A Southern Baptist columnist dismissed a recent magazine cover story suggesting that schools are pushing children too hard and too soon toward academic achievement but bashed public education as hostile to Christianity.
“[A]ll this hand-wringing over whether we’re pushing kids too hard academically would be funny if it didn’t miss the real threats America’s kids face as they enter public schools across the country,” columnist Penna Dexter wrote Sept. 21 in Baptist Press, official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Sept. 11 cover story in Newsweek, titled “The New First Grade,” examined the trend toward increased pressures being placed on the youngest schoolchildren and asked whether academic expectations begin too early for children in lower grades.
But Dexter, a member and officer of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and past member of the SBC Resolutions Committee, said the article overlooks what growing numbers of evangelicals contend is a bigger problem with public education.
“International tests show America’s students are not at risk of over-performing academically,” she wrote. “The real threat is to any traditional moral values that have been built into their lives before entering school. Entrenched in the teaching of readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmatic are lessons and messages designed to shift and shape those values. And it’s not always in a direction Christian parents and pastors would agree with.”
“At some public schools, the vigilant parent will begin to notice a systematic undermining of moral absolutes,” she continued. “They’ll take a look at a textbook that presents ‘all kinds’ of families: adopted, those with biological parents, grandparents–and same-sex parents. The less-discerning moms and dads will think that’s teaching tolerance. It’s not. It’s indoctrination. And studies show it’s working.
“Later, students will be taught that what they learned in Sunday school about God creating the heavens and the earth (and Adam and Eve) is not quite right. We evolved. They’ll learn a bit about Christianity–as history. Some will probably learn more about Islam. In early December there will be a ‘Winter Concert.’ In late December, they’ll get a ‘Winter Break.’ No mention of Christmas. Tragically, many school kids will learn that any innate or learned revulsion or biblically based disapproval they have toward homosexuality is actually bias or bigotry.”
“These things may or may not take place every day, in every class or with every teacher,” Dexter added. “But here and there, throughout the curriculum, Christian students’ faith will be questioned, their patriotism undermined, and in the name of teaching ‘health,’ their inhibitions and sense of modesty broken down.”
A moderate Baptist ethicist who has defended public education from attacks from religious conservatives said critics commonly overstate the problems facing America’s schools.
“The SBC bashes public schools with exceptions as if those are universal realities,” said Robert Parham of the BaptistCenter for Ethics. “That is as wrong as what the fundamentalists want to do in replacing science with theology, pluralism with tribalism, and education with indoctrination.”
“Rank and file Southern Baptists need to remember that Jesus called the self-righteous leaders of his day ‘blind guides,'” Parham said. “He warned that ‘If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit’ (Mt. 15:14). Similarly, if public-school haters lead those who uninformed about the truth of public education, then both fall into trouble.”
Dexter served on SBC Resolutions Committees in 2004 and 2005. In 2004 the committee declined to recommend for vote a proposed resolution calling for a mass exodus from public schools but rather reported a more general proclamation critical of “secularization” of American culture. Last year the convention passed a committee-recommended resolution urging Southern Baptists to investigate whether their local schools promote homosexuality.
An education resolution at this year’s convention in Greensboro, N.C., also criticized public schools, but called on Christians to seek to reform public education rather than abandon it. LifeWay Christian Resources, meanwhile, was asked to study why so many children leave churches after they turn 18, and what Southern Baptists should do about it.
Dexter, a former co-host of Marlin Maddoux’s “Point of View” syndicated radio program, began her monthly column for Baptist Press in August 2005. She has taken on public education before.
In March she featured a book published posthumously by her old boss titled Public Education Against America.
“I am the last person to tell any family where to educate their children,” Dexter wrote. “My kids have been homeschooled, Christian schooled and public schooled. During our experience in public school, I have loved some teachers and challenged others. I have applauded certain concepts taught and cringed at others. But I know too much to have any sense of comfort that the public school system is serving the culture well.”
Dexter urged parents who are satisfied with their local school to consider whether it reflects public education or is an exception. “As a matter of self-preservation the church in America needs to understand what has been done to the public schools,” she said. “This book is a very good place to start.”
Last November she suggested, “There ought to be a national movement among Christians to influence public schools” and that “Southern Baptists are well positioned to lead it.”
Dexter is a member of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, a Dallas-area mega-church led by former SBC President Jack Graham, with ministries including a Christian academy. She was recently elected as secretary of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.