I originally wrote this post in 2005, but it somehow didn’t make the migration from Blogspot to Beliefnet to WordPress to Patheos.
Like many people who have their first child approaching kindergarten age, I have been thinking about all of our options for next year: neighborhood public school, public French immersion, charter school, private school, homeschool.
But it seems to me that if I am truly committed to living a missional life, then I must enroll my kids in the public school. That is, I am committed to living a life fully invested in what I might call the “Jesus Ethic” or the “Kingdom of God Ethic,” and also fully invested in the society — in fact, you might say that I live according to the Kingdom of God for the sake of society.
In his seminal work on education, Democracy and Education (1916), John Dewey made this point. In an increasingly industrial/technological society, Dewey argued, we learn in order that we may be able to learn. In earlier times, one could learn what it means to be a blacksmith, for instance, by apprenticing under a blacksmith; by the end of the apprenticeship, one had learned pretty much all there is to know about making the metal glow red hot, pounding it into a horseshoe, and sticking it into the water (remember seeing that on an elementary school field trip?).
But things change too fast now for that kind of result-oriented education. Now we must learn how to learn so that we can adapt to our ever-changing environment (ever tried to teach your parent or grandparent to use a computer or an iPod?).
Similarly, formal education was formerly for the societal elite. But in a democracy, education is for all, with the understanding that the more educated we all become, the more humane we will be toward one another (this, of course, is open to debate).
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 themfrom 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.
So I can’t think, “I’ll just pull my kids out of the public schools — what difference will one less follower of Jesus make in a school full of hundreds of kids?” I don’t, as a Christian, have the option to “opt out” of the societal contract. Instead, I live under a mandate to be the most involved, missional societal participant that I can be.
And one more thing. Dewey argues strongly that it is in the social environment that a child learns to learn. Here are the brilliant words of one of Dewey’s successors, George Albert Coe,
“What education does is, in a word, to bring the child and society together. It increases one’s participation in the common life. It puts the child into possession of the tools of social intercourse, such as language and numbers; opens his eyes to treasures of literature, art, and science that society has gradually accumulated through generations; causes him to appreciate such social organizations as the state, and develops habits appropriate thereto; prepares him to be a producer in some socially valuable field of labor, and evokes an inner control whereby he may judge and guide himself in the interest of social well being.”