Friday, April 18, 2008

Review: God's Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School

God's Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School, reviewed by Michael Lorenzen. (This review is from 2002. It used to reside on a now defunct website. I am republishing it here as I believe it may be of interest to some on the Web.)

Alan Peshkin wrote God's Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School in the 80s. Nonetheless, the forces that shaped the forming and operation of the anonymous "Bethany Baptist Academy" are still very much an issue today. While new possibilities such as charter schools give parents more control over the education of their children, only private endeavors can possibly offer a parent from a Christian Fundamentalist background the type of schooling that Peshkin described today. And the appeal for some goes beyond the escape from the secular world. The school that Peshkin described has all the elements of a successful school: institutional unity of purpose, a dedicated faculty, strong discipline, rigorous homework, and committed parents. As Bethany Baptist Academy is probably not alone in its success, it is useful to ponder the implications of the success of the fundamentalist private school.

Bethany Baptist Academy has no confusion as to the mission that drives it. The goal is to prepare students to be successful in a world that they intend to be apart from. "Separate from the world-in it but not of it" is the driving principle. Students should come to be "saved", lead wholesome lives, witness their faith to non-believers, and at the same time maintain their distance from the secular world. And, the student has to be taught to do this while they also learn to interact and live in a secular world that will daily challenge their lifestyles. Both the faculty and parents of Bethany strongly believe in this purpose and the message in constantly reinforced in all aspects of the curriculum and at home.

This type of schooling is bound to bother some educators. Students are not taught to value viewpoints that differ from the biblical interpretations of their teachers. Critical thinking skills are only sharpened to question in biblically and politically correct tones. Cultural diversity is not valued when most religious perspectives (and all but one sexual one) are taught to be incorrect. Further, state regulations for schools are ignored. This is problematic to those who believe in teacher certification and state assessment of scholastic achievement of students. The success and proliferation of schools such as Bethany is a direct challenge to many educators.

Although there are some limits, most laws ultimately uphold the right of the parent to decide what is best for their own children. This exercise in parental involvement has lead many to home school children, send their kids to private schools, and more recently lead to the development of charter schools. It is no surprise that Fundamentalist Christians are exercising their parental rights to educate their children in ways that fit their cultural views. The public schools are not supportive of the fundamentalist way of life. In many ways, public education is open and willing to embrace every form of diversity in the world with the exception of western religion. Further, it teaches many things such as situational ethics and evolution, which the fundamentalists view as being diametrically opposed to their beliefs. Attempts to get public schools to address their concerns are usually unsuccessful and often result in the petitioning party being portrayed as a right wing zealot or nut by the teachers and local media. It is no wonder that fundamentalists consider the curriculum of schools to be a religion in and of itself called "secular humanism" and their withdraw from public education seems to be a rational response to this hostile religion.

Much to the surprise of many educators, the fundamentalist approach to schooling in Peshkin's book works. In addition to "schooling" the child in religious issues, Bethany is successful in teaching academic subject matter. Bethany students were supposedly doing well on assessment tests. Doubtlessly, the students were able to read and had a good grasp on many scholarly subjects. From reading Peshkin's book, every indication was given that the school was doing a good job educating in academic subject matter. If this is the case, why shouldn't parents consider this type of schooling if it appeals to them and they can afford it? If the fundamentalist school can give a superior spiritual education and at least a good academic education, it is very logical that fundamentalist parents will choose these schools when they can.

Some concern for this type of schooling is in order even from a fundamentalist perspective. If students are not exposed to competing ideas, they will not get the kind of education needed to deal with many issues. If the student never goes to movies, has limited TV exposure, and has a heavily censored curriculum at school, how will the student deal with people who have been exposed to other ideologies and believe them? Without a wider exposure, the student will be at a disadvantage when engaging in debate with non-believers. This could cause some to ultimately question their faith in the face of a charismatic "debate" opponent or hamper their ability to make conversions. From a secular view, this type of "sheltered" education is even more problematic. Someday these children will grow up, vote, and take part in the decisions that they are not truly fully educated about. All issues will be one-dimensional to these students and compromise will be difficult for them to engage in causing even more problem in this diverse society.

The library at Bethany Baptist Academy is a good example of this. The "librarian" engaged heavily in censorship. (Although it is worth noting this individual may have lacked the credentials to be called a librarian.) When she discovered a chart showing the evolution of man, she glued the pages together so those students could not see it. What was she thinking? Every one of her students will at some point be exposed to similar charts or illustrations of evolution. How can the student effectively argue against evolution if they do not understand the concept they are arguing against?

Public schools need to seriously consider the success of schools such as Bethany. Parents can and will pull their children out of traditional public schools and put them in charters, private schools, or educate them at home. The public schools must look attractive to families from strong religious backgrounds. This in many cases will prove impossible when dealing with the most extreme members of these groups. However, more moderate or lukewarm families may stay in the public schools if their religion is acknowledged in a positive manner. If controversial subjects such as birth control and situational ethics are eliminated or covered in a less objectionable way, the public schools may not lose as many students. Finally, the public schools must realize that groups such as Christian Fundamentalists themselves add to diversity. A diverse curriculum includes them as well.

Peshkin has written one of the best education books this writer has ever read. It was a pleasure to read about Bethany Baptist Academy even if I was bothered by some of what I learned. Regardless of what one may believe, this type of schooling works. Peshkin was very successful in translating his experiences into writing. Rather than fear this kind of school, educators can learn much by studying them. I have no doubt that traditional public education will continue to shrink in the face of charters, home schooling, and tuition tax credits. More schools like Bethany will appear. Educators need to take them seriously from a scholarly and non-hostile viewpoint.

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