No Place Like Home
A Personal Look at the Education of Children: Public, Private, & Domestic
While few of us greatly enjoyed the school classroom, most of us accept it as something that our children will have to experience and no doubt be the better for it. Most people are content with the public schools. This complacency led to the defeat of tuition vouchers in a recent California referendum.
Most Americans live in homogeneous suburbs in which the education of their children is paid for by taxes, without the extra expense of private-school tuition. The others who can afford private school and choose it for their children are at least satisfied enough with their children's schools to pay both the tax for public education and the tuition for private education. The poor, often single mothers, are grateful for whatever help they can get in raising their children, and are not in a position to demand academic excellence, even if the schools could achieve it.
But a growing number of students (estimates range from 300,000 to 2,000,000) are taught at home. Their parents mostly are evangelical Protestants. But there is a generous sprinkling of atheists, Buddhists, New Agers, and other fringe types. What has led the parents to abandon communal schooling, even under private auspices? Are they doing what is best for their children? How hard is it to do? Is it worth doing, from the points of view of the children and of the parents?
Public & Private Schooling
Suburban parents generally are satisfied with the academic standards of their local public schools. The schools do not do a very good job by world standards, but they educate the masses of the middle class to a degree that allows them to function in our economy. The parents' own education was never up to the best European standards; but the European standards were always meant for a small elite, which was rigorously winnowed out by examinations at each level. Those who did well went to the Lycees and Gymnasiums and thence to university and professional life. Those who did poorly were put into vocational training.
The American system always has been more forgiving, and gives late bloomers second, third, and fourth chances. Nor should the idea of socialization be totally despised. The common public-school culture may not have produced academic excellence, but it did help insulate America from the sectarian and class conflicts that have poisoned modern European life. When the 1941 graduates of a Washington, D.C., public high school returned for a fiftieth reunion, they had only vague memories of their classes; real school life revolved around dances and sports. But such a school life, while lacking in academic rigor, produced a sense of social unity among the various (white) ethnic groups of the neighborhood, a sense of community that helped America weather the challenges of the Depression and war. The school they returned to was now over 99 percent black; socialization by public-school education largely has been defeated by the black-white separation in American society.
The private schools also do what they are expected to do: give their students the advantage of social contacts. They rarely perpetuate the old elite, which doesn't reproduce itself very well. The parents' money is mostly new money, doctors and lawyers and members of the "chattering classes" (as the British call those who make their living by the sweat of their jaw: professors and television commentators and such).
The private schools share the general American guilt about elitism, and often make a sincere effort to recruit scholarship students from the scheduled castes of American society. At a private school my wife went to in Pittsburgh, there was much fuss about racial integration, but not a single Slavic name was among the students—in Pittsburgh about half of the population comes from Eastern Europe. The minority scholarship students generally are well motivated and on their best behavior, so the atmosphere at private schools is somewhat more conducive than that of the public schools to learning, and very much conducive to carving out comfortable niches in the power structure of American society.
The schools of America in general do not do that bad a job academically or socially in preparing students for middle-class life, except for the inner-city schools, which have largely given up any function beyond providing salaries for teachers and administrators. The responsible parents of children at these urban schools are the ones clamoring for vouchers to help their children escape; but they are powerless against teachers' unions and satisfied suburbanites. It is clear why such parents, if they had the ability and the confidence, would want to teach their children at home, so that the children would both be literate and reach graduation alive. But why would anyone who has access because of the location of his home or the size of his pocketbook to decent schools bother to teach children at home? Is there some problem intrinsic to school as such?
The Development of the Factory School
Schools originally were set up for specific purposes, to teach rhetoric or doctrine. They were like our driving schools. A pupil went to one to learn a specific skill or body of knowledge. The schools of the Middle Ages taught pupils what they needed to know to become clerics in major or minor orders: reading, Latin, music. Later, secular subjects such as science were added to the curriculum. The one-room school house in America offered children instruction in many subjects. Because of the small size of the school and the irregularity of attendance, pupils were largely taught individually or in small groups in which not age but mastery of material was determinative. Despite the poverty of
material resources, the schools did a much better job than modern schools, because they practiced what is now called "child-centered education." Laura Ingalls Wilder, after attending such schools intermittently, was examined by a state official and found "competent to give instruction in Reading, Orthography, Writing, Arithmetic, Geography, English Grammar, and History"—at the age of fifteen (Little Town on the Prairie)! However, the future of the nation was not to be agrarian.
As America developed its industries, it needed masses of immigrants to staff them. Urban schools tried to Americanize the children of the immigrants. The schools were set up on the new model of the factory. Children entered as raw material, were processed on an assembly line of classes, and graduated as a finished product.
Along with industrialization came bureaucratization, an ugly word for an ugly thing. Ivan Illich in Deschooling America claimed that the schools set themselves up as the controllers, dispensers, and certifiers of knowledge. He wanted to deschool society, and to allow everyone to control his own education. He proposed free schools that offered instruction in whatever one wanted to learn, at whatever age one wanted to learn it. The community colleges are the closest system we have to his ideal, and for the amount of money spent they probably do a better job than Harvard does at helping their students learn interesting and useful things.
The fallacy of the industrial, bureaucratic, mass school is assuming that children are raw material to be processed, and that they all learn in basically the same way. Every child learns at a different rate, and there seem to be different types of intelligence and an infinity of strategies for learning. Factory seconds can be destroyed. What can we do with children who can't be successfully processed by the educational factory?
The Dynamics of School Learning
In home schooling my children, and in my prior teaching at a private school, I have noticed that learning does not progress at an even rate. A child will plod along for a while, regress a bit, then have a sudden insight and zoom ahead. Each child follows a different pattern in different subjects, depending on his interest, aptitude, health, worries, and an infinity of influences that help make him a unique person.
There are even different types of intelligence. The most obvious is that boys tend to learn by physical activity, and find sitting in a classroom to be torture. When we still had one child in school, our eight-year-old son, who had never been to school, decided he wanted to see what it was like. He went for one day, and came home complaining that he had muscular cramps. His legs bothered him for several days, and he correctly diagnosed the source as having to sit still for six hours. He said he wouldn't mind an occasional visit to school (once every two or three years) but that he definitely did not plan to make a career of it.
In a group of children of mixed abilities (and there is no other type) what can a teacher do? If he teaches to the fastest learners, everyone else will be lost. If he teaches to the slowest learners, everyone else will be bored. If he teaches to the middle, some will be bored and the others lost. If he keeps the boys busy and out of trouble, the girls will feel neglected. In any case, classroom lecturing may not be the best way for some or many of the children to learn.
Americans insist on the necessity of universal schooling, but the object of school is not intellectual attainment. Americans are anti-intellectual; their popular culture is crude, vulgar, sex-obsessed, and consumerist.
Many times I have heard parents complain that their children used to be active and bright, but have lost all interest in school. I suspect that teachers are busily trying to pound square pegs into round holes, but I try to refrain from immediately offering the advice, "Try home schooling, and find out what your child wants to learn and how he can learn it." Social and sexual development also proceeds at different paces in different children. For those out of step, school can be a very unhappy experience.
Most children will be out of step in one way or another, academically or physically or socially. They therefore dislike what they learn in school, even if what they are being taught basically is sound. Americans insist on the necessity of universal schooling, but the object of school is not intellectual attainment. Americans are anti-intellectual; their popular culture is crude, vulgar, sex-obsessed, and consumerist. In part Americans always have disliked the European high culture they left behind, with its monarchical and aristocratic assumptions. But in part the rebellion against high culture may be caused by an exposure to it (or some facsimile thereof) in the context of the classroom, which most dislike.
Once I attended a matinee showing of Mel Gibson's Hamlet. A high-school class filed in and started to fool around. I con- soled myself that groundlings added a touch of Elizabethan authenticity to the experience. But when the film started, every- one was transfixed. Both those who knew every word of dialogue by heart and those who had only a vague idea the play was about a guy who thought his dad had been knocked off sat in stunned silence before the power of the play. In the 1970s Pachelbel's Canon was a pop hit, and Gregorian chant CDs now are bestsellers. Queues form in front of museums with blockbuster exhibits. Americans can respond to the deep and high moments in Western culture, if only they encounter it away from the dead hand of school.
My previous use of the generic "he" to refer to teachers is misleading, because most teachers are women, and school is a feminine environment. Boys do not fit in very well. They have a higher dropout rate than girls, and currently 55 percent of college students are women. Among blacks, more men are in prison than in college. School is an excellent way of alienating young men from normal, civilized existence and cultivating a criminal underclass, which has damaged the American blacks and is beginning to spread among poor whites.
The Dynamics of Home Learning
It is difficult to teach children at school. Is it possible to do it at home? Yes, provided the needs of the children rather than educational theories determine what the parents do. Some children need a highly structured environment, almost like a classroom. However, most need a greater amount of freedom, to study what they are interested in, when they are interested in it, in the manner they find most fruitful. Some structure and some parental supervision are usually necessary, especially if a child has learned bad habits in school. We find that the less time our children have spent in school, the more independently they can work. Mathematics is necessary for modern life, and almost all children need some prodding and assistance in mastering its elements. Languages also are hard to study independently, and need parental or other adult involvement.
Even in a good school, a child may get at most ten or fifteen minutes a day of personal attention, the attention he needs so that the teacher can ascertain what the child does or doesn't understand. If a parent daily spends a half-hour to an hour per child in formal instruction, that is enough for most children. If there are several children, the older ones usually end up teaching the younger ones, and teach more effectively than a parent could. To a small child a parent belongs to a different order of being, and adult attainments may seem hopeless. However, the younger child usually feels that he can do the same thing that a slightly older child is doing.
We were astonished when our five-year-old suddenly announced that he could read, and read things like the Chronicles of Narnia and the National Geographic. We had not taught him to read. As far as we can determine, his sister read stories to him at night after they went to bed, and he played with a pre-computer that had a spelling program. His abilities to understand words did not always match his judgment. When he was five and we were visiting relatives, he announced that a flying saucer had landed in a city in the Soviet Onion. We asked him where he had learned this interesting fact, and he announced it must be true, because he had read it in the newspaper; when pressed for the name of the newspaper, he said it was something called the Weekly World News (my brother-in-law, a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law, is a connoisseur of tabloids). Children will need some guidance from parents in making judgments about the things they encounter, but the thrill of discovery is always great.
How We Teach at Home
In teaching children at home, I spend a little less than an hour in formal instruction with the oldest boy, now 14, and my wife less than three hours with the remaining five younger ones. She is usually finished by lunch. The children have some independent assignments, and lots of time for sports, including skiing, ice skating, recreation league baseball, and soccer; for reading (our children take out about 700 books a year from the local library); for Scouts, piano lessons, visits to neighbors, projects (making brownies and selling lemonade to passers-by), computers (we have two that are fully occupied all day), serving as altar boys, and anything else they are interested in.
Some education goes on inside the house, but only part of this is formal. Chores, for example, can teach: the oldest boy pays the bills and runs our house finances from the computer. A lot of education goes on outside the house, and introduces them to the wider community, giving them a wider experience than children have who are in school six hours and then have homework.
Our children are doing well by grade-level norms, but even if they were behind I wouldn't worry. Some children, boys especially, are not ready to read until they are ten or eleven, when in their brains occurs the mysterious process of neural development that makes reading possible. They would be miserable in school, but enjoy playing and learning crafts until the brain is ready, and then they read it or above grade level within a few months. This is even more true of children with real learning disabilities or mental limitations. The practice of mainstreaming them into regular school often leads to acute misery.
For the lower grades we use structured material from the Calvert School, which has been in the business of home schooling for almost a century. The middle children can use the materials on their own. As they get older, we use Saxon Mathematics, which has books from advanced arithmetic through calculus. In studying pre-algebra with one son, I finally under- stood addition in base 2, an operation that had escaped me thirty years ago. Cambridge University has a Latin series for middle school, which we have used successfully with nine-year olds.
Parental ignorance of a subject is not an obstacle. The parent should demonstrate to the child that adults too have a willingness, indeed an eagerness to master new and difficult material. Such an attitude is one of the most important lessons a child can learn. Some parents of our acquaintance are success- fully teaching themselves Latin as they teach their children. This is the system used by St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, known for its Great Books program. I interviewed for a position there, and the dean explained to me that all teachers were expected to teach all material, including Greek and French. I said that, alas, my languages were Latin and German. She assured me that all I had to do was keep a page or two ahead of the students. I was doubtful, but St. Johnnies are among the few American undergraduates who seem to be genuinely educated.
A Look at Expected Obstacles
Some parents, although their children are having problems at school, and home schooling' looks attractive, are put off by practical difficulties or fears. Is it possible to maintain a house and teach children at the same time? We have a part-time house- keeper, but this is a luxury, and we could have the children do more of the cleaning. Other families we know successfully do without outside help. It seems that in any large family parents must develop a certain tolerance of mess (this tolerance comes naturally to children).
The fear of denying their children socialization also scares some parents away from home schooling. Socialization usually means learning to succumb to peer pressure, and to the material and sexual competitiveness of adolescence. After leaving school, how many people spend all their time with their peers, that is those of the same age? Children taught at home also are taught by other members of the community in formal and informal ways, and have a pattern of development saner than that of children who associate almost exclusively with their peers.
One common concern is, can we afford it? One parent, usually the mother, has to be home in order to supervise the children, and many families feel they cannot do without two incomes. Although all family circumstances differ, the financial savings derived from home schooling—such as not having private-school expenses, or being able to live in an area, which although pleasant, does not have a good public school and is therefore less expensive, or being able to get along without a second car—sometimes can help the family do without a second income. After the expenses added on by working—childcare, clothing, lunches, transportation, higher taxes—are deducted, wives often are surprised to discover that they are working for less than minimum wage. There may be some things a family has to go without, but they gain something that is precious and irreplaceable: time together when the children are young.
An Unexpected Benefit
The children also are less demanding of material possessions if they are not exposed to school. In my family's case, the difference may not be entirely caused by home schooling. We differ in two additional ways from other American families. We are numerous by American standards (six children, and occasional long-term guests, including my retarded sister who lived with us for several years), and we have never had a television. In addition to exposing children to questionable programs, television cultivates their avarice. Why else do advertisers spend billions each year to reach children?
Although we are moderately affluent, our family income is below the per-capita average of the metropolitan area. We do not have six private-school tuitions to pay, and can therefore afford to live in a neighborhood in which Jaguars dot the street. I was concerned that the children would pick up tastes from neighborhood children that we could not afford to indulge, but my children have never been materialistic. In fact, it is hard to extract requests for birthday presents. My wife's friend who was in the diplomatic corps in Africa visited us once and remarked that our children were more like African children than American children. The older ones took care of the younger and played with them, and they had endless fun with a few sticks and a card- board box.
Our life is hardly monastic; apparently children have to be trained in the American fixation with material objects—and television and school are two of the main agents of propaganda. Since home schoolers from smaller families and from families that allow the occasional use of television often exhibit this lack of interest in possessions, school seems to be the main culprit. By home schooling one can save money and help save the child's soul at the same time (a combination that should appeal to the Scottish Presbyterians among us).
Personal Development at Home
I have noticed several distinctive personality traits in our children and in other home-schooled children, both those I have known and those about whom I have read. Our children have remained more childlike: they don't exhibit precocious maturity. They like playing with their bunnies, and even the fourteen- year- old seems to enjoy playing cars with the five-year-old. But they also are more independent and more self-confident in dealing with adults than most children are.
A child must learn that he is loved if he is to have a chance to know, by analogy, what God's love is, attentive and ever present yet giving us freedom to grow, confident in us, easily pleased, never really satisfied, until we grow up to the full stature of his sons.
Our daughter was terribly shy at school. After a year at home, she began making expeditions around the neighborhood with a homeschooled friend, and independently arranged to participate in a fashion show at a fabric store where she shopped. When my then thirteen-year-old discovered a virus in a laptop computer his uncle had brought home from work, he fixed it, and told his uncle to have the mainframe checked. There was indeed a virus, and the computer expert called my son to see what had happened. My son told the expert what he had done, and suggested alterations to a command path, which the expert did not know were possible. We learned later that not only was he impressed by my son's expertise, but he also was even more impressed by the self-confidence with which he talked to an adult about technical matters.
Wellesley, my wife's alma mater, has a student who had never attended school before going to college. Her parents were 60s types who had moved to the mountains. When their children were old enough for school, they were appalled by the condition of the local schools and decided to teach their three children at home. She had a rigorous and structured education at home with her brother and sister. When she came to Wellesley there were several surprises. She had never heard of eating disorders, but they were common among Wellesley students. She found incomprehensible the complaints that teachers in school had neglected girls; she was relieved by the relative anonymity and lack of attention in the college classroom compared to the scrutiny she had at home. She did not feel at all socially awkward because she lacked the experience of school. Most of all, she discovered that she was more capable of independent thought than her classmates.
Keeping the Faith at Home
I have not touched on religion. Our children were in Roman Catholic schools, but we had already started taking them out one by one because they were so academically out-of-step, although the school is good by American standards.
The final straw was a letter that the eighth graders (mostly girls) wrote, under the direction of their teacher, to the local Catholic newspaper, saying that middle-school students were going to have sex anyway and that the schools should give them condoms. This letter (with some assistance from my fax machine) caused a furor among our school's parents. The official explanation from the damage-control people at school headquarters was that many of the students were Protestant and had picked up these ideas at home. Somehow I couldn't imagine the black Baptist parents who were paying for a Catholic school telling their daughters this; surveys have shown that evangelical Protestants are more conservative than Catholics in sexual matters. I decided that I did not want my daughter to pick up these attitudes, whatever their source.
Unfortunately, because of the massive confusion about doctrine and morality in all denominations, no religious school can be fully trusted to transmit its heritage faithfully. Perhaps the fundamentalist schools do, but their rigidity creates its own problems.
We use Orthodox religion textbooks (the Ignatius Press Faith and Life series) and read Scripture at several points during the day, but the main religious education comes from our use of folk traditions that the liturgical churches in Europe, especially the Catholic and Lutheran, have preserved. We celebrate St. Nicholas with shoes and presents and St. Lucy with the Lucia crown and saffron rolls. Evelyn Vitz's A Continual Feast is full of useful suggestions. She has tested them in her family of six children whom she is rasing in Manhattan. The customs of Christmas have done much to keep a vestige of Christianity alive in American culture; the customs that used to fill the year can implant a deep memory of Christian life in children, whatever they encounter later in life.
An Education in Love
But the chief religious role of home schooling is not in imparting instruction. The family is the social structure that cultivates pietas, and that binds, religare, generation to generation. We desire to spend time with those we love, so that we can get to know them and help them in an intelligent fashion. Teaching, as David Guterson says, "is an act of love before it is anything else." His book, Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, is the best introduction to the legalities, advisability, and desirability of teaching at home, and is suffused with a charm that stems from his delight in his children. Guterson emphasizes that being independently wealthy is not a requirement to teach your children at home; he makes $30,000 a year, and his wife does not work outside the house. He insists that it is not a sacrifice to spend your time with your children, with those to whom you have given existence and whom you love more than anyone in the world. He also teaches at a good public high school, so he knows both types of teaching, and calls for the reform envisioned by Ivan Illich, in which the schools provide opportunities to learn for all. A few enlightened public-school districts have begun a sincere cooperation with home-schooling families, providing them with opportunities to participate in such activities as they desire.
Much may be made of a child if, like Johnson's Scot, he is caught early enough. But what will catch him? A parent's love, which created him and called him into being from nothingness, and that surrounds him every hour of the day, that studies his needs and desires, and tries to help him grow into a being that expresses a unique idea, an idea which Christians know exists in the mind of God? Or will it be what used to be called the world, a society that lives by frivolity and the competitive multiplication of possessions, that forgets to delight in God's creation and in the summit and crown of that creation, the human person?
Both socialism and capitalism tend to view human beings as ciphers who can be manipulated in the service of economic efficiency. Capitalism is better at creating wealth, but at what cost? First fathers were taken away from their children, more than primitive societies ever had done. Now mothers are being taken away from their children, and the children turned over to strangers. A child must learn that he is loved if he is to have a chance to know, by analogy, what God's love is, attentive and ever present yet giving us freedom to grow, confident in us, easily pleased, never really satisfied, until we grow up to the full stature of his sons. Often a home is the best environment in which to raise and instruct a child in the household of the faith.
Published by TOUCHSTONE, A Journal of Ecumenical Orthodoxy, Fall 1994
Volume 7 , Number 4.