Meet Your Child’s Most Important Teacher
by Stephen Combs, MA, MLS
My school day from 1950 to 1956 began in the grand hallway of Collett School in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Mary Carnes, the principal, led us 350 students in the Pledge of Allegiance followed by the National Anthem, which she played on an ancient (even then) wind-up Victrola record player.
I don’t recall prayer ever being part of our daily routine, but God’s presence was quietly understood in this public school as a reflection of our neighborhood, and everybody knew it. Teachers acknowledged it.
That all changed in 1962 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that prayer in public schools violates the First Amendment, which says Congress may not establish a state religion.
A Jewish man, Steven Engel, brought suit to stop the Union New Free School District in Hyde Park, N.Y., from starting each day with a prayer, from which any student could be excused with a parent’s permission. The 22-word prayer was non-denominational and hardly controversial:“God’s presence was quietly understood in this public school as a reflection of our neighborhood, and everybody knew it. Teachers acknowledged it.”
“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”
Engel argued that any prayer in school, with no reference to Christ, any faith, sect leader or prophet, is government-sponsored religion. The trial and state appeals courts all rejected the claim. Engel appealed to the Supreme Court and finally won.
In his majority opinion, Justice Hugo L. Black didn’t cite a single Supreme Court case as precedent. The Court’s reasoning – how reciting a prayer means the government has established a state church – remains baffling to this day.
Parents have argued for six decades that the Engel decision was just the beginning of the secular campaign to destroy our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage.
They correctly note that a simple prayer recited in public school is the only exposure some children have to God.
More recently, Americans of all faiths have had some success in getting the courts to understand that recitation of a simple prayer acknowledging God’s presence does not constitute a government church.“A simple prayer recited in public school is the only exposure some children have to God.”
Last June, the Supreme Court put an end to a school district’s seven-year campaign to keep a high school football coach from praying on the 50-yard-line following games.
The Court ruled that Joe Kennedy, a Marine Corps veteran and assistant coach at Bremerton High School in Washington State, was improperly fired when he knelt on one knee and prayed silently after every game.
He never required or requested players to join him. Without coercion, players – even from the opposing teams – began to join him.
Most reaction to the SCOTUS decision was predictable. The ACLU argued, for example, that the decision “significantly erodes the separation of church and state in public schools.”
School board associations and even some Christian groups sided with the school board that fired Kennedy, one Jewish group warning that compulsory Christian indoctrination was soon to follow.“Parents have the primary responsibility also for their child’s academic upbringing. It starts with a conversation about the very purpose of school.”
But an Orthodox Jewish organization supported the decision. It noted that if Kennedy’s firing had been upheld, Jewish public school teachers could be fired strictly for their religious beliefs and how they dress.
The battles between parents and school boards and their administrators likely won’t end anytime soon. Parents will win some and lose some. But a question emerges here.
In their worthy fight to reinstate a simple ritual that until 1962 had existed since the beginning of public education in America, is their attention being diverted from the more profound and lasting influence they can have in the home?
The responsibilities of defending our constitutional right to free speech in the schoolhouse while providing religious and moral training in the home are not mutually exclusive, of course.“Parents may be astonished to learn that the why of school…is not a discussion often held in the typical public school.”
But I submit that parents have the primary responsibility also for their child’s academic upbringing. It starts with a conversation about the very purpose of school.
Three generations live in our house. We’ve had some of the most lively conversations on this topic at the dinner table.
Parents may be astonished to learn that the why of school – why children are there, what they are supposed to accomplish, the purpose of the courses they are required to take – is not a discussion often held in the typical public school.
It can be difficult even in the home. From experience, I know that most high schoolers don’t find this subject particularly exciting. And neither do their teachers, apparently.
I open my freshman composition courses by asking the students – many who are sitting in a college classroom for the very first time – if their high school teachers had ever explained the purpose of their assignments, especially writing assignments. I never heard a yes.
It’s no wonder that so many of our students struggle, and why so many eventually drop out. Unable to explain to themselves why they are even there, they arrive at the logical conclusion that their time is better spent elsewhere.
The numbers are discouraging. Forbes reported in 2018 that nationally, less than 20 percent of community college students graduate with an associates degree or certificate.“It’s no wonder that so many of our students struggle, and why so many eventually drop out. Unable to explain to themselves why they are even there, they arrive at the logical conclusion that their time is better spent elsewhere.”
In his book Is College Worth It?, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett says about two-thirds of college students today probably should be doing something else, at least at this point in their lives.
But it’s a dinner-table discussion worth having, introduced at the appropriate time when everyone in the home seems receptive.
It’s not likely to come up at school: A common opinion expressed in my Day 1 classroom discussions is that challenging a teacher can be taken as a sign of disrespect.
Here is an actual exchange I heard in a high school classroom…
Student: “Why do we have to write this paper?”
A better, less hostile answer would have been, “Because as we write, we learn. We begin to take ownership of the ideas we are exploring as we write about them.”
It’s an obvious truth that students perform better when they understand the purpose of what they are doing – just as in any job or other field of endeavor.
Parents are their child’s most important teacher. And just as repeated studies of homeschool parents have shown, the parents’ own education level matters little.
I have read anecdotal reports of parents without high school diplomas who shepherded their children into professional careers.
This job isn’t easy. I think back to my middle school and high school years and the aimless wandering, the squandering of opportunity.
My father was a physician – a pretty high role model who worked his way through to Eagle Scout and then into college and medical school.“Along with feeding and protecting our children, training them up to be moral and useful citizens is our role – something that never should be subcontracted to teachers no matter how good they are.”
My own pathetic academic performance at a very good high school makes me wonder if I would have done better had my dad sat me down and explained just how an understanding of algebra would figure into my later life.
Or the dreaded chemistry, or 18th Century British literature. He knew the answers. He had been there.
I always wanted to be a writer. Who knew how important a factor would be an understanding of history and economics and basic science and math and classical literature and western musical notes and foreign languages in this preparation? I was clueless right up until my junior year of college.
I didn’t think of these things either when our own sons were growing up. I reflect on them often now, the result of all those years in the classroom. Wouldn’t it be nice to pass along some of this Johnny-come-lately-acquired wisdom?
Along with feeding and protecting our children, training them up to be moral and useful citizens is our role – something that never should be subcontracted to teachers no matter how good they are.
A mother cat does this in a few weeks. We humans need 18 years or more.“The reality of education today is that it is seen as career preparation, not as a way to make us happier (except to make it possible to acquire more stuff).”
Whether the child goes on to college, vocational training or the military, the need for post-secondary education isn’t debatable.
Parental involvement is critical here, not to lecture but to listen. This is a skill many of us lack.
Instead of saying something like “You should join the Air Force,” we might ask if our student has ever thought about military service as a way to develop skills and save money for a future education.
Then leave it at that. An idea planted today might get an immediate rejection only to sound reasonable as it simmers for a few days.
Or if our student complains that “Math stinks and I’m no good at it,” instead of lecturing we might ask, “Have you ever thought about the role math plays in our everyday lives?”
I am reminded of a friend without a college education who nonetheless understood well the Pythagorean Theory, critical to his ability to accurately determine how much concrete mix to order for his work constructing driveways and sidewalks.
That is the practical use of math. Our student may or may not be ready to absorb math’s wider role in helping us learn to think logically.
Benjamin Franklin said the purpose of education is to make us happier people. The apostle Paul expanded on this idea in a letter to the Philippians:
8) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.Philippians 4:8 (KJV)
The reality of education today is that it is seen as career preparation, not as a way to make us happier (except to make it possible to acquire more stuff).
But we must pass along to our children the legacy of education’s true and lasting purpose.
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