How A Private School Made Us Face Our Personal Prejudice

I’ve been frustrated with Neil’s public school education this year, so Peter suggested I look at a few private schools. We can’t really afford private school, but we can look, like starving people looking into a restaurant.

I was particularly impressed and intrigued by a new, small private secondary school in Sunnyvale, and the headmaster invited me to have Neil spend a day taking classes there. We figured at the very least, Neil would have fun being a series of classes that were more like college seminars than his regular classroom. What we didn’t expect to find out was that Peter and I, both the product of secular public schools, have a knee-jerk aversion to religion being taught in school, and that we would discover, that if done properly, an education that includes religious philosophy is vital in order to fully understand history, literature, and much, if not most, of world thought.

Peter sat in on what can be best described as the school’s morning assembly, though the school itself has only about 12 students at this point. The headmaster read phrases from Christian, Islamic and Judaic texts and asked the students to think about what they meant. Peter remembers them all as being rather cryptic and open to various interpretations. It freaked him out because any trace of major religion is strictly verboten in public schools, but the fact is, the assembly was non-denominational and actually gave the students a mental exercise with which to start the day. The students had a few minutes to meditate, and then the teachers came in to whisk the students off to their various classes.

I popped in to check on Neil at lunch time and he told me he’d learned about the Battle of Galveston in his US history class, and discussed the play Inherit the Wind in English. As I found out when I picked him up, he subsequently went to a math class where he tested into algebra, and had “the best PE class ever” where he successfully played a small forward position in a basketball team with students all taller and older than him. In fact, all the classes were mixed-age, which, for the first time, made us question the wisdom of age-segregation in typical schools. Neil loved being with older students, who were mastering calculus, played the piano during breaks, and one of whom had secured a copyright on a design he’d created, and could presumably tell Neil how to do the same. The older students, on the other hand, sensing the neccessity of setting a good example for the younger students, didn’t feel the peer pressure to conform to questionable standards of teen cool.

When I picked Neil up, to my surprise, he seemed to be in an outdoor Bible class. That freaked me out, and I quizzed the math & science teacher (who was planning the next day’s lesson) about what was going on. He described it as “catechism” which didn’t make me feel any better. But I reminded myself to chill and listened in as well as I could while minding Kelly. Among the concepts being discussed were predestination, grace, and civil justice versus divine forgiveness. No one was praying, or being expected to say “amen:” it was simply a lesson on Christian philosophy. And when Peter and I discussed it, that that was actually rounding out the education being given. After all, if you don’t understand Christianity, Harrison Brady (the William Jennings Bryan based character) in Inherit the Wind is some anti-science bigot, and the story is much less satisfying. Much of Western culture requires a knowledge of Christianity, or history turns into anecdotes about a bunch of raving madmen, and ignorance of religion itself makes it impossible to discern faith from reason, and thus weakens your ability to make a solid argument. I spoke to the headmaster afterwards, and found out the education in religious philosophy isn’t limited to Christianity: a Zen master comes in to teach the students about Buddhist philosophy on Thursdays. I’m a Buddhist, not a Zen Buddhist, but just having my son exposed to the mental discipline of koans would be a marvelous thing.

One of the things that brought me to the school in the first place was their support of homeschooling, and their option to take (and pay for) only selected classes. I’d thought I could use some support in teaching Neil math, because he’s so advanced, but after seeing him at the School of Choice, I realized that would be the easiest subject to teach him. The harder thing would be to teach him something I didn’t get an education in myself. And I have to reconsider my thoughts on keeping religion out of education altogether, as is done in public schools.

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