Archive for March 22nd, 2006

Home Education: Delicious and Nutritious

March 22, 2006 @ 3:54 am | Filed under:

Homeschoolers talk a lot about the reactions and comments they get (so often negative) from people who don’t know much about homeschooling. Nearly everyone has encountered a critic in the extended family, a naysayer in the neighborhood, a cross-examiner in the grocery store. Then there are the articles and editorials, a handful every week, in which some “expert” wags a warning finger about the disadvantages of home education.

This fascinates me. Ten years ago, when we decided to tread this path, people’s negative reactions often upset me. Now I am simply amused and somewhat perplexed. It puts me in mind of the stern admonishments I used to get from the little old ladies in my Queens neighborhood who were appalled that I wore baby Jane in a sling. “It’s not good for her to be squished up like that!” they would scold. “She can’t be comfortable!” And I’d look down at my contentedly snoozing child and have to stifle a laugh. Babies are really, really good at letting you know when they’re uncomfortable. Discomfort generally evokes a different reaction than the blissful slumber Jane slipped into when I walked around the neighborhood wearing her in that sling.

At first the old ladies’ disapproval bothered me, but eventually I decided it was an interference borne of good intentions. They genuinely cared about the well-being of every random baby on the street, including mine.

And over the years I’ve decided that it’s that same genuine concern that prompts a lot of the negative responses people have about homeschooling. I just wish these folks would stop and think about what is REALLY bothering them, what their concerns really are. Usually, their objections are based on assumptions they have never seriously analyzed.

Like this one. If I had a nickel for every time someone has said to me, “But you’re not a scientist. How are you going to teach them biology, chemistry, trigonometry?” I could pay my mortgage and have change left over. I always answer, quite seriously, “Well, I took those classes in high school. Didn’t you?”

“Of course,” the skeptic will say, “but it’s not like I REMEMBER any of it.”

This cracks me up. Sometimes I’ll say, if I’m feeling snarky, “Then surely I can do a better job than your teacher did!”

But I’m not really slamming the teachers. I’m slamming the skeptic’s ill-considered argument. You can have the best teacher in the world, but if you don’t have a reason to use the knowledge, ten or twenty years later you’re probably going to have forgotten it. Since none of us can predict exactly WHAT knowledge our children will need in their lives to come, many homeschoolers approach education not from the perspective of “What do our children need to know?” but rather “How can we help our children retain the love of learning they were born
with?” There’s a reason that Yeats quote about education being “not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire” is so popular with the homeschool crowd.

The skeptic’s question presumes I’m going to be teaching in the textbook-and-test style that has been deemed most efficient for classrooms full of many students at various ability levels. I think most people who come at homeschoolers with the “are you qualified” argument are imagining a scenario in which Person With Knowledge imparts said knowledge to Student Without Knowledge (Yet). And that’s just so different from how home education really seems to work—no matter what method, philosophy, or curriculum is applied. We’re working one-on-one—an unbeatable student/teacher ratio—with a teacher who knows the student intimately, knows his interests, abilities, moods, sense of humor, learning style, sleep patterns, and diet, a teacher who has the strongest possible attachment to the student. This creates a whole different kind of learning environment. School vs. homeschool becomes apples vs. oranges. They are such very different experiences that it becomes nearly impossible to compare them. But I think that when the skeptic says, “Are you qualified to teach subject x,” he’s looking at my orange and thinking what a misshapen apple it is.

Rarely in these encounters is there an opportunity to explain in glorious depth what home education is REALLY like: the freedom to explore, the excitement of following rabbit trails, the lack of testing or administrative pressure, the absence of certain social pressures, the luxury of time in which to immerse in a subject, the spontaneity, the opportunities for hands-on learning, the lightheartedness. It’s a really delicious orange, see. But if you’re expecting it to taste like apple, then of course you’re going to look askance at it.

Other critics will allow for the academic advantages of a low student/teacher ratio. After all, there are all those statistics about high test scores among homeschooled students, all those geography and spelling bee winners, all those dazzling science fair projects. “But,” comes the objection—that persistent, prevalent, popular “disadvantage” you see in almost every single editorial about home education—”what about socialization?”

Honestly, I’m amazed that people are still beating this particular dead horse. Homeschoolers packed it off to the glue factory a long time ago. (That’s how we stick together all those sugar cubes for our model Egyptian pyramids.)

When I hear this question, I always want to ask right back, “What exactly do you MEAN by socialization?” Because I don’t think most people who toss the word around are really thinking about what they do mean by it.

Do they mean, “How will your kids learn to get along with other people if they’re holed up in your house with only YOU all the time?” Because if that’s their question, they’re leaping to the assumption that most homeschooled children ARE “holed up at home” all the time. I have yet to meet one family for whom this is the case—and between real life and online, I’ve met thousands of homeschooling families. The person who harbors this concern could lay his fears to rest by doing a quick bit of investigation. Homeschooling blogs, websites, books, and magazines are jam-packed with examples of kids getting out in the world and encountering other people in all sorts of situations: co-ops, clubs, sports teams, orchestras, drama groups, church groups, animal shelters, internships, apprenticeships, gym classes, volunteer groups, museums, nursing homes, playgroups, and on and on and on. We can hardly walk for tripping over opportunities for social interaction, both in peer groups and mixed-age groups. Two minutes of conversation with my kids, and the person who was worried they were stuck with just MY company all day, poor things, can breathe a sigh of relief. Good luck catching my kids to ask them the question, though, because they’re out playing with the neighborhood schoolchildren who flock to our yard every afternoon. (The neighbor kids must not realize how unsocialized my children are.)

But maybe the Socialization Worrier meant something else. Maybe she meant, “See, I know this family who homeschools, and their kids are just plain weird/socially awkward/obnoxious/wild/[insert unpleasant adjective of choice].”

To which I must respond: And you’re saying that there are no weird/socially awkward/obnoxious/wild/etc. kids in schools? Because, um, I beg to differ. They were there when I was in school, and I know they’re there now because I hear about them (or read about them in the news) all the time. Some of the weird ones—the nerdy guys in the computer club—grew up to become multimillionaires (and usually really nice people—but then, they were nice all along, just weird). Some of the obnoxious ones now draw huge crowds at the comedy club. Others are in jail.

Maybe, dear critic, that family you know does have some really weird kids, total Napoleon Dynamite types. Are you saying those kids would be better off in a school situation, where their awkwardness will be rubbed in their faces all day long? As for the obnoxious/wild/rowdy/ hooligan kids—are you saying you’d PREFER to have them in your kid’s classroom, causing disruptions? Do you really think they’d be less obnoxious in a school setting?

That’s what I’d like to ask the “I know a homeschooling family and I don’t like them” skeptics. Because I don’t believe that if they really thought the matter through, they would believe that the problem with those kids would have been avoided by “socialization” in a school setting. The obnoxious kids would almost certainly be just as obnoxious (what our skeptic is really objecting to is probably a parenting issue, not an educational one), and the weird kids would be just as weird and probably a whole lot more miserable. After all, “weird” in this context just means “different,” doesn’t it? Kids who just don’t fit in? How many times have we seen the school misfit blossom and thrive as soon as he finishes school or college and is finally freed of the pressure to squeeze into a mold that doesn’t fit him? Heck, how many of us experienced this ourselves?

Sometimes people say, “Look, everyone has to learn to deal with unpleasant people sometime. One of the things you learn in school is how to put up with difficult personalities.” To which I am tempted to respond, “And you think my kids aren’t learning that at home? Have you met my husband?”

KIDDING, honey! But really. Does anyone truly believe that home educated children are growing up completely free from exposure to “unpleasant people”? Because if there are kids like this, I’d love to know where they live so I can move there too.

The “you might as well get used to putting up with bad stuff now” argument is perhaps the weakest homeschooling criticism there is. I don’t think anyone who utters it really means it, not REALLY, not for their own kids. No one wants his child bullied. No mother tucks a lunch in her son’s backpack, zips up his windbreaker, and thinks, “I hope he gets picked on today because that’ll make it easier for him to put up with jerks in the office he’ll work in someday.” No father watches his daughter climb on the bus and hopes she’ll be called names all the way to school in order to accustom her to receiving verbal abuse so that it won’t come as such a shock when her future husband inflicts it upon her later in life.

Mind you, I’m not saying that every kid who goes to school will be bullied or abused (or that no homeschooler ever will). I’m not saying anything about school at all—I’m just saying that the “learning to deal with unpleasant people” argument against homeschooling doesn’t hold water.

As for “learning to deal with unpleasant experiences“—surely life outside school affords plenty of practice at that, whether we want it or not? The dentist’s office, the doctor’s office, the death of a pet, the stomach flu…Again, I don’t believe any parent sends a child off to school actually hoping he’ll have an unpleasant experience that day in order to toughen him up for future adversity. And I don’t think the people who offer this glib statement as a criticism of home education are really thinking about what they’re saying.

What else do people mean by socialization? I’ve actually heard some people say, “How will homeschooled kids learn how to stand in line and take turns?” That one is my absolute favorite. Um, ever been to the post office? The grocery store? Or, gee, how about the line we stand in for Holy Communion every Sunday at Mass? I have to say, despite the lack of institutional training, my kids have picked up that skill just fine. As for taking turns, well: one mom, four kids—yup, plenty of turn-taking opportunities here. Then there’s the Common Room family, who until this week shared one bathroom between nine people. I bet those kids are REALLY good at taking turns and waiting in line.

I’m not out to convince the world that homeschooling is for everyone. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe it is. I have plenty of friends who have no interest in living this lifestyle themselves—and it is definitely a lifestyle choice. Mind you, I’d love to see schools enjoy the educational freedom we homeschoolers have; I think schools would work much better if they were giant resource centers where kids went because they wanted to know about stuff. I’m against grades and standardized testing; I think those things form a barrier between the student and knowledge, and most of the teachers I know (including some very close friends) spend a lot of time and energy working darned hard to get around that wall. I most earnestly wish those hardworking teachers had the freedom to spend their time lighting fires instead of filling buckets.

But modern American institutional education is what it is, and it doesn’t happen to be the choice I’ve made for my kids. Happily, the state acknowledges my right to make that choice. The grocery-store skeptics and the newspaper editorial writers, on the other hand, are uncomfortable about the choice I’ve made. If just once they expressed a concern that actually held water, I would relish the discussion. Until then, I’m savoring every juicy bite of this orange.