08/06/2011 12:09 pm ET | Updated Oct 06, 2011

A Christian Plea for Public Education

When I was a boy, which wasn't terribly long ago, American public education was not anathema to Christianity. I should know: I grew up as a Christian in public schools. Things in public schools then (the 80s and 90s) weren't very different than they are today, but sadly our nation, and especially its Evangelical subset -- a subset to which I belong -- seems to feel increasingly otherwise.

Today, what with the way we are daily removing our children from public schools, and with the way Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Congress have (seemingly overnight) made it vogue to malign public education, the Evangelical machine appears to be working in overdrive to convince Christian parents that our children are endangered by attending public schools.

This escalating mentality has deeply saddened me over the past year because, as a Christian, I think the arguments against public education -- which I will speak to in a second -- are antithetical to what Christianity and following Jesus is really about; moreover, I have been saddened because, as a teacher, I feel the arguments being leveled against public education have been misleading.

First, a little background: I am not a "career" teacher. I did not set out to be part of the public education system, nor am I certain it is a gig I will stay with for years to come. I am a former English Lit major, a writer, and a speaker. Until the summer of 2010 I had not even considered teaching public school. However, since my latest book didn't quite put me in the same breath as, say, Grisham, and because I was getting married and suddenly needed more financial stability (read: I could no longer remain broke), I was left contemplating what I might do to earn a paycheck. A friend suggested I consider teaching. He pointed out how I had lately been lamenting the way our nation's world education rating had (and has) been consistently dropping, and he, a teacher, said that I didn't merit a voice in the conversation until I was willing to roll up my sleeves and do something about it. His statement was like a punch to the gut; when truth is spoken directly at us it usually is.

I will begin my second year in the classroom at the end of the month, and while I never planned to be a teacher, I am grateful for what the position has done for both my life and, especially -- perhaps even ironically -- my faith. Who knew that public education could be such a wonderful lesson in living a more private and authentic faith?

What I have found while working as a public school teacher is that when people don't feel compelled to constantly explain why and how Jesus fits into everything they see, they slowly begin listening for God instead of immediately speaking of and for Him; they learn that real faith comes through compassion and service, not through speaking pretty words and hearing inspiring sermons.

Meanwhile, I have found that, contrary to increasingly popular opinion, there is no lurking agenda within public education to secularize our students; there is no tacit understanding between teachers and the state to discourage students from their faith (whatever that faith may be). Rather, within public education I've found a community of people who, for very little money and for even less appreciation, dedicate themselves to one singular goal: to equip our nation's youth with the tools necessary to compete in a postmodern and globalized world. I have been startled by the hostile and venomous reaction against people with such humble and noble goals.

I've heard Christian parents say they don't want their children in public school because they don't want them exposed to literature of other religions or to sciences that challenge conservative Christian theology, but my question is this: what kind of a faith is a faith not tested by or compared against anything outside of itself? Nothing in public education is taught as gospel; everything is presented as information. So how has it become a bad thing to know our children are being exposed to as much knowledge and information as possible? As Christians, are we not leaving our children unequipped and vulnerable if they leave our homes and enter the world unexposed to anything contrary to the information we want them to hear?

Meanwhile, I've been told by Christian friends that public education is godless. These parents say they don't want their children learning in an environment where the agenda is to remove God from education. In fact, just yesterday I read where Wisconsin Tea Party candidate Kim Simac likened the American public education system to Nazi Germany, her implication being that public education's stance against public professions of faith is tantamount to brainwashing. To hear this, now that I have witnessed what really goes on behind the doors of public education -- now that I have seen how genuine these teachers and administrators are, how hard they are working to better our country -- it makes me unspeakably disheartened.

Finally, I've heard it said that public education's tolerance of liberal lifestyles and its agenda for celebrating diversity is reason enough for Christians to run for the hills. But isn't this reaction contrary to what we are asked to do as Christians?

Christ tells us that as Christians we are to be in the world but not of the world; that we are to be shining lights. Are we really doing this when we seclude ourselves in our own private communities? Wasn't Jesus' message one of radical love, wasn't it a mandate to live in harmony with and to serve those who are different from us? Public education's celebration of diversity is a beautiful thing, and we rob our children and jeopardize their future when we choose to believe otherwise. How have we come so far as a religion that we've co-opted God's message of radical love to make it a justification for fear and exclusion?

Most important, when we -- in the name of Christian faith -- take our own children out of public education, and when we advocate for fewer of our tax dollars to be put toward the school system, are we not sweeping the legs out from under the very country toward which we pledge our loyalty and patriotism? Moreover, are we not blinding ourselves to whom we are most affecting by doing this, the ones whom Jesus unequivocally tells us we are to serve: "the least of these?"

It seems to me that if we buy into the insidious lie that the public education system is anti-Christian and corrupt, and if we begin advocating for like-minded people to pull their students away from the system, we are in essence saying that we aren't concerned with ministering to anyone outside of our own community and that we aren't invested in helping the less fortunate better their stations in life.

I'm not comfortable with this, and I fear we are daily moving in the wrong direction.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners recently said, "There are two casualties in unprincipled political warfare: the common good and the most vulnerable." It would seem this goes for the American public education system, as well. And as Christians, I am of the opinion that it is our duty to minimize the number of casualties, not contribute to it.