Home Education Magazine
January-February 1998 - Articles
"But We Have Such GOOOOD Schools!"
Charlotte C. Monte
In summer of 1995, my best friend Sylvia moved to San Diego. Sylvia had been happily homeschooling her four children in the Bay Area (California) for many years, and although she did not want to leave her vast network of friends, her husband's job required the move, so they went. I had the opportunity to visit her two years later, and Sylvia, always one to make the best out of the worst possible situation, was just beginning to come out of a slump that had lasted since the day she arrived there.
"If I had known what the homeschooling climate was like here, I never would have moved. I would have refused," she told me. Everywhere she went, she was asked incredulously why she would homeschool when there were "such GOOOD schools here." Over and over again, she was subject to the litany of apparent pluses in that school district, a very white, upper class, conservative district. There were no support groups, nor even much of an opportunity to share what she was doing with her friends in her church, so frowned upon was homeschooling. As she told her tale, I kept telling her to stay true to her vision, to what she knew was right for her kids. As for myself, I could only peripherally share her pain, not having confronted anyone in my Bay Area locale who could tell me that their school was better than what I was doing at home.
Recently, however, I had the occasion to go on a camping trip with several families from Southern California. I am not a geographical snob, I merely have begun to recognize that there seem to exist pockets of attitudes within our state, and certainly throughout our nation, where families will be welcomed or confronted with their decision to homeschool. In fact, one camping mother, when she heard that I homeschool, said "Oh, you poor thing!" It is what we do with these encounters that can strengthen our commitments, or cause us to re-evaluate what we do with our children.
My first exposure with what was a mere surface scratch of what Sylvia had to go through, was in a conversation with my friend, Barbara. She asked me, genuinely interested, why I was against sending my children to school.
My first argument concerned the fragmented, 45 minute "periods" where disjointed information was presented. Barbara then described a typical class of her second grade son's, which I recognized as a thematic curriculum framework. "When they study oceans, they study the biology of the ocean, then they incorporate math with measuring depth, then geography, naturally ...." That sounded good so far.
My second argument was testing. I argued that children are taught to learn to a test, then promptly tend to forget the material, not to mention the vote of "no confidence" it imparts to the children. She admitted that that may happen in the later grades, but at their school, the kids' tests were merely repeats of what they had been doing for days and weeks prior. So no stress there. Okay.
I was beginning to feel a little deflated. Then she hit me with the one-two punch. "Besides, our learning doesn't stop with school. When he comes home at 2:30, I read to him and do other things with him. Plus, I work in the classroom, and I think that's important. If you show that you care for your child, the teacher will too."
I had nothing left. It was only after that conversation that I thought about the competition, the cliques, the studying of things that might not be interesting to the child, the forcing of things on the child, the class size ....But in that moment, I was thinking, "Heck, I should move down to southern California and enroll my children in this wonderful school and have some time to myself. Besides, it sounds like they're doing a great job. How can I compete?"
That despairing feeling stayed with me until the next morning at breakfast when another mom, Annie, approached me saying quizzically,"I hear you homeschool? Why on earth would you do that? You do so much as a mom already."
Oh, boy, I thought, here we go again. "Well, I believe that children learn best at their own pace, when they are interested .... instead of being expected to learn X at grade 1, Y at grade 2 and A at grade 3."
"So you do it more for cognitive reasons than religious reasons," she said, and I concurred. "I guess that parts of it must be great," she continued. "But, why don't you like schools?"
"I don't like what they are doing to the kids."
"Have you been in a classroom?"
"Well, er ...." I started to say, No, I haven't, but I said, "Well, I was in school myself, and I know what it did to me." Only later did I remember that I had glimpsed my niece and nephews classrooms, with which my sister is happy, but I was not overly impressed. But her question forced me to confront the fact that I have not seriously studied classrooms, and I base my judgments of them on others' stories, or rather, horror stories of their dastardly crimes. Have I given schools a fair shake?
"What are the worst downsides to homeschooling?" Annie wanted to know.
As I rinsed my camping dishes, I said, "Well, I guess the worst downside is the self-doubt that can creep into your life, when you question what you're doing and if you're doing a good job. But," I quickly added, "I think you'd have self-doubt if you sent your kids to school, too. Is this the right school? Are they making friends? Are they learning, and so on." I remembered the article in Home Education Magazine wherein a upper echelon teacher in a higher institution was quoted as saying that she often doubted her own teaching abilities, and I was comforted by that in my own down moments. I noted this to Annie.
"Another downside is making sure to have enough time to yourself, and for the kids to have enough time away from you. But," I added hastily, "all the benefits far outweigh the few negatives."
The thread to our fifteen minute conversation wound about in many directions, but the most poignant points I attempt to recreate here, doing the most honor to Annie and myself.
Annie felt that it was important for kids to see their parents working and dealing with their own stressful situations. This did not make a case for schooling, but more for homeschooling, and I pointed out the advantages to having kids around working people. Freedom and flexibility were among the major advantages, I told her.
"But I see growing competition out in the world," Annie said. She voiced a universal, parental concern. "I want my children to be gainfully employed at something they enjoy.' Who doesn't? "But they will need to learn to conform and work with society." Okay, now I was on my own turf.
"Well, if your child wants to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a lawyer, or some other kind of regulated professional person, then surely you'll need to see that they conform and do what they need to do. But many companies will be looking for people who can 'think outside the nine dots' so to speak, be creative, not be afraid to take risks. They don't learn any of that in schools.
"If your children are honest, decent people who can think and follow the basic tenets of the Ten Commandments, then they'll be okay!"
Annie was vehement. "But the Ten Commandments won't get them through the LSAT!"
"Of course not! But if they want to be a lawyer, then you work with them to make it so! They don't know that they want to be a lawyer when they're seven. You work with them when they're 17 and have an idea of what they want to do." Annie pondered this.
She said, "Well, now educators are starting to do a 'core curriculum'. They want all first graders to learn about, say, Egypt. Then in second grade, they all study the same literature. So there's a foundational knowledge amongst the community, that will help the community stay strong as the children grow up." She and I noted simultaneously that the main drawback to that reasoning is that people do not tend to stay in their community of childhood, but move around a lot. It also opened the door for me to tell her about the attitudes training that is beginning to infiltrate the schools. She admitted that she had not heard about this. I also touched on Outcome Based Education (OBE), and Certificates of Mastery and other insidious traps of pursuing intellectual and attitudinal conformity.
"We do live in a homogeneous community," she said, shaking her head. "I'm not happy about that. And I refuse to put my kids in private schools. I don't want them to think they're better or more privileged than other kids," she continued. I lauded her thinking on that. As I see it, often private schools are not much better than glorified public schools. And some of them are so competitive and driven, I can't help but think that they harm the children that don't genuinely thrive on the challenge.
"But surely you won't homeschool them through high school and college?" Annie asked.
"Oh, yes, I plan to homeschool them throughout." I felt very proud. I thought, why would I do all the good work and then throw them in high school at The possibly most insecure stages in their lives?
"But what about college?"
I was able to share my belief about college. If college is the one, single place, or best possible place to get the knowledge you need to do what you want to do in life, you should go there, and homeschoolers have been incredibly successful at achieving this. But if you don't need college, why bother? That is not to say that college in and of itself is not a useful experience, but....
"I think college was a lot wasted on me," I continued. "I could have traveled the world for four years. I could have been in an apprenticeship. I could have learned about myself as a person, what I liked, what I wanted to be in the world, instead of just doing the next thing that was expected of me. Like 'you go to college, then you get married.' Sure, I had something to put on a resum/, but ultimately, what did it get me?
"The problem, I think, is that we blindly go along with what the next thing is, instead of really thinking about what and why we are doing it."
Annie and I thanked each other for the conversation. We had each given the other food for thought. I don't think she'll begin homeschooling, and I won't now send my kids to school - any school- as long as I can keep them out. But I'm not a homeschooling evangelist any more. I'm interested in strong families; and strong families, committed to staying strong, will find ways to be strong, eliminating sources of weakness, whatever they may be.
Conversations about homeschooling, the perceived upsides and downsides, builds strength and confidence about what we do as parents. As I told Annie, "I used to be strongly, vehemently anti-school. Schools are bad. Schools are damaging. But now, schools have to respond to what parents want, because they are losing 'customers.' Ultimately, the family needs to do what feels right for the family. As long as parents are concerned and involved, and keep their fingers on the pulse of their young ones.... are they happy? Do they respect the parents? Are they friendly and seeming really to learn and be interested in their studies, and so on and on, then things are likely going fine. But at the first danger sign, I'd yank them out of school."
All of us are just concerned parents, doing what we think is best for the kids. But, I am thankful that from these conversations I have become aware of what parents consider "good" about schools and that some schools, at least, appear to be responding favorably. I am also more comfortable that homeschooling is right for us, regardless of what schools may have to offer. Freedom and flexibility as a family, and freedom from the tyrannical tendencies of schools is what our homeschooling is all about.
© 1998, Charlotte C. Monte
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