When we are fearful, we tend to fall back on things that we know. There is nothing like homeschooling for preying upon our fears about parenting. The questions echo: “Will my child be able to get into college?” “Will my child be able to find a good job?” And so, we tend to fall back on what we know—the classroom that encourages competition. After all, competing now is what will help our kids get ahead, right?
I am now in my thirteenth year of homeschooling and my third year of homeschooling a high school student. I know that the fears and questions are real. Like you, I am tempted to fall back on the paradigm I know and grew up with. I attended the largest high school in my state and had a class schedule full of honors and AP courses. The name of the game was competing against fellow students as preparation for “real life.” We have been trained to think that students of similar abilities should be placed in classrooms together. For most of us, it started with the first grade reading group and continued through graduation.
In the last few years, though, the Lord has been tearing down these old thoughts of mine. After many earnest conversations with other homeschooling parents and classical, Christian educators, I am convicted that the Christian classroom should be free from competition. Instead, it should be a place where the gifts of students are recognized and shared.
Reclaiming the idea of classical, Christian education should begin with Scripture. Paul reminds the Corinthians that the church is one body made of many members. Each part is radically different from other parts, but equally necessary to the proper functioning of the body:
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body (1 Cor. 12:14-20 ESV).
If we apply this passage to Christian education, we will appreciate the individual gifts of each student in the Challenge seminar. Some students will be naturally good at art while other students may have the ability to race through Latin translations. Some students will read and interpret complex literary works with ease while others will read and solve math problems with the same level of ease. Some students will be naturally good at all of these things while others will struggle with all of them. Too often, I think we may secretly wish to have our “math whiz” student in a class with only other math whizzes.
Although we may think that our desire to segregate students by ability is necessary to inspire and encourage our children in their areas of interest, we may be encouraging a false sense of pride. If my child is naturally gifted in one area, that is a gift from the Lord, not my child’s own doing. We should encourage our children in their areas of giftedness, but not necessarily praise them. Instead, we must train our children to work hard in all things so that they discipline their wills. We should praise them for taking time to carefully explain a math problem or complex story to another student so that they can share God’s beauties with them instead of competing with them or trying to best them. This willingness to help others is praiseworthy.
We should train our students not to derive satisfaction from competing with others in their class or even from working to please the director or parent. Instead, they should be seeking the Lord’s approval and hoping to hear this commendation: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25:21).
In For the Children’s Sake, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay raises provocative questions that have challenged my thinking about the place of competition in the Christian classroom:
Is it right to make Bobby feel superior because he mastered the first-grade reader a year before slower Mary? Is there no way that he can rejoice in the joy of ‘getting on’ for its own sake? Is it not materialistic to encourage older children to feel that education is only useful for passing exams? Especially when we hammer home that these are the passports to higher salaries? Is this why ‘higher education’ is such a failure that the average U.S. college graduate reads only one book a year?[i]
As parents, let’s try to create an environment where students are encouraged to tutor one another to a greater understanding of God’s universe. Let’s celebrate the accomplishments and gifts of each member of the body and marvel at how God has brought the different parts together in harmony. By sharing our strengths with others, we can all have a deeper understanding of who God is through math, history, science, art, and music, so that we can worship Him together in grace and in truth.
[i] (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1984), 67–68.