Home Education Magazine
March-April 1997 - Columns
Talk About Learning - Earl Gary Stevens
In Our Own Way
This winter several parents have told me that they have enrolled children in public schools after having practiced home education, in some cases for many years. Some of them speak in a matter-of-fact way about their decision. Others seem to feel guilty and apologetic. More than one parent felt challenged and defensive due to criticism of compulsory schooling at the support group level and in the home education media. Criticism of the institution of compulsory schooling may be felt personally as criticism of families among us who do business with their neighborhood schools.
I hope we can put this perception aside and avoid getting tangled up in it. Whatever our individual circumstances, whether or not we have children in schools, we must still be able to express our misgivings about schooling in general and to offer support and encouragement for those who are searching for a way out. Parents who decide for their own reasons to make use of a school do not need to explain themselves to anybody, and people who are critical of compulsory schooling do not need to equivocate. Regardless of what we are doing in our personal lives we can all continue to speak passionately about broader issues.
When a parent does enroll a child in school I always hope that the reason is not based on misinformation. For instance, a child does not have to go to elementary school in order to find friends or to high school in order to attend college. I also hope that the reason isn't based simply upon frustration with some teaching method and that the parent is aware that grade level is merely an administrative convenience for mass-schooling. In these and other cases it seems important to suggest alternatives and to demonstrate support for them. Parent may still decide, for any number of reasons, that school is the best option, while being glad to know that alternatives and support are there if needed.
Aside from our individual circumstances and our personal choices, the fact remains that the institution of compulsory schooling continues to make countless kids and their families miserable. We know because they keep showing up in our support groups as refugees from the schools. Those of us who have worked for years as support group volunteers have seen many tears over what has been done to children in the name of education. How many times have we heard a mother tell us, "My child used to be so confident and happy, but he isn't anymore."
I keep answering the telephone and hosting support group gatherings because I keep meeting unhappy families who feel trapped inside the boundaries of schooling without realizing that they have the power and capability to establish a life independently, apart from it. I will never tire of seeing the relief and delight when parents first understand that they can indeed decide for themselves what makes sense for them, and that they can act to make it happen. Helping parents in these circumstances or speaking on these topics in the media is how we in our turn recognize those who have helped us in similar ways. It isn't about politics or ideology; it is about the painful struggles of children and their parents.
Compulsory schooling deserves our continuing watchfulness because it is not simply another choice among learning styles but a culture with its own definition of childhood and a near-monopoly on its power over young families. Compulsory schooling, by its very nature, must promote and rely upon bribes and greed, punishments and fear. It treats children disrespectfully and does not honor their courageous spirits but rewards obedience and conformity instead. For many kids school is a profoundly depressing waste of time.
With support from home and with eyes wide open some children can navigate their way safely through the environment of compulsory schooling and even turn it to advantage. But many of them can't, as we have learned first-hand as students and as parents. Therefore it is natural and good to address the risks and encourage the alternatives in any forum that is meant for such discourse, whether it be a support group meeting, a newsletter, or a national publication. Meanwhile we may all live our lives as we see fit without worrying about whether or not we are pleasing others.
We have a variety of terms we use to describe what we do, such as homeschooling, home education, unschooling, self learning, home based education, independent study, and independent learning, among others. They are useful enough, but most of them can be misleading as well as grammatically uncooperative. People get confused about whether these terms describe what we do or who we are. I'm not sure how to describe who we are. Perhaps at the most fundamental level we are parents who understand that the right decisions for families are the ones that are homemade.
I'm glad we are difficult to describe and impossible to define and that we come from so many varied philosophies, educations, religions, social and economic classes, and political orientations. Whether or not we agree with each other about the labels, about the choices, or even about life, we know that as long as we work to ensure that families may fashion their future out of their own unique experiences then we will each succeed in our own way. © Earl Gary Stevens
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