Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Every Tuesday Is Fat Tuesday
Sorry to have failed to live up to the "daily" part of "Daily Aneurysm" this past week. I've been traveling again, plus I'm on deadline for another project. On top of that, today's my birthday (sort of--the actual date would be February 29 if this were one of those years), and I have to confess I'm not taking it especially well this year.

Although I can't deny that having it fall on Fat Tuesday is weirdly appropriate.

So anyway: Yesterday I was teaching a class at a Lutheran high school northeast of Madison. Generally, I like teaching at private, religious schools for the same reason parents like having their kids attend private schools: A lot of the trouble in the world that walks right through the front door of public schools can't seem to find the door in private schools. There are reasons for this, of course. If asked, parents and administrators would probably talk about the values that animate their institutions. Private, religious-school students are supposed to be getting the sort of values-based education secularized public schools can't provide, and as a result, they're more civilized, or something. But it's a class issue, too. People buy their way into private clubs of all sorts because private clubs keep the riff-raff out.

My experience in these schools is fairly limited. My teaching jobs generally consist of parachuting into a school for the day, teaching a daylong workshop to prepare kids for the ACT or SAT college entrance exams, and then finding the nearest brewpub in time for dinner. I visit a Catholic school here in Madison frequently, and I've been to a handful of other religious schools over the years. (Oh, but what might have been: After I got my teaching certificate in 1997, the only serious bite I got on a job was at a Catholic middle school, where I'd have been one of two male staff members on a staff of 40 teachers.) But I've seen enough to have some questions about what goes on.

One thing seems clear to me: Schools run by Catholics and Lutherans are a different breed of religious school than those run by fundies. Schools run by mainstream denominations aren't generally teaching out of books like America's Providential History or Precalculus for Christian Schools, books which vibrate with fear that a student might stop thinking about Jesus for one damn second now and then, and in that second, lose his soul. In fact, the only difference I can see between these mainstream-denomination religious schools and the public schools is the 15 minutes per day students spend attending chapel services. That, and they can probably perform overtly religious music in band and chorus. But what else do they do that's specific to religious schools alone? In the old days, I suppose, the nuns could whack misbehaving students with more elan than teachers can now. But what else? Are they weaving religious principles and religious language into lessons with more subtlety than the fundies do? I doubt it, but I don't know for sure. (As a candidate for the Catholic school teaching job, I was asked if I'd have a problem leading students in prayer. As I was not yet a stone atheist back then, I said "no," although I knew perfectly well if I ever tried it I'd be struck by lightning.) My guess is that lots of private, religious-school teachers are as thoroughly secularized as I am, because that's the kind of world we live in.

Is it small class sizes and low faculty-to-student ratios? Is it superior athletic programs? If it is, those practical concerns are getting short philosophical shrift in the mission statements that are supposed to encapsulate private schools' reason for being. Because examining the mission statements of some of these schools doesn't help all that much in learning precisely how these schools are supposed to be different, either. At Edgewood High School in Madison, which I visit frequently, their mission statement says:
Edgewood's purpose is to provide a values-based, college preparatory program emphasizing intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual development to a diverse student population. Edgewood's mission as a Christian community dedicated to academic excellence is to create an awareness of the dignity of life and to encourage social responsibility, commitment to service, and improvement of the quality of life through peace and justice.
It seems to me that as a goal for educating students, that's a fine one--but why it should be the exclusive province of religous schools, I don't know. Recognizing the dignity of life, having a sense of social responsibility and a commitment to service, and striving to improve of the quality of life through peace and justice are all things we'd like our kids to do instinctively. But none of those qualities necessarily require religious instruction to acquire--they can just as easily be reached through principles of humanism. Even the spiritual development part--if we acknowledge that one's spirit can be developed through appreciation for art, music, literature, and knowledge itself. And if all that's true, the public schools should be able to do it successfully, too--because they want to. Here's the Madison Metropolitan School District's mission statement:
The Mission Statement of the Madison Metropolitan School District, a community based educational partnership for children, is to assure academic success for every student in its elementary and secondary programs based on respect for the dignity of others, an appreciation of our diverse, democratic society, and the mastery of communication, technological, scientific, rational, creative and social skills.
A little more outcome-based than Edgewood's mission statement perhaps, less metaphysical, doesn't have as much music in it, but substantively, it's very similar.

So: Keeping in mind the possibility that I'm an idiot who's missing something right in front of my nose, can you help a brother out? If you were a private school kid back in the day--or, even better, if you're a parent with kids in private school now--how is your private, religious-school education substantively different from what they're getting in public schools? What separates it from your public schools, and makes it worth the money for your kids to attend? I'd really like to know.

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