I always appreciate it when someone who isn’t familiar with the real whys and hows of homeschooling takes the time to try to get a handle on the subject. That’s what Elizabeth of Table for Five has attempted to do, after encountering a few of us wacky homeschooling folks here in the ClubMom blogroll. Since Amalah linked to Elizabeth's post and mine in her roundup today, I thought I'd further the discourse by responding here.
I don't know why this topic gets me so worked up. Whether or not someone Homeschools their kids has no bearing on me, or my family at all. I just know that whenever I read a description that starts with "So and so is Homeschooling her four children...", I wonder, why?
I could write a book in answer to that question, but for now, I'll restrain myself and just give the short answer: Why not?
It's a great way to live. We're just like other parents: we want our kids to be happy and informed and decent and pleasant to be around. We want them to grow up to be good people who can take care of themselves and others, fulfill their obligations, love and be loved, and enjoy the work they do to earn a living or care for a family. And, having pondered and researched, we've come to the conclusion that home education is the right way for our family to pursue those goals.
Sometimes it strikes me as funny that in many fields (business, technology, medicine, to name a few), the ability to think outside the box is seen as an admirable quality, an asset; but people who think outside the box when it comes to educating their children are often viewed with some suspicion.
Amalah jokes about skeptics assuming homeschoolers "are turning their children into anti-social, overly-sheltered hermits," and joking aside, I think that's actually quite an accurate characterization of the skeptics. A lot of people do think that. It’s a misconception that makes some of us chuckle as we watch our children run around with a passel of (not necessarily homeschooled) kids at the pool, the playground, the dance class, the karate class, the soccer team, the…you get my drift. I've talked about this before. Most homeschooling bloggers have, at one time or another.
But I appreciate Elizabeth's openminded attitude. She acknowledges that she "didn't realize how many different alternatives there are to traditional schooling" and seems to be making an honest effort to educate herself about the possibilities. I think the huge range of options often comes as a surprise to people. A lot of folks hear "homeschooling" and envision dining rooms converted to mini-schoolrooms, with a cursive alphabet poster above the chalkboard on the wall, two or three little desks in a row, and a big round clock ticking off the minutes as Mom (that's Mrs. Mom to you, kid) gives a spelling test. And that scenario does exist, in some homes—but it is just one of myriad possibilities, and probably not a common one, truth be told. An awful lot of homeschooling happens on the couch, in the garden, in the car, at the concert, in the kitchen, at the museum, in the library, across the dinner table, at the beach. We are out and about; we're busy in the world; we're learning from doing and digging and smelling and reading and encountering. We are mix and match; we are taste and see; we are get your hands dirty; we are amble and dash; we are show and tell; we are watch and listen.
Elizabeth mentions a few of the many educational methods—Charlotte Mason, classical ed, correspondence schools, Montessori—and there are of course many other options as well. I'll return to this topic in a future post. For now I want to focus on some of the other questions Elizabeth raises.
…I do have to question whether or not the education a child receives as a result of some of the more alternative methods of homeschooling will translate into an ability to handle college, or life in the working world. Should a child really be allowed to decide for themselves how and when to study, or whether to study at all? What happens when they get to college? I know none of my professors ever wanted to "observe" me and then allow me to choose for myself what to study. Won't these kids have a hard time transitioning into a set schedule of classes and subjects?
It sounds here as if Elizabeth is referring to unschooling, which is a hard word to define but generally boils down to allowing kids to follow their own interests rather than telling them what they must learn when. Unschooling generates a lot of controversy even among homeschoolers; many structured, scope-and-sequence-following homeschoolers express the same concerns as Elizabeth. Unschoolers have thoughtful, reasonable answers to these concerns, and they have practical evidence of success as well. Autodidacts do very well in college because they enjoy learning and are used to taking responsibility for their own education. Nowadays, many college admissions offices recognize that home-educated kids make exemplary college students: they are eager, articulate, and self-motivated. Also, one mustn't assume that an unschooler never encounters a schedule or classroom until his first day of college: these kids are taking classes at community college during their teen years; they are doing internships or volunteering at the the animal shelter, the newspaper, the nursing home, the ballet studio. They are running their own landscaping businesses and home bakeries. A non-traditional schedule doesn't mean they don't keep any schedule at all. Giving a person freedom to choose how he will spend his time doesn't automatically mean he will waste it—far from it.
And what happens when they get their first job? Are there employers who give their employees a choice of which report to write first, or whether they should return a client's phone call or take a walk outdoors first?
Well, yes. Lots of them. All the employers I've ever known actually preferred their employees to be self-motivated, to be able to juggle a variety of tasks without being walked through every step. As a staffer at Random House and HarperCollins, I had a big ole pile of work—manuscripts to read, reports to write, cover copy to write, filing to do, writers to call, copies to make, galleys to proof—and my boss sure didn't tell me what order to do them in. That was part of my job: knowing how to prioritize. And how about now? My job is to hit my deadlines. No editor is looking over my shoulder, tsk-tsking when I leave the computer to play Scrabble with my kids. Or how about my mother? She works out of her home office for a company in another state. She can decide when to call the client, and when to take a walk. As long as she meets her obligations, everyone's happy. Self-motivation, like innovative thinking, is an asset.
What I find most interesting about concerns like those Elizabeth has shared is that the doubts about the wisdom of home education seem to contradict themselves. On the one hand, there is the worry that the parent is too controlling, sheltering the children from contact with different ideas; and on the other hand, there is a fear that the children are not controlled enough: they are given too much freedom to choose their activities or structure their own time. Perhaps the reason such self-negating concerns arise within a single mind is because there are so many ways to educate a person, so many ways to live. And most people's concerns do seem to have more to do with social and cultural matters than educational issues. Almost everyone acknowledges the advantages of one-on-one or small-group learning experiences. No, most people's misgivings are about social issues that really have more to do with parenting styles than instructional methods. In any event, I think open and rational discourse can lay such misgivings to rest, and so I appreciate it when people like Elizabeth ask questions and go looking for the answers. If there's anything a homeschooler approves of, it's autodidactism.
Updated: The discussion continues in the comments—some great stuff there, like this remark by Julie:
"What I think helps me understand educational choices the best is trying to get behind the criteria we use to make those choices. If we believe that we aren't naturally inclined to learn, won't be interested in science or math unless someone requires it, if we see foreign language as a college prep hoop to jump through rather than for the joy of speaking to natives of that language, or if we consider mythology and classic literature too difficult and boring for the average kid apart from requirements, we will think homeschooling a risky proposition.
"However, if we begin by examining all the things we eagerly learn as adults, how we teach ourselves about politics, religion, cooking, gardening, accounting, writing, painting, parenting, biology (sex and child bearing), and more due to our keen interest and time to learn unhurriedly, we might be able to trust or imagine that kids would flourish if given a similar opportunity with involved parents who invite the world into their homes and share it with their children."