Keep God in the Classroom? Common Core and the American Christian

This latest post written by Jarred McKinney for the course Religion and Politics in a Global Context Fall 2014. Please take the time to read this post on Common Core in the American education system. Jarred is a very fine critical thinker and plans to spend next year traveling to 11 countries.


Jarred McKinney at King University
Jarred McKinney at King University

Jarred McKinney is from suburbia, Alabama. He grew up with sports as the love of his life, and much to his own surprise, academics took over. When he is not reading or sitting around thinking of absurdities he likes to be outside either hiking, cycling, or running. Faith is central in his life, and he attempts to follow the example of Christ in all things.

 The phrase “Separation of Church and State” appears nowhere in the Constitution. In fact, this idea comes from Thomas Jefferson. In reference to the first amendment, Jefferson wrote in a private letter that it is “a wall of separation between church and state.” If there is a wall, Jon Meacham says that it’s a short one.

Briefly, let us go back to the humble beginnings of the United States. The colonists fled to North America in efforts to escape religious persecution. Unquestionably, Christianity thus played a huge part in the everyday lives of many of the colonists. Many clergy members also participated in the politics of the day, arguing that the American colonists had moral grounds to fight the British. These claims were fueled by British impositions such as the Intolerable Acts.

During the Revolutionary War the colonies were governed by the Continental Congress, later to become the Confederation Congress. The Confederation Congress openly encouraged religious activity. There were national days of fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving and chaplains were appointed to minister to Congress and the army. Public land was even granted with the intention of converting the Native Americans to Christianity.

It seems that founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had different ideas for the direction of religion in the new nation. In the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson penned

[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever…nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

This belief has certainly panned out over the unfolding of our nation’s history—such as in the 1962 court ruling in Engel v. Vitale that banned sanctioned prayer in public schools. This is a ruling that has been criticized ever since, but defenders of the ruling believe that government sanctioned institutions have no business espousing religious behavior in any form or fashion.

Public schools are state funded, and the church should not have its hand in what is and what is not taught in classrooms.

Christians who cry “persecution” in the streets is not an appropriate reaction either. The removal of God from the classrooms in regards to curriculum is not a bad thing. The purpose of education is to teach students the nature of the world we live in, not to indoctrinate them into a religious belief. Common Core is said to encourage more critical thinking skills than that of the current system. If students are taught theories and nudged toward big ideas then they naturally gravitate toward forming their own ideology.

Other Christians present Common Core as some sort of liberal indoctrination. These argue that Common Core has a liberal agenda and is trying to manipulate children into wholly submitting to the government. Note this controversial sentence used in a Texas student’s workbook: “The commands of the government must be obeyed by all.” This particular statement definitely caused uproar and led one to wonder if this sort of ideological teaching was being used elsewhere.

But the Common Core is not intrinsically bad. Education reform is desperately needed in America. Common Core is a  viable alternative to improve our system of education.

If this is true then why should we remain in the same system that clearly is not working?

Sure, maybe there are underlying motives behind the Common Core Standards but nothing as drastic as indoctrination. The major emphasis of Common Core is to bridge the gap between high school education and college or vocation. Common Core exists to educate students better and prepare them for life and making a living.

Moreover, Christian thought has not been taught in public school for decades nor has there been sanctioned prayer. The forcing of this particular religion into school systems is exactly what Christians should not do. Why should prayer have to be a public display after all? Just because a teacher or faculty member cannot lead an open prayer does not mean that he or she ceases to be a Christian. Christianity is so much more than being able to openly pray in schools. And most importantly, if we did have state sanctioned religion in schools, then what sect of Christianity will rule the day? Southern Baptists? Roman Catholic? Presbyterian? Seventh Day Adventist?

We can never forget that the first amendment gives us the freedom of religion AND the freedom from religion–that particular religion or religious sect that would infringe upon and dispossess another religious worldview.

How pathetic is the idea that if we do not teach God, then God will not be present? As Christians we believe that God is the divine creation and inspiration behind the present world. Implementing more rigorous standards will challenge students in the classroom and could instill an insatiable quest for knowledge—knowledge of God’s world. This knowledge could perhaps point them in the direction of the Divine, but perhaps not as well. But the intellectual pursuit of the Creator of this world will be compelling, not coercive and thereby restrictive according to one particular sect of Christianity.

Our education system does not exist to bring people to Christ. It is their job to educate our children.

Many Conservative Christians are outspoken against Common Core but there are also Christians like Mike Huckabee who support it, at least until he decided to change his mind.

If public schools are government funded, then why the fuss over the implementation of Common Core from conservative Christians? Does the fear come from the association with President Barack Obama? Haley Edwards of Time magazine seems to think so:

“For years, Republicans have demanded the implementation of the rigorous standards called for in President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, and complained that, without standards that allow for comparisons between states, a second grader in Missouri will not have the same skill sets as second graders in Kansas or Maine.”

But the issue at hand is bigger than political party affiliation. Christians are to be advocates of social justice. In an education system that does no favors to the poor, Common Core can be seen as pointing towards the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m getting ahead of myself it seems though.

Common Core is not the implementation of a specific curriculum; the teacher is not controlled to what he or she must teach in the classroom. It simply proposes a skill that students must master, not an imposition of how they are to learn the said skill.

Independent of the way one believes things should be taught, each year the United States is falling further down the list in regards to education. For example, the ACT results from 2013 were shocking. Of the students who took the assessment, only 26 percent met the college readiness benchmark, that being a 21 out of a possible 36. Worse than that, only 11 percent of low-income students met this mark.

The implementation of Common Core would raise the standard and expectations of education in America, inspiring and aiding those who need to education most—the poorer students. Just consider this statistic:

“By 4th grade, nearly 80 percent of low-income students are reading below grade level. By college, nearly 80 percent of these students will need remedial coursework in order to be ready for college. Yet, the majority of these students will graduate from high school (perhaps as many as 79 percent—the statistic from just a few years ago.)”

From this, the argument could be presented and many parents do, “Why should my child’s education take a hit to help a poorer, more disadvantaged student?”

From a Christian point of view there is much wrong with this question. As Christians, are we not called to care for the poor? The second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Also, if the new standards challenge the poorer, lower-level students, why would they not also challenge the higher performing students?

Common Core certainly does not have all of the answers, but it is a much needed education reform. It could be a first step in improving our education system.

We are called to love the least of these, not contribute to the systematic oppression that hinders poorer students.

Of course, much more needs to occur outside of the classroom in regards to education. Common Core seems to have stirred some parents to life. Maybe this system will cause parents to have a vested interest in what a student is learning, and in turn, perhaps this will be a catalyst toward a more holistic approach to education.

In the end though, education is not limited to the classroom, and the classroom cannot limit God.