Saturday, June 23, 2007

Rethinking what it means to homeschool

Jon and I trudged into the dusty parking lot of the mission headquarters in southern Spain in preparation for our week long missionary retreat. We mingled with seasoned missionaries and young families brand new to the field. Jon knew most of them, but I was the newbie... fresh out of college, eager for adventure and already fluent in French. Naturally, the missionary friends Jon had made while in the Peace Corps were eager to meet me, to see if I was "good enough" for Jon.

One of his friends, a good Baptist Reagan-supporter, cornered me before a mid-day meal.

"Julie, will you homeschool—you know, when you get married and have kids?"

I glanced at my left hand. No ring on my finger. I patted my belly. No babies growing inside. I looked up: "What's 'homeschool'?"

He proceeded to tell me about homeschooling which in his vision included pledging allegiance to a flag each morning next to the breakfast nook and filling out PACES (workbooks used by the pioneers of the fundamentalist homeschooling movement whose definition of evolution is "a myth propagated by scientists to disprove the truth of creationism."). By the end of his enthusiastic speech about the benefits of educating kids yourself, I responded: "Sure. I'll do it."

And so began my homeschool commitment, before I'd even said "Sure, I'll do it" to Jon.

We began homeschooling back when most people hadn't heard of it yet. My skeptical pediatrician regularly quizzed our kids during check-ups - random questions like "Spell Mississippi" and "What's 16 + 34 - 12?" After they'd fumble their way through, they'd ask about the posters on the wall showing the ear canal. They regaled him with the names of the various cavities (we studied the ear one year and built our own model) and he'd say, "Well, you're the first kids I've ever treated who even noticed the poster let alone were interested in it. I guess homeschooling must not be all bad." Uh, thanks, doc.

Over the years, more and more homeschoolers have joined the ranks of educational non-conformists. I've honed and refined my philosophy. We never did wear button down shirts nor pledge any allegiance to flags or books or Republican presidents or creationism. The main focus I had was to give my kids a chance to be kids - to explore interests that mattered to them, trusting that as they did, more than sufficient educational opportunities would present themselves. I nurtured those little flames of mania with supplementary materials, I suggested and presented rich, meaty liberal arts curricula and outings, and we spent enough time on math to not tank on the standardized testing.

By high school, we were into a blend of parttime public education, homeschool co-ops, private tutors and moi. Jon joined in to help with literature.

So for me, the real point of home education has been education.

Somehow not everyone got that memo.

There are a surprising number of homeschoolers I know who don't intend to pay for their kids to go to college. They expect them to pay for the whole thing. After all the hard work of educating them K through 12, they abandon them at adulthood expecting these kids to work and study without help. And not surprisingly, many of these smart teens verging on adulthood meander through programs not quite sure how to get it done and then fizzle out. Some of the focused show real tenacity and make it anyway. I have watched kids juggle full time jobs and college having never been to any formal school education! Stunning. I admire those kids a lot. Better people than I might have been in similar circumstances.

There are others for whom college is not even an option. Their parents have discipleship or marriage as an objective for their kids rather than higher education.

Others still, who having been raised in a protected environment away from the dangers of public education and all the teenage temptations of sex, alcohol and drugs, have wound up pregnant anyway, outside of marriage, at far too young ages. I don't know if it's the contaminated water in the Ohio river making it into our taps or what, but I'm surprised by how many homeschooled kids I know who are teen parents (both boys and girls). Early marriages are not atypical in the homeschooling world.

And while it would be tempting to judge these tightly controlled homeschool environments as cause, we know plenty of girls in public school who've become pregnant too. The truth is: teens and young adults are not as easily controlled through our machinations as we hope they will be, no matter where they are educated.

So as I've "rethought" homeschool in the last six months in particular, it occurs to me that it is not only not a panacea for making it through the trenches of teen development, it may also not even be the best educational choice for kids, particularly those who never go on to college. It seems there is merit to the idea of education in classrooms with other adults and teens for the sake of greater exposure to another world beside the coziness of family.

I'm wondering at this end of it if the best reason to homeschool needs to remain: learning and living go hand-in-hand? It doesn't look like (from where I sit) that we can provide the conditions necessary to actually help teens to make good choices even while we try. In the end, a percentage of them will throw off family values for their own experiments with the dangerous adult world. (You'd hope that at least someone would suggest birth control or adoption as a viable option for kids who don't adopt their parents' values...)

I know Jon and I are not exempt from surprises. I find myself daily realizing that my own children hold my future hostage with their choices. If one of them should become pregnant or father a child, I would from that day on be honor-bound to grandparent that child no matter what the conditions of conception are. I don't feel ready, but who's asking me?

And with that sobering thought on a Saturday night, I leave you. Have a great night.


Rebecca said...

As someone who did not choose homeschooling to protect my children from the world in general I share your skepticism to a fair degree. Homeschooling is not a panacea and should not be presented that way. I do not think it is sure to produce either better education or children better able to handle adult life.

But I don't think it is sure to produce *worse* education or *less* ability to hand adult life so I'm thrown back on the most lame of all positions: it depends on the kid and the available options and the family and yada, yada, yada.

Sheesh. . .sometime I wish I could come up with a sweeping generalization that I really believe about something! ;-)

Ampersand said...

I've taken to saying the *real truth* when answering the why we homeschool question:

We do it because we like it and it suits us.

I don't think it's better overall, or even for my kids. I think other types of education would bring different strengths an weaknesses as well as different joys and burdens for us.

Homeschooling does not produce better, brighter kids. I'm actually not sure what does that. And I'm not even sure if I would want that anyway.

julieunplugged said...

Yeah, I agree with you guys. I will be so interested to hear how our kids evaluate their homeschooling experiences and what they will do with their own children. You know?

As far as what produces bright kids? I think genes are responsible for that. :)

Rick said...

My wife's a high school teacher in the public school district, and we've been lucky to have good experiences, feel our kids are benefitting, etc. But if we thought that we would provide a better-suited education homeschooling, we'd do it. It's the agenda-driven aspect that brings the philosophical problems, I think. And what you've posted here about letting them be kids and let the educational opps present themselves is just brilliant. Since there's no guarantee on the back-end, the best any of us can do in either choice is to let them grow in what they've got and help them make the choices their own, I think.

Anonymous said...

We see homeschooling as the option we took to respect our children. It gives us the opportunity to listen and learn together. As far as when they are 18 we are not there yet, our kids are 13 and 9.

I do know as adults we are learning all the time and our kids will continue to learn as adults too. That much we did give them. The knowledge to learn.

I do have the idea that college can be completed on a homeschool basis too. Not for their protection but for the opportunities they wish to experience. This is something I will be looking into more in the next few years.

I have seen many high school graduates expected to become all knowing too soon only because their birthdays were adding up to 18.

carrie said...

Homeschooling doesn't guarantee kids who are well-educated or kids who love learning. there are a lot of things "promised" and assumed by those who homeschool that aren't guaranteed. Just like all aspects of child-rearing, imput A doesn't guaranteed output B. Im put A, plus genes, environment, and a whole lotta grace (or lack of it) all work together to cause output: ?. You just have to wait and see. Homeschooling, and parenting in general, are jobs where you don't get to see the outcome most of the time until it's too late to change the imputs. Live and learn. Have lots of kids so you get better at it is my only advice. Or have one kid, and when you're finished raising that one, go to Scotland for a few months with your spouse and look at sheep. Sheep are peacdeful. Dumb, but peaceful.

I now know why I homeschool. I like to be with my kids. I like them here, with me...with each other. Homeschooling may not always be "the best" for education or even soical maturity, but for us it's still been the best for our family. As one ds goes on to the community college next year and the other enters a public charter for the first time (11th grade) I am still grateful for the years I've had, and the years I have left with the girls. Most of the time. Sometimes I just want to go look at sheep.