Last week, Adam Greenwood pointed out to me an essay by Sally Thomas in First Things, titled “Home Schooling and Christian Duty.” Her article defends home schooling against a very particular kind of attack–specifically, the claim that educating one’s children in the home, away from the public schools, is a failure to be a witness to others as a Christian, a failure to be “in the world,” and more specifically be a light unto it. It’s an interesting claim, one which comes down to, as Ms. Thomas puts it, the idea that homeschooling is selfish, that “homeschoolers [have] enthroned the needs of their own children at the expense of the larger society…[and therefore have] truly turned [their] backs on the lost of the world.”
Frankly, I think this is a rather odd claim, and I think Ms. Thomas does a fine job in demolishing it on scriptural and prudential grounds. (Specifically, children are to be brought up in such a way that they can become spiritually strong enough to take on the task of witnessing in hostile environments–which is what Ms. Thomas clearly sees the public school system as being–through their own choice and wisdom; they ought not be sent into such environments out of some sort of misplaced Christian or liberal guilt on the part of parents.) Her demolishing, though, doesn’t especially interest me, because the original claim itself is not one I’ve ever heard or would likely take seriously. (Perhaps some of you homeschoolers out there, particularly those who live in communities with a large evangelical population, have heard something similar though.) What did really interest me about the article, however, was the language of one’s obligation to the “larger society.” How best to fulfill that obligation, to the extent that it exists? And what if it exists, in fact, in multiple, even contradictory ways? On my reading of ther essay (which, as you might guess, took the form of a long post about the ideal of equal public schooling and the uses to which families may be obliged–as both Christians and citizens–to make use of their “human capital”), Ms. Thomas makes a good defense of her decision to keep her children at home and thus be part of one kind of “larger society”–specifically, her immediate neighborhood, which is mostly empty during the day as all spouses depart for work and leave the streets available to whatever bad element may move in–rather than banging her head against the wall trying to “witness to” another, much less responsive larger project–specifically, the local school district.
I bring this up here, not because I want another throwdown regarding home schooling (we’ve done that a few times before), but because the more that I thought about it, the more that I felt that the whole matter of how one arranges one’s “larger” allegiances cuts to the heart of ordinary lived Mormon experience. Unlike home schoolers, Mormons do not, in fact, have the option of withdrawing their children from wards they don’t like and constructing a Sunday School entirely on their own. (Well, of course, they do have such an option, but the word used to describe such a decision is “inactivity,” and so far as I know the church is not exactly busy responding to pressure from various “home churchers” to reconstitute the temple recommend questions so you can still get one without attending your ward, the way home schooled kids can still receive a high school diploma.) Unless you’re buying a new home or moving to a new city or in a fairly specific demographic category, you can’t even really “ward shop” much in the church, certainly not as much as you can strategize through the public school system, what with all the exceptions and special arrangements which parents keep clamoring for. Basically, we are expected to attend a certain ward, and are presumed to have a obligation–one which the church enforces through strict rules about membership records–to stick with it, for the sake of making the “larger project” of the gospel a reality wherever God has planted us. (Kaimi’s old but still moving post on our “duty to stick with a dysfunctional ward” remains must reading here.)
Why be beholden to dysfunctional ward, but not a dysfunctional school system? Why does one’s presence at church, even if one should have complaints with its functioning, loom so much larger in the thinking of your average potential homeschooling Mormon than does the similar call to support the local school system? Some likely answers: a screwed up ward cannot possibly hurt one’s children in three hours on one day a week as much as a screwed up public school could over a seven hour period five days week; as wards are lay organizations, one can get to know and become involved with repairing the defects of any given ward much easier and much more effectively than in the case in a professionalized school district; we basically trust and our familiar with what gets taught and what takes place in a ward, much more so than is the case in much less focused and more spread out school systems; etc., etc. But of course, none of these are the real reasons–the real reason is, quite simply, that we don’t put the public schools ane wards into the same category. The latter is a community structure we bind ourselves to by covenant, because we believe in and accept the ideal of Zion, however distant our present day lives as Mormons may be from that end. Whereas on the other hand, while many Americans may feel some general allegience to the ideal of equal public schooling for all, we aren’t in any serious sense covenanted to that project–and moreover, there’s no teaching to suggest that the principals and administrators who set policies for that project our prophets guided by inspiration. Add to that the fact that we have fundamental responsibilities to our families, and it’s easy to say that when family and church collide, some complicated and painful negotiations and compromises may be necessary…but when family and the public schools collide, hey, we’ll happily be out the door and on our way home.
I don’t disagree with that sentiment, not ultimately: as I wrote three years ago, quoting Jonathan Alter, children should never have their education sacrificed on the altar of their parents’ principles. My commitments to my children and their education and happiness is bigger than the larger project of supporting, through potentially dysfunctional institutions, similar efforts on behalf of other peoples’ children. And yet…is it really always so easy to be clear as regards to which principles properly should pull you away from your own home and children and privacy, in the name of something larger? It used to be common to hear pacifist and rejectionist language when it came to politics and war from church headquarters; now such messages are few and far between–and yet why would should the call to support the military aims of the country one happens to live in (aims which may include, as sometimes is the case, unjust wars) be seen as an acceptable obligation despite its manifestly disruptive impact on the lives and families of ordinary saints, while the obligation to support the schooling and education of one’s neighbors’ children through common efforts be seen as an obligation easy to–maybe even righteous to–shuck off? (Again, I can think of some likely answers here–but I’m not sure they are necessarily obvious ones.)
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once stated that he was “not much of a joiner. I donâ€™t remember belonging to many clubs or social units at school, and more recently I have been about as cautious in my professional affiliations. I give civic service to my community and country, and I try very hard to be a good neighbor, but in many other ways I am a private person.” But then he added that as a “veritable pacifist when it comes to social guilds or luncheon clubs, I turn into something of a militant on the subject of the only true and living Church on the face of the earth.” I like that line very much (though I’m much more opening to joining things than he is). It tells us where our primary membership–our most important “larger project”–lies. But it still leaves open how to negotiate, and why, everything else.