In the mid 1800s, almost all American children worked on family farms throughout their childhood and then either took over those farms as adults or left the farm for work elsewhere. Education was conducted at home and in the church, where children were catechized and taught good manners. Wealthier familes hired tutors to provide their children with classical, liberal education to prepare them for the universities. Extraordinarily gifted students might be offered opportunities to study by relatives or benefactors. As far as Christians were concerned, who were established in America, education was taken care of privately.
Outside of these Christian families, there were two groups of people in America that presented problems. First, non-Christians who neglected the education of their children, left them to the streets. Second, immigrants who arrived and were working to survive in a new country might have good intentions, but had little means of caring for their children’s needs. As these situations were numerous, the citizens of America decided to support the establishment of “public schools”, which would provide these children with a subsidized education to help the children prepare for the developing American workforce and for citizenship in a democratic country. The first public schools were created in the 1850s.
Since those days, the population has multiplied incredibly in America, and the public schools have become massive, industrial institutions. Billions of dollars are provided to them and these schools offer classes in every subject from reading to auto repair. The size and complexity of school administration and faculty provides a system of curriculum documents, records and reporting that includes everything from basic skills testing to health exams.
As over 90% of American students attend these public schools today, this system is understood to be “normal” for most Americans, but we have to remember its original purpose: to provide a workplace and citizenship education to children who wouldn’t have one otherwise.
For Christian families, there was never a need for this public education, and it certainly is not sufficient for the education of Christian children. The subjects that made up a historical Christian education aren’t even offered by the public schools. Yet, when Christians undertake the education of their children, as they should, they feel overwhelmed by comparisons to the massive machine of public schooling–as if their efforts should imitate or resemble it. Attempting to do so, however, is impossible.
Many Christian parents seek to raise their children to have more opportunities than they did, but while this sounds noble, they often attempt to prepare children for activities and institutions that they know nothing about. They have oversimplified ideas about how different systems work and this leads to false pressures that do the children no good. When parents feel themselves failing to achieve what they imagine to be necessary, they feel they must either “work harder” and “do better” or, give up and “send their children to school”.
The source of pressure in almost all cases comes from false ideas about careers and college admission, and destructive stubbornness that makes everyone miserable.
First of all, “college” is no simple subject. There are Ivy League schools attended by the nation’s most elite students and community colleges which have lower standards than many high schools. Between the two extremes is an infinite variety of colleges and universities that serve completely different missions, for completely different students. Further, every individual school offers numerous programs and different kinds of enrollment for students in different circumstances. There is no pressure on any parent to do anything extraordinary to prepare a student for a college–unless the parent has created his/her own plan for the student and is pursuing it with a spiteful all-or-nothing mindset. There are a million colleges and a million ways to attend college.
Second, what colleges are seeking is almost never what stressed out parents are pressuring their children to become. The colleges are seeking enthusiastic, curious, dedicated students who are pursuing their unique interests in life and have promise of success in them, while parents are pruning kids down to live like robots with no personality or interests of their own. The fear that individual interests and abilities are a threat to is completely unfounded and false. Your child’s best chance of success is found serving God in a unique way, making the most of his unique gifts and opportunities, not by being made subject to “the school system”.
Third, the activities of the schools are for the schools, not outside them. For example, grade level standardized testing is completely unnecessary for anything and there is no sense in subjecting one’s children to such tests when they are not studying in the school system they are designed for. These tests are designed to make sure that children in public schools are receiving the minimum education the schools are responsible to offer–not as measures of real learning, especially for Christian students. They are are completely artificial and unnecessary for privately educated students and anyone who pretends they are measures of real progress risks neglecting real signs of intellectual progress.
Fourth, parents must not imagine that what schoolsl publish as their “curriculum” is, in fact, a transcript of what is learned by students in the schools. Students in schools are not required to master whatever content the published curriculum claims to cover, but is scored and promoted from one grade level with almost no chance of not doing so. If he fails his studies, he is simply dropped to another level of students where the curriculum is watered down and assessment less rigorous. If he fails there, he is dropped to yet another level. If he continues to fail, his weaknesses are identified as “disabilities” and he receives special helps and exemptions that allow him to move along year by year, regardless. The diplomas handed out at the end of 12th grade signify almost nothing beyond attendance. In fact, a student can earn an “equivalency diploma” by taking four GED tests.
Fifth, our children are given us by God not to enslave to our own hopes and dreams, but to care for as stewards, for His service in the world. Their adult occupation is between them and God and any attempt force our will upon them, or make them better versions of ourselves, is going to fail. God may give us children who don’t impress our friends or neighbors, and they don’t need to. They need to serve and please God, and their happiness in this life–which should be our only concern–depends on them being where God wants them. An inordinate concern for “education”, especially when it is coming from the world, can be a source of great harm in their lives.
So, before we can talk about Christian education reasonable, we have to make sure we’re all in agreement on what the goal is in Christian education. It’s not to press Christian children into a mold of worldly standards. This is explicitly forbidden in Sacred Scripture:
Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:2)
Once we are sure we, ourselves, are free from cripplind, worldly pressures, we can ask the question, “What should our Christian children learn?”
The answer to that question is, first of all, the Christian faith. This consists of both instruction and discipline. As regards instruction, through the study of Sacred Scripture, Christian children learn the content that has been revealed to men by God, whereas through the study of Catholic catechisms, children learn the doctrine that has been developed and defined through history by the doctors of the Catholic Church. This body of doctrine is limited and easily accessible to everyone and is the parents’ primary spiritual duty to their children. As regards discipline, Christian children are to be led in the practice of the Christian life, whether that be through family life and culture within the home, worship and sacramental life in the Church, or moral and public life in the community.
Beyond this, our children are advised to study those arts and sciences which are most useful for all human interests, namely, the classical liberal arts. As these do not serve any specific worldly duties, they can be studied throughout life, and our own pace, as opportunity allows. No artificial or wordly pressure should be placed on these studies, but they should be pursued for their own sake and applied to all areas of life. These include the classical language arts, reasoning, rhetoric, mathematical arts, moral philosophy, natural philosophy and so on.
Beyond this, our children should be helped to study whatever arts or sciences relate to their unique skills and interests, which will likely become their future occupations. In God’s providence, these will not be impossible for parents to provide for, and parents must seek to generous assist their children prepare for adult vocations.
It is clear that these three elements of Christian education will consume all of the time, energy and resources parents have to offer. This is why allowing unnecessary, artificial, worldly pressures is not possible. Most importantly, Christian parents will find that these duties are within their ability and are pleasantly performed, over time, within the normal activity of family life.
If there is unpleasantness and stress, it is not coming from the actual duties of parents given them by God. It is coming from influences that need to be kept out of family life, not submitted to. Most importantly, make sure it’s not coming from YOU.
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy
Mr. William C. Michael is the founding headmaster of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. He graduated from Rutgers University with an honors degree in Classics & Ancient History and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the National Association of Scholars. Mr. Michael has worked in private education as a Classics teacher and administrator for over 20 years. He is a Roman Catholic homeschooling father of ten children, and keeper of a quiet family farm in North Carolina. Mr. Michael enjoys studying ancient natural philosophy, gardening, and running.