As promised, I’m going to be spending this week on the blog writing about homeschooling – how we got there, why we’re hitting the pause button, and what I learned from the experience.
And let me say before I get rolling here that I don’t fancy myself any kind of expert on homeschooling at all. There are people out there – mostly women – who have been doing this for decades. What I’m sharing is worth little in comparison to all of their wisdom and experience – Elizabeth Foss, Maureen Wittmann – and so many more. It’s just my experience that I’m putting out there, not only so I have a record for myself, but so that the curious who might be on the fence about homeschooling have one more perspective and set of experiences to consider.
I think, though, that before (again) you read about what lead me to the point of homeschooling, I might as well set out my bottom-line takeaway from the past four years – things I intuited before, but that homeschooling helped me see and articulate more clearly:
School is only one place where education happens. The problem has become that school-centered professional, predominantly government and corporate funded instructional systems have made themselves synonymous with “education.” This identification manifests itself on the local level when schools and their particular systems and expectations seek to dominate the lives of individuals and families. The growing popularity of homeschooling is an expression of dissatisfaction with this regime, a recognition that enabling and encouraging authentic education of individuals is not the goal of these systems at all and that real education is best found in freeing oneself, one’s children, and one’s family from these false and even damaging expectations. This freedom can take the form of creating or getting involved in alternative types of school more suited to a particular goal, or it can take the form of homeschooling…in all of its various forms.
In other words, what ultimately moved us into homeschooling was a deep dissatisfaction with days, weeks and months of inefficiently used and even wasted time and the expectation that of course we wanted to live a life dominated by the priorities and paradigms of the very institution that was wasting that time, and of course I wanted my kids’ self-image and understanding of what it means to be an educated person and person of wisdom to be formed by the paradigms of those schools, systems, testing companies, textbook corporations and state and federal governments.
And, since it’s private schools we were involved in, paying for the privilege as well.
In other words, after twenty-five years as a parent in these systems, about ten teaching, and of course, my own experience as a student over the years…I’d had enough.
The question would be, though, was I willing to make the sacrifices to do what my conscience was telling me was right?
But today, background:
My parents were both educators.
My Catholic mother (who died in 2001) attended both public and Catholic schools growing up in Maine. The public school classes were conducted in English, the Catholic school classes partly in French, partly in English. My mother developed tuberculosis as a teenager and never actually graduated from high school. She eventually got a BFA from the University of Arizona and almost a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Texas.
(She didn’t want to write a thesis, so never finished). She spent a bit of time between Tuscon and Austin teaching English to mostly Native Americans high school students down in Ajo, Arizona in the mid 1950’s. She was a children’s librarian for a little while in DC, before she had me.
My non-practicing Methodist father (died in 2011) was public school all the way and graduated from high school at the age of sixteen. All of his college degrees, culminating in his PhD in Political Science, were from the University of Texas. He taught at various state universities, landing at the University of Tennessee in 1973, from where he retired.
His parents were both educators. His mother was a life-long public elementary school teacher, mostly in small and medium-sized Texas towns. His father was a public-school high school teacher who spent summers working for graduate degrees, eventually earning a PhD in History from the University of Texas, then teaching in junior colleges. His sister, my late aunt, was a life-long public school elementary teacher married to a life-long public high school teacher and coach.
There’s not a similar lineage on my mother’s side – her background was so different in every way. She was older (born in 1924) and her family was all French-Canadian. She was the first generation born in the US (New Hampshire) and the men in her family were all business people with some professionals – the uncle who raised her was a dentist – and the women tended to be homemakers, as far as as I know. Her only sibling, a brother, was an engineer, and his wife, my aunt, was a life-long fifth grade school teacher, though.
(My mother had ended up in Arizona because of respiratory problems, as one did in the 1940’s and 50’s – producing, as I understand, in the present day in the Southwest, the most highly-allergic demographic in the country, as all those emigrants prone to asthma and allergies intermarried….)
Oh, and me? Public school up until high school. Diocesan Catholic high school. I had mostly positive experiences of public school growing up. Catholic high school started to get problematic, but that was perhaps more because of the times in Catholic education (1974-78) than anything else. Public four-year university (Go Vols) and private graduate university (Vanderbilt). I taught theology and some history in Catholic schools. Have not been in a classroom since 1999.
All that is to say that my background does not see school as the enemy – not even public school! My grandparents and parents taught in public schools to diverse populations. My mother’s stories from her time in Ajo were something else. It was challenging and frustrating, like anything else, but they worked on, teaching, mostly supported from above (administration) and below (families/culture/society). My own experience as a public school student in the 1960’s and 70’s was not a burden to me. It was boring at times, but mostly fine, the only hiccup being the construction of an open classroom building where I ended up for 4th
through 6th grade. It was so modern….but I think it sort of drove the teachers crazy even as everyone was on board the New Classroom Model. If you can imagine, the way it was set up was that the 4th-6th grade module was a huge half-circle part of the building – I’m imagining the whole building was perhaps clover-shaped. The library was in the middle – my primary memory of the library being reading Are You There, God, It’s Me Margaret during library time, being too timid to actually check it out.
Anyway, each grade had two sections, each of those arranged in one arc of that half-circle. There was a lot of movement and a lot of noise, but I actually have pretty strong memories of much of the work we did, particularly in 5th and 6th grade – some of it decent (projects on animals and countries that I can still picture), some of just too characteristic of the period – draw a picture illustrating Feelin’ Groovy. We sang Both Sides Now in chorus. We also sang One Tin Soldier , which was SUPER CONTROVERSIAL.
But here’s the thing: It was flawed, as all human activities are, but it served its fundamental purpose well and did not dominate our lives. There was homework, but not too much. There was some standardized testing once a year, but just a few days. There was not incessant, constant communication with home, and there was not, even though in some areas schools were an important part of community identity, this notion that when your kid entered first grade your whole family was becoming a part of a school family that was going to journey together towards human wholeness and mastery of the skills necessary to succeed in the 20th century.
No, there was still a sense that that journey towards human wholeness, the mastery of skills, and yes, even your own level of understanding, knowledge and wisdom – and where you chose to direct that – was on you.
We’ll help you develop the tools. We’ll teach to read, write, compute and point you in the direction of more specific skills and resources. Once in a while, a teacher might change a life and a school might be important to compensate for what was missing at home especially in cultures of low literacy, but really. Most of the time, school was just school.
Now, a caveat. We all know that any government school system has other goals, as well, mostly related to the formation of Good Citizens, and now, compliant consumers. Catholic schools are, and have always been about the formation of the whole person and salvation of souls. So if that pressure to have the school be such an important, formative part of a family’s life and a child’s formation was not felt, it was probably in part because cultural and social institutions were still tending to be on the same page, so there wasn’t the anxiety of a huge job that one of them was going to have to be tackling all alone. And while pedagogical pedants had been hard at work theorizing since the late 19th century, we (parents and others) had not ceded them complete power…yet.
So what am I saying?
My family of educators were proud of what they did, but they also understood that schools were institutions like any other. They were systems that could change, that were run by flawed human beings with varied goals and agendas. There was nothing divinely ordered or inherently necessary about a school, much less a particular type of school or educational paradigm. And the higher up you got, the worse it could get and the less tied you were to The Way Things Are. There’s a reason the “academic novel” gets a whole genre of its own, and that genre is known for satire, irony, dark humor and the occasional murder.
My family of educators understood that the classroom gave you a start. It gave you a nudge, opened a space, but that one did not define one’s educational level by grades or by how much school one had completed. I mean…my mother was the smartest person any of us knew, didn’t graduate from high school, but still went to college. We lived in university communities, and when you do that, you know many people who have many degrees, but are also idiots.
Most education happened outside the classroom, by reading, being engaged in culture, religion, social life and politics, by creating music, meals, crafts or gardens, by traveling, by immersing yourself in local history, by going to church and Sunday school, through the spiritual life, by talking, arguing and discussing, and simply being quiet and contemplating the night sky, the ripples on a lake, the soft, smooth skin of your grandchild’s plump hand or the thin, spotted skin of your own.
And for kids, in being let loose at 3 pm, doing whatever until dinner, and running out and then doing it some more.
So, that’s where I came from, and that’s where I was. Schools and education were in my blood. All of my older children had gone to Catholic elementary schools, and one to Catholic high school, and I believed in Catholic education, but it wasn’t deep in my family background, either as an ideal or something to reject. I was respectful and grateful for the institutions, but by no means in awe or idolatrous of any system and knew that most of my real learning – and that of everyone I knew – happened outside of the classroom.
In terms of my own life with my two remaining kids at home in 2011, I was not ecstatic with institutional education, but was fairly comfortable with the agreement I thought we had reached. After all, I only had a decade or so left, but who’s counting. I’d send cooperative kids in every day and support what they were doing in school. School was then going to do its part: teach the basics, enrich, inspire a little. School was going to do no harm. School, because it was called “Catholic,” was going to be holistically, counter-culturally Catholic. I wasn’t asking school to transform our lives, but I was expecting that school wasn’t going to waste my kids’ time or my money. School would do its thing, and then school would step back and school would get out of the way.
50 years later, hanging on a different wall in a different time, still amid stacks of books, with different people learning in different, unexpected ways.