Educational Idolatry Disguised as Christianity

It’s very common for Christians new to unschooling to distrust their own children’s abilities and inclinations, simply because they’ve never experienced an environment that allowed them to build that mutual parent-child trust around learning. Often, this doubt takes the form of a theological complaint, as follows.

A lot of what I read about unschooling seems to elevate children’s natural desire to learn, implying they’ll always learn exactly what they need to exactly when they need to. As though a child left to his or her own devices will always end up with all the education/information they need. This seems at odds with the idea that we live in a fallen world where our desires and interests are tainted by our sinful nature.

1) Nobody ever learns everything they need at exactly the moment they need it! That is a false perception of life… one that we ought to examine in our estimation of formal schooling’s promises as well.

2) This argument is easily tested out by reversing its application as follows:

A lot of what I read about adult control of children’s education seems to elevate adults’ ideas about scope, sequence and pedagogy, implying that adults will always teach children exactly what they need exactly when they need it. As though an adult left to his or her own devices [such as getting a teaching degree or choosing a homeschool curriculum] will always end up with all the education/information they need. This seems at odds with the idea that we live in a fallen world where our intrinsic desires and interests are tainted by our sinful nature.

The critical thinking exercise of replacing one subject with another is extremely useful for unpacking fears and doubts. In this case, it reminds us how easy it is to elevate the social engineering of institutional methods above the spiritual and moral judgement of homeschooling parents who are following God’s individual guidance for their lives.

Education” in the secular, institutional sense can function as an idol, taking the place of Christ-led spiritual life together. That’s exactly the reason so many Christians give for choosing to homeschool! But many of us never look farther than “negative socialization” or sex ed topics that present conflicting moral values. The method of education itself deserves the same critical analysis.

By applying it to a different group of people, we can more clearly see that, at best, this type of objection ignores both the community benefit of influencing relationships and the sovereignty of God. No one is ever truly left to their own devices. We belong to God, and we are the body of Christ, even in the microcosm of our homes.

Neither curriculum nor unschooling are inherently Christian. Both fall under the category of “when ‘Christian’ parenting isn’t Christian,” as Shawna Wingert describes on her blog. However, parental concerns about unschooling not producing the results we want tend to reflect the conflict of finding out our kids won’t bow to our idols. As Jennifer Phillips writes, we’ve been taught to believe that certain steps A + B will guarantee a C outcome, which is magical thinking. That could be bedtimes, finishing what’s on their plates, or learning what we expect them to when in reality something else interests them much more.

Here are some further responses from the group moderators:

I find mixing education with a sinful nature problematic.

We shouldn’t confuse unschooling with educational neglect by a parent, believing that neglect represents the child always learning exactly what they need to exactly when they need to, where the parent is not being mindfully present with the child along the way, providing information and opportunity. Leaving them to their own devices is about a lack of understanding and/or could be perhaps sinful nature issues of the parent.

Also, our intrinsic desires and interests may not be tainted by any sinfulness, educationally, or otherwise, yet fall short of expectations if not matching the scope and sequence used as a measuring stick.

-Pam

This seems to me to conflate one’s sanctification or spiritual walk with one’s preparation for adult employment.

-Carma

I think this is a common but theologically flawed excuse that parents use for not facing their own fears about unschooling. An excuse that our control can make up for or prevent sin.

I can’t say strongly enough that this is pride and it’s anti-biblical, unchristian thinking. Fear so easily drives us there!

The work of Christ and the Holy Spirit aren’t invalidated in children just because they’re children. To believe that a child’s sin nature is more pernicious than an adult’s, one has to ignore everything in Jesus’ example of discipleship living and mentoring by living alongside His followers, ignore Christ’s own words that “unless you become as little children, you shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven,” ignore the spiritual principle of engaging our children “when you rise up, when you lie down, when you walk in the way,” and so much more of scripture than the argument accommodates.

The false equation of educational, scheduling etc. control with spiritual guidance that ultimately only the Holy Spirit can give to our children–though we are co-laborers with Christ and have the responsibility of exemplifying a listening attitude towards God and talking them through whatever their needs are–really only illuminates the extent to which our institutions tend to become idolatry.

The substitution of human authority for whatever the authority-holder perceives to be lacking in the subordinate’s decisions is how people become entangled in harmful church environments. Learning to deconstruct that thinking could save a lot of spiritual pain in the adult world too.

The North American church could use a little (or a lot) less obsession with definitions of power, authority and control that are pragmatically divorced from the reality that “there is one God, and one mediator between God and man [including your children], the man Christ Jesus.”

-Cat

As we’ve often said before, unschooling is NOT leaving children to their own devices.

-Stacie

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