By withdrawing from the larger culture, homeschoolers aid and abet the culture’s failings¯or so, at least, the charge goes. Christians have a responsibility to be not "of the world," but, we are told, they also have a responsibility to be "in the world." And therefore it’s our duty to send our children to public school. After all, Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and how can we possibly be those things if we stay at home all day?
According to this logic, we are called not only to witness, via our children, to a diverse population of people but also somehow to salvage public education itself, as if this would right everything that’s out of whack in our society. To decline to do so is, in this view, both personally selfish and culturally destructive.
Though at this stage in my life I have a hard time understanding why I should feel a greater sense of responsibility to a government institution than I do to my children, I must confess that it has not always been so. Our oldest daughter spent four years in an English working-class neighborhood school, where she was conspicuous not only for being American but also for having parents who were actually married to each other and actually both the parents of all children in our home. Aside from the Bangladeshi Muslims who comprised roughly a third of the school population, ours was the only family with any discernable religious orientation whatsoever.
As such, we did feel responsible for the well-being of that school. The education on offer wasn’t brilliant¯"random topics" seemed to be the general theme of the National Curriculum as taught at this particular school¯but, as we told ourselves, it was OK. We could supplement at home. And meanwhile our daughter was receiving a valuable cultural education, right?
This is what we told ourselves even in the face of, for instance, the sex-education program we encountered in Year Four, the English equivalent of third grade. We were the only parents who asked to preview the materials; when we discovered, among other things, that they included an animated video sequence of teddy bears having fairly graphic sex, we exercised our right to opt out, and took the children to the British Museum that day instead, for cultural education on a different level, for once.
Random topics we could deal with. Animated teddy bears boinking we could avoid, at least in the short run. I suppose we could have gone on indefinitely telling ourselves that all this was OK¯not great, but OK¯if our daughter had been happy and thriving. But she wasn’t. Over time, most of her close friends moved to other primary schools with better test scores. The remaining school population was, as the English say, rougher . The overall atmosphere became rougher .
Well, we said, this is not good, but we can’t just abandon the school. Meanwhile our daughter, always reserved, became almost paralytically shy. On the playground, as she told us later, she concentrated on not being called ugly names by the boys. In class, she cried a lot rather than raise her hand. At home, she cried herself to sleep. On one occasion, as I distinctly recall, she was upset because in Religious Ed¯no separation of church and state there¯another kid had announced to the class, "God’s stupid," and the teacher hadn’t said anything to him, and she had felt that this was wrong.
The incident had happened months earlier, it emerged¯we certainly had known nothing of it at the time¯but it still ate away at her. As I comforted her, my first impulse was to say, "Well, that’s not anything to cry about." But of course it was. An adult might have spoken to the kid in question. An adult might have spoken to the teacher. What could an eight-year-old child do? Cry, that’s what.
Certainly Jesus tells us all to be salt and light. In the Christian tradition, however, we use phrases like "the age of reason" for a reason: recognition of the fundamental difference between an adult’s understanding and a child’s. The classical model of education uses the language of the Trivium¯grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric¯to describe stages of cognitive development in terms that provide, I think, a useful and accurate model for spiritual as well as intellectual formation.
A child in the grammar stage, a third-grader, say, is developmentally geared toward the acquisition of basic facts, memorizing Bible verses or the Corporal Works of Mercy. Even a bright third-grader lacks the powers of higher reasoning necessary to discern the truth amid conflicting messages.
Middle-schoolers, in the dialectical stage, are ready to learn to argue¯ learn to argue. As anyone with a middle-schooler knows, this dovetails nicely with certain natural inclinations of the age, but the average eighth-grader is hardly prepared to play C.S. Lewis in social studies class.
Even high-schoolers are still in the process of acquiring the rhetorical sophistication they will need in college to defend their faith to others and to themselves. Consider how many college freshmen allow themselves to be talked out of Christianity during the fall semester, in the course of Intro to World Religions. If college freshmen can’t cope, it seems unrealistic to expect third-graders to bear the burden of evangelizing their schools. What seems far more likely is that, to one degree or another, the schools will end up evangelizing these children.
The idea of sending a child daily into a hostile environment¯if not actively hostile, as in bullying, then certainly philosophically hostile¯expecting him not only to withstand assaults on everything his parents have told him is true but also to transform the entire system by his presence, seems sadly misguided to me. There may be many valid arguments for sending a child to school, but that one doesn’t wash.
In the Sermon on the Mount, in addition to the salt-and-light business, Jesus also tells the multitude, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." A child’s greatest treasure, to my mind, is his childhood itself. He has only one, and it’s over quickly enough. If we as parents invest that treasure in sex education that makes us cringe, history we know to be a lie, and busy work we recognize as meaningless, we should perhaps not be too surprised if at the end of the day these things, and not the things which are above, have claimed our children’s hearts.
If this sounds hyperbolic, consider the responses of students in an evangelical college here, in a class taught by one of my husband’s friends, who decided to poll the students on their views of Christian sexual morality. He was taken aback, to put it mildly, to discover that the sole moral conviction held by an overwhelming majority was that it was wrong for Christians to judge other people’s behaviors. "Sex is just a bodily function anyway," one student said. Bear in mind that these students were self-described Christians, from Christian homes, who had chosen their college for its Christian environment. Somehow, in all their years of formation, they seemed to have missed the fairly crucial lesson that Christianity establishes clear guidelines regarding sex. That Christians should regard those guidelines as neither repressive nor even negotiable was right off the radar.
If, as a correspondent of mine has suggested, Christians are impotent in engaging with secular culture, perhaps the problem is not that too many of us have withdrawn from it but that too many have surrendered our cultural distinctiveness. If we urge our children to integrate into the secular mainstream, and it turns out instead that the secular mainstream is integrated into them , then what we end up with is, well, what we largely have: a generation that believes that Christianity is only about not being judgmental.
This strikes me as a weak position from which to influence anything. If we’re called to speak the truth in love, we have to do so from the locus of a distinct Christian culture, however microcosmic, that makes readily apparent what the truth actually is and that nurtures moral courage. Only last night, my now-teenage, formerly paralytically shy daughter shared with me her concerns about one of her best friends, whose family are not religious. She worries about her friend’s use of bad language and about her increasingly sexualized interactions with boys they both know. "I tell her not to swear," my daughter said earnestly. "And for a while she stopped. But then she started again, so I have to keep saying to her, please don’t say that word."
What ultimate impact my daughter will have on her friend I don’t know. And maybe it’s not important. She isn’t affecting wholesale cultural transformation, after all, rolling back the abortion license or abolishing poverty and racism. Christianity, however, has tended to operate best on precisely this modest scale: one soul at a time.
So is homeschooling selfish? Have homeschoolers enthroned the needs of their own children at the expense of the larger society? In declining to send our children to public school, have we truly turned our backs on the lost of the world? This, after all, is the real charge that Christians level at homeschooling.
For other Christians, it’s largely not about whether we’re stockpiling weapons and planning a theocratic takeover of the entire world. Instead it’s about whether, in making idols of our children, we’ve failed to love our neighbors. In response¯aside from wondering where it’s written that we’re called to serve everyone else in the world but say to our children, "Deal with it, honey" (the prophets, as I recall, have some rather pointed things to say about child sacrifice, which might metaphorically apply here)¯I suppose I mainly wonder at what point the local public school became the sum total of "the world." If our children aren’t in public school, does it follow that they aren’t anywhere at all? I wonder why the public school should be a more "natural" environment for loving our neighbors than anywhere else.
Some people worry about the state of the schools; I tend to worry about the state of the American neighborhood. In an age of working parents and before-and-after-care, most middle-class neighborhoods effectively become ghost towns between 6:30 in the morning and 6:30 at night. Our societal habits suggest that, when we say community , we mean something we leave home to find: at work, at the coffeehouse, at the gym, at school. Home is where we go when we’re sick of everyone else. We go inside, we shut the door, we turn on the television. Walk down a typical residential street at twilight and you’ll see cars in the driveways, but the houses look deserted: curtains drawn, lights off, the blue glow of the television the only evidence of habitation.
We live in a city that routinely posts some of the highest violent-crime numbers in the nation. A neighborhood that empties out during the day offers a natural target for break-ins, vandalism, and other criminal activity. The pernicious pattern here, in neighborhood after neighborhood, is that the crime moves in, the people who can move out, and the ones who can’t get stuck with crack dealers next door.
In our modest little 1950s subdivision, many of our neighbors who bought their houses new fifty years ago now find themselves old, homebound, and vulnerable, and more and more the street is becoming populated by younger strangers who aren’t here most of the time. One of the distinct advantages afforded by homeschooling is that we are here a lot. It’s pretty obvious that we’re here, too: Our front door stands open most of the time, our lights are on, and the children and I are in and out of the house constantly. The fact that someone’s visibly home on our block means, we hope, that anyone cruising through, casing houses, will discover us and our neighbors to be uncongenial targets.
More important than our value as deterrents to crime, however, is the fact that we’re available to the neighbors when they need us, and they know it. My husband and I have typed resumes, resolved computer problems, and set mousetraps for various neighbors at odd hours. My older children play regularly with neighborhood children and¯as is happening in my kitchen as I write¯make cookies to take to neighborhood shut-ins.
My two preschoolers have adopted as their particular friends a couple of neighbors who seem especially to need friends. One, an elderly man whose wife has just gone to the nursing home, walks his dog seven or eight times a day just to escape his empty house. Whenever he passes our house, my little kids explode out the front door to talk to him and pat the dog. With us he’s a taciturn conversationalist, but he will stand listening to my four-year-old describe at length a dream in which he walked on water, but was not Jesus, with what at least looks like unfeigned enjoyment.
The other neighbor, an unemployed thirtysomething, lives next door with his parents, works on cars in the driveway, and walks to the Citgo Mart up the street for cigarettes a lot. His mother stopped by to talk to me yesterday. "Oh," she told me, "we pray for Jimmy, but I’m afraid he’s just lost. He sure does like that little boy of yours, though." The little boy in question sits for hours on his tricycle in our driveway and bombards Jimmy with questions, which Jimmy answers from under the raised hood of the car in his own driveway. Ben then comes in and reports to us, which is how I happen to know, for example, that Jimmy’s favorite food is pork chops. Though I’m fairly sure that Ben doesn’t think of what he’s doing as a Christian witness to "the lost," being a kindhearted and curious child, he loves his neighbor in the only way he knows, a way which does shed some light, however small, and maybe sprinkles some salt, too, on that neighbor’s daily life.
In short, in withholding our children from the public schools, we have not withheld them from the world. And we’re certainly not unusual. Statistical polls suggest that homeschooling families exhibit a higher than average level of community involvement, and my anecdotal experience bears this out. Families we know, for example, regularly serve meals to the women and children who find refuge in the shelter run by the Missionaries of Charity in one of the roughest neighborhoods in our city; the oldest daughter of one of those families has just returned from several months spent working in Mother Teresa’s orphanage and hospice in Calcutta. But even on a more modest level, day in and day out, homeschoolers minister to their neighbors. They demonstrate, quietly and consistently, the value of family life, the value of openness to life, the value of investing one’s time directly in the lives of one’s children, to a culture that, in valuing none of these things, has lost its way.
People often say to me that bringing up children is a thankless job. They intimate that there’s something wrong¯saintly, maybe, but wrong¯with somebody who chooses to bring up children in the 24/7 style that my husband and I have chosen. While there are plenty of days when I wonder what else I might be doing other than saying "Don’t lick your sister" for the four-hundred-and-seventy-third time, I can’t believe that this project is any more thankless than that of trying to nurture the local public schools.
One child might ignore you; the school system certainly will. A child can hear or not hear; the school system is a deaf, dumb, blind juggernaut that doesn’t generate its own values but imports them from the developers of curriculum and the schools of education. You can talk to the teacher, you can talk to the principal, you can talk to the board of education, but there’s no one person, anywhere, who will say to you, "I am responsible for this mess."
A child ultimately may or may not reward your sleepless nights, your lectures, your rule-making, your example-setting, or your anguished prayers, with a life that shines light on a darkened world; but for my money the child is the surer investment. The challenge for homeschoolers, then, is not to embrace a kind of spiritual Marxism, in which a limited amount of parental nurture and Christian witness is redistributed, in diluted form, to the masses¯or to feel guilty if they don’t¯but rather to bear persistent witness to the worth of children, the rewards of family life, and the hope that lies in nurturing culture on a small but potent scale, soul by soul by soul.