Many years ago I read a little essay by C.S. Lewis entitled First and Second Things. Lewis’ argument was simple: put your second priority in the place of what should be in the first place and you will lose not only the first thing, but the second thing as well. As Lewis himself said in summary of this principle: “… every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made.” He used several illustrations, but you’ll have to find the essay to read them.
This law (as Lewis called it), may be applied to any of the educational choices that we make for our children. For instance, if we send our children to public school because we want to be salt and light in our community, we are putting a second thing in the first place. Or if we send our kids to a Christian school so that they will be influenced by good kids from Christian homes, then we are missing the main thing. Because I’m a homeschool dad, I’m going to apply that concept primarily to homeschooling in this post.
If we don’t get the right first thing in homeschooling, we are going to miss not only the most important goal but short-circuit our other goals. Now, the $64,000 question is, “What is the most important goal of Christian education?” I’m going to leave the answer to that for a minute (though you might find something like it in my first post) and suggest some homeschooling goals that should be kept down the list a little from the primary goal.
First, it is my impression from listening to homeschoolers over the years that some parents think that the best reason to homeschool is to protect our children from the godless wordview of the public (pagan) school system. There is something to that (as there are to all of these secondary arguments), but should we base our convictions regarding our children’s education on a negative proposition? That in itself disqualifies this reason from the number one spot. As responsible Christian parents, we should know why, positively speaking, we make the educational choices that we make.
There is much more that could be said against this position as a priority for homeschooling, but one of the better caveats is that our children are little sinners with idol factories for hearts no matter where they go to school. If we miss that, we’re in deep water indeed. If we think that by protecting our kids from all the worldliness that we can is the most important thing we can do for them, then we are naive regarding the human condition. In fact – and this is where the first and second things comes in – if we make isolation our top priority, we will surely fail to guarantee holiness in our children and we run a risk of driving them to profligacy by making forbidden fruit appear attractive.
What about the “time spent with parents” argument? Isn’t there something wrong with giving so much time to teachers – strangers, really – and the “system” when our children are most impressionable? Shouldn’t we be in the drivers’ seat during their school years? A lot could be said about this (read this fine post, for instance), and this, too, is a good argument. It’s not the best reason to homeschool, however. Any given Christian parent might not be a good teacher, for instance, or there may be 1001 other reasons why pure numbers of hours might not be the deal maker for homeschooling. Quantity time is important, but is cannot be made into the most important thing. As a misplaced first thing, family time can become an idol. It can drive a wedge between families their churches, impair evangelism and community involvement. Apron strings that are too thick have ruined many families.
This first and second things test can be applied to virtually anything in our lives. The fact is, it is not common enough in our busy lives to ask why we do the things we do.
So then, what is the most important thing? That we as Christian parents teach our children to pursue joy in God’s truth. Could anything be more important than that they are worshippers who “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”? How, practically speaking, do we get there? The training equation is an important part of that answer (see Deuteronomy 6:7). Our goal must be to cultivate a hunger for wisdom in our children, but not worldly wisdom, God’s wisdom. Whatever our method of education, we must keep in mind the pursuit of the truth in the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I know that sounds grand and lofty, but isn’t it true? If the education we provide our children does not make them increasingly thoughtful regarding God’s truth and joyfully submissive to His Word, then what good is it? This applies to the multiplication table, English grammar and phys ed as much as it applies to Bible memory and history. We want our kids to have tools to serve God with all of their lives.
I love the line, “An education is what you’re left with after you’ve forgotten all that you’ve learned.” We must work hard at teaching our children how to learn. Logical thinking, the ability to do research and communicate their findings to others are all means to the ultimate end, but they will also enhance all kinds of secondary pursuits along the way (like earning money). Modeling life-long learning is a part of that, but we must discipline our children as well. Compare some of the drudgery of learning to a carpenter’s apprentice “paying his dues” by doing really menial jobs. The apprentice does the grunt work because it serves his goal of doing what he really loves to do in the future. Doing our duty is a part of life, but that is a poor goal for a Christian life. There are a thousand parts to this task of Christian education, but we must keep before us and our children the joy of God’s truth and the treasure of the Gospel – the Gospel that is for all of life.
What are the consequences of not pursing joy in God’s truth as the first thing? There are many, but off the top of my head, some of the worst are moralism (what some would call legalism, though that word is often misused), pragmatism (asking “does this work,” as opposed to “is this true”) and just plain self-centeredness. Lack of time and space prevent me from fleshing out the details regarding these pitfalls, but I hope you can fill in the blanks on your own.
Getting the right first thing in the first place will cause the other priorities to fall into their proper places. There will be a balance between home, church and community activities when we realize that they are all a part of pursuing God’s purpose for our lives. If we don’t work at making the main thing the main thing, these other things won’t fall into place, they will fall apart.
This is turning into a long series. I keep thinking of things and firing them into the “next time” file. Well, there may be two or three more posts on this topic. In the next post I will tackle the “long-term perspective” aspect of educating our children.