Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Elephant in the Room No One Seems to Notice

A little over four years ago, Dr. James Dobson made a bold, clarion call to parents everywhere that it was time to get our kids out of the public school system. Other prominent evangelicals have made similar claims. Many were shocked last June when Dr. Albert Mohler wrote "I believe that now is the time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy from the public schools." There was a cry of outrage at T.C. Pinckney and Bruce Shortt for bringing before the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2004 an education resolution declaring in no uncertain terms, "to remove their children from the government schools and see to it that they receive a thoroughly Christian education." Needless to say the resolution was soundly defeated. The elephant remains.

I have been reading a lot lately on several blogs about the downward spiral America's teenagers are in. Granted, several other prominent and key leaders have weighed in with their estimation of what the church's real problems are. Only pat answers are given; there is a need for greater discipleship; more authentic Christianity; preach the Gospel more dynamically; eliminate hypocrisy. None of these answers strike at the heart of the matter. None of these answers address the elephant sitting quietly in the corner.

Let's face it. In order for the church to be all Christ wants her to be changes will have to be made at the germinal level. Changes that upset our routines, shake us out of our slumbers, inform our ignorance. Whoever said ignorance is bliss knew what he was talking about. For far too long, there have been articles, books, activists, and prophetic voices screaming for us to look at the elephant. There is a cancer metastisizing thorugh the public school system and avowedly there have to be few that readily admit that there is something wrong with the public school system, problems beyond remedy, problems beyond reformation. Can't we do something about that elephant?

Yet this is what many sympathizers cry out; the public school system is too powerful, the educational professionals cannot be swayed, the intelligentsia know what is better for my child than I do. Do we really not know that the public school systems are factories of ignorance and rotten character? Donald McConnell, aka Trinitarian Don, said in an August post, "As dean of a Christian law school, I am often in the position of interviewing prospective students. I have seen and heard with shock and surprise philosophy majors who cannot tell me what existentialism is, economics majors who do not know what externalities are, and history majors who cannot describe in detail the characteristics of their favorite era in history." Maybe someone sees the elephant.

Just a few days ago a fourteen year old girl was molested by the janitor at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Arizona. Why are things like this not uncommon? If it was an isolated incident and things like this did not make headline news nearly everyday, even I might ignore the elphant. However, some things hit too close to home and even in our quaint community, a girl was molested in the county middle school by a fellow student. A fellow student. The elephant just charged from one side of the room to the other.

So, let's continue to anesthetize our wounds with the delusional beliefs that "our schools are different from those out there," or "my child is salt and light," or "public education is a right." Eventually we will be forced to confront the elephant in the room and try to run him out. If we are forced to face the sobering facts about the public school systems, we nervously shuffle our feet, wring our hands, and slyly change the subject. Why?

Bruce Shortt is a leading proponent of running the elephant out of the room. His latest article in the September 2006 Baptist Banner helps somewhat to clarify the issue.
Are 70% or more of our children leaving church after they graduate high school? The self-deceived Christian responds, "Let's train 10-year-olds to be evangelists so there will be one in every classroom!" Does research clearly establish that fewer than 10% of our teens who claim to be Christians in fact really are? The self-deceived Christian responds, "Let's start after-school Bible clubs!" Are our children successfully being indoctrinated with the view that homosexuality and promiscuity are acceptable behavior that can be pursued safely if you take the right precautions? The self-deceived Christian responds, "Let's fight to get abstinence included in the curriculum!" Do a majority of Christian teens believe that Jesus was a sinner? The self-deceived Christian responds, "Let's get a 'Bible as literature' course included in the high school curriculum!" None of this is new.
Do we continue to ask the wrong questions, seek the wrong answers? Do we continue to rub ointment on an open, festering wound?

2 Corinthians 6:14 , a drastically misapplied verse, says, "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?" But is this not exactly what we do when we trot our kids off to public schools? Is this not what we do when we entrust our children's education and character formation to the state? Can somebody do something about that elephant?



Streak said...


I really do sympathize, but think that I could not disagree more with this approach. (Undoubtedly, part of that is my deep distrust of James Dobson and Al Mohler for many of the same reasons I distrust Jerry Falwell and Jerry Vines--and Hagee). Part of it is that as a college instructor, I see the problems that you describe, but am not even close to convinced that the problem is either the "public" nature of education, or the role that the "state" plays here. Nor am I even close to encouraged that Christian schools or homeschooling is the answer.

Perhaps it is the fact that I am a liberal (unapologetically) and think that conservatives have successfully undermined much of our social fabric already--public education has served our country well in issues like acculturation, socialization, etc. The model from conservative evangelicals often sounds suspiciously like "retreat into your homes and churches and avoid all who think differently than you." I don't see how that works, and more importantly, don't see how it helps our society. I learned to play and be friends with kids who believed quite differently from me--and think I would have been a much less compassionate person without that experience.

Nor do I think that public education is the cause of the decline in church membership. But then again, I am no longer a church member. Perhaps I am part of the problem you describe. Perhaps that is why I object. I am one of those liberal educators who challenges certain Christian world views in my classes--because I think they need to be challenged.


Les Puryear said...


I appreciate your thoughts on a very complex subject. One thing that occurred to me. What about those who cannot afford private school? Are they being any less Christian than those who can afford it?

Just asking.


Streak said...

BTW, Tony, I realized after I posted my first comment here that you homeschool your kids. I believe I said that homeschooling was not a solution--and did not intend that as a personal slight. I am well aware that there are situations where homeschooling works great, but I am still not sure that it comprises a "solution" to public education.

Anyway, thought I would clarify.

Tony said...


You and I think a lot alike, even though you call yourself a "liberal" and I call myself a "conservative." Labels...ay yi yi.

The biggest point I am trying to make is a question you and I have been batting around. We are not asking the right questions.

Public education has served our country well in certain respects, but you cannot deny that public schools are foundries of ignorance and bad character. There are exceptions to every rule. But, when you put that many kids in an uncontrolled environment (and I know that point can be debated as well) under the influence of their peers all day, you cannot imagine that much education takes place.

Plus, the public school systems, just like the church offer only pat answers to their problems, which they readily admit they have; more parental involvement, regular PTO attendance; help your kids with their homework more; just be positive.

Neither do these questions really address the heart of the matter.

I do oppose a monkish approach to homeschooling. I encourage parents to get their kids out to play various sports, be involved in the Little Theater, attend the library functions, etc. and so on. This gives children the opportunity to interact with other children without removing them completely from the influence of their parents.

Oh and nevermind the homeschool remark; I have been "put in my place" on numerous occasions about our decision to homeschool, which incidentally, I do half, my wife does half. My wife does not do all the work.


I do not think that it is un-Christian to send children to public school. I know and understand some families cannot afford nor have the time to either homeschool or send their children to private Christian schools. As a pastor, I have the opportunity and the duty to minister to all three types of schooling choices (which I do), whether they public, home or private school their children.

Thanks for the discussion, I hope it continues.


Les Puryear said...


In the spirit of continuing the discussion, I am personally a little concerned about homeschooling. From an academic perspective, I think it's wonderful, but not from a social perspective. Many of the kids in our church are homeschooled and they don't seem to participate with the other children as well as those who are in public school.

Isolation from peers may not help these kids to talk to their peers in a meaningful way as they get older. How are they going to witness about Jesus if they're socially estranged?

I know this is a common complaint about homeschooling by those who don't want the public school marginalized, but I am not one of those.

Have you seen any long term studies of the affects of homeschooling on these kids socially? I think this would be a great study for some researcher to do.

Your friend,


Streak said...


thanks for the clarification. I think I would also add that I am not really convinced that the American public has ever figured out what they want from two pretty important instututions: schools and prisons.

With prisons, we can't figure out if we want to punish, rehabilitate or some combination of the two. There are those who get very angry when prisoners get access to education and want them to suffer while they are in there, but then seem surprised when those same prisoners reoffend at a high rate.

With schools, it seems to parallel. Do we want to create good workers? Good American citizens? Is the role to teach creative thinking and problem solving? Moral clarity? Assimilation?

As a result we have pretty much failed at all. And everywhere I look, I see communities voting down school bonds and underfunding their schools--all the while complaining about the level of their education. I understand the mantra (some of it is fair, I have no doubt) about money going to administration officials and not helping the teachers, but the result are teachers who pay (out of their already meager salary) for basic classroom supplies.

And from what I am reading, private schools have not been nearly as effective as they thought they would either. Homeschooling, I think, in certain families works incredibly well, as it sounds like with yours. But not everyone can do it--either intellectually or financially. Same, of course, with private schools (as Les points out).

A close friend of ours teaches third grade in a public school. She sees the gamut, but most of her concerns are with parents--parents who have no idea what is going on with their kids and don't seem to care. That problem would neither be solved by a Christian school or certainly by homeschooling. As it is, I think so many of the public schools do the best they can.

Tony said...


Honestly, the socialization argument is a myth about homeschooling.

Out of the crucible of our homeschooling experience, five years now, we have yet to meet any socially inept kids. It all really depends on the parents' homeschooling methodology. Many parents are HS recluses, but for the most part we are an extroverted group. For us, we get together once a week with our HS group, a group of about thirty families for an afternoon.

This way the kids get to interact with one another in a classroom setting, yet controlled by us; the parents. This way they learn the valuable social skills they need but does not allow them to push their social skills to the opposite extreme where peer dependency is the norm, as in public and private schooling.

Moreover, as far as witnessing is concerned, I have a problem with putting children on the front lines in the evangelistic mandate. There is no precedent for this anywhere in the Scriptures. I see childhood as the formative years where they need to come to Christ themselves and then be discipled in their faith prior to sharing it in an active way, which I think is what you implied.

And, there are some studies about socialization and HS kids that I can look up and get to you later, if that's OK.

Streak, that is a can of worms we might have to open later :)

A good friend serves on the county school board. Interestingly, through many of our conversations (he and I talk a good bit about schooling, he picks my brain about HS and vice versa), he says that parents RARELY if ever complain about quality of education. Their primary complaints are school meals, bullies, and bathroom/recess privileges. It gives credence to my theory that a lot of parents see school as a great big babysitter. Or maybe they don't know how to ask the right questions...

And I do agree that PS do the best they can with very little. Our local newspaper recently published county employee
salaries, and you guessed it, teachers are the worst-paid staff, yet principals and admin are paid above state average. And I have three teachers, one librarian, a computer services technician and then the school board member, all members of the church I serve, who are stalwart supporters of the system yet do not know how to address their concerns.

I think the problems stem most of all from parents who really don't care and don't want their lives intruded upon. And I think you and I both know how hard it is to stimulate compassion.

Thanks Streak, thanks Les.


Matthew said...

Great article, I appreciate your honesty, and the honesty of the other comments. I thought I might add one idea though. There were some comments about parents not being able to homeschool. I think it is important to realize that education is first and foremost the parent's responsibility. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten this. Therefore, cost, time, and ability are irrelevant. Saying you can't afford or are not able to educate your children is like saying you can't afford or are not able to love your wife. It is a God-given responsibility, so we must do it, no matter the hurdles. That being said, I agree that it is not a sin to send a child to a school where you know for sure their best interests are being met. I just don't think there are many schools out there that meet this criterion.

maryanne helms said...

Actually Tony-

Of your 70% of Christian kids not holding to the faith, I have long found that to apply more to Christian-schooled kids than public-schooled kids. Kids from christian-school environments, long held off from the "world", develop insatiable curisoity to taste and see. Exposing your children to the world, while living alongside them as an involved parent, will produce hearts more tender toward Christ than any amount of over-protection and us vs. them mentality will.

Tony said...

First of all, Maryanne and Matthew, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I hope to see you back again.


Subtle exposure to the world is the method I best recommend to our homeschooling brethen. You are absolutely right about the "desire" that crops up in those kids who go to Christian school. It is natural to desire to "taste and see," however, my heartiest response to your argument is that public school practically keeps kids from coming to faith altogether, or if they are church kids, it strips them of their faith. And if it does not happen in high school, it assuredly will happen if they go to a secular college or university. I admit also I am painting with a broad brush!

Though I do not have much of an argument coming from a Christian school perspective, it seems to me that the necessary grounding needed would be afforded them in the Christian school environment yet it would be noticeably absent in the public schools.

I realize I came on pretty strong in this post, giving an us versus them mentality, as you said. That being said, there are irremedial problems with the public school systems that responsible Christian parents must address.


You have a great website! Thanks for putting into words something that has been on my heart for a long time. is first and foremost the parent's responsibility. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten this. Therefore, cost, time, and ability are irrelevant.

Though I believe all three schooling choices are formidable (I am heavily biased to homeschooling), Christian parents must conscientiously evaluate which is the best choice for their child and make the necessary sacrifices.

Blessings to all,

sherry said...


Thank you for your gracious attitude. As a (very dedicated) public school teacher, I'm often offended by the arrogance that I find among the "homeschool camp." That was not the case, here.

Thank you for treating this topic with a balance of boldness and grace.

Press On,


Heather said...

Tony, (an all your commenters)

I TRULY appeciate your posts. This has been an actual DISCUSSION about the pros and cons of homeschooling/Christian homeschooling vs. public schooling or private schooling.

To many times I have visited blogs where people on either side resort to adversarial posting. Especially when it comes to the "socialization issue" or the "salt and the light issue"

I am a new homeschooling mom - my son started kindergarten this year and my 3 1/2 year old daughter is wokring with preschool workbooks (to do school like her big brother). I saw the elephant in the room (I was a preschool teacher before kids) and my husband and I have chosen to never put our children in public school.

Anyway - sorry to post such a long comment. I just wanted to congratulate you and you commmenters for making this a discussion on both sides.

Tony said...

Hi Sherry,

Thanks for your grace and candor as well. I hope you stop by again soon. My prayer is that dedicated public school teachers, like yourself, can have a significant impact on the public school system. I know in several respects your hands are tied, nevertheless, a kind and gracious spirit goes much farther to answer the critics than the best conceived arguments.

Unashamedly I am committed to homeschooling as the best option for our children in our context. I am thankful that though we come from different schooling venues, we are open to dialogue and can seek solutions for our kids together.


Tony said...

Hi Heather,

Thanks for stopping by and I hope you do again soon. Thanks for the encouraging words, always needed and welcomed!

I have prayed that my blog would be an opportunity for edifying dialogue between those who hold differing opinions and how we can address problems our kids have without being incendiary. That way we can learn from one another and from above how to best meet our children's needs.

I pray that your homeschooling journey is blessed beyond measure. Thanks for your comments.


Spunky said...

To me this isn't a question of what is "un Christian." But what does the Scripture say about growing in wisdom. That used to be the goal of education before the state took over and made it about getting a job. Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. The state doesn't begin with that premise at all. For the nonbeliever this isn't a problem for they are a God unto themselves. But the state's premise creates a dilemma for the Christian parent. We are told not to walk in the counsel of the ungodly (those that say there is no God.) or sit in the seat of scoffers.

The problem is that church has failed in its primary duty. To educate in HOW to grow in wisdom. By allowing the state to co-opt the purpose of education away from wisdom, we are reduced to arguments about finanace and content of curriculum. That's what makes this an debate difficult. If the church and it's pastors would step up and start teaching about the biblical purpose for any education, it would become obvious that the public school cannot meet that goal. Any more than my going to McDonalds will get me a taco.

Spunky said...

And one final note, to the best of my recollection Dr. Dobson stopped short of telling all parents to pull out of the public schools. He told the parents of California to do so but he didn't extend that across the nation.

Tony said...


Thank you first of all for stopping by and commenting on my blog. I visited yours and it is a blessing to be commented on by someone with that much homeschool and blogging experience.

If the church and it's pastors would step up and start teaching about the biblical purpose for any education, it would become obvious that the public school cannot meet that goal. I think that really says everything. Character development is not the responsibility of the state nor the church; only parents can fulfill that duty. The church can and should educate their members in wisdom as you said, Prayerfully that will give them the tools to discern between falsehood and error and then, kids will be wise enough to see the difference.

And I checked up on that quote from Dobson and you are exactly right. I took a bit of liberty with that quote saying he extended it all across America...he stopped short by saying in California. Thanks for the correction.