On his Facebook feed and on Twitter, seminarian Bart Gingerich writes:

There are Christians who try to mandate and/or justify sending their kids or others’ kids to public school so that their children can “be a witness” in an otherwise hostile environment. The assumption here is that education is primarily a missional rather than a catechetical endeavor.

I find this to be in error.

I’ve heard this point discussed several times in the past couple of weeks, among Christian friends and acquaintances. What do you think? Do Christian parents who make this call have a point? Or are they merely rationalizing? I don’t really understand the debate, but I know this is a serious question for many, and that people feel passionately about it.

UPDATE: Wow, the comments have turned into one of the better threads we’ve had in a while, and they’ve helped me clarify my thinking.

The comments have reinforced my instinct that the “salt and light” argument doesn’t hold water. Peer pressure is so great, the popular culture itself is so toxic, and kids are such herd creatures. I don’t believe that this is necessarily the fault of the public schools; as one of Alan Jacobs’s readers said a couple of years ago, it’s the fault of the public. And not just public schools: private and even some religious schools can have cultures outside the classrooms that are just as toxic and antithetical to Christian values. I think parents who send their kids to private or religious school thinking that they are protecting their kids from the destructive popular culture may well be whistling past the graveyard as effectively as parents who tell themselves that their kids will be “salt and light” in a destructive school culture.

Again: it depends on the school and the kid. It is hard to generalize.

That said, most people can’t afford private or religious school, and homeschooling is not something most people can do well. If not for my wife, my kids would almost certainly be in public school, because I would be an extremely incompetent homeschooler. It’s hard to do, and even harder to do well. And I think one of my kids would do well in public school; the other two, for developmental reasons, would struggle. The day may come when, for financial or other reasons, we will no longer be capable of homeschooling, and will send our kids to public or private (religious or secular) school. It won’t be the end of the world or anything, but I would have to dedicate myself to working even harder to form their characters and worldviews according to the Christian vision than I do now, because I would know how hostile the popular culture is to what we orthodox Christians know to be true.

I’m not talking about sex and porn alone, but the general sense of what Philip Rieff called the “anti-culture,” which is a culture that denies the sacred order necessary for culture to do what culture does. George Scialabba on Rieff:

Our primal endowment—formless, destructive, uncontrollable instinct—paralyzes and isolates us. We cannot trust ourselves or one another until a firm structure of interdictions has been installed in everyone’s psyche. These must be expounded by an interpretive elite, ratified through a calendar of rituals, and enforced by stern authority. Every culture is a dialectic of prohibition and permission, renunciation and release. Freud would have agreed; but whereas his followers concluded that the original “yes” of instinct was silenced, or at least muted, by the “no” of repressive authority, Rieff countered that instinct was cacophonous and only the original, creative “no” gave it a distinct voice. As he put it in The Mind of the Moralist—his style, already a little melodramatic, foreshadowing his later, full-blown apocalyptic abstractions—the primal self is “in a panic to express the fecundity of its own emptiness” and must be mastered by “unalterable authority.” For if “everything could be expressed by everyone identically,” then “nothing would remain to be expressed individually.” Hence the “irreducible and supreme activity of culture” is to “prevent the expression of everything,” thereby precluding “the one truly egalitarian dominion: nothingness.”

For most educated (and even many uneducated) Westerners, however, all formerly unalterable authorities now lie in the dust, like Ozymandias. Science has banished the supernatural, technology has vanquished scarcity, and so, having lost its parents, ignorance and misery, morality is now an orphan. This is the triumphalist view of modernity, and Rieff shared it; only instead of a triumph, he thought it a catastrophe. The dimensions of this catastrophe dawned on him gradually. The last chapter of Freud is “The Emergence of Psychological Man,” a tentative sketch of what modernity had wrought. Until the twentieth century, in Rieff’s account, three character types had successively prevailed in Western culture: political man, the ideal of classical times, dedicated to the glory of his city; religious man, the ideal of the Christian era, dedicated to the glory of God; and a transitional figure, economic man, a creature of Enlightenment liberalism. Economic man believed in doing good unto others by doing well for himself. This convenient compromise did not last long, and what survived of it was not the altruism but the egoism. Psychological man was frankly and shrewdly selfish, beyond ideals and illusions, at best a charming narcissist, at worst boorish or hypochondriacal, according to his temperament.

But the worst thing about psychological man was his children. Raised without repressions, they were incapable of renunciation and regarded all authority as illegitimate. Rieff’s second book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), raised the alarm about their “devastating illusions of individuality and freedom.” A society without hierarchy, whose members “cannot conceive any salvation other than amplitude in living itself,” must end in moral squalor, chaos, anomie, and universal boredom. Nor will it help to “disguise their rancorous worship of self in the religion of art,” for art too depends on renunciation. Here Rieff quotes Nietzsche at length (in what is for me the most illuminating passage in Rieff’s entire corpus):

Every system of morals is a sort of tyranny against “nature” and also against “reason”; that is, however, no objection, unless one should again decree, by some system of morals, that all kinds of tyranny and unreasonableness are unlawful. What is essential and invaluable in every system of morals is that it is a long constraint. . . . The singular fact remains . . . that everything of the nature of freedom, elegance, boldness, dance, and masterly certainty, which exists or has existed, whether it be in thought itself or in administration, or in speaking and persuading, in art just as in conduct, has only developed by means of the tyranny of such arbitrary law; and in all seriousness, it is not at all improbable that precisely this is “nature” and “natural” and not laisser-aller! . . . The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is apparently (to repeat it once more) that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

Muscular strength is built gradually, for example by overcoming the resistance of progressively heavier weights. Moral and psychological strength also require resistance—the pressure of cultural interdicts, dictating what is not to be done or even thought of. Such discipline simplifies our lives and economizes our energies. Without an unquestioned moral demand system, based on guilt, fear, and faith and generating obedience, trust, and dependence, there can be no spiritual hygiene, no communal purpose. And that is what the triumph of the therapeutic ethos makes impossible. Nowadays “the religious psychologies of release and the social technologies of affluence do not go beyond release and affluence to a fresh imposition of restrictive demands. This describes, in a sentence, the cultural revolution of our time. The old culture of denial has become irrelevant to a world of infinite abundance and reality.” In the absence of strict, even harsh, limits (to use a plain word Rieff himself, puzzlingly, so seldom used that one is led to wonder whether his elaborately artificial prose style was itself meant as a discipline), we cannot thrive.

Wherever you go outside the home and certain schools, your kids will be formed by the Anti-Culture, and by other children formed by the Anti-Culture. The lack of consciousness of this fact is a big part of our problem. You might well decide to send your kids to public school, or private school, or religious school, or even to homeschool. Not every solution will work for every family. But parents ought to be clear about what they’re doing, and why.