Salon's Andrew O'Hehir wonders why people are so offended when he tells them his kids are home-schooled. After reading his long and impassioned defense of home-schooling, I have some ideas.
The father of five-year-old twins (that's not them in the picture) whose mom is home-schooling them for kindergarten and perhaps beyond, O'Hehir writes, "Let's be honest: It's almost always mothers who react defensively when the subject comes up, as if our personal decision not to send our kids to public school contained an implicit judgment of whatever different choices they may have made." However, he says, "childless women are often curious and even intrigued; the question is hypothetical but possesses a certain allure as a thought experiment." But this childless woman found his home-school manifesto pretty annoying — at least at first.
O'Hehir says he and his wife are just choosing their choice with regard to their kids Nini and Desmond, and that they don't hate public school or judge parents who send their kids there. But they're actually pretty snooty about the education system that they — and most adults today — had to endure. O'Hehir writes,
The real purpose of all this formal schooling is to get the kids out of the house and train them to stand in line and follow instructions while mommy and daddy get back to their ultra-important lives as economic production units.
Ordinary schools tend to socialize children by way of enclosed, age-homogeneous pods, while home schooling tends to socialize children through a wide range of interactions with older kids, younger kids and adults, as well as peers.
But we're also not exposing them to bullying, arbitrary systems of order and discipline, age-inappropriate standards of behavior, and the hegemony of corporatized kid culture.
We're not ready to surrender our kids, and ourselves, to a 10-month-a-year, all-day institution whose primary goal, at least at this age, seems to be teaching kids how to function within a 10-month-a-year, all-day institution.
So basically formal schooling is a bully-filled discipline machine that will turn your kids into pod people just so you can keep on being an "economic production unit." But, you know, we're not judging you or anything. To his credit, O'Hehir does recognize that homeschooling isn't feasible for everyone, for economic and other reasons. And he's certainly not alone among parents in thinking that the way he (and his wife, who does most of the actual schooling) are raising their kids is the right one. But it's a little disingenuous to wonder why people don't respect your "personal decision" when you clearly don't respect the alternative.
As I read O'Hehir's article and his wife's blog, however, I noticed that something other than snootiness was turning me off. On her blog, O'Hehir's wife Leslie Kauffman describes doing some handwriting and reading practice with her kids — about an hour of dedicated "doing kindergarten" every day. The rest of their home-schooled life looks something like this:
We're learning about Hinduism at the moment; we spent hours reading tales of Shiva and Parvati, Rama and Sita, and especially Ganesh. We visited the Met twice to search for images of these deities in the South Asian wing; we paid a visit to Little India in Queens, where the kids admired saris and ate ladoos. The kids even assembled a puzzle map of Asia (which then became a playground first for their toy vehicles and then, somewhat mysteriously, for their Egyptian god and goddess figurines).
When I first read this, I was dismissive. How were kids going to learn about the shitty responsibilities of everyday life if everything they did was, well, fun? Then I thought about my own childhood. Although I did have a lot of fun as a kid, I can't say much of it was in school. I was very lucky in the particular public schools I got to go to (my elementary school, particularly for LA, was pretty awesome), but I still spent a lot of my time filling out repetitive worksheets, learning to sit still, and, yes, getting bullied. I tend to think of these as character-building experiences, lessons that have helped me become a responsible grownup, deal with difficult people, etc. But it's possible I could have learned these lessons another way, and, frankly, I'm jealous of kids who have the opportunity. Now I work (at home, no less) in a job that rewards creativity more than obedience, and it's quite possible that going to museums and building puzzle maps would have prepared me better for my current career. It's also possible that these activities might help kids grow into the kind of nonconformist adults who are capable of reforming a world that clearly has a lot of problems.
But home-schooling wasn't really an option for my family, and it would be nice to see home-schoolers come together a little more with the formal-schooling crowd. Are there ways public-school kids could get some of the benefits of home-schooling? Could home-schoolers help reform the public education system? Much as some might wish it, it seems unlikely that we'll ever live in a society where parents are the only teachers. But maybe home-schooling parents like O'Hehir can teach others something about putting play and exploration back in learning. In order to do this, though, a movement that can seem very isolationist would have to become more communal — and both sides would have to quit insulting each other.