Saturday, May 18, 2013

Public Schools -- Learning to Live in a Diverse World

My children attend public schools and I am very glad about that. Public education is coming under increasing attack, particularly here in Arizona, where our state legislators seem determined to undermine the very foundations of public education. At the same time, many Christians seem intent on fleeing public schools in favor of private, Christian ones or of homeschooling. I am not opposed to either option and recognize that there are many factors that influence a family's decision about educating their children. But I think that we are wrong to abandon public schools, both as a nation and as Christians.

We did not plan or expect to have our children in public schools. Because of our work overseas, our children have mostly attended small schools for expatriate Christians, where class sizes were very small (our daughter had 10 children in her combined 4-6 grade class) and the worldview largely homegeneous. Even in those environments they did gain some multi-cultural exposure, as they often had classmates from several countries as well as living themselves in a cross-cultural situation. They also took classes on-line through a Christian internet school which offered high-quality classes, but in a largely homogeneous environment. Most of their classmates were from white, middle- to upper-middle class homes. Some, like our children, lived outside of their home countries, but most were simply homeschooled children in the United States. (In the interest of full disclosure, I now teach for that school and really enjoy the students with whom I work.) Prior to high school, the one year my children lived and went to school in the United States they both attended a local private Christian school. Although the school was good, it proved to be a less-than-ideal environment for our children, particularly our daughter. As a new junior high student she felt very much marginalized and out of place. Her classmates were from similar socio-economic backgrounds and lacked the multi-cultural perspective that our daughter had. Nor could they appreciate and affirm her uniqueness. This may be more because of their age than the school environment, but the lack of diversity in the school certainly left little place for someone to feel at home who was not just like everyone else.

Now my children are both in public high schools. Although our school district has some serious problems, I am comfortable that my children will receive a solid educational foundation that will equip them for life after high school. It certainly helps that my son attends one of the nation's best high schools, according to some rankings, while my daughter attends a good, though fairly average high school. But the quality of the academics is not the primary reason I am glad my children are in public school. In public school they learn to interact with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Our school district is, as they say, majority-minority, which means that more than 50% of the student population are not white. Every day at school my children are reminded that they live in a country that is growing increasingly diverse, one in which people who look like them will need to learn to work alongside people who don't look like them. My daughter's school is less so than my son's, but even though the socio-economic and ethnic diversity is not as great as we might wish, she still encounters a wide variety of worldviews. Neither of my children spend their school days in a Christian worldview bubble. And that's a good thing, because they are not going to live in a world where the majority of people accept an evangelical Christian worldview, or even a Judeo-Christian one. They must learn to interact with a broader world and they must choose what they believe and why and they might as well begin in high school. We can't keep them in a sheltered environment forever.

I want my children to be comfortable with the reality that people around them look and think differently than they do. I don't want them to view people as threats simply because they are different in some way. I want them to accept the wonderful diversity that is the United States. I want them to be comfortable with having a black, Hispanic, Asian or female president, and with having co-workers from all these and other backgrounds, because that's the future of this country. I don't want my children to think that white men should be the natural leaders or control the levers of power and influence, at least not simply by virtue of being white men. The world is changing. Our country is changing. By studying in public high schools, my children are learning to deal with that changing world better, I think than they would in a more homogeneous environment.

I could list other reasons that I affirm public education, both for my children and for society as a whole, but this to me is one of the key reasons we need to have public education. Rather than fleeing from public schools, rather than tearing them down either actively or passively, we need to recommit to supporting and developing them. As Christians we should do this not less, but more. Ultimately I recognize, as I said earlier, that each family must make their decision for their own reasons, but I would strongly encourage us to give serious thought to supporting public education. We want our children to be prepared to engage with a diverse world and public schools can help us do that well.

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