The first time I heard about the movie God’s Not Dead, I mistakenly guessed that it was a mainstream movie with a clever, potentially Christian title. The second time I heard about it, I realized it had a lot more to do with public education and its perpetually vexed relationship with Christianity and a lot less to do with the philosophical musings of God’s existence. The success of the movie exposed something interesting in America: the ongoing assumption on the part of some Christians that the education system is out to get them.
Christianity’s relationship with public education is complicated and fragile, and it’s something I never thought much about until I became a teacher in the public school system. Raised as a Christian in a suburban county lucky enough to have remarkably good public schools, I never considered the idea of public school as being harmful to my character or moral development (although, perhaps it crossed my parents’ minds.) And, when I left my public college to start teaching in a public high school, I rarely considered that my beliefs might come in conflict with my career.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from both attending public school and teaching in it, it’s that public school is far from godless. Sure, it may not allow for teacher-led prayer or morning devotional, but these schools are not soulless places. In fact, they’re typically buildings full of deeply passionate, committed adults and kids who are always in need of love—just like any Christian school might be.
As public education reform surfaces more and more often, it’s important for us to consider our role in this realm. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with homeschooling or private school by any means—and there are valid reasons for families to consider them for their children—there are certain aspects of public education that can not only be beneficial to Christians, but can allow us to serve others in tremendous ways.
A Different Perspective
Despite the fact that I attended an incredibly homogenous public high school and college, once I began teaching, I encountered a much different vision of public school and way of life than I had ever been aware of. In just a few short years, I had a drastically different perspective of myself, my students, my community—my country—than I’d had for my entire life. Both perspectives were deeply rooted in God, but because this school had taken me outside of my comfort zone, led me into relationships with people who came from vastly different backgrounds and diversified my social circle, I found myself in a much different place with God.
While there are many ways to deepen our own understanding of people from diverse backgrounds—of which public school is not the only way—this is certainly one perk of public schooling. And, while not all public schools are diverse (in fact, our schools are still largely segregated), public schools do tend to have larger diversity than their private counterparts. And, as Christians, we are called to those who are different from us, to spread God’s Word to all people.
The Challenge of Schooling
Among some circles, there is a common myth that public school is a way to challenge traditionally held Christian beliefs and debunk Biblical teachings by replacing stories of faith with scientific theories and hammering away at understandings with philosophical questioning. As a lifelong public school attendee and teacher of many years, I can tell you that this was simply not my experience. Almost none of what is taught in school comes directly in conflict with the core teachings of the Christian faith, and most schools will welcome input from concerned parents.
Because our society is not made up entirely of believers, it is nearly impossible for children to go through life with an entirely “Christian Education.” Even the most homeschooled of homeschooled children will still have interactions with the outside world that will challenge her or his beliefs, raise doubts and illuminate new mysteries.
The question is: How are we preparing ourselves for these moments? Are we shunning away from them or preparing ourselves for them? Are we avoiding the conversation because we aren’t sure how to answer or are we rising to the challenge because it deepens our beliefs, builds nuance in our understanding and further solidifies our relationship with God?
The Opportunity of Public School
For many, the choice of school is an entirely self-centered decision. We want to decide what is best for “us” or what will serve “our child” most completely. We want the best school for our kid in our neighborhood with our beliefs. But what about other people’s children? Are we so rooted in fear of our child falling in with the “wrong” kids that we avoid having them even interact at all?
Sadly, there is sin (and kids who fall deeply into it) within both Christian, private and public schools. And, regardless of schooling, all of our children will eventually grow up and engage—on a daily basis—with more and more people who do not share their beliefs. Will they be prepared for these interactions and relationships? That’s up to us, and the culture we foster for them.
And, when we consider the children in public schools, it’s worth asking whether or not we are called to care for them too.
What about the children without parents who can choose a school for them?
What about the poor children, whose only option is public school—and likely, one with fewer advantages than a school in a high income community?
What if we miss out on the opportunity to care for these children because we are more vested in our own needs?
What if, at the end of the day, it isn’t actually about us at all?
Liz Riggs is a freelance writer and English teacher in Nashville, Tenn. She eats stories like grapes and has a very serious appreciation for macaroni and cheese. Follow her on Twitter at your own risk @riggser.