On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Choices, Choices, Choices

For at least the second time this summer I have been involved in a discussion where heat has been generated, either intentionally or unintentionally about different sorts of lifestyle choices people had made. I'm not talking about immoral lifestyle choices, or at least not what most Christians would view as immoral lifestyle choices. I'm talking about choices like where you live, how you educate your children, even what you choose to eat.

If we lived in Communist Russia in the 1960's we wouldn't be having those discussions. You lived, for the most part, where the government told you to. You sent your children to government schools. You bought whatever foods you could in the government stores You might manage to sneak off to an underground church, you might illicitly teach your children the Christian faith,you might shop in the black market, but the other things weren't under your control.

In America in 2006 a lot of things are a lot more under our control. Increasingly educational options have become more varied. For example, in the 1950's in our county you either sent your children to one of the Catholic parochial schools (but only if you were Catholic) or you sent your children to the local public school. If you were Catholic you had a choice, if you were Protestant you did not. You had perhaps chosen to live here, but your educational choices were now limited.

In 2006 in our county there are three different Protestant schools, one Catholic elementary/middle school, one Catholic high school, and two different private schools (only one of which goes through high school). In addition, there is now the option of homeschooling your children either full or part-time. Protestants now can send their kids to the Catholic schools as well.

The choices have increased substantially, but with choice comes the need for making a decision. It was far easier for my inlaws to simply send their kids off to the local public school than it is for similarly educated parents today. A parent today is making a choice to send their children there, and, at least part of the time, they feel the need to defend that choice, at least to themselves.

When someone makes a different choice, whether it's to homeschool or to send their child to one of the other alternatives, there is a pronounced tendency for the people who send their children to the local school to feel judged. It actually doesn't even matter how many times you tell them that each family needs to make their own choices, the fact that you have rejected their choice for another makes them feel judged.

The same thing is true as concerns where you choose to live. When you move from a rural area to the city, or move from the city to a rural area, the people you leave behind often look at your decision and say such things as, "but aren't you afraid for your children's safety," or "aren't you worried about all the cultural opportunities you are depriving your children of?" Now statistically speaking someone living in any urban area in this country is more apt to be a crime victim than someone living in say rural Maine. Statistically speaking someone living in rural Maine has a greater chance of dying when their vehicle is in a collision with a moose. It doesn't mean that every urban dweller is going to be a crime victim, nor does every Maine resident end their life with antlers coming through their car window. You make choices, hopefully educated ones, then you take precautions against the hazards of your particular choice.

But having choices does mean being aware of the hazards of the choice. If you drive down the road in rural Maine at night without considering the possibility of a moose running across the road in front of you, you will be more apt to be a moose victim. If you live in the South Bronx without locks on your doors, you will be more apt to be a crime victim. That's not an indictment of all the moose in Maine, nor is it an indictment of all the residents of the South Bronx, it's simply the way things are.

The same thing is true in a sense about educational choices. If you homeschool your child without being aware of the fact that you aren't necessarily going to be able to provide (at least from your own knowledge base) all of the subject areas they might want to pursue, you are an unwise parent. If on the other hand you send your child off to school and believe that there isn't a very different world view being asserted there than in your Christian home, you are also an unwise parent. The homeschooling family will have a very difficult time teaching chemistry in their kitchen (and I suspect that's true even if they are willing to spend the $1000 or so it would cost to buy all the chemicals and equipment that the BJU catalog proposes for their high school chemistry course). If your high schooler is going to do lab work in chemistry you probably are going to have to find a different option (and that option may involve the public school). On the other hand if you want your child to have an orthodox formation in the faith and want them to look at all subject areas with a Christian world view, don't count on Buddhist Mr. Jones' class in comparative world fiction to help you in that pursuit. To say that is not to make a value judgement, again it's simply stating the obvious facts.

When we actually have choices, we become responsible in a way that perhaps people without choices didn't feel responsible. This generation of parents do not have the fall back option of, "well I have to send my kids to school, it's the law." Consequently they have to make choices before God that my parents' generation did not have to make. To have to make choices is much more difficult. To have people around you who make different choices is a challenge to your own.

Around here the educational establishment is currently having a hard time. Local school populations are dwindling both because of all those choices and because the population of school aged children has become smaller. They are competing for a piece of a smaller pie, but they still have to pay basic costs to run their schools and they don't really want to lay off faculty. The situation is the same in the private schools as it is in the public ones. This means that every family that makes an education otherwise decision is one less family to boost the school census come October, or one less family making tuition payments to the local private schools. People who make different choices come under a lot of pressure from the administrators of the various educational establishments. Public school administrators jealously guard public money from going into private school coffers. Private school administrators who are parts of particular churches make concerted efforts to convince the memebers of those churches to send their children to their school not to the public school and certainly not to homeschool them. Parents get criticized by their friends who make choices that are not "loyal to the parish school" or "loyal to our town school" or even "abandoning the homeschool group" (although that last one is far less commonly heard). The latest public school attempt to lure in more clients is to provide public pre-school. You can guess how popular that is proving among those people who are day care providers or owners of private pre-schools. You can guess how popular it is among stay at home moms who really don't want their 3 or 4 year old going off to school just yet.

Choices about where to live can be equally divisive. I have friends who are pretty surprised when I tell them that I drive in the Bronx and go to see our family members there. The notion that we would spend time there and especially drive there seems outlandish to these rural people who would drive 50 miles out of their way to avoid driving on a New York City street. I have come to really see the positive aspects of the Bronx Swifts' lifestyle. It's very different from ours in some ways, it's pretty much like ours in others. They miss out on some of the positive things about living here, we miss out on some of the positive things about living there. I'm sure there are positive things about living here that they might take advantage of and we don't, I also know there are positive things about living there that they don't take advantage of either (like visiting the Cloisters or attending a Latin Mass parish!). There are disadvantages about either place. When my youngest niece comes here in the summer we have to plaster her with insect repellent and then still dose her with Benadryl because she is violently allergic to mosquitoes. We have hoardes of mosquitoes here in the summer. The Bronx is relatively mosquito free. Yet there are opportunities for fresh out of the garden while the water is starting to boil corn on the cob here, that they don't have there. Driving in the city isn't a whole lot of fun (well maybe if you're twenty one and not yet paying for the insurance...), and parking in the city is a pretty constant hassle, but you can walk down to Fordham Road and get some of the best shishkabob you'll ever find right on the street, for a whole lot cheaper than you'll ever find it here.

Life as a sheep is a lot easier. You follow the herd, you don't have a lot of choices. You eat what the guy with the bucket feeds you, you don't get to decide whether organic feed is better than regular commercial feed. Of course a sheep's demise is often at the end of a chute which they followed a bunch of other sheep down. People on the other hand are faced with choices all the time. The choices have become more numerous since the advent of the internet. We no longer have to buy our tea at the one local grocery store, we can buy it from all over the world, just by clicking on an icon with our mouse. We are no longer limited to the books that are available in the local bookstore, even out of print books have become far easier to find than they were even 10 years ago. And the story goes on and on and on.

Sometimes people find themselves almost paralysed by all the choices. They are so afraid to make a mistake that they try to avoid making a decision at all, or they try to make a sheeplike decision instead of examining the choices. They choose the school their parents chose, not because it's really right for their 9th grader, but because: "our family has always sent our daughters there." They send their kid to the local school because all the other kids in the neighborhood go there, or they send them to the local Protestant school because all the other kids in the Sunday School class go there. They feed their kids Wonder bread or Lucky Charms because: "I grew up on it and it didn't hurt me." They sometimes make these choices even contrary to the evidence simply because it's more a more familiar choice and so it seems comfortable. Faced with the person in their church or neighborhood who homeschools their child or feeds them Spelt bread they feel their comfort level threatened.

I think there are plenty of good reasons to resist buying Wonder Bread (or my own favorites, Dove bars, coca cola and cheetos) and I suppose you can make a moral argument about how someone feeds their child or themselves (plenty of people have). In the end it really devolves down to making an educated choice to either allow your child some "fun food" or to not. There are good reasons to not patronize places like McDonalds, but there can sometimes be good reasons to patronize them as well (cost, predictablity, even location). Even some people who never patronize fast food places find themselves buying things at them on the long trek across I-90 in New York State, in preference to getting off the interstate and trying to find an afforable local place to eat. Choices are not always doctrinaire or simple. Sometimes it simply comes down to a matter of whether your taste buds like shrimp or not (a topic of recent discussion).

In the same way there are lots of different reasons for making a variety of educational or place of living choices. Again as long as you are making an educated choice you probably can do well with it. Parents whose kids are in school are going to have a harder time being the primary influence in their kids lives, simply because kids tend to become like the people they spend the most time with. Those parents are going to have to be far more careful to craft out family time, to limit outside activities, to teach their kids the faith consciously than the family whose kids are at home all day long. It's far too easy for kids who are in school to spend only a few minutes a day in interaction with their parents. On the other hand families who homeschool are going to have to make a real effort to get their children involved with the community and out of family friends, especially ones who don't think, dress, and act exactly like they do. We do not live in a ghetto, we live in an increasingly complex world and you do your children no favor if you give them the impression that everyone who isn't just like your family is a person to be distrusted or a person with no value. We are supposed to be a light in the darkness we are not supposed to hide our light under a bushel, or keep it just in the safety of our own homes.

We have been enriched by the choices of other people and they by ours. We have had the fun of watching our niece's choral group perform with a symphony orchestra, we've had the joy of getting to know our adopted niece from China, I've had the fun of listening to some of the wierd music my nephew from St. Louis enjoys and reading things my niece recommended. We have pictures of a trip to our ancient family town from a trip my sister's family took. My niece had at least one sweater, I suspect, made from yarn from our sheep. Our adopted niece arrived in New York and got to wear handspun, hand knit mittens and hat from Aunt Liz's wheel and needles. Our world has expanded as other people made different choices. And their worlds have inevitably expanded because of ours (even if sometimes in ways they would not have preferred).

There are choices that involve moral decisions and even some of the choices I've mentioned can have a moral component to them. It's important to recognize that the moral component of these decisions is not equivalent to the decision for or against Christ. It's also important to realize that even if you can marshall all of the statistics to defend you particular choice, some of the other choices may simply work better for someone else. Even Wonder Bread and Lucky Charms may be the only food available to the family who has to get their food from the food shelf or the "dent store" instead of the supermarket.


At 4:26 PM, Blogger Jennifer said...

Hi Liz,

It's me, Jennifer. I hope you don't think I'm cyberstalking you now, but I just wanted to thank you for your very thoughtful and helpful response to my question on Danielle's blog. I think we probably have a lot more in common than differences and after reading your reply I think I can understand why you chose to homeschool. I've never had the vocation to teach, even when I was a child, it was never a career choice that I was interested in. So I am both curious and in awe of mothers who can handle both the child rearing part and educational part of the job! Hats off to you!

I read your blog and I am very familiar with the Bronx, as I am a Fordham graduate myself. I majored in Art History and minored in English Lit. I know the Cloisters pretty well and spent a lot of time at the Frick and the Met when I was a student. I ended up working on Wall Street in the post crash 1980s and continued in banking until I had my first child and then left to be a stay at home mom.

At 4:32 PM, Blogger Jennifer said...

Oops I hit the blue button, but thanks again. I'm going to pick up Northanger Abbey soon. It's the only Austen novel that I have not read! My favorite one is Persuasion, followed by Pride, Emma and Sense & Sensibility. In fact, my eldest daughter is named Jane and my middle one is Elizabeth!

I enjoy reading Danielle's blog b/c she is a wonderful writer and her family reminds me of my family growing up (there were eight of us).


At 7:50 PM, Blogger Liz said...

Hi, Jennifer,
My inlaws actually live just a mile away from Fordham. My brother-in-law got his master's at Manhattan School of Music in Music Theory and never came back to Vermont to live again. He has worked for most of the last 23 years with one or another market research firms in Manhattan, doing computer stuff. Music is his avocation, rather than his vocation. I guess that art history is your avocation rather than your vocation too. It's odd how degrees don't necessarily have a whole lot to do with where we ultimately end up.

I thought I'd be a teacher most of the time I was growing up, but actually I have not really enjoyed big classroom experiences all that much. I love the kids, I love the subjects I've taught, but I hate classroom management and all the rigamorole that comes with being part of the system. I really enjoy my current level of teaching where I get to set the curriculum and mostly just sit around on couches with some very nice teenage girls talking about books I love. I guess that's why I really loved homeschooling so much, it was just not like a classroom at all.

At 8:12 PM, Blogger brrrtquacker said...

I had at least two sweaters from your flock, and I remember being very disappointed when I outgrew them. Mom always loved telling me and other people about how you do the whole process, especially the discovery that you can dye things with Kool-Aid.

I wonder where there are opportunities (and whether you would like) to write articles for online magazines or whatnot, or to e-mail them to printed magazines. Perhaps you already have written professional articles before and I've forgotten. It just seems that you're writing pretty professional articles on a regular basis, not the banal little blurbs most of us post on our blogs.


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