Why not to homeschool

In a recent post at the Homeschoolers Anonymous website, R.L. Stollar offers a response to Israel Wayne’s recent post on “A Shift in the Homeschooling Movement.” In response to Wayne’s claim that homeschooling should be focused above all else, including above even education, on the “lordship of Jesus,” Stollar argues, to the contrary, that “you can’t lace geography lessons with Jesus.” Whereas Wayne believes that evangelization of one’s own children should be the ultimate end of schooling, Stollar argues instead that schooling of any sort should be “an embraced process whereby all children freely, enthusiastically, and wisely discover life on their own terms and at their own pace.” Both of these approaches, however, are ultimately wrongheaded due to their false underlying assumptions as both Stollar and Wayne assume a dichotomy between faith and virtue on the one hand and knowledge and freedom on the other.

Before we can answer the question of what sort of education a child should receive, we must first answer the questions of what the purpose of an education is and from whom the child should receive it. What, then, is the purpose of an education? The answer that has been given nearly universally in public schools and even universities in the United States for the past several decades is that the purpose of an education is to prepare the student for employment. To that end, most states have adopted the new Common Core State Standards, which assure in their motto that they will prepare students for “college and career readiness.” In Savannah, Georgia, where I live, students are forced at the ripe old age of 13 to choose one of several “career pathways” the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System has mapped out for them. According to the school system’s website, the offered career fields which students will be prepared for throughout their high school years are:

  • Agriculture 
  • Architecture, Construction, Communication & Transportation 
  • Business & Computer Science 
  • Culinary Arts 
  • Education 
  • Engineering & Technology 
  • Family & Consumer Science 
  • Government & Public Service 
  • Healthcare Science 
  • Marketing, Sales & Service
Now, while I am sure that there are a plethora of tweens and teens champing at the bit to start their long, prosperous, and undoubtedly fulfilling careers in “family & consumer science,” what is perhaps most notable about this list is what is missing. There are no offerings for those who want to grow up to be artists, authors, intellectuals, pastors, thinkers, or just well-rounded individuals with creative, critical minds; in other words, there is no offering of the liberal arts. Of course, this makes perfect sense as this is an approach to education designed specifically to accomplish the opposite of a liberal arts education.

The purpose of a liberal arts education is, as the nomenclature implies, to liberate. It is to create a human being who possesses liberty, the ability to make independent and informed choices about his life. Many of the great figures in the history of Western Civilization frequently compared this liberal/liberating education with its opposite: a technical or vocational education, an education to which they applied the fitting label “servile.” I know of no finer exhibition of the marked differences between these two forms of education than a passage from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest paragraphs of American literature. In this passage, Douglass discusses his desire as a child to learn how to read and the reaction of his master to this:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

What Mr. Auld desired for Douglass was a servile education. He desired to provide for him an education which allowed his mind only to absorb those things necessary to making him an effective and obedient laborer. What Douglass desired was a liberal education. He desired an education that would bring him to ask the most important questions that a human being can ask: what is man and what is his highest end? He desired an education that would allow him to answer these questions to the best of his ability and so to live a truly and fully human life, a life of choices.

Throughout the bureaucratic structures which dominate education in the United States today, there are thousands of Mr. Aulds. What they desire for America’s youth is “college and career readiness.” What they do not want is a young upstart like Douglass wondering what is the point of “college and career,” wondering if there might, in the end, be more to human life than vocational education and money making. That is dangerous thinking, and we can have none of it. So, much as the propagators of Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984 they gradually slim down the ideas and language to which the mass of Americans have access, thereby placing the necessary limitations on thought. While the daughters of President Obama and the children of other political elites in Washington, D.C., will be reading Sartre and the Bhagavad Gita in their high school classes at Sidwell Friend’s School, your high school student, with his Common Core textbook, will be reading a fascinating “informational text” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/U.S. Department of Energy tantalizingly entitled “Recommended Levels of Insulation.” Mr. Douglass, meet Mr. Auld.

In short and more to point, the purpose of an education is, or should be, to create a human being in the fullest sense of that word. In English, the word used to refer to the production of new members of a given species by already-existing members of that species is procreation. This, of course, leads us to the answer for our second question: who is responsible for educating a child? If education is, as indeed it is, a continuation of the process of procreation, the answer is clear enough: it is the parents who bear the primary responsibility for educating a child. The combined factors which have led to the destruction of the family in American society, not the least of which is the welfare system as it exists, have led to the epidemic of “deadbeat dads,” chromosome donors who refuse to provide the financial support necessary for the upkeep of their offspring and rather rely upon the government to do the job for them. Similarly, the system of free and compulsory public education in the United States over the last century and a half has led to the phenomenon of hands-off parenting as parents have come to rely upon the government to do their job of educating their child. Parents across America have abdicated their greatest responsibility and instead handed it off to well-bribed bureaucrats and miseducated pseudo-pedagogues. Though it is often presented in a humorous manner, the vision of the American parent celebrating the end of summer and the return of their child to school is quite real, and a sad commentary on parenting in America. Being a parent is more than merely the sexual act. It is also more than “raising kids” by ensuring their material needs are met. It is nothing less than the lifelong process of creating a new human being, a unique creature in the image of God. The Renaissance author Pico della Mirandola described the unique feature of man among all animals as his lack of a nature; rather, he argued, it is man’s nature to choose his own nature:

Oh unsurpassed generosity of God the Father, Oh wondrous and unsurpassable felicity of man, to whom it is granted to have what he chooses, to be what he wills to be! The brutes, from the moment of their birth, bring with them, as Lucilius says, “from their mother’s womb” all that they will ever possess. The highest spiritual beings were, from the very moment of creation, or soon thereafter, fixed in the mode of being which would be theirs through measureless eternities. But upon man, at the moment of his creation, God bestowed seeds pregnant with all possibilities, the germs of every form of life. Whichever of these a man shall cultivate, the same will mature and bear fruit in him. If vegetative, he will become a plant; if sensual, he will become brutish; if rational, he will reveal himself a heavenly being; if intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God. And if, dissatisfied with the lot of all creatures, he should recollect himself into the center of his own unity, he will there become one spirit with God, in the solitary darkness of the Father, Who is set above all things, himself transcend all creatures.

Education is the process which sets a child on the path to becoming plant, brute, heavenly, intellectual, or that something which is beyond each of these. It begins the child on the path of his life. These first steps more often than not set the pace and the route that will be taken throughout the journey. Education is the most important facet of the process of procreation.

It is here that we return to the overarching theme of the posts of Stollar and Wayne. Given that education is the completion of the process of procreation and therefore the duty of the parent above all else, we must confront the question: what of schools? As Stollar points out, homeschooling has become, especially among certain members of certain religious groups in America, a means by which to shelter a child from the supposed sinfulness of “the world.” The stereotype of the socially awkward and bizarrely miseducated homeschooled child has become so ubiquitous that almost always the first question I am asked by anyone who finds out I am a homeschooler is about “socialization” (in other words, do they get out of the house or are you just feeding them your indoctrination all day and night?). Homeschooling has become, for these people, a means by which to ensure that their child is not exposed to any alternative viewpoints, aside perhaps from a negative presentation of these viewpoints provided by the parents. (Of course, the big point here is almost always evolution; a very large mass of Christian homeschoolers, so-called, homeschool for specifically this reason and teach a firmly Creationist version of origins which one would not encounter in a public school, nor in many Christian private schools.)

It seems we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, there are the public schools, with all of their many flaws, and, on the other, the socially awkward and nearly solipsistic homeschooled child. What is needed, however, is balance. After the inevitable question about socialization, the second question I am often asked about my choice to homeschool my children is how I could make such a choice when I am myself a teacher at a public charter school. There is, I assure you, a better explanation than mere hypocrisy. While it is the primary responsibility of the parent to educate the child, this does not exclude the possibility of sending one’s children to schools, whether public or private, so long as the school is used as a tool by the parent to meet his responsibility, not an excuse to ignore it. If a parent makes the informed decision that a particular public or private school can be utilized in his goal to provide the very best education to his children, there is no conflict. In the case of my family, my wife and I, after much research and deliberation, concluded that we can provide our children with this education without the need to utilize a school outside of the home. I expect that others will make an equally informed and opposite choice. So long as they make that choice for the same reason (namely, again, that utilizing a certain school is the best means by which the parent can meet his responsibility to educate his children), I have no criticism to offer.

That being said, it should be clear where I stand on the issue of homeschooling in order to deny one’s children a complete education. An incomplete education is not a liberal education; it is a servile education. No matter the personal beliefs of the parents, to disallow a child from learning about some important aspect of the collective commentary on the human condition found in the world’s science, religion, literature, etc. is to do a grave disservice to that child. One can remain true to one’s beliefs while giving due acknowledgement to the beliefs of others. Whether Darwin was right or wrong, whether the ancient Greek myths are theologically correct or not, all of these are part of our heritage as Westerners and, more importantly, as human beings. To miss out on them is to miss out on an important and different way of viewing our common humanity.

Parenting/educating a child is a bit like a combination of the classic and postmodern approaches to art. In the classic approach, the artist had in mind precisely what it was he wished to paint or sculpt before he ever took brush to canvas or chisel to stone. Like the architect with blueprints in hand, he knew exactly how his construction would appear in the end. Michelangelo said that he could see the sculpture in the stone before he began and he was merely freeing that preexistent form. Many of the great artists of the 20th century took a different approach and added varying degrees of randomness, such as the splash and dash techniques of Jackson Pollock. In education, to go too far in either of these directions is dangerous. To adhere too closely to the classic approach, unless we possess the insight of Michelangelo and can peer into the soul of our student to see precisely what he should become, is to impose an alien form upon another. It is to attempt to mold him into what we would like him to be, rather than what he really is. It is to deny him freedom. To follow too closely to the postmodern approach is equally dangerous. (It is worth noting here that the only really serious proponent of this approach in its purest form was Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Emile; Rousseau himself never raised any of his several children but instead handed them over to a foundling home to raise on his behalf.) It is to raise a child without discipline, without focus, without virtue. Strange as it may seem, this too-free approach is also, in fact, to deny freedom to the child as it makes him a slave of his emotions and his passions, unable to reasonably confront the temptations within and without him. Sound education must find the Goldilocks spot: not too much of either the classic or the postmodern, but just the right amounts of each.

We should, like the good classic artist, have some idea in mind of what our final product will be like, but we should allow for some deviations from the plan and even the plan itself must be just vague enough to allow each product to assume its own unique features. Since our product is a human being, we must offer some rough outline of an ideal human being. The many great thinkers of the world have used many words to describe this ideal human being, and often differed from each other in the details. Martin Luther King, however, once offered a succinct statement which serves very well to summarize these visions of the ideal man. In a 1947 article on “The Purpose of Education,” King wrote that “Intelligence plus character … is the goal of true education.” Intelligence is not the mere memorization of facts, but can, I believe, be broken down into two constituent elements (here I am indebted especially to Jacob Bronowski), namely curiosity and creativity. We might briefly summarize our vision of the ideal human being and the sort of characteristics which education should cultivate, then, as creativity, curiosity, and character — three C’s to match the traditional three R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic) of early childhood education. The ideal human being is one who is curious; that is, he has an earnest and insatiable desire to learn ever more about himself and the world around him. He is creative; that is, he makes use of the knowledge acquired through the fulfillment of his curiosity in new and profound ways. Creativity is, in essence, the ability to bring together two or more disparate pieces of information to form a new whole; it is the same genius found in both the scientist and the poet. Finally, the ideal man is a man of character; in other words, he is man with the virtue necessary to guide his curiosity and his creativity through the proper means and to the proper ends.

If we place before us these three C’s as the goal of education, the argument between Stollar and Wayne is unnecessary. Rather, it is the case that an education centered on Christ — which is one which refuses to use censorship, obfuscation, and other forms of dishonesty as its tools and which sees the human being as something greater than a mere laborer — is the ideal education, the education which will serve to cultivate the three C’s within a child. What both Stollar and Wayne seem to fail to realize is that “all the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). That includes all knowledge, even the science of Darwin and the philosophy of Nietzsche.

Shortly before his martyrdom in a Soviet gulag, the Russian Orthodox Priest Gregory Petrov wrote a prayer service, called an Akathist, which he entitled “Glory to God for All Things.” In that Akathist, Fr. Gregory exclaims:

The breath of Thine Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets and scientists. The power of Thy supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Thy laws, who reveal the depths of Thy creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of Thee. How great art Thou in Thy creation! How great art Thou in man!

Indeed; this is the mindset from which we should approach the education of our children and which we should seek to propagate within them. One does not need to lace geography with Jesus in order to encourage a child to stand in awe before the tremendousness of the created order and the magnificence of its Creator, rather one need only teach according to this motto: “Glory to God for all things.”