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  • Susan Cartmell

Back to School?

One of the biggest tensions in many families today is the confusion people feel about whether to send their kids to school in the fall. Some are working and need the childcare. Some are not working and feel their children need the structure in-person school provides. But many millions of parents in this country are confused. They don’t know what to do, and they are scared that this decision could be a life or death one for the little people they love most. Plenty of families just cannot make the decision at all because it is too hard. 


Ever wonder why there is so much pressure now to start school, especially when the virus is raging in many communities? 


Today I read an explanation that never occurred to me. Tom Gotsill, a retired teacher and playwright, wrote a commentary that made more sense than most explanations. It was so novel and startling that I want to share his thoughts with you. 


It starts with John Dewey, a philosopher who wrote about the role of public schools in 1916. His book was entitled Democracy and Education: An introduction to the Philosophy of Education. After years of watching surges of European immigration and Southern Blacks moving North, Dewey came to believe public schools should be intentional about developing citizens who could adapt to rapid change. He thought our schools should be places where children and teachers learned progressive values. 



Some traditional Christians found Dewey’s ideas upsetting because they believed that schools should promote the values of the Old Testament and support traditional families - White, patriarchal and Christian. Conservative Christians believed that churches and schools should both support orthodox values with curriculum that was authoritarian and supported the idea that women and children should be submissive. They believed in corporal punishment to ensure order. 


John Dewey believed in a child-centered classroom that fostered exploration, discovery, critical thinking and community building. Conservatives called Dewey a socialist. By the 1970’s Evangelical Christians held Dewey responsible for teaching generations of children to question authority, to question traditional sex roles and to stop attending church regularly. Evangelicals came to believe that our system of public education is responsible for all these changes. This led to the rise of a system of segregated Christian Academies in the South and a burgeoning homeschooling movement across the country. Almost all the curriculum for parents hoping to home school is published by evangelical Christians, who teach creationism and traditional family roles. 


These evangelical Christians have made it their business to undermine public education by promoting school choice, charter schools and home schooling. 


The latest attack on public education has come this summer with the push to send children back to school, led by the Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, herself an Evangelical Christian. The reason that Evangelicals are so enthusiastic about sending children back to school is because  public schools are not ready to serve the needs of children in a pandemic and pandemonium has ensued. Parents are so confused and  upset about the difficulty of ensuring children’s safety that many are enrolling in private Christian Schools, and others are subscribing in droves to homeschool curriculum, much of which is loaded with traditional values about families and race and sex role stereotypes and creationism. 


By forcing parents to return children to crowded schools and denying federal funds to retrofit the schools for a pandemic the Secretary is, in fact, providing impetus for affluent or just middle class families to abandon the public schools and further undermine them. 


Having read this article several times today I hoped against hope it was not true. I worried about a Secretary of Education who might endanger children to push her philosophy, but stranger things have happened.  I have to admit this explanation does make more sense than any others I have seen. 


Still mulling it over and praying for families caught on the thorns of a hard dilemma. 

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Pilgrim Congregational Church, 533 MA-28 Harwich Port MA