As classes begin again we also hear once more the various current ills of society attributed to the Supreme Court decision of the early 1960's forbidding organized prayer and religious instruction in public schools. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. If only we would put God back in the public schools we could get kids back on the straight and narrow, and society would be much better off. As Norma C. Williams put it in a recent letter to the editor (September 9, 1999) “Put God back in schools and our country back on the right track.”
It is my contention that God never really was in the schools. And it is an interesting question whether advocates of putting God in schools would like what they wish for.
Was God ever really in the schools? It depends on whether you mean in name or in spirit. Students learn what we practice much more than what we preach to them. Certainly God was preached in schools at one time. The Bible was read, prayers were said, and the Ten Commandments were memorized. What would it be to “practice” God in the schools? What would it be for schools and classes to be organized along religious, say, Christian, lines?
For starters we'd get rid of grades. Jesus certainly encouraged people not to judge others (Luke 6: 36–37). When judgement is emphasized in the New Testament it clearly concerns God making a final judgement of people at some end-time. In this life people are encouraged to reach out and include outsiders, to break down barriers and divisions, rather than create them. If anything, grades would be assigned on effort, not achievement. This is certainly the moral of Jesus' story about the widow's mite (Mark 12: 41–44).
Secondly, nobody would flunk a grade or exam who wanted to keep trying. We are told to forgive over and over-70 times 7, in one of the rare bits of arithmetic to appear in the Bible (Matthew 18: 21–22). Students would always get another chance. Some people now advocate “tough love”, and that may make sense in some cases, but it has no basis in the Bible. And the parable of the weeds suggests that we should not be trying to separate the good from the bad, because we don't know when we'll be uprooting things of value (Matthew 13: 24–30).
Thirdly, resources would be massively reallocated to help the at-risk students. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20: 16). Jesus came to help the sinners, not the saved, just as doctors are for the sick, not the healthy (Mark 2: 15–17), and teachers are for those most in need of being taught, not those most able to teach themselves. This approach needn't exclude the motivated, intelligent, and gifted students, but such students would in no way be the focus of attention or resources. Indeed, in the parable of the lost sheep the shepherd abandons the ninety-nine to go in search of the one (Matthew 18: 12–14).
Fourth, the gifts of all students would be valued, so that meritocracies of grades or achievement would be transcended. All who wanted would participate equally on sports teams and other activities. And all classes would be inclusive of students regardless of ability levels.
Once we start thinking about what a school with Jesus as principal would be like, we can probably think of other changes as well. If Jesus were set loose on the “temple” of public schools, I think he would be tearing up the grade books. There'd be lots more story-time with puzzling parables to think about and discuss, and a lot less memorization.
After this description of a school modeled on God, it may strike some that, if anything, current schools are more like this than schools were before the Supreme Court decision in the early 1960's. The difference is that teachers don't preach about God in class. (We leave that to parents and churches on other occasions.) But if actions speak louder than words, schools may come closer to modeling Biblical principles than ever before. Public education has tended more toward inclusive classrooms, and increased focus on the needs of the neediest students.
But those who call for putting God back into the classroom don't generally want to get rid of grades and increase inclusion. Rather, they want non-Biblically-structured schools to be overlaid with Biblical rhetoric. Whether that would lead students to live more as Jesus would have wanted them to, I don't know. I think the school I have described would be more likely to get students to be accepting of others who are different, and to reach out to the marginalized. Those who want God “back” in the classroom are generally quite supportive of all the non-Christian structures of economy, society, and education. They simply want students to behave themselves and accept these structures, like they used to.
That may or may not be a worthwhile goal. But let's stop pretending that that's what we'd get if we really put God in the classroom.
James C. Klagge