A Further Response to Allison Benedikt

A Further Response to Allison Benedikt October 7, 2016

Not to keep bashing a perishing horse, but I wanted to tease out another thought from that Slate article of yesterday. Just to remind ourselves where we were, Ms. Benedikt thinks those of us who don’t invest in the public schools are morally bad and we should stop it. If we put our children in, everyone would benefit. And by “we” I’m thinking she means middle class people who do stuff for their kids, rather than poorer people who pack their kids off to school and take no interest in anything that happens to them.

I’m just wondering how many of these kids Ms. Benedikt personally knows. She has judged, and I know not upon what basis, that poor parents are not as invested in the education of their children. Richer parents are more invested. They should participate because, she says, they can do a lot more than they think they can. She writes, “parents have a lot of power. In many underresourced schools, it’s the aggressive PTAs that raise the money for enrichment programs and willful parents who get in the administration’s face when a teacher is falling down on the job. Everyone, all in.” The richer, then, by going all in, will help save those less well off.

I have the privilege of knowing some parents who send their kids to the public system, and there is a wide range of economic and social status among them–some middle class, more very poor. And the thing that I’m not hearing is how much agency they have. On the poor end, there is real despair. Parents who are actually genuinely invested in their children, are nevertheless caught in a cycle of poverty. They wish more than anything they could get their kids out. But they are stuck. They go to meetings, if they can get there. They speak up. But no one hears them. As for richer parents, they can certainly raise money, and they certainly care, but they don’t have any more power over the imposing reach of the state than anybody else does. They may look like they have more power, but honestly, they don’t.

And that’s really the issue, isn’t it? Who has power. Who has agency. Who has a say. In the many reforms that have overtaken public schools over the last many decades, the main thing we can see is that the individual doesn’t have that much say. Teachers in the classroom, mid level administrators, parents–these are not the people who determine what will happen to the minds of the children getting on and off the bus. No, that’s determined far away, in the halls of power where there aren’t any children running around, and where everyone eats plentifully and well.

Ms. Benedikt thinks that a couple of generations of kids could be sacrificed to make things better in the long term. She writes, “But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.”

I genuinely want to commend Ms. Benedikt for bringing up the importance of time. Nothing can be fixed in the short term, even though that seems to be exactly how the problem is always being addressed–with another law, another mandate, another way of doing math. But she has misdiagnosed the problem and so no amount of time, however small or great, will suffice to fix it.

The reason public education has been going off the rails is not because all the middle class “good parents” fled. I’m sorry, but if local communities and parents, whatever their economic status, had had the agency, the power in their own hands, local schools would be doing great. Rich and Poor. Black, White and Hispanic. There’s no way that if the people I personally know were getting to have a real say that we in Binghamton wouldn’t be doing great. It’s not the absence of caring parents.

I have to pause and take offense at Ms. Benedikt’s classist tone. Honestly, get out more lady, meet some poor, meet some minorities. No mother of any color or bank account size wants her child to commit suicide, or any of the other terrible things that happen around here from time to time.

It is a ridiculous idea that people sitting in desks far removed from here, drawing enormous amounts of money from hither and yon, should presume to tell individual teachers how and what to teach and should condemn parents and children to a worldview that excludes the gospel. And yet that is the reality on the ground.

I’m interested in the generations that come after me. If only a single generation had to experience soul death for ones much later to live and think and prosper, maybe I would sign up. I’m not sure. But I am sure that because the gospel isn’t allowable in the public sphere, including the classroom, that nothing will get better even if everyone signed up. As long as the gospel cannot be publicly and freely articulated, I’m not in. Because that means we are just rearranging the deck chairs on a once functioning institution that is slowly sinking into ruin.

I realize that this–local control and religious liberty–isn’t a real solution. The average person who considers the nature of public education, even if they want the encumbering state to back off, does not want a Christian being openly a Christian anywhere near it. And it would have to be the two together–teachers and parents with power, and freedom for the gospel.

And so America isn’t serious about success, isn’t serious about children, isn’t serious about the issues of race and class. Do black lives matter? Do poor children matter? Then let the gospel come in. Let Jesus be the savior that he is. Let Christians speak without fear, without recrimination, without being institutionally silenced. I’m not asking to be allowed to pray furtively in the hall way, I’m saying that religious liberty that allows the good news of Jesus Christ to be publicly proclaimed is the only solution to any of our problems, including public education.

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