Not long ago I received an email letter from a mother expressing doubts about her ability to homeschool her children. That in itself is nothing unusual, but the letter had a slightly different quality about it; I’d like to share a paragraph with you:
“I’ve been reading about homeschooling, and especially unschooling, and it sounds so exciting! The more I learn about it the more I know this is what I want to do with my own children, but I still have so many questions needing answers. The one weighing heaviest on my mind is ‘What if I mess up?’ By that I mean what if my children don’t learn to read despite my best efforts, or what if their handwriting and spelling skills turn out to be only mediocre? What if they reach adulthood with no idea what the Magna Carta was, or who wrote Moby Dick, or how to multiply fractions? As you can see I have some grave doubts about my ability to be a good teacher, especially because even with two years of college under my belt I still don’t know what the Magna Carta was, I never read Moby Dick and have no desire to, and multiplying fractions is still a terrible mystery to me. I seem to be getting along just fine in life without these particular bits of knowledge, but who knows if my life might have been different, somehow richer, if I’d learned those things? How can I not want the very best for my children, and how can I not worry about the potential for doing them educational harm by taking them from school?”
This letter struck a chord with me because I clearly remember worrying about the same concerns, and, truth be told, I still do. When one of my adult kids asks me how to spell a word I wonder, ever so briefly, if we shouldn’t have done a little more in the language arts department. When I watch my youngest son sounding out words to himself I have to resist the urge to ask him if he wants me to help him with reading skills; he’s told me many times that he doesn’t need any help. With over twenty years of unschooling under my belt I still worry about their learning, so I can easily understand this young mother’s concerns.
A similar question was brought up on one of our email discussion lists last week, and again, I’d like to share a paragraph:
“I’m currently having fears about how his ‘education’ will be perceived by others. This is totally about how it looks from the outside — something I normally try to not let be a decisive factor. If someone should talk to my son, they’d find that he still counts on his fingers to add and subtract, and gets a blank look on his face when the subject of multiplication comes up, has never “studied” history or grammar. Inside, I’m confident about what he knows and how he’s learning, but when I think about how it looks to other people… I get nervous. Anyone else ever experience that?”
I nodded to myself as I read those lines. Yes, I’ve felt that way many times. When our kids work out math problems, by which I don’t mean workbook problems but real life situations in which math is needed, I know they’re not using the standard schoolish approach to manipulating numbers. They each seem to be working with a different and individualized understanding of math which they worked out for themselves, an invented adaptation of the principles and procedures which works for them, and which is quite mysterious to me. They’ve all tried explaining their various approaches at one time or another, but my school-crippled math phobic mind just can’t see the connections they make.
I had doubts about this approach until my children grew up and went off to work at various jobs where math was a necessary skill. They all did just fine, and rose to positions of responsibility, even in fields in which traditional math was of primary importance. Either their freestyle math served them well or when they needed to learn a more traditional approach to math they simply did so.
I think having doubts about our abilities is, in part, what makes us compassionate and caring, by allowing us to relate to the doubts of others. I also think how we treat those doubts within ourselves makes us who we are. I acknowledge my concerns, and sometimes I discuss them with others, but I usually try to find a different way of viewing the situation, another perspective which helps me put things in focus.
For example, the young mother who wrote to me asked “How can I not want the very best for my children, and how can I not worry about the potential for doing them educational harm by taking them from school?” Her perspective is obviously that school offers a safe educational experience, and that not sending her children to school might somehow be educationally harmful to them, a concept clearly supported by the education bureaucracy, political leaders, big business and the neighbors down the street.
My perspective, on the other hand, would be to view school as the potentially harmful situation and removing children from it’s influences – not just the school building but the schoolish approaches and attitudes toward learning – as the safest approach to their education.
Doubts are normal, and doubts about doing the right thing for our children helps make us good parents. But the pervasive nature of schooling, coupled with its mandate to promote dependency on experts and credentials, fosters a reliance on institutional solutions at the cost of family or community based approaches. This is no coincidence. It is the stated reason for public schooling, and has been clearly and unequivocally documented.
Schools and schoolish approaches are a poor substitute for truly integrating the basics of reading, writing and mathematical skills into one’s life. When we perceive schools and schoolish ways as the aberration, and not the norm, everything changes.
Doubts? Yes, I’ve had them. Still do from time to time. But when I look at the results of the decisions I’ve made the doubts dissolve into perspective, replaced by a confident smile. © 2003 Helen Hegener