Since becoming an educator, I have enjoyed the privilege of listening to many peoples’ opinion on the education system. What’s more, as a christian I have been privy to a certain opinion that I’m sure is common to all christian educators. Allow me to paint the scene for you:
You are at church, the band (or choir) has just finished their first song and one of the pastors steps up on stage to welcome the congregation. But he also encourages everyone to turn around and greet your neighbor. As an introvert, you always dread this part of the service but church should be a welcoming place, so you politely turn around and shake the hand of the lady behind you. In those short few minutes, you ask a little bit about her and then she kindly asks what you do. “I’m a school teacher,” you politely respond. Then, it happens. She says it. The one thing you’ve heard more than anything else ever since you got your teaching certificate… “You know, what they really need is to put God back in the schools!”
The concept of taking God out of the schools is definitely a valid concern to have. I mean, as a christian I do not believe in a divide between the sacred and the secular. I want God to be a part of all realms of my life, and I do believe that the Holy Spirit is present in all things at all places. So in that since God really never has left the schools, but that is rarely what is meant by the claim they took God out of the schools. Usually, that sentiment refers to the fact that public schools are no longer allowed to hold staff-led prayer or Bible reading for devotional purposes. On a deeper level, it could also refer to the underlying values present in our school system. So what really happened? Why were these things taken out of public schools? Is that really what broke our public schools? I think the Catholic Church could help us answer these questions…
What History Can Teach Us
Why the Catholic Church? Because Catholics actually experienced this problem long before Protestants ever did. In the mid-19th century America had undergone 2 “Great Awakenings” and was in the midst of a third. Protestantism was already securely established as the majority demographic of the United States and it was only growing. This caused a problem for the Catholic minority who feared the public schools built on Protestant values and faith could cause a loss of faith for many young Catholics. So there was a mass exodus as Catholics left the school system and established their own parochial school system.
Fast-forward to today. Though a government census would show that around 76% of Americans are christians, other studies have placed additional clarifying questions to weed out the people who just say they’re christians from those who are actual practicing christians. Many of these polls peg the number of christians in America closer to about 20%. Divide out the number of Catholics from that number and you’ve got something probably closer to about 12-15% of the population that are actually coming from a Protestant worldview. The dominant worldview in the United States by far would be humanism. This is why you can see a repeat of the mid-19th century shift in schools. A new dominant majority has taken its place and is beginning to influence the public school system, causing many Protestants to leave the public school system in favor of private Protestant schools, or home school.
The point of my little history lesson is to remind us all that we live in a Democratic society. Our government and our governmental institutions (like public school) are controlled by the people and whenever the makeup of the public changes, you can expect that to be reflected in those institutions. In the past few decades, America has become increasingly secular and humanistic. The problem with schooling is that it is an inherently values-based institution. Though some might argue that the role of education is to develop a child’s intellect, leaving worldview to be determined by family and religion, this is impossible. Children are naturally inquisitive. You cannot teach them what, or how, or when, without first teaching them why. Why should a child behave in school? Because if they don’t the won’t learn to read. Why should the child learn to read? Your answer to the following question would be inherently values-based. Then you would have to teach the child how to behave, and that would be values-based.
How Humanism Has Effected Schools
Earlier, I said that humanism has become the dominant value system of our society and consequently in our schools. Humanism, loosely (and quickly) defined is a worldview in which human beings are of the highest value. This means a lot of things. It means that truth is more relative than absolute, because the individual defines truth in his or her own terms. This is more true of morality than anything else. The has led to tolerance being redefined. Tolerance is no longer the willingness to treat others with respect and dignity despite their differences. It now means to actively promote and support others who hold traditionally unorthodox beliefs, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. In education, this means that students are often taught to accept and promote all beliefs without regard to whether they are right or wrong. Right or wrong would be an appeal to an absolute truth, a standard set outside the human, which would be anti-humanistic. Consequently, we are finding that students educated in public schools are lacking in rhetorical skills such as writing (only about 27% of students are proficient) because they have rarely been encouraged to engage the expression of their opinions or respectful debate. Humanism has also given rise to the concept of the student-centered classroom which has introduced some helpful tools to educators but, in my opinion, mainly trains children that what they decide goes and nobody including their teacher has the right to tell them otherwise. This leads to a dramatic rise in behavioral issues and often forces teachers to pay for poor student choices while restricting teachers from actually influencing those very student choices. (More on the student-centered classroom is another blog post for another day…)
As I alluded to earlier, the problem with taking God out of the schools is more about an underlying value system than about the staff praying and reading the Bible with students. But most evangelical christians seem to think the main problem is the praying and the Bible reading. They seem to think that if we all simply vote hard enough, then maybe they can get the prayer and other religious paraphernalia back in schools and then everything would be okay. Now I’m a firm believer in prayer and I think that prayer can do incredible things. But simply because prayer has been de-institutionalized does not mean prayer is gone from schools. As a teacher, I used to meet before school with a few other teachers and pray every week. We prayed for the students and families and our co-workers. Sometimes parents would join us. But would our prayers have been more powerful and effective if they were said over a loudspeaker to the entire student body? According to the Bible, no. The underlying problem in our schools is the value system on which they are built.
What We Can Actually Do About the Problem
So what is the solution? Let’s continue our example from earlier. Let’s say you’re in church and you smile politely to the lady saying that we need God back in schools. Then the church service continues with worship. You encounter the presence of the living God and are filled with hope and faith. Then the preacher stands on the stage and preaches a message out of Matthew. He quotes Matt 28:18-20. “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” He shares about God’s heart to transform the nations of the earth by bringing them into relationship with the Father who loves them. “Teach them to obey all that I have commanded you.” The preacher says that God has given us a value system to live by. One based on faith, hope, and love; in which God (not humans) is of the highest value. God, he says, has given this task to us, of all people! The weak, dysfunctional Church is supposed to advance the Gospel, making the earth a little more like heaven with each step. How are we to do that? “Behold I am with you, even to the end of the age.” We are to do it by the power of the Holy Spirit you just encountered in worship.
So then the church service is over and you go home, still wondering what to do about God being taken out of schools. Is the solution to vote really hard? Maybe, but voting requires mass amounts of people who agree in order for it to work. And history has shown us that schools will reflect the dominant value system of the society. So the only answer left, really, is for faith, hope and love to once again become the dominant value system in our society. As it turns out, the solution to the problems in our schools is church-planting. The advancement of the Gospel. So the next time you turn on the TV and see a political pundit complaining about our schools, claiming that they began to crumble as soon as God left them, go ahead and vote how your conscience leads you, but don’t forget that the only way things will ever really change is when the Church rises up and begins to faithfully share the good news of Jesus to a humanistic society. Remember that you can help bring God back into the schools most effectively by simply opening your home to that agnostic neighbor of yours. Let them come over for dinner. Invite them to church. Don’t judge them, but don’t endorse their beliefs either, unless they line up with scripture. Lead them to Jesus.