Back to school this election year will mean back to school-board battles. Back to viral clips of distraught parents reaming out officials; back to politicized debates about parental rights; back to enjoinders, both earnest and conniving, for evangelicals and political conservatives to take over their school districts because America’s future depends on it.
This is but the latest iteration of a longstanding strategy, the result of primary education’s re-emergence as a source of partisan realignment in the last two years, significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The basic argument is familiar culture-war fodder.
When I was an evangelical kid in the 1990s, worries around the moral devolution of American public schools felt ubiquitous. Then controversies emerged over evolution, sex ed, and school prayer. America was in trouble because we’d “taken God out of schools.” Now the focus is policies and curricula on race and gender. Again we hear that America is in trouble because we’ve “taken God out of schools” and that the solution is to claim political power and force God back into the schoolhouse.
There’s a compelling logic to this plan. Whatever your politics, the core idea of joining or regularly lobbying the school board to improve our kids’ education has an obvious appeal. Who doesn’t want their child’s schooling to be virtuous, rigorous, and healthy? It may seem not only sensible but glaringly obvious to seize this power where available.
But what if culture war is the wrong approach entirely? What if we’re confusing a symptom for the illness itself and therefore applying a mistaken remedy?
More than 70 years ago, C. S. Lewis confronted very similar concerns in the preface of a 1946 book called How Heathen Is Britain? It was increasingly heathen, he answered, and in no small part because “the content of, and the case for, Christianity, are not put before most schoolboys under the present system.”
Yet Lewis did not go on to recommend a political agenda to bring God back into public education. It wouldn’t work, he said, because no one “can give to another what he does not possess himself”:
You may frame the syllabus as you please. But when you have planned and reported ad nauseam, if we are skeptical we shall teach only skepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism.
Education is only the most fully conscious of the channels whereby each generation influences the next. It is not a closed system. Nothing which was not in the teachers can flow from them into the pupils. We shall all admit that a man who knows no Greek himself cannot teach Greek to his form: but it is equally certain that a man whose mind was formed in a period of cynicism and disillusion, cannot teach hope or fortitude.
A society which is predominantly Christian will propagate Christianity through its schools: one which is not, will not. All the ministries of education in the world cannot alter this law.
The culture-war instinct is to respond to this passage with a new battle plan: So the school boards aren’t enough; we need to control the school administrations too. Then we can put a Christian teacher and a Christian curriculum in every public classroom in America. Then, finally, we’ll turn all this around.
But—besides being politically impossible, constitutionally impermissible, and oblivious to the fact that many public-school teachers and board members are Christians—this is only an escalated version of the same fundamental mistake, a larger iteration of the “futility of many schemes for education” that Lewis described.
Education, as he wrote, is not a closed system. By their very nature, public schools will reflect our country as a whole. If the way public schools handle race and gender is changing, it is because the way our society thinks about race and gender is changing.
Winning some local elections or haranguing those who do might be effective for shifting more pragmatic things like a district’s COVID-19 policy. It might even be possible to force some curricular or library stock updates.
Whether they’ll be changes for the better is very much an open question. Politicized history curricula of all sorts tend toward reductive morality tales, as historian Jonathan Zimmerman recently argued at The Washington Post, and if you toss out any library book someone in the local community dislikes, the shelves will soon be bare, bland, and even Bible-free.
But political victories can’t and won’t isolate public schools from cultural shifts, including rapidly declining religiosity, in the broader public. Those shifts will tag along daily with most staff and students and especially through their nearly unlimited screen time. As Lewis observed, people’s “minds are formed by influences which government cannot control. And as they come to be, so will they teach,” including—or perhaps especially—peer to peer. No school board can change that.
The real problem, then, is outside the scope of the culture war, which despite its spiritual mask amounts to a variant of power politics. The real problem is how we have come to be. For Christian parents worried about our children’s education, the real (and most realistic) remedy is discipleship.
What that means in practice will vary by family. For some, it may entail choosing a different school, perhaps a Christian school, charter school, or homeschooling, rather than waging embittering political fights. (If you have the time, wherewithal, and resources to run for school board, you’re probably also capable of taking on the costs and inconveniences of other schooling options.) For others, public education will be a missional choice—or simply the only feasible one.
Of course, “there are no smug guarantees for our kids,” as Northern Seminary theologian Beth Felker Jones has observed. Christian education certainly has its flaws, and its history in America is marred by the still-recent shame of segregation academies. Still, these options make it at least possible for discipleship to be a formal part of the school day instead of an addition or counterbalance to it.
Discipling children toward a mature Christian faith goes well beyond our decisions about education. This isn’t something we can leave to chance or politics. Discipleship has to be deliberate, and you can’t do it by voting or campaigning or bickering on Twitter.
And in our context, attention to tech use must be an unusually big part of discipleship. You can review your child’s curricula and library books. You can’t review the hundreds of video clips they can watch in a single unsupervised hour on TikTok.
Wisdom is available to us—I can already recommend Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family (a CT book award winner with good reason), and am looking forward to reading Justin Whitmel Earley’s Habits of the Household and Sarah Cowan Johnson’s Teach Your Children Well—but it will be hard to put it into practice.
For all the voices calling our attention and energy to school-board politics right now, discipling our kids in a holistic and faithful way is a more constant, difficult, and worthwhile task.