Thirty years ago, my parents pulled my younger sister and I out of the private Christian school where we were enrolled. My mom, a teacher by training, decided that my sister needed some focused one-on-one attention to master reading, writing, and arithmetic. Their plan was to put her back in school in a year or two. I asked them to home-school me too, and they agreed.
Thirty years ago, home-school families were 100 miles beyond unusual. People brought up questions about socialization and quality education and looked at us askance. For a variety of reasons, each year all the way through high school graduation, my parents chose to teach us at home. Twenty years ago, when I arrived at college, my friends trotted out the same arguments against homeschooling (socialization and quality education) plus a new one – Christians shouldn’t abandon the public schools. I argued back that my 3.8 GPA testified to my quality education, and the fact that they were my friends proved I had fine social skills. (They could of course retort that I was/am plenty odd, and I’d reluctantly agree. But oddity is like personality. It knows no educational bounds, nor is it a product of socialization or lack thereof.)
It’s astounding to me that today, twenty years later, the arguments haven’t changed.
I will be the first to concede that home-schooling has its weaknesses, as do the public schools (the current teacher strike in Chicago is a prime example). It isn’t fair to paint all home-schoolers with the same brush, any more than it’s fair to lump all public schoolers together. Home-schools can be (though they don’t have to be) insular and over-protective. Public schools can be (though not all of them are) brutal and negligent.
Last week, Tony Jones painted home-schooling with an unfair brush. He wrote:
So it seems to me that to withdraw my children from public education is to not play my (God-given) role as a missional member of society — like I can’t just choose to withhold my taxes. We give our children all those vaccinations when they’re young not necessarily to protect them from polio (since the chances of any one of my children getting it is exceedingly small) but because we live in a society, and part of the contract within the society is that we will never again let polio gain a foothold.
In a follow-up post, he defines missional as “showing Christlike compassion to other human beings and to all of creation” and asserts that “missional means being the salt seasoning in the world, and you cannot be that seasoning (no matter your age) if you withdraw from society.”
His critique has three weaknesses.
1. Sending one’s children into the public schools is missional living by proxy.
Based on the posts in question, Tony is not going into the public schools to be the hands and feet of Jesus; his children are. Certainly parents of students have a small presence in the school system; however, if Tony believes he has a God-given obligation to show Christlike compassion in the public schools, shouldn’t he be the one going in? How is his children’s presence in the classroom him being salt and light? A Christian who works in the public schools is showing Christlike compassion, shining God’s light, etc.
In addition, some children are ready to be God’s hands and feet. Some are not.
2. Tony focuses solely on the process and overlooks the results.
I know we are just three of hundreds, but my sisters and I all have a passion for God and for reaching others. We are still growing into our selves just like everyone else, are in different seasons of life, and therefore can engage in different kinds of ministry. So, while our childhood may not have been missional the way Tony describes it, we have grown into missional adults. That is worth considering. (Side note: my children are all enrolled in public schools, not to be my Jesus-proxies but because our public schools are excellent.)
3. One’s choice of school is only one small facet of their life and sphere of influence.
Tony’s post overlooks the fact that “human beings and all creation and the world” aren’t only out there. The world is right here at home, too. Men and women who choose to stay home to raise their children are just as missional as men and women who move to the inner city or to tent cities in Haiti or the garbage dumps in Africa. Jesus said that whatever you do to the least of these, you do to Him. He didn’t say “the least of these (except your own family).” “Other human beings” includes our children and our parents, our neighbors, the congregants in our church, the librarian who helps find age-level books, and anyone else with whom we rub shoulders. Jesus tells us to be faithful in the little things.
Posts like Tony’s don’t contribute anything constructive to the conversation about how Christians are to live in the world. They only serve to create controversy and pile guilt on those who for now, whether by choice or by necessity, serve in small ways to the least of these in their homes.