon of “important people,” and misrepresenting the weight and value of religious faith in the history of the nation.
We let them know as soon as they can understand that what is taught in the schools is determined by who wins elections, and that people without a good moral compass will give bad people the power to do bad things, including give skewed history to schoolchildren. (The reelection of Mr. Clinton provided an admirable example of the stupidity and turpitude of the electorate.) This attitude is by current definition insufferably elitist, but effectively offset in Christian homes by the teaching that the lying begins in each of us, as it did in Adam, the very moment we try to cover up our sins.
When public authority is treated critically in the home, the child is relieved from giving it the weight the school nearly always encourages but hardly ever deserves (reflected in the ridiculous sloka one hears from teachers’ unions especially that teaching should be left to professional teachers who know how to do it—as if even well-educated parents were not competent to provide their children with an elementary education). The school now becomes something to be used, like a store, where one can choose what one needs and leave the rest.
As far as socialization is concerned, the child will be helped, perhaps, to see school as a kind of exercise room, where one goes for a workout that makes him sweat a bit, but also makes him stronger. The parent just sees to it that he isn’t given anything that will damage him. Whatever is lacking can be supplemented at home—and already is, no doubt, in stable Christian homes where the family has active membership in a good church.
Keep this extracurricular world of home, family, and church alive and healthy, making it more the center of the child’s existence than the school. Take your children as many places with you as you can, and discipline them so that you (and others) can enjoy their company, and they can concentrate on the experience more than on themselves.
In general, I would say, get close to the child, tell him what you are thinking, watch for signs of depression, listen carefully to what he has to say, make your decision (telling him your reasons), and then stay flexible, since one never knows what will develop. Treat the schools with cold objectivity, as a possible means to an end, and encourage your children to do the same.
In this, one frequently finds himself swimming against the stream that encourages regarding the school with the unearned and undeserved authority of an “alma mater.” Better to understand it as a pedagogue, a slave that may earn its way into regard and affection, but for whom these things are not assumed.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.