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Public School Advocates Descend Into Parody

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If it wasn’t in Slate, I’d have thought I was reading The Onion. Allison Benedikt’s quip that, “if you send your kids to a private school, you are a bad person,” (read her piece here) makes a stronger case for abandoning the public schools than I ever could. It’s hard to dignify her article with a serious response.

Benedikt imagines that if everyone were forced to put their kids in public schools, these places would turn into veritable bastions of excellence. Everyone would suddenly get a warm tingling feeling about “the common good,” and after a couple of decades of suffering through crappy schools, everyone would be clamoring for AP Calculus. If we’re all thrown into the tank together, then, by gum, we’ll do everything in our power to make the schools great, and all of the inequalities will vanish. Kind of reminds me of how those forced to live in public housing tended to make it such a great place. Once everyone in the Soviet Union was “all in” on collective farms, they really started to hum. Once people have collective skin in the game, the end product always shines.

And if you’d like your kid to go to a private school for “religious reasons,” well, put that thought out of your head. It can’t be all that important. We all know, without even saying so, that “religion” can be handled on the weekends. School is about bigger and better things. You can fix all the other stuff at home. Seems like I’ve heard this before, from the “religious” side of the fence.

Speaking of “taking care of it at home,” Benedikt goes on. Even if your public school sucks, who cares? If your kid is smart, she can easily handle going to a sucky school and still come out “fine.” After all, you’ll make up for any lack at home. But doesn’t this cut against her entire argument? Even if I’m forced to go “all in” on the local piece of crap public school, I won’t be motivated to “make it great,” because my kid will turn out just fine without the school getting any better. I’ll essentially engage in a de facto homeschooling arrangement with my kid while he endures the local dump of a public school. So what if the school stinks; “take a deep breath and live with that,” says Benedikt. Looks like Benedikt didn’t pay attention very well in her logic class. But hey, she gets to write an article for Slate, so it’s all good.

Indeed, Benedikt has no ill will toward her lack of education. She explains that in four years of high school, she only had to read one book. She had no AP courses, hasn’t read any “important novels,” she “know[s] nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War.” Not that she’s boasting about her ignorance, oh no; but it certainly hasn’t hurt her at all. She survived her “lame education, and so will your child.” Despite her horrid education, she’s “doing fine.” Based on her article, this is a highly suspect claim. Yet how can one find fault? Even if Benedikt had gone to a superb public school, they wouldn’t have taught her about questions like, “What is ultimate reality?” “What is the good life?” “What does it mean to be human?” “What is a good person?” “How does one become a good person?” And no one’s the poorer for never having had to grapple with such questions. As long as you can get yourself hired by Google, no worries.

The great benefit of going “all in” on the public schools is that you get thrown in with “poor kids and rich kids, black kids and brown kids, smart kids and not-so-smart ones, kids with superconservative Christian parents and other upper-middle-class Jews.” And as we know, all this mixing provides a real education. We get ourselves all exposed to “diverse” ideas, wouldn’t you know it. And thus, it really matters little if one remains highly ignorant about geography, culture, history, math, economics, English, literature, biology, and the like. The melting pot is “its own education and life preparation.” Walt Whitman? Who needs him. One learns more important lessons through “getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house.” They have as much to teach us as reading T.S. Eliot does. I was thinking the same thing. I mean, there are a lot of crack addicts out there, so I thought that if my boys went and toked up a bit before classes, that would help “change the way they see the world,” to use Benedikt’s words. Maybe I’ll go buy them the 12-pack myself, so they can get drunk in the safety of our own home, and I’ll throw a few back with them, and take them out for a drive, so they can learn that drunk driving really is possible, sometimes even a hoot. That’s gotta be just as important as them learning to speak Spanish at school.

In the end, Benedikt argues that if we all just realize that everyone wants a great education for their children, we can band together and make the public schools great. There’s simply no alternative. Massive, ubiquitous investment in the public schools is all we’ve got. All those families in D.C. living in poverty, clamoring for private education, are just bad people. They don’t know what’s good for themselves. Considering any alternatives to public education is whack, nutso, unrealistic, and just plain evil. Banish any foolish, wacko talk about privatization or allowing people freedom in their educational choices. Public schools are the “one of our nation’s most essential institutions,” and are the last best hope we’ve got.

Yes, Benedikt’s arguments are ludicrous, and indeed cross over into parody. What’s unfortunate is that many well-meaning people subscribe to them in a more sophisticated way. They think of public schools as a kind of sacred cow, not to be seriously questioned or weakened. No creative thinking about alternatives is needed. Indeed, to engage in such thinking probably makes one a crank, or worse. I can only assume that large swaths of God’s Church think similarly, based on our acquiescence to the public school status quo.



Written by Michael Duenes

August 31, 2013 at 8:16 am

Posted in Duenes, Education

Paragraphs Change People: You Never See a Flower

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Jesus aims to throw us back upon himself and his resources. We often imagine this to be an easy process, or at least rather painless. I think not. Idolatry and pride are no easy cure. God’s stripping them from us can be gut-wrenching, soul-assaulting work. Though it is certainly gracious. It brings us to decide whether we want him as our Lord, or whether we are simply hoping to use him to get to something other than him.

This came to me as I was thinking about my marriage, something I’ve been pondering quite a bit lately. I would be self-deceived if I were to say that I loved God always more than I love my wife. She is so very precious to me, and that’s as it should be. I cannot imagine my world without her. But if I am to love her, Christ must be my first and highest love, and by far. It is him to whom I must cling. His nearness must be my joy and my good. The beauty and wonder of Christ and the Church, its reflection in my marriage, must be what captures my heart. Her sanctification, my aim.

And yet my heart doesn’t work this way, and God knows it. But God will have me, and all of me at that. Things have not always been easy for my wife and I (and how could they be, she’s married to me, after all), and law school has put strains on our marriage which have thrown me back upon God. Yet he must pry my fingers from lesser things even more. How do I know? I feel it in my soul, the ways that I too often only pretend to esteem and prize Jesus above all others, for the sake of all others. I can feel in my bones his pulling from me my reliance and dependence on my wife for lasting joy, peace and satisfaction, deep things only Christ can ultimately provide. And I thought about what it might be like even to be without my wife through some happenstance, and the pain such a thing would bring.

Then the words of Richard Wurmbrand, the Romanian pastor imprisoned for his faith by the Communists, came to me: “And here comes the great need for the role of preparation for suffering which must start now. It is too difficult to prepare yourself for it when the Communists have put you in prison . . . I remember my last confirmation class before I left Romania. I took a group of ten to fifteen boys and girls on a Sunday morning, not to a church, but to the zoo. Before the cage of lions I told them, ‘Your forefathers in faith were thrown before such wild beasts for their faith. Know that you also will have to suffer. You will not be thrown before lions, but you will have to do with men who would be much worse than lions. Decide here and now if you wish to pledge allegiance to Christ. They had tears in their eyes when they said, ‘Yes.’ We have to make the preparation now, before we are imprisoned. In prison you lose everything. You are undressed and given a prisoner’s suit. No more nice furniture, nice carpets, or nice curtains. You do not have a wife any more and you do not have your children. You do not have your library and you never see a flower. Nothing of what makes like pleasant remains. Nobody resists who has not renounced the pleasures of life beforehand.”

To renounce them. To be thrown upon God alone. To have His Word in our hearts. To suffer for His sake, that we might be brought to him. This is the narrow road that leads to life. Do it, O Lord. Bring us along this road.


Written by Michael Duenes

August 28, 2013 at 10:35 pm

Almost Limitless Faith in Government Education by Christians

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The fact that so many evangelical Christians look upon the abolition of officially agnostic, secular, government education as an idea that’s “nuts”, “ridiculous,” “wacky” or the like, points up the great need for Christian education. For what we need is a generation of Christians who come to learn that replacing our government-administered system is not “nuts,” but truly wise. Indeed a non-public school history curriculum would likely cause students to grapple seriously with the claim that it is indeed our current public education system that is “nuts” and “wacked out.” John Taylor Gatto, three-time New York City public school teacher of the year, and one-time New York State public school teacher of the year thinks it is. Those, like me, who think that government ought to encourage education, but not administer it, in fact stand in an educational philosophy that has a significant historical pedigree. Public education is of recent vintage, and although no “system” of education will be without problems, I think it’s hard to argue that private alternatives to our government-sponsored system will make things worse. Just ask the poor in major cities, many of whom are willing to crawl through sewers to get their kids out of their public schools.

What’s worse, the wholesale Christian view that we simply must have government education shows how far we’ve fallen, or to be more accurate, how well the public schools and their apologists have done their work on us (even on those Christians who themselves have benefited from a Christian education). If nothing else, what we have within American Christendom today is a failure of imagination, a failure to think creatively and perseveringly about how things might be truly different, and truly better than they are right now in the educational sphere, particularly for Christian students. This failing means that, when it comes to thinking about education, we in the church find ourselves exhausted. Education is better left to the professionals. We don’t have the energy for it. Better to just go along with the system, flowing down the river until finally we head over the falls to our own destruction.

We seem to have an almost limitless faith in government’s ability to administer education, and very little faith in the power of God and His people to engage in education in a way that honors God and His purposes in this world. We seem to think that if government doesn’t do it, it simply won’t get done. Further, we seem to be convinced that the government, indeed, does it better, and that as a general policy, it is best left to government. I would argue that this thinking is a transformation that has overcome the Church only recently, this profound handing over to the government that which is central to Christian discipleship and to freedom in a constitutional republic like ours. Not only do we blunt the gospel by educating our children in a curriculum that officially excludes Christ, but we discourage the freedom that all Americans should enjoy in choosing how best to educate their children. We take from the family in order to submit to professional bureaucrats.


Written by Michael Duenes

August 26, 2013 at 4:16 am

Posted in Duenes, Education

Think the Commerce Clause Doesn’t Matter to You?

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It matters to a personal photographer friend of mine, and it matters to the folks over at Elane Photography, who have just been told that if they want to continue with their photography business, they must, by force of law, photograph gay wedding ceremonies, their Christian convictions be damned. Plenty of great articles have been written about the the New Mexico Supreme Court’s high-handed and profoundly wrongheaded decision (see here, here, and here), so I’ll not add to them here. What I will say is, the Commerce Clause of our Constitution is not some ethereal clap-trap that has nothing to do with your individual lives. It has everything to do with you, and this is the kind of thing that stokes my desire to get back into teaching at some point, equipped with a knowledge of the law; so that Christians can understand and offer reasoned and principled arguments against our current legal and social chicanery. Thus, let me explain a bit.

Back in the 1960s, the Supreme Court was looking for a way to compel private businesses to serve African-Americans. Desegregation is one of the worthiest goals our nation has ever pursued, and I believe that it primarily started to come about because of the moral convictions of righteous people voting with their feet, rather than by force of law. But good-faith arguments can be made on both sides, and that’s not my point here. My point is that the courts knew that they could not compel private businesses to serve African-Americans under the 14th Amendment because that Amendment says only that people have a right to the equal protection of the laws and the privileges and immunities of citizenship when it comes to governmental activity, not private activity. So, what to do?

Well, as one of my professors says, “Judges are lawyers, and when they see where they want to go, you can be sure they’re going to get there.” Hence, they turned to the Commerce Clause. In Heart of Atlanta Hotel v. U.S., to use but one example, the hotel did not want to serve African-Americans, and they argued that they did not have to serve anyone in particular because they were a private business. Therefore, they reserved the right to refuse people as they saw fit. The Court replied that, even though the hotel was private, it was engaging in interstate commerce because it had people staying there who came across state lines. Thus, because Congress can regulate commerce, they can regulate the hotel’s business. Voila! The principle was established, and now the Court’s doctrine is that virtually all economic activity encompasses interstate commerce (down to whether you can eat the wheat you grow on your own farm). Is this a correct reading of the Commerce Clause? Not in my opinion, not even close; and I think there were other, better ways to combat segregation than twisting the Constitution. But that’s where we are.

So, now of course this improper interpretation of the Commerce Clause is being used to bludgeon a photographer into photographing gay ceremonies, something which violates the photographer’s Christian convictions. At this point, most people would say, “Well, what if this photographer didn’t want to photograph Mexicans? Would we think that’s OK?” No, I would think it’s morally abominable, and I imagine that Elane Photography thinks similarly. But there’s a crucial distinction between not wanting to serve a particular racial group and not wanting to serve those who practice homosexual behavior.

Racial and ethnic make-up and homosexuality are demonstrably different things, and this is the crucial point Christians and others need to make winsomely and often. It is demonstrably false to equate race and any kind of sexual behavior or orientation. For one’s racial make-up is never a choice, and all sexual behavior is always a choice. This is the nature of reality. It matters not that our current cultural voices deny it. The eternal, unchanging, glorious Word of God contradicts them, and so does experience. God’s Word makes it clear always and everywhere that sexual behavior is a moral issue, not an issue of genetics or predispositions or orientations. We all have inclinations and dispositions, genetic or not, toward doing a good many things that God says are wrong. Yet God never allows this as a justification for sin. He never allows us to say, “I was born that way.” We were all born in rebellion against God, with all kinds of wrong desires and orientations. The gospel is about repenting of these, turning to Christ for forgiveness and freedom, and letting Him do His gracious work in changing our desires toward beautiful, righteous ones. And sexual faithfulness and purity within marriage is beautiful, both in our souls and in the world. Experience too shows, and legions of witnesses could be produced who will testify that, though they once engaged headlong in homosexual behavior, they no longer do so. Their sexuality is something over which Jesus is Lord, and over which, by His power, they can make choices.

So for judges and others to claim that homosexual behavior is no different than racial make-up, and therefore, private businesses must be compelled to serve gays in all the ways they desire to be served, is simply wrong. It’s constitutionally wrong, legally unjust, and philosophically wrongheaded. No one ought to be compelled, by force of law, to do business in such a way that celebrates sin, particularly while being lectured that this is the “price of citizenship.” This is the talk of tyranny and demagoguery. We should all be awakened from our indifferent slumber by such chilling pronouncements.

This issue, by the way, points up the need for Christians to give their children an explicitly Christian education. Wringing our hands will not address the need of the hour. Rootedness in the gospel, the gospel that proclaims that Jesus is Lord over every inch of existence, is what is needed. Our children need to learn these things in school, have them reinforced throughout all of the curriculum, and to learn how to speak about them in a winsome and wise manner. None of this will happen in the public schools.


Written by Michael Duenes

August 24, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Some Musings: Affirmative Action, Temporary Law Licenses and “After a Little While”

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I wish I had more to say, but it seems I’ve acquired a bit of writer’s block lately, or maybe my head is filled with nothing but Supreme Court edicts on affirmative action in university admissions programs, which I am having to imbibe as part of my current legal research load. Too bad none of my six readers wants to hear anything about affirmative action, and why would they? Because I would have plenty to say. Much of it is an exercise in legal jibber-jabber that wants nothing to do with standards and measurables, even when such things are inevitable and really going on. Just don’t speak words like “quota”, “sufficient numbers”, “racial balancing” or the like, and you’re good. It’s enough to make me want to do something crazy, like agree with Justice Ginsburg (which I do, at least about the verbal chicanery that surrounds this issue). What is a “critical mass” of minority students? Don’t ask. If you’re a university admissions counselor, you’re not allowed to know.

My final year of law school begins in a few days, as does my work as a legal intern in our law school’s clinic. Which means I will have a temporary license to practice law. Lord, have mercy! Makes me think of Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men:

Other lawyer: I’m going to charge him with possession and being under the influence while on duty. You plead guilty, I recommend 30 days in the brig with loss of rank and pay.

Cruise: It was oregano, Dave. It was 10 dollars worth of oregano.

Other lawyer: Yeah, but your client thought it was marijuana.

Cruise: My client’s a moron that’s not against the law.

I admit to apprehension along with my eagerness. It’s a bit like going on a first date in high school, longing mixed with fear and trembling.

I noticed something the other day. The apostle Peter says, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God that He may exalt you in due time.” Then a few sentences later he tells his brothers and sisters in the faith that they ought to resist the devil, “knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” Yet “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” In due time. After a little while. These words are difficult, and yet heartening. Difficult, because it is hard to endure the furnace, particularly when one is trying to be faithful to the Lord and resist the candyland of sin. Heartening, because we can have a deep-rooted confidence that the temporary sufferings are just that, and that God will bring us through to a glorious freedom and rest in Christ.


Written by Michael Duenes

August 21, 2013 at 7:16 pm