Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Thoughts on Homeschooling, Part I


Parents usually surprise me by approving of my wife's and my intent to educate our children ourselves. Older folks and people without kids are especially full of praise, as are fogies of all ages. All three groups have a sense that something is amiss these days, and that' it's best to handle some things yourself.

Parents, however, who are following or who recently have followed modern social and educational dogmas, however, extend a particular, rather predictable compliment, namely that my wife and I are intelligent. The thinking goes, I suppose, that since we are smart, the kids will become smart. I really do appreciate the confidence, but to reduce the choice of rejecting schools to a matter of smarts, needed by parents and desired for children, misses the point. Such a reduction is a wide misstep, sometimes deliberate, in understanding not only what motivates people to homeschool, but also in understanding oneself and one's own family.

More particularly, most everyone has by the time of parenthood come to his conclusion about his intelligence. Particularly, most everyone thinks that he is smart. I have known only two people ever in my life who claimed to be stupid. (One was right.) What people imply by praising homeschooling parents as intelligent, I suppose, is this: since intelligence is the only or at least the chief prerequisite for homeschooling and since they too are smart, they too could home-school, if they so chose. If they are among the few who don't believe themselves so smart, this simplification of the requirements exonerates them from trying and, conveniently, permits them to think that their dim wits are the only things stopping them.

In either case, by predicating homeschooling on one single virtue about which they have a foregone conclusion, people don't consider the actual requirements. My thesis is that if they considered homeschooling seriously, i.e. considered the actual requirements, they would benefit from the introspection even if they decided not to homeschool. I offer two examples of matters which homeschooling families must address which are often not considered by other families and which, left unconsidered, can hurt the family.

First, regardless of their opinions of themselves, most people are not quite so smart, at least insofar as smart implies being both broadly informed and keen-minded. We simply become trained at one or a few tasks that we repeat thousands, perhaps tens-of-thousands, of times. Eventually we confuse this habit and local expertise for universal intelligence, that is, until a few variables in our work are changed and we are thrown for a loop. Too I observe with regret that many people sharply lean, in both interest and expertise, toward either the sciences or the humanities. What is so wrong with this is not the direction of their focus but the conceit that accompanies it.

People in the sciences do not want to admit that they can scarcely string together a few competent sentences and would be hard pressed to explain basic grammar. (I pass over the implications of this on the clarity of their thought.) They think they are brilliant logicians, but they are often just prosaic literal-minded dullards, unmoved by subtlety, beauty, and anything which may not be computed but must be considered with taste or wisdom.

The humanities experts—I was going to write humanists but that's hardly appropriate these days—don't want to admit that they cannot perform long division or calculate percentages and that they have not the faintest understanding of or interest in the laws of nature, unless perhaps you post a short YouTube video explaining how to "hack your tofu with science," or "science the shit out of" your vinyl records.

The sad truth is that parents, perhaps just some but probably many, are hypocrites for forcing their children to slave over work that they themselves don't value and that they don't consider valuable in general. Kids eventually discern this, of course, whether by seeing their parents' ignorance of the knowledge itself or even their parents' abject denigration of the subject, ("You'll never really use this." "Just memorize it for the test.") Who wouldn't, then, resent the work and lose faith in academic institutions? Worse, though, is that when the kids catch on to the ruse the only recourse parents have (apart from learning, of course) is to tell the children to do as they are told. At that point learning devolves from an exploration of the principles to which we all, teacher and pupil and parent and child alike, are subject, into an authoritarian, utilitarian, regimen. "Get your work done. Get good grades." It is unsurprising then how often the few hours families spend together are spent in quarrels over homework no one really cares about.

Second, then, many parents really can't imagine being home with their kids all day anyway. Instead of learning together, parents grow frustrated and impatient with the tortuous course of learning they have long forgotten. The result is that they can't wait to be away from their kids and go back to their own business. You can see in their eyes that they just don't know what to do with their kids when they are together without some task to perform. They need jobs like homework and after-school activities because there is no purpose to modern life besides the work and consumptive entertainment that crowd out the leisure that, by building bonds, allows natural affection to flourish. Families need uninterrupted, purposeless, inefficient, time together. In contrast, imagine this common scenario:

A mother spends, let's be generous in our estimations, six months with her children from when they are born. They are then cared for by daycare workers or extended family for perhaps 10 hours a day, at least 250 days (i.e. weekdays) out of the year, for another 4.5 years. Then during the next 13 years, the kids spend at least 7 hours-per-day in school for 180 days of the year, out of which year their parents spend 50 weeks working 9am-5pm.

Now throw into into such a mix the fact that both parents are tired from working, the family's finances are overextended, the schedule is overbooked, and they have no one to turn to for wise advice, it's no wonder that the few hours families spend together are fraught with stress. This, I think, is the reason that digital devices have become such popular babysitters: parents welcome them.

I formerly thought that the saddest sight likely in a restaurant was that of a restaurant diner fiddling on her cell phone while her mortified date looked desperately around the room for a comforting nod of sympathy. How lonely such pained souls look, not only invited and ignored, but put on public display in their ongoing rejection. How much worse is the plight of the child, though, brought along and then given the device by which he is meant to occupy himself as he sits nibbling on his French fries and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Such neglect—public and unabashed—of kids, with their little faces aglow in the blue light of a cell phone while their parents chat away, saddens me.

Parents of such unfortunate kids are suffering too, though not how they think. Part of me sympathizes with them, since their modern bourgeois lifestyle is so complex and contradictory in its requirements as to seem designed to immiserate. Still, flypaper attracts flies, fools gold attracts fools, and such people chasing middle class pipe dreams are typically so deluded that they think their terrible situation is not only acceptable, but good. (Or that it could be improved by means of money.) What is worse to me, though, is how this quagmire seems easily capable of swallowing generations of the family, depriving who knows how many of a true liberal education characterized by a peaceful love of learning, rich, broad, and deep, and full of curiosities and of interest unique to the family.

That seems to me a beautiful thing, though I'm not saying at all that homeschooling is best for everyone. I am saying feigning or assuming that sending their children to school is a conscious, informed choice, that they understand and value the work to which they sentence their children, and that they have close bonds in their family, masks their lack of a guiding vision of life.

To Be Continued in Part II

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