Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Making an Educational Decision (Part 4)

I am going to tell a short version of our story for the benefit of helping you see how we have experienced three different academic settings. I also hope this helps you have context for why we have made the decisions we made.

We began our children's education in a homeschool setting. Our reasons for this were several. We wanted to disciple our children well. We wanted to have maximal time available to shape their thinking and their hearts in a Christ-centered direction. We also believed my son was a bit immature for his age and would not do well in a traditional school setting. Finally, we just plain wanted to spend more time with them.

We homeschooled our children for 2.5 years. We had a love / hate relationship with homeschooling. We loved the time with our children. We enjoyed the freedom of the pace of study, the curricular decisions, and space it provided our family to establish a good rhythm. We hated the additional stress and guilt it provided to my wife as she constantly felt like she was failing. We hated that our children failed to understand that in a room full of children they could not just blurt out whenever they wanted (which is nearly impossible to teach in a home with 2 children). We hated the homeschooling subculture that pretends their wisdom call makes them superior to those who fail to attain their particular level of righteousness (read self-righteousness). However, on the whole we wanted to keep homeschooling. 

Why did we stop? Well, my wife became very ill. She could no longer homeschool the children. Thus, we had to move them into a traditional school setting. By God's grace we were blessed tremendously by Country Christian School. Our children entered Country Christian School and remained in that school for 4 years. I cannot stress enough what a blessing this school was. They were incredibly kind to our family. Our children benefited from a good curriculum, good teachers, and made sweet friends. My wife loved helping out at Country Christian and received many of the benefits of homeschooling without the guilt of being the lead person in trying to educate our children academically. Frankly, my wife is really built to fill a support role. Her relationship with our son became incredibly close where it was strained when we homeschooled. The only downsides to the school were that the upper grades tend to over burden the children with homework and in the last year we saw our children's love for reading begin to dissipate.

It was only this year that we made the decision to place our children in the local public school. We did so because we were not pleased with the 6th-8th grade program at our previous school. We loved the school through the 5th grade. But the program was not a good fit for us past the 5th grade. Our local public school, Centennial Elementary, turned out to be a blessing for our family as well. We have only been in the program one year. With that said, the principal and teachers we had at Centennial Elementary were incredibly kind, gracious, hard-working Christian people. They loved our children well. Our children thrived there academically. Further, their love for reading was incredibly well-nurtured at Centennial! The primary downsides for our family at Centennial were that the curriculum is godless (though the teachers were not), my children hated the math book, and my son struggled with the conversations that were to be had on the playground. 

Now we are left to make a decision regarding our next school year. The two options before us are to keep our children in the public schools or to homeschool again. We are strongly leaning toward homeschooling again. My wife has been well for more than 3 years and we believe her health will be good for years to come. This removes a big obstacle for us. Our son really wants to be homeschooled as he has tired of hearing about all the middle school antics. He has loads of friends and social outlets. He just hates the zoo effect that occurs at middle schools. Further, he really enjoyed a more Christ-centered curriculum and wants to return to Saxon math. My daughter is happy either way. She is younger and has a sweet group of girlfriends at her school she will miss. However, she would prefer a Christian education and Saxon math as well. Further, she doesn't want to be at the public school if her older brother isn't. I keep reminding her they would be at different schools if they both stayed in public school, but she doesn't seem to care about that.

Our concerns in returning to homeschooling primarily boil down to one big issue. Will our children be self-directed enough that my wife won't feel the need to be constantly hounding them? This concern is largely born out of our realization that my wife does not serve well in the role of a leader. She is an incredible support. When my children can look to her to help them and encourage them all is well. When she must be the taskmaster their relationship goes awry. My hope is that I can bridge that some. But, my best efforts to do so when they were younger did not pan out. My guess is that they will be far more self-directed at this age. They have proven to be so in school. 

This concern for my children manifests itself differently for each. Our daughter has the tendency to want to slack off and she pushes back against my wife and not against her teachers. We don't want to provide an atmosphere for her where she is constantly at war with my wife to do her work. Our son is on the verge of being a teenage boy. I do not believe it is healthy for a young man of that age to be under the thumb of his mom all day. In fact, I have seen multiple young men grow up in that scenario and it has not benefited them as adults. Thus, my goal is to take the lead in homeschooling both of them through planning their curriculum, making a calendar, and checking each day to see how their progress is going. I am hoping this will allow my wife to remain in a support role and help them with their studies. This is our planned approach if we homeschool this year. But we won't make that decision for another month or so. 

I will post a list of benefits and weaknesses to each form of education (as we have experienced them) in my next post.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Making and Educational Decision (Part 3)

Part 1 and 2 of this series can be found here and here.

I was sitting at my son's basketball practice talking to a young mom about our kids and school. I was telling her that my son and daughter really want to be homeschooled, as they once were. She responded to me that she was opposed to homeschooling. The reason for her opposition was that she was shaped as a person by her teachers. She said to me, "my school teachers were a huge influence on me as a person. I don't want my children to miss out on this kind of influence in their lives." I was stopped in my tracks by that comment. I was stunned. My mouth was closed and that isn't easy to do!

What this mom reflected to me is actually something we intuitively know about education. We know that our teachers do influence who we are. In fact, Jesus said this very thing when talking about discipleship, "A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher (Luke 6:40)." Influence is an inescapable aspect of education. People will increasingly reflect the attributes of those who disciple them. Pastors actually lament this reality when they discuss the fact that their churches will often reflect much about themselves. Parents lament this when they see their children running around as little mirrors of their own shortcomings. The principle is really quite simple. We become like those who teach us.

Thus, we would be incredibly naive not to account for "who" is teaching our children. The kind of people we want as the primary teachers of our children are those who love the Lord. We want them to be taught by those who demonstrate the character of Christ. We particularly want them to be taught by those who trust the Lord, apart from whom there is no salvation. We want them trained by those who demonstrate the "fear of the Lord," without which true knowledge is not possible. We want them to be discipled by those who "love the Lord and others," which is the sum of the Law. We want our sons and daughters to be developed as disciples of Jesus. This is the goal of Christian education. This is the responsibility inherent in the stewardship of children God has given to us.

The question is then begged whether everything my child is taught must be taught by a Christian. The answer to that question is "not necessarily." To use a non-academic example, my son has been taught how to shoot a basketball by someone who is not a Christian. Does this make my son's love of shooting a basketball an improper ordering of his affections (false worship), so that he is necessarily an idolater with regard to basketball? Of course not. However, is my son influenced by his coach and could the coach's wrong ordering of his affections influence my son in a manner that my son would love basketball too much? Yes! Further, could this same falsely directed form of worship be taught to my son by another Christian also? Yes! Frankly, my worship is often misdirected and I am certain my children's loves are shaped by me as well. 

We must be careful to avoid concluding that there is nothing good our children can learn from other fallen people, even unbelieving people. We believe in God's common grace working in unbelievers so that they often think true thoughts. Their problem is those truths are not placed in a proper worldview nor enjoyed in the context of the worship of God. With that said, we also must avoid falling into the mistaken notion that our children are not being influenced by those who teach them. 

It is our burden to make sure our children are being shaped into Christians in thinking and in the ordering of their affections (worship). This is difficult work which requires we engage with all those who are influencing our children. We must come alongside our children and help them put everything they are learning in the context of a proper worldview and worship. It will not do to fall into the error that our children have nothing good to learn from other adults (even unbelievers), nor to pretend that other teachers have no influence over what they think and love. 

Navigating the various influences you introduce into the lives of your children is difficult work and requires wisdom. In the next post, I will discuss our story and advantages / disadvantages we have found in choices we have made for our children. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Making an Educational Decision (Part 2)

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

If you walk into most conservative evangelical churches these day, you will notice a rise in the number of children who are homeschooled. Homeschooling is a rapidly growing trend among Christian parents for a variety of reasons. What you may also encounter is a general attitude that if you don’t homeschool, then you may be failing as a parent. There is a stench of parental superiority in the evangelical air many of us breathe regarding homeschooling. Homeschool parents are increasingly being represented as the only people who are truly dedicated and willing to make tremendous sacrifice to save their children from Caesar. In fairness, less than a decade ago homeschoolers were seen as weirdos who are going to raise up socially dysfunctional and academically handicapped children. As the evidence is pouring out, however, this image is changing (though admittedly some still suspect this may be a real problem).

As a result of this cultural shift among evangelicals, I am increasingly asked what the Bible says on such matters. I am asked this by dads who want to make good decisions for their families. I have also been asked by moms who feel guilty because some of their friends have been sure to repeat how they sacrifice so much to homeschool because they “really love their children and want the best for them.” Thus, we turn to the question, “does the Bible require a particular type of educational setting?” Does the Bible say anything about whether we homeschool, enroll our children in a private Christian school, or place them in a public school?

Let me compound the problem by suggesting we ought to reject the question as insufficient. The question assumes that education is based primarily in the cognitive arena of transferring information. The argument goes something like this: 

Clearly, our children ought to receive information shaped by a Christian worldview, since all other kinds of learning are a fool’s errand. The public schools have a curriculum that bathes in the waters of secular atheism, thus we should not subject our children to that kind of education. Therefore, if you can afford a Christian school that is a good option. If you can not afford a Christian school, then homeschool is the only Christian option left to you. If you do anything less, you are merely turning your children over to Caesar and you clearly are not taking seriously your responsibility to raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

There are two possible problems with this line of thought:

  1. This may be sage advice, but it isn’t necessarily a biblical mandate.
  2. The assumption implicit in this argument is that children are primarily thinking creatures and thus our only concern needs to be shaping their worldview (see part 1 for more on this).  

The Bible clearly commands us to raise our children with both a Christian worldview and as Christian worshippers. This means we need to be devoted to making sure they understand how everything they learn is created and designed by God. Their worldview needs to be distinctly Christian. We need to find a way to instruct our children so they know God is and that he is relevant to their daily lives. 

I think it is true to argue that teaching our children a Christian worldview is much easier in the context of a school setting that is assisting us in that endeavor, as opposed to a setting where the worldview is explicitly and self-consciously atheistic. There are many Christian teachers in the public schools, but they oversee a curriculum which intentionally teaches a secular atheist worldview. With that said, this does not necessarily mean it is impossible to raise children with a Christian worldview while they attend public schools. It is definitely going to require more work. It is wise to assess whether you will actually do all the extra work necessary to overcome an expressly godless curriculum. 

We also can’t argue that the Bible clearly requires one educational setting. There is no such biblical command. We can’t say definitively that parents who avail themselves of the public schools to educate their children academically are necessarily violating a biblical command. One could argue that the better part of wisdom militates agains that decision, but we must be careful not to make a wisdom call into a command for all to follow.

Further, we need to be thoughtful to establish a rhythm to our Christian lives that is self-consciously an order of worship directed to the Lord. We need to understand that our practices are a reflection of how we see God and humanity and also serve to inculcate in our children a particular view of God and humanity. Let me provide an example: 

If a family’s week consists of the parents going to work from 8am-5pm five days per week, while the children go to school and do homework, then is followed by multiple athletic practices and hours of watching television at night, and capped off by using the weekend to do some household chores, go to athletic events or mini-vacations, and squeeze in church attendance when there is time, what kind of view of God and humanity are you practicing? What are you teaching your children to love through constant practice? Does it even matter that you tell your children you are a Christian family? Your life is basically a pattern of production and consumption. Your children are being raised to perform up to western standards and to believe rest consists in being entertained. Is it any wonder that so many young people go off to college and walk away from Christianity? Your children have practiced a life of worshipping the world their whole lives!

We can be people who profess to love Jesus, attend church occasionally, and retain a relatively high moral standard in our home, while we are simultaneously habituating our children in a practice of worshipping the creation rather than the Creator! We can do this whether our children are in public, private, or homeschool settings. The educational setting does not guarantee we will practice a pattern of life that points our children to worshipping the Lord. Please don’t buy into the idea that your regular practices don’t matter. Your children’s loves (thus their worship) are being shaped by the rhythm of life you practice in your family. 

What if you reorganized your family’s practices so that most evenings you spent time discussing life while having dinner together, reading the Bible together, and praying together? What if you dialed back the athletic events your children participate in and the kinds of grades you expect from them, so that your family could spend time several days a week enjoying time with the Lord as a family and with your church body? What if you turned the television off and replaced that time playing a game and laughing together? What if you spent time discussing with your children what they are learning academically, how this new information helps them to have a higher view of God, and what challenges they are facing which they can look to the Lord for help with?

I want to provide a personal example of how these patterns of life as worship indeed shape what your children love. My son loves football and basketball. He is a fanatic. This is shaped in part by me playing these sports with him. He was asked just last night to be on an all-star basketball team. He was ecstatic about this! He also found out this all-star team is going to a weekend tournament in June. My son asked whether this tournament would interfere with Sunday corporate worship. He is only willing to play in the tournament on Saturday if the Sunday games interferes with Sunday worship. This is a costly decision for him. He loves basketball and he desperately wants to play in this entire tournament. However, he loves the Lord and corporate worship more. Our family practice has always been to guard Sundays from any interference with other activities. This pattern of worship has shaped how our son sees his week. However we resolve this dilemma for him, the resolution will not include devaluing corporate worship so he can play basketball.

The question of whether our children should attend a public school, a private Christian school, or be homeschooled proves to me to be the wrong question to start with. The better question is how are we intentionally building a liturgy (order of worship) into the patterns of our lives that trains our children to love the Lord? Also, how are we using all the resources at our disposal to help our children learn a Christian worldview? Do the academic choices we make impact our answers to the previous questions? Absolutely! We would be naive to think any differently. At the end of the day, our children are either being taught God is and he is relevant to our daily lives, or they are not. This is the parent’s primary responsibility.

I failed to deliver on the question of whether those who teach our children ought to matter to us. I will answer this in my next post. My final post will be on the story of my family and the advantages and disadvantages we have found in each academic setting.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Making an Educational Decision (Part 1)

One of the most significant responsibilities that faces every Christian family is the education of their children. The temptation many of us face is making a distinction between education and discipleship, or more properly a bifurcation between the mind and the person. We see the training of the mind for academic subjects as completely disconnected from the formation of persons. Thus, we perpetuate one, or both, of two errors: 

  1. We think learning the core academic subjects is a completely neutral endeavor and can occur in the context of the public school without consequence to the formation of our children’s minds (worldview) or hearts (worship).
  2. We think learning the core academic subjects must happen in the context of the Christian school, or homeschool, as a kind of “baptized” version of what is happening in the public school model.
My endeavor in this first article is to address these two errors in how parents see education and their role in shaping their children. In doing so, I hope to begin to establish a basis for making educational decisions for our children.

I want to start by addressing what the responsibility of Christian parents is in discipling their children. Two of the most well known texts with regard to discipling our children are as follows:

Ephesians 6:4~Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 6:4 ~“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

These texts do not require a Bible degree to understand. Parents are commanded to bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. They are to teach their children who God is and that they should love him. This instruction is not limited to classroom instruction. This instruction is also not limited to Sunday school, family worship time, or youth group. It is a life encompassing endeavor. All of life is to be patterned in such a manner that we are always pointing our children to Jesus Christ and encouraging them to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. This is discipleship.

Now, here comes the question: “What do Math, English, etc have to do with Christian discipleship...Isn’t academic inquiry really a spiritually neutral endeavor?”

According to Solomon the answer to that question is, “NO.”

Prov. 1:7   The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Prov. 9:10  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

Jesus goes on to tell us that one can only achieve the status of a fool apart from him:

Matt. 7:24   “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Paul reminds us that this is so because Jesus is the wisdom of God and we must renew our minds and take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

1 Corinthians 1:30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

2 Corinthians 10:5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.

There is no neutral ground. Our minds are either informed by the fear of the Lord as we look to Christ, or we are caught up in the foolishness of this world. You may rightly object that you know many unbelievers who are great mathematicians. How can we suggest that they are ultimately fools with no real knowledge when they clearly have incredible Math skills?

You would be correct to assert that it doesn’t take the fear of the Lord to have the knowledge that 2+2=4. God’s common grace is at work in our world and so unbelievers know things. Unbelievers can be incredibly proficient academics. However, our goal as Christian parents is not to raise good academics. Our goal is to raise good Christians.

What an unbeliever doesn’t know is that 2+2 always equals 4 for a reason. There is a unity and cohesion in the universe which is designed by God, so that 2+2 always equals 4. There is also a designed diversity in creation that insures that 2+2 doesn’t equal 2. We have this unity and diversity in creation as an expression of our Triune God who is both One in essence and Three in person. Our children need to know that so they can appreciate the creation, even as represented in Math, as an exercise of worship to our Lord. 

What I have been discussing until now is called a “worldview.” Our children need to be shaped with a Christian worldview. They need to learn that history is not accidental but is shaped by the Providential hand of God. They need to understand that English is a language that expresses real ideas and that facilitates real communication because God is and thus we can express things truly to one another. They need to see the wonders of science as an expression of the immense power and good intentionality of our Creator. Our children can not worship God if they do not know him and if they can not see all of creation as pointing to him.

However, even shaping our children’s worldview isn’t enough. If worldview was the only problem parents had to overcome in discipleship, then all education would be as simple as giving them the right information. I think this is what is often assumed in Christian education and among many homeschoolers. I say that because they believe that if they just have a baptized version of what the public schools offer, then all will be well. This is simply not true.

What we often fail to realize is that the entire shape of our lives is to be worship. We are creatures who have hearts. We are not only creatures of mind. We are embodied souls. Our bodies matter. Our minds and hearts matter. Thus, the shape of our lives matter to the education of our children as well. 

J.K.A Smith in, Desiring the Kingdom (a book I highly recommend), speaks of the shape of our lives as a cultural liturgy. A liturgy is an order of worship. All of life is an expressed as an order of worship. The rhythms of our lives both demonstrate what we believe and shape what we love. If I believe that the practice of being human is essentially an exercise of the mind, then I will believe that transmission of information is the burden of education. In other words, I must shape education so that the maximal amount of information is transmitted to another person. If I believe that being human is essentially an exercise of worship, then I will believe my patterns of daily life must train both the heart and mind. In other words, I must shape education so that the whole person is developed for the glory of God.

We live in a culture that has bought into a kind of dualism that sees humanity as essentially being producers and consumers. Thus, all of life is shaped to be as productive as possible. The burden of education is to transmit as much information to these non-worshipping producers as possible, so that they can live a successful life of being highly productive. Often, homeschoolers and Christian schools simply baptize this view of the human person and load children up with a huge amount of academic work (with a Christian worldview of course). After all, what really matters is that our children can be successful and productive, right? And we wonder why the average working man spends too much time trying to achieve while leaving his family with little support (or, alternatively, too much time consuming entertainment). We have taught him to worship at the altar of productivity (and consumption) his whole life. What do we expect to be the outcome?

Whatever schooling option we choose, we must not fall into the trap of believing there is neutrality in education, nor in believing that all that matters is the transfer of information. The worldview and the worship practices that are taught to our children will shape their minds and hearts. They will shape them into wise followers of Jesus, or into fools who say in their hearts "their is no God." There is no other option.

With that said, my next post will be on whether the Bible requires a particular type of educational setting (homeschool, private, public), and whether those who teach our children ought to matter to us. My final post will be on the story of my family and the advantages and disadvantages we have found in each educational setting.