No rule of the internet is more to be revered than “Don’t feed the trolls,” but I think I may be about to break that rule. Now, you can rarely be certain that someone is simply trolling; but when a writer digs up and re-posts a piece from 2005, calls it “Death to Homeschooling”, and then follows it up with two further equally inflammatory posts on the same subject — here and here — it’s hard not to think that that someone is doing a Dance of the Seven Veils before a roomful of potential pageviews.
Tony Jones’s argument is basically this: “to withdraw my children from public education is to not play my (God-given) role as a missional member of society.” If I homeschool I fail to accept the “mandate to be the most involved, missional societal participant that I can be.” To homeschool my kids is simply “to ‘opt out’ of the societal” — he means “social” — “contract.” You can see that Jones really likes the word “missional” and makes it work hard for its money. “Missional means showing Christlike compassion to other human beings and to all of creation…. Missional means being the salt seasoning in the world, and you cannot be that seasoning (no matter your age) if you withdraw from society.”
Now, before I go any further: my wife Teri and I homeschooled our son Wes from seventh grade on, for reasons that I explained here. Just so you know. Now, back to Tony Jones:
I’m not sure whether Jones has noticed that he’s not just denouncing homeschooling but also all forms of private education — though, since he graduated from Dartmouth and attended seminary, he evidently thinks that there’s some point, presumably after high school, when the absolute prohibition on private education is lifted. Lucky for him! He also professes puzzlement that anyone could possibly take his posts personally, even though he accuses them of disobedience to God and freely speculates on their base motives: “Sometimes I wonder if homeschooling is a choice that parents make to allow their own adult avoidance of rolling up their sleeves and making public schools better.”
So, you know: sounds pretty darn trollish to me.
But there’s a point I want to raise, because I think it’s generally relevant to mainstream American Christianity, of which Jones is a shining example: notice that his whole emphasis is on the right here and right now. If your kids aren’t in the public arena at this very minute then you’ve bailed on the social contract, bub, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself. But what if you’re educating your kids at home now so they can better serve society later? This is not a possibility that Jones considers, perhaps because he never actually discusses education as such — that is, he doesn’t say a word about what kids learn in school and why they learn it. Perhaps he hasn’t thought about these matters, but they bear thinking of.
Because when properly understood education is for something — it is preparatory to the assumption of full adult responsibilities. In John Milton’s great essay “Of Education” he writes, “I call therefore a compleat and generous Education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both private and publick of Peace and War.” You might feel that you’re doing your part for the “societal contract” by sending your kids to public schools for twelve years, and indeed you might be — but what if those schools do little or nothing to prepare those kids to serve the communities in which they live for the remaining sixty or seventy years of their lives? Intrinsic to both conservatism and Christianity as I understand them is the necessity of thinking in the longest possible terms, and well beyond the impulses, gratifications, and calculations of the present moment.
Teri and I tried to raise a young man to be equipped for the challenges of a complex, and increasingly complex, social order, so that he might be able to fill “all the offices both private and publick” that come open for him. We are of course not sure that our choices were always the best ones; but we are sure that we couldn’t have made genuinely thoughtful decisions if we had been working with the simplistic binary categories — public educaton good; private education bad — that Tony Jones prefers.
And we might want to reflect on the fact that Jesus of Nazareth, who was instructing the rabbis in the Temple at age 12, didn’t begin his public ministry until age 30. He seemed to think it necessary to spend a good deal of time in preparation for fulfilling, and more than fulfilling, the social contract. But what did he know?
UPDATE: A comment from a reader: “We homeschool our kids because we are confident that we can teach them more than our local public school. More importantly, we don’t want them to be part of the peer culture in our local school, which is decadent and destructive (for example, pornography is a big deal among the teenagers there, and teen pregnancies are becoming more normalized). It’s a hard thing for us, because we want to be part of the local community, given our religious and political convictions, but how can you be a communitarian when the baseline morality of the community has become so degraded? I am not willing to sacrifice my children’s character formation and education for the sake of proving a political or religious point. What would Tony Jones have us do to “improve” the quality of public schools? The problem is not so much the public schools as it is the public. Jones’s sanctimony about this issue is unimpressive.”