Over at ChristianityToday‘s Hermeneutics blog, Andrea Palpant Dilley wrote an interesting defense of her decision to put her kid in a private school. Her main point, and I think it’s usually a good one these days, is that we need to tone down the vitriol and actually see the complexity, the nuance in peoples’ situations.
To that end, Mrs. Dilley gives us some details about her own situation. She says she’s a good person, and as far as I can tell she actually is one. She’s involved in her community, cares about racial justice and equality and all the things those public school advocates apparently value so much. (In her words, “To public school advocates, I’m one of those people destroying the educational infrastructure of America, complicit in wrecking the hard-earned egalitarianism of a public classroom where kids of all creeds and colors can meet together in unity to learn about everything from planets to caterpillars.“) And yes, there’s a touch of seeing herself as put upon, maybe even a bit victimized, but that’s at least understandable. I think sometimes we underestimate a bit how hard it is to come from a position of privilege and want to work for a more just world where you’re not so privileged, but at the same time are fighting a very natural drive to do what’s best for the people you’re closest to. Your family, your kid, even your neighbors. I’m not saying this tension makes everything we do in the name of it okay; but I do see how you can look at people proclaiming form on high that all private-schoolers are selfish, elitist, etc. and think: if she just walked a day in my shoes, she’d see it just wasn’t so simple.
So I’m sympathetic to Mrs. Dilley’s position. I’ve been there, not with education but with other things, and like I said, I do agree with her central point that we need a more nuanced, merciful way of approaching public policy questions like to private school or not to private school. I’m also a proud beneficiary of private parochial school (grades 7-8 + the tail end of grade 6), and while I went to public universities most of my social life was anchored in the Campus Ministries building. So I get the value of Christian bubbles, the real value of them and also the pull of them psychologically. That’s what makes my reaction to Mrs. Dilley so frustrating. I agree with her conclusion, but I found the road she took to get there, pretty thoroughly muddled.
- “Last week I heard my four-year-old daughter Madeline sitting on the toilet singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” with an exaggerated vibrato. My first instinct was to laugh. My second response was an overwhelming sense of gratitude. My kid knows the words to a timeless hymn proclaiming the sacredness of God’s triune nature. She knows the words—and will soon learn the attending theology—because of a hard decision that my husband and I made a year ago: to send her to a Christian private school”.
- “After Madeline was born, my husband Steve and I had no intention of considering private education until we started visiting the playground at our local elementary school. We heard teacher aids yelling at their students and saw seven-year-old boys using sexual gestures and F-bombs in such a casual, consistent way that we had to wonder, What’s going on behind the closed doors of these homes around here? “
- Our daughter’s at a young, malleable age when both teachers and peers can inculcate questionable values that might distort her view of the world. But even that wasn’t our main concern. We focused instead on a measure of positive influence: faith-learning integration. As an academic, my husband felt strongly that our daughter should experience the synthesis he never saw growing up, where the study of God was confined only to church and the study of the world was confined only to school—with a wide rift between the two.
I’ll call these the Christian identity, bad public schools, and faith/learning integration arguments, for convenience sake. I think they’re the kind of thing any parent would reasonably hope for, and I certainly understand why they’d make you think you made the right decision. The problem is, as a justification for spending money on private school tuition, I think only one of these really holds water. The fact that that one reason makes so much sense masks over the real danger of accepting the other two, and I think with people for whom that good argument doesn’t apply, it makes them more likely to make an immoral decision here.
So let’s start with the one reason that does make sense, the bad public school option. The description Mrs. Dilley gives of the local public school is, frankly, downright frightening. I have a child in my life, not my son or daughter (I’m thoroughly single) but someone who I’m very involved in her life with. I’ve been to her public school to walk her home when she’s sick or to help with field trips and the like, and if I got a whiff of that kind of behavior, I’d be having a long, hard talk with the Kid’s mother about private schools, after I’d sat down with my bank accounts to see how much I could contribute to the cause. No parent should have to turn their child over to that kind of an environment for 6+ hours a day. You hear that concern when it comes to the poor, the people who can’t afford private school tuition, but it’s equally true for those people with enough money to manage it who face the guilt of abandoning the social contract.
So I think Mrs. Dilley has one very good reason for not putting her charming (if the stories and photo are any indication) for not putting her child in a public school. The problem is it’s overshadowing two dangerous ones. That means it’s hard for me, emotionally, to point to her situation and say she was wrong to put Madeline in private school. I actually don’t think she is wrong. But (psychological biases being what they are) it’s also very difficult for me to say any parent relying on one of her other arguments would also be wrong. In my mind, all three arguments are now connected to a situation that seems to say the person acting for those reasons did the right thing. So it’s worth talking about why the Christian identity and the faith/learning integration arguments don’t really work.
First, the Christian identity argument. Mrs. Dilley points to the way she heard Madeline singing a particularly Christian song, one of my own favorite hymns. And I understand why that would be meaningful. It reminds me of a neighborhood who came here from Guatemala as a teenager and married an Anglo, who were raising their son without Spanish in the home. I think the purpose was integration and not wanting him to feel limited to the Hispanic community. Not necessarily the smartest decision IMO (being bilingual from birth, the way that opens a child’s mind, can be such a gift), but that point’s neither here nor there. At some point the boy learned Spanish in school including a particular folk song his mother knew. I remember his mum saying what that meant to her, to hear her son singing the song she grew up hearing, and it really crystallized the importance of sharing that connection with her son. And as a multicultural person myself (I mean I’m American but with family that emigrated within living memory, so I was impacted by both worlds), I remember learning Tut Tut Tut on my grandmother’s knees, hearing about life in Germany between the wars. I know what those kinds of experiences can mean.
Religion isn’t the same thing as ethnicity, but it can be central to how we view ourselves. It’s often about keeping the past alive. With religion there’s an extra focus on values (which isn’t totally absent in ethnic/cultural contexts but does show up a bit differently), which makes these moments if anything more important. I’m not saying that Mrs. Dilley is wrong to want to sing her child belting out Holy Holy Holy at the top of her lungs, or that she shouldn’t take comfort in knowing her child will actually have experiences that help her understand those words. The question worth asking, though, is how much is she willing to sacrifice to have it provided through the regular school day? City School charges $5,450 in tuition + fees for kindergarten, $8,150 for grades 1-6. That’s not actually out of line as far as the cost of an education goes (for comparison, Texas spends about $8,400 per student, and that’s actually the next-to-lowest state expenditure in the year that figure was reported), and City School does seem to have a commitment to need-based financial aid.
Still, that money has to come from somewhere at the end of the day. People donating to the scholarship fund aren’t donating to other causes. They aren’t paying higher taxes that would enable families who want mom or dad to stay at home and raise their kids and get by on one income rather than two, that fund more food stamps, more subsidized housing, more day care assistance and public cultural enrichment projects and whatever else makes that happen, possible. Or for that matter, they aren’t paying for social workers to make sure someone knows what’s going on behind closed doors, or for enough teachers so the people paid to watch over kids during the school days have time to take Little Tommy aside and say that lewd hand gesture just isn’t cool and that’s not how we act. Paying for a private school costs resources. If it’s necessary to look out for your kid’s well-being (which it seems like it was in this case), that’s one thing. But what if you lived in a slightly more affluent neighborhood where the schools were at least passably good – a parent still might want their kid to sing those kinds of songs that mean something to them. Is it worth paying the tuition (assisted or otherwise) in those situations?
Speaking for myself, I was in public school until well into middle school. I belted out Arky Arky along side Joe Scruggs and Billy Joel [all videos] long before I started attending Christian schools, because I heard them in Church Sunday School and VBS and other similar programming. That’s also where I learned what the story of Noah meant, how it was about God’s provision for humanity, that He cared about our survival. (Listening the song and watching the video now, it’s more than a bit creepy, but again, that’s a topic for another day.) My point is if you want your kid to have the religious experiences, learn those songs and learn what they’re about, that mean something to you there are more cost-effective ways of doing it. And that matters, because we’re supposed to care about other peoples’ kids (and come to that, other people), too. It’s (arguably) fine to put your own kid’s needs first. It’s not fine to engage in sentiment if that costs money that could be put to better use helping these other people.
Which leaves the faith/learning integration issue. This one seems more plausible on its surface, but in my opinion it falls apart if you try to work out just what you mean by that idea. I suspect most people have one of two ideas (or possibly a mishmash of the both) in mind when they talk about this idea.
- not restricting religion and theology to a particular time of the day or week, but integrating these topics into how you study the world as a whole.
- having those other subjects taught in a way (or more properly by people) that reflect a certain worldview consistent with yours.
Now, on the first point, I think the basic concern is reasonable. It’s not wholly different from the way college curricula emphasize writing across the curriculum: rather than just taking composition courses, you take at least some of those courses in business writing, or scientific writing, or a series of writing-intensive humanities courses (as if there were any other kind), whatever your major might be. Colleges view it as a good thing, and wrightly so, if you develop this skill in the context you’ll actually be putting it to use, if you treat it like something integral to who you are and what you do rather than something separate. Religion isn’t a skill per se, but I think I understand why people who care about it, who value it, would want it taught in an integrated way for similar reasons. (If you don’t think religion has a value and that people who actually integrate it into their lives rather than it just being something they do on Sunday, obviously this point won’t be convincing; what I’m trying to say is I understand why it would seem like a good thing for the folks who value this kind of thing.)
But think about it. City School is K-6. How much of a difference would it really make if you learned about reading by reading C.S. Lewis or out of a kid’s Bible or some such thing? How would you integrate religion into the arithmetic lessons or basic earth science or social studies or whatever else you learn at that age? And if there are things that need to be integrated, couldn’t this be handled some other way except through a full day school. I’m not saying God-talk should be left for Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, by a long shot. Churches should be doing more to bridge the gap. Parents should be talking to their kids about what they learned. But it seems quite a leap to me, to say that even at this early age, from the moment you’re entering school, the best, most efficient way to show that religion and theism is something that should be integrated into your life is by having the kid attend a full school day at a school making that content explicit. Again, I come back to the efficiency question: what’s the trade-off? Is there a way to do this with less cost so you can use that money for other equally-good-if-not-more-important needs? Are we being good stewards of our resources, both in how we look after our own children and see to more general concerns?
(And for the record: I say this as someone who went to private school for a few years due to what would fall closer to bad public schools argument, but that definitely got some benefit out of being there from the faith/learning integration thing. Sometimes the answer really is no, there’s not a better, more efficient option available in that particular situation. Sometimes the answer is a damn straight there is. I suspect, particularly with younger kids, it’s more likely to be the latter than the former.)
And then there’s the last concern, about teachers that share your worldview. That word’s common enough in some Christian circles, but to make it absolutely clear, I mean the values and assumptions that are so fundamental, you don’t even bother to prove them. They’re axiomatic, like the idea that suffering is bad. I do get why having teachers you feel in synch with matters a great deal – I can only imagine being the one who’s really and truly primarily responsible for the Kid and feeling like I have no say at all in who was going to be in charge of her for that long in a given day. Here’s the thing, though. In modern cultures we don’t choose teachers, we choose schools. When you send your child to a private school you expect it to have a certain trajectory to it, and Mrs. Dilley talks about that: City School is an Anglican/Presbyterian-leaning school. When they enrolled Madeline the application (at least the one in use now on the school’s website) includes the Nicene Creed and has them sign saying they approve of their child being educated in accordance with it. (So you don’t have to be Christian but you do need to agree to an orthodox Christian education.) I don’t know what theological, political, philosophical, etc. tests they use to filter out their teachers, but I suspect there’s some variety. It’s not like all the teachers in a particular school are closest to your worldview and the ones in a different school are further away. Even if you had a school for libertarian-leaning teachers, a school for militantly-opposed-to-corporal-punishmen
So what does this mean for the private school thing? Teachers matter. If going to a particular private school actually meant you’d get better teachers (which is a bigger, more important questions than ones amenable to your worldview), this might well be a big enough consideration for why going to a private school made sense. I’m not sure it makes sense to assume a school that asks you to sign off on the Nicene Creed will be populated exclusively by teachers who interpret it the same way you do, much less share your other assumptions more closely than teachers working across town. Ditto for a principal saying their curriculum is guided by a drive to infuse religion and theology across the curriculum. Some teachers will be working there because it’s convenient. Others will be drawn by freedom from government regulations or because the school offered free tuition for their own kids. So this goal of having a pool of teachers you can trust actually makes sense, at some level, but I’m really not convinced that going to a private school will get you there.
Actually, I’m fantasizing about a system where parents chose the teacher each year from across the city, rather than the school. Administratively it would be a nightmare. And quite a headache for the parents, come to it. You’d also lose the ability to set curriculum across years, and I can see the room for histrionics and real abuses as the “good” teachers filled up quickly. I see everything wrong with this kind of system, but I still see the advantage of having a teacher you actually felt like you could trust. The current system makes sense administratively, but I can definitely see why some parents might want better. If I thought private school guaranteed this in any meaningful way, I’d feel very different. But I don’t think it does, so I don’t.
Which, really, makes me wonder about the worth of private schools. They’re definitely good for situations where the public school isn’t up to scratch, but how many parents are drawn to them for the wrong kinds of reasons? I’m glad little Madeline is getting a good education, really. I’m just a little afraid people will put their kids in private schools for the wrong kind of reasons, because they think it gives them more control or influence over their kid’s education than it actually does. that desire is understandable, even natural, but I don’t see private school being a good way to get there. If anything it seems like it would bleed away resources from people actually trying to improve their communities.