When asked to give specifics about exactly what Christians should withdraw from, Benedict Option proponents have often cited our nation’s public schools as a good place to begin. I’ve heard friends offer that prescription and, indeed, I suggested it myself just last week. But the idea of withdrawing from the public schools raises a host of questions, many of which are actually useful for talking in more concrete terms about the BenOp in general.
In the first place, we need to be clear on exactly why we’re proposing a withdrawal from our nation’s public schools. If the withdrawal is purely defensive in nature, then it is likely to fail. If we have no further objective in our approach to education than protecting our children from the bad people out there, then we really have no philosophy of education at all.
Rather, we’ll simply end up with what some of our nation’s Christian schools functionally are—prep schools for the white upper-class that are in 80% of their curriculum indistinguishable from the public schools. In my two years attending a private Christian school (which came directly before four years of public high-school) the only things in the curriculum recognizably distinct from the public schools’ curriculum was a Bible class and the absence of evolution in our high-school science classes. In every other way our “Christian” school was peddling the same sort of careerist education offered by our public schools—they just charged five grand a year for it. There was no positive good we were taking hold of in this school; we were simply running away from people we deemed impure.
Of course, evangelicals have already been around this cul de sac once before as southern evangelicals withdrew en masse from the public schools in the 1960s and 70s due in no small part to their opposition to integration. Though today’s proponents of withdrawal who are concerned over the government schools’ rejection of Christian sex ethics have the advantage of withdrawing their students for principles that are at least recognizably Christian (rather than white supremacist), the problem of being purely defensive remains. If we withdraw simply because we want to protect our kids from some outside evil, we not only will fail to create good schools; we will also almost certainly fail in protecting our kids.
So the primary reason for withdrawal must not be defensive, but must come from a conviction that the Gospel empowers God’s people to do a superior job of educating children by furnishing them with the tools and resources to create a superior curriculum more in accord with the world as God has made it. To put it another way, the first reason to pull our kids out of the government schools is that we’ll do a better job of educating them then they will. And in a happy twist, that superior education will actually make our children better citizens. Concerns with protecting our kids from the culture of the schools, though a completely valid reason to withdraw, must be secondary to that.
Yet this brings us to a second problem raised by this proposed withdrawal. Private schooling does not come cheap. Homeschooling likewise is expensive in that it essentially requires that the family get by on one income so that one parent can stay home with the kids. So the options being proposed as alternatives that must be embraced to avoid “the corrosive effects of modernity” are options accessible to only a small percentage of the population, namely those people who can afford to send their kids to private school or to homeschool.
There are ways of addressing this problem, of course. Many families could trim expenses to save money that could be put to schooling. You don’t have to have that new house in the suburbs or huge family vacation every summer, after all. Additionally, families can take on part-time jobs, perhaps even jobs offered by the school, to help cover costs. The private school I attended for two years didn’t have a janitorial staff and instead allowed low-income families to clean after school to receive discounted tuition.
And, of course, there are ways of running a school on a cheaper budget. You don’t need new computers every two years in the library, for example, and there’s reason to think students are better off without laptops or tablets in the classroom anyway. That said, these things can all help address the problem but they won’t solve it altogether. If you make $40,000 a year and have two kids, you’re not going to be able to send them to most private schools simply by taking on a part-time job (which could also hurt your relationship with your kids by taking you away from them) and cutting out a family vacation in the summer.
Given the current economic reality facing most non-upper class families, this is an issue that orthodox believers must think through if they are to retain their working- and middle-class members, let alone if they are to reach those working- and middle-class people outside the church.
And this problem doesn’t simply apply to education. Most of the examples I’ve seen of concrete BenOp prescriptions have this problem to one level or another. Want to get a group of people to move into a rural area together and share some land? That’ll cost a fair amount of money. Want people to sell their houses (assuming they own one) and move into the same neighborhood? Ditto.
Of course, in a healthy church environment you can probably further mitigate some of these problems. A good friend of mine who grew up Dutch Reformed told me once that there was not a single family in his church whose kids were in public school out of necessity. In his church if you wanted your kids in a private Christian school, the church made it happen. And yet the rarity of stories like the above highlight the very reason we’re having these BenOp conversations in the first place.
In far too many cases the communal ties that bind religious communities together are slender and easily cut. And so a family attending a well-off church that wants to send their kids to private school but cannot afford it will often end up sending their kids to public school out of necessity despite the fact that their fellow parishioners could help them pay for private school. It is out of this weakened sense of Christian community that many of the church’s contemporary problems have grown.
And so we end on a dilemma—to create BenOp communities that are accessible to everyone (and not just the rich), we need thick communities bound together by love and a shared commitment to care for one another, even when that care comes with a price in dollars. Yet the lack of those communities is precisely why we need some sort of BenOp. To put it starkly, the conditions necessary to create BenOp communities do not exist which is both why we need some sort of BenOp and why we may not be able to attain it.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).