Back to which school?

Finally, the state is no longer the standard

Issue: "Trial and terror," Sept. 1, 2001

In retrospect, I can't believe the argument lasted so long. But from the time my parents established a small Christian day school in rural Iowa in 1951 (I enrolled there that year for fifth grade) until well into my adulthood, the constant question from outside always was: Can such a school, so tiny, so modest, and with such limited resources, ever match the educational standards and output of state institutions? Note well that I never heard such doubts from my parents or the hardy band that joined them in launching that little school, which since then has produced well over its share of doctors, lawyers, and college professors. But the skepticism from outside was constant, palpable, and annoying. I wouldn't mention such cynicism here if I thought it had been directed only at the remote little school where I later received my high-school diploma. But Christian schools everywhere in the 1950s, 1960s, and well into the '70s all suffered the same libel. If you wanted your kids to love Jesus, the doubters seemed to say, send them to a Christian school. But if you wanted them to be educated, only state schools had the resources. What Christian schools suffered that way came also to be a way of life for homeschoolers in the 1980s and '90s. If 10 or 100 families banding together couldn't match the state's educational prowess, then wasn't it evident that a single family by itself shouldn't even pretend to be able to offer its children the education they would need for life? But as I say, I'm surprised as I look back that the debate continued for so long. For the state educators-those folks from the big teachers' colleges and the state departments of public instruction-have long since displayed their failure for all to see. Their insistence that we must all use their yardstick became increasingly embarrassing as the years passed. The golden standard by which religious schools and homeschools were supposed to be shown up as nothing more than shoddy imitators-that standard itself got a quick case of taint and tarnish. On at least three fronts where "education" is supposed to perform, the state's shortcomings became more and more blatantly obvious:

  • At the most basic level-that of conveying elementary facts and skill sets-the state started stumbling badly. Debates rage on with reference to SAT scores, and whether they're rising or falling and whether they've been skewed along the way to cover up intrinsic educational failure at a national level. But you don't have to answer those questions to see the bigger problem. We have now inherited a nation that doesn't know how to read on a functional level, along with a population that also doesn't know how to do simple calculations either. We cover all that with spellchecking computers, pocket calculators, and cash registers with pictures on the keys instead of words and numbers. Meanwhile, we import tens of thousands of computer whizzes from third-world countries to construct the programs we have become too collectively dumb to do on our own.
  • But schools are not just for passing on facts and figures. They are also to help the next generation discover what such facts and figures mean. It's the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Yet if state schools have dropped the ball on the first assignment, they've long since left the stadium on the second. If you've proved your incompetence at answering the "who" and "what" questions, you've got no business trying the "why" questions. State experts are right when they observe that it's pretty hard to teach biology without touching on sex education. But along the way, they've forfeited their rights in both subject areas.
  • Finally, schools are supposed to prepare their students for the society in which they will live. Indeed, "socialization" was a primary goal of some of the earliest visionaries for statist education in America. As their techniques to bring about that end became increasingly clear, some parents applauded while others expressed their horror. But whatever their response, only a few still think the state systems have done a good job of creating well-socialized products. Respect? Tolerance? Manners? Self-sacrifice? Servanthood? Here and there, perhaps-but such are hardly the trademarks of the products of public schools these days.

Nor, we should note modestly, are they always the trademarks of the products of Christian schools and homeschools. We too have a lot to learn about the educational task. But at least we are free at last to concentrate on the task itself. No longer are we obligated to defend ourselves so constantly about not measuring up to our statist counterparts. Too bad for society it takes their downfall to make us look good.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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