No Place Like Home

A Personal Look at the Education of Children: Public, Private, & Domestic

by Leon J. Podles

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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.

No Place like Home Illustration


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.


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