A few weeks ago I pointed you to a post over at PhD in Parenting about homeschooling and public schooling. It was a great post because it generated so much discussion! As any good thought provoking post will do, it has stayed in my mind and by formulating my response to it my own views on learning have solidified. So, before I get started, I’m going to say I will be disagreeing with Annie on nearly every point and using her post to make counterpoints – but this isn’t in any way meant to be an attack on her as I respect her views and enjoy her blog greatly! I also enjoyed the discussion in the comments on her post as it opened my mind to a way of thinking I hadn’t considered before – and that, my friends, is always a great gift.
One more thing before I get started. I went to public school in a rural district in Ohio, USA. I’m sure that has a huge effect on my views (as anyone’s personal experience would do so). I also have been a homeschooling advocate since I was in that public school – for almost 20 years now. I’m sure that colors my views as well. I have a degree in Science Education and taught middle school and high school science at public schools in Ohio, Florida, and Texas. Oh, last thing. I am a Christian as well. All this will come in to play at some point in this response.
The right and the duty to learn
Annie starts by discussing the right and duty to learn. She calls on the Convention on the Rights of the Child which recognizes every child’s right to a free education. I agree with her that every child should have access to education. I also agree with her list of what this could include: reading and math, knowledge of the natural world, history, cultures, and societal issues, learning how to solve problems, debate issues, and apply critical thinking. I have always been an academic – meaning I see the value of education for education’s sake and not just as job training so I believe her list is a good one (I’m assuming that “cultures” includes art and literature which I think are important).
However, she also believes in a duty to learn. She explains, “I believe it is each person’s civic duty to learn certain things, whether they want to or not. I believe this is good for them and essential for a functioning society.” This I do not agree with at all. First, I don’t think it is someone’s civic duty to know certain things. If I can’t read how does that effect you (and thereby society)? Well, if I drive a car and can’t read signs that would be a problem and thus, to drive you must be able to read. However, if I am a brilliant artisan weaver what do you care if I can’t read? Sure, you can come up with reasons that being able to read might help me (e.g. if I could read I couldn’t be taken advantage of when selling my work) but why is it my duty to you to know how to read?
Now, don’t think I am against literacy. I think reading is my single most important skill in becoming the person I am today. Reading opens doors for me to learn about places I can’t visit, ideas I’ve never heard, and people I’ll never know. Reading (and its sister writing) helps me tell my story to future generations. If I had to choose between deafness or blindness I’d choose deafness in a heartbeat because reading is my heart. However, I think saying that reading is “essential for a functioning society” is false and that learning to read is not a duty. Plenty of societies exist without reading. Reading and writing and math are only important for our right to an education because they happen to be needed in most cases in most areas of western society. If you don’t need it then why is it your duty to learn it?
The fact is that making something a duty implies some majority forcing their priorities on a minority “for their own good.” Strangely enough, this is an excuse often used in theocracies to force religious education on people. From the comments, I know Annie meant it in quite the opposite direction but I don’t think that individual liberty should be sacrificed to either extreme. Being in a society does mean sacrificing some rights as duties. For example, you will still pay taxes to pay for public schools, libraries, and prisons even if you don’t have kids, can’t (or don’t want to) use the library, or don’t know anyone in prison. In this case the majority enforces duty (taxes) on the citizenry for the common good. Please don’t think when I mention individual liberty that I am a libertarian. I am in fact very much a socialist philosophically and believe strongly in social programs. However, social programs apply a duty to the individual for the common good not for “their own good.” In other words, society as a whole benefits from an educated populace and thus the right to a free public education and the duty of citizens to fund it through taxes (and regulate it through the democratic process) but there is not a duty to learn.
Next Annie talks about her likes and dislikes with schools. I’d like to address each one.
Her likes include:
- Provide a ready made opportunity for children to meet and play with a lot of children from different genders, cultures, and backgrounds. I don’t have to worry about arranging and supervising play dates. I just send my kid to school and it magically falls together.
Schools are horrible places for children to meet and play. Children meet only other children from their school district which, despite failed efforts, are often very homogeneous culturally and are always homogeneous by age. There is nothing remotely realistic – and by realistic I mean “simulating the real world” – about age segregated, neighborhood school classrooms. Play? Play is almost completely frowned upon by schools. Play must be structured and managed either with a “curriculum” (guided by things “people must learn”) or with a whistle and stop watch during gym or recess (which many schools are trying to do away with).
- Have teachers, equipment and resources to passionately and effectively engage my children on topics and in activities that I am not able to.
I can agree that centralized equipment can be good. Each individual family can not afford a tennis court, swimming pool, chemistry equipment, etc. However, I think teachers, while passionate individually, are not at all able to effectively engage children because they are hampered by tests, grades, curricula, funding issues, and huge class size. My experience with teaching was that really bright kids get attention (because their parents are very…diligent) and really bad students (behaviorally or academically) get attention because they affect a school’s reputation. Everyone else? Completely fall through the cracks. I don’t blame this on the teachers. Schools are not designed for engagement. Engagement requires willing participation. Public education is not participatory in any way. Yes, good teachers employ “participative” learning strategies (like group discussion and cooperation) but by their very nature schools can not allow student planning or guidance of learning at all.
- Provide a safe environment for my children to be cared for while my partner and I pursue our careers and our own life learning.
I’m not sure how to address this. I don’t think home education is for everyone. I certainly don’t vilify parents who have their own careers and life learning to do that precludes being the primary educator for their kids. I’m not against outside-the-home learning. However, she lists this as a “like” and I hope she really feels that way about the schools her children attend. I however, would personally have issue with the words “safe” and “cared for.” I think “housed” would probably be a better term.
- Ensure that all children learn history and are exposed to a wide variety of beliefs and viewpoints (at least where I live).
I don’t disagree with this statement. I like the idea of teaching history and a variety of viewpoints. However, at least in the US, this “history” and “variety” of “viewpoints” is at best watered down and at worst a completely distorted falsehood. Am I being vague? Text”books” are lies and half-truths bound with glue. I hope that my daughter never has the misfortune of touching one except to prop open a door. Textbook are no more books for learning than the yellow pages. Both have a group of people deciding what you should see and both are stripped of anything that could be sensitive, tantalizing, or in any way real. You can read about the recent Texas schoolboard votes that basically will write the next ten years of textbooks for our whole country. Talk about revisionist history. But, this didn’t start with the recent hubub about the power of a small group of Texas white people making decisions. I remember hating history in school. It was almost entirely “blah blah blah 1776 blah blah blah Battle of Hastings blah blah blah Louisiana Purchase” – ad nauseum. It was about learning the keywords to regurgitate onto the test. I distinctly remember being royally pissed off when I got into college and my 20s and learning things like:
- Chaing Kai Sheck was a murderous SOB but he wasn’t a communist so he was “good” while Mao Ze Dung, who started out good and later got bad was “evil” because he was a communist.
- The transcontinental railroad was built by Chinese slaves. What, slaves that weren’t black?
- That Japanese people were interred during WWII. Oh perish the thought of saying something bad about the “Greatest Generation.” Oh, and more enslavement post-Civil War?
- Schindler. Enough said. I was so pissed off when I saw that movie. How dare I have been “taught” about the holocaust and not told about any German resistance?
This is just a sampling. In an effort to instill patriotism and avoid anything “questionable” our curriculum has become nothing more than brainwashing and newspeak. Annie says later (referring to religion) that “if you believe something, being exposed to other beliefs should help you to confirm your beliefs, rather than threaten them.” I agree. I wish US public school curricula did. History should be about age appropriate facts and discussion and analysis. This is simply missing from most school curricula.
Her hates include (strikeout modifications and emphasis mine):
- Require all students to learn the same things and the same time, meaning that some few will be interested, some most will be bored, and some none will struggle really learn.
- Are seldom never able to provide the right any level of support for students who are struggling in a specific area and often always push it back onto the parents in the form of extra homework for them to do with the child (I’ll add often parents can’t or won’t do it “with their child” and don’t get me started on a system so inefficient that after 6+ hours a day you still have to do more every night for it to work!).
- Involve foster significant amounts of peer pressure, bullying, overexposure to things like commercialization, sexualization, and specific gender roles that I think are counter productive detrimental to learning.
- Do not provide enough any time for experimentation, play, outdoor time and self-directed learning (experimentation and self-directed learning are completely non-existent and highly discouraged!).
- Often use Rely solely on (scientifically unsupported coercion tools, like) grades, rewards, and punishments as a way to keep students in line because it is easier than completely discouraged to encourage self-motivation and teach common sense and respect.
- Can be abused Is specifically designed for the purposes of spreading propaganda to youth.
I’m not a alarmist. I went to public school and I can read and write. I’m not a brainwashed automaton. Most people aren’t. This is a miracle that public schools can take zero credit for. Most people escape public school with a passing education in spite of public schools. I think some teachers offer bright examples of an excellent education and these really stick with kids. I think some schools are being very innovative and offering excellent learning opportunities. I think many parents supplement their child’s schooling by creating a learning environment at home. Even without any of these humans are amazingly resilient and turn out just fine. What could we accomplish if it wasn’t resilience and spite but an honestly enriching experience?
Annie describes some of the different terms used for homeschooling and I agree with her on that and have my own post planned for that. She then talks about some of the reasons people choose to homeschool and cites a Canadian study. The US Department of Education released a report on the number of homeschooling families in the US. In that report 85% of respondents homeschool due to concern about the school environment including safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure. This reason was not as prominent in the Canadian study so perhaps that is a difference in the two countries? Or, in the study methods. Either way, the reasons people homeschool in the US and the % citing that reason are as follows (this chart also compares 2003 to 2007 data which is an interesting topic for another time):
So 73% homeschool for pedagogical reasons (“dissatisfaction with academic instruction”) and 83% for ideological (“provide religious or moral instruction”). Note that this wasn’t an either or question so a family could choose multiple answers for why they homeschool.
Here is what Annie likes about homeschooling (with my edits and emphasis):
- Children often routinely get much better academic results with much less time spent sitting at a desk, which gives them more time to spend outdoors, playing, and participating in all aspects of family life.
In fact, standardized test results for 16,000 home educated children, grades K-12, were analyzed in 1994 by researcher Dr. Brian Ray. He found the nationwide grand mean in reading for homeschoolers was at the 79th percentile; for language and math, the 73rd percentile. This ranking means home-educated students performed better than approximately 77% of the sample population on whom the test was normed. Nearly 80% of homeschooled children achieved individual scores above the national average and 54.7% of the 16,000 homeschoolers achieved individual scores in the top quarter of the population, more than double the number of conventional school students who score in the top quarter.
- Children are freer to pursue their own interests.
- There is more self-motivation and less coercion and force involved in learning. This, in turn, encourages children to learn more rather than getting the attitude that learning is boring and uncool.
- Children are not as exposed to negative cultural and societal influences.
- More parents take an active interest in their child’s education.
- Children are free to learn at the time of day that best meshes with their personality and body rhythm, rather than according to the ringing of a bell.
Obviously I agree vehemently with each of these and could launch into several more – but that’s another post.
Some things that concern her about home education:
- I worry that parents who homeschool for ideological reasons may be shielding their children from the realities of the world (other belief systems, other cultures) and their selves (sexuality, gender issues, personal expression), which I believe is dangerous for the individual and for society.
This is the crux of her argument against homeschooling and the interesting direction that the comments took. I’ll cover this more in a minute.
- I worry that a small minority of parents who homeschool for ideological reasons may be doing so specifically to pass on discriminatory and hateful viewpoints to their children.
I worry about this too. As much as I worry about our justice systems presumption of innocence letting a guilty man go free. It can happen but it is a neccessary risk to ensure that an innocent man is not punished. Are there people filling their kids with hate? Of course. In school and out. However, I certainly wouldn’t restrict the freedom of many for the ignorance of the few.
- I worry that parents who take their children out of school out of frustration with the school system (generally or for their specific child) may feel forced into home educating their children when really the school system should be changing and adapting to address those concerns.
I’m not sure if Annie meant this but this sentence reads to me like “so you should suck it up and change the system from the inside.” Uh, no thanks. My kid’s life is not your science experiment (you too Big Pharma). Call me when you get your act together and can prove it – we’ll talk. In the meantime, allow me to show you another way: homeschooling.
- I worry that children who grow up under the guidance of the most gentle, patient, loving and inspiring parents without being exposed to teachers who are strict, ineffective, jerks, play favourites, or use coercive methods may not learn how to deal with those types of people before entering the workforce and may be at a disadvantage.
Ugh, I detest this argument and it’s one I get second only to socialization and it is twice a bogus. One of my examples of why I will homeschool is that I didn’t learn how to be mean or tease my sister until I went to school (where age-segregation begs a Lord of the Flies mentality). Then someone will invariable say to me “well they have to develop a thick skin.” Um, once again, NO. You DO NOT have to develop a thick skin. I pray Aellyn never does. The best way to learn to deal with different types of people? Have a nurturing, gentle, patient, loving, and inspiring close relationship with your parent(s). The resultant self-esteem will better equip you to deal with ANYTHING better than any abuse or subjection to jerks will ever do. Oh, and even if you think that kids eventually need to “be exposed” to how harsh the “real” world is – THEY DON’T NEED IT WHEN THEY ARE 7 FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE! Smrt Mama in the comments thread says it well, “Exposing a child to bullies, jerks, etc. (whether students or teachers) doesn’t teach them how to stand up to those people or work with those people — it teaches them to be victims, to keep quiet when they should speak up, or to tolerate abuse or idiocy they shouldn’t tolerate.”
Secular Education and Religious Belief
Ok, for the record, my reason for homeschooling is not religious but pedagogical. However, I was shocked to find that Canada actually teaches religion and morality/ethics starting in first grade! Absolutely under no circumstances is someone else teaching my child about religion. I mean we learned about the history of the crusades, inquisition, reformation, etc. in history class in High School but the fact that this mentions ethics and starts so young makes me think it isn’t just historical fact they are teaching but actual belief systems.
Annie says, “realistically, I do not think that there is any reason why parents cannot teach their children about their faith outside of school hours. Therefore, choosing to school your children at home for religious reasons means that there are things that are taught in schools that you don’t think your children should be exposed to.” That is only 1/2 the story. Just like watching TV without parental guidance to help with processing new information is important the same is true for learning, particularly when that learning is as abstract and personal as belief systems. In other words, homeschooling for religious reasons isn’t just about shielding children from a certain topic but being able to filter that topic through a familial belief system.
Still with me? This is where it gets really juicy. In the comments many discussions around evolution vs. creationism, homosexuality, and other hot topics were swirled around. What I was most shocked by (and I say shocked in that it was an “ah ha” moment where I understood something new about how (some) secular athiests think) Annie’s comment that, “When I refer to beliefs, I mean things like whether there is a God(s), what happens after we die, whether you should/need to pray/worship and if so how, etc. I think children should be taught that different people believe different things and be encouraged to explore different options. However, their parents certainly can explain why they believe what they do. They just shouldn’t present it as the truth. They should present it as a belief” and another commentor stated, “[children] don’t need to be told that one faith is right and true over every other, j[u]st that each individual has their own truth to find.” (emphasis mine)
This was truly the first time I understood what is meant by “moral relativism.” I’ve heard preachers use the term but never really got it. The idea that a) there are no absolutes, and b) teaching (or believing) in an absolute equals intolerance. I have no problem with someone believing the first one but the second is a fallacy of conflation.
To explain: my sister is an atheist. We have wonderful conversations about belief and truth. I tease her and call her a pagan and a heathen (atheists are neither) and she makes fun of me for believing some “guy” rose from the dead. It is a good dialog that I think benefits both of our belief systems. She absolutely does not believe in a God and she doesn’t want her future kids having that belief forced on them. I absolutely respect her right and agree that it is a parent’s job to teach not the government’s. I believe, on the other hand, that there is one true God. He is the truth and the way. I will raise my daughter with this truth. I will love her just the same (as Jesus would have) if she grows up to be a atheist like her Aunt Mandi. I respect her right to explore different options. I also plan to teach about the variety of faith systems and that others that do not share our faith are not “wrong” “bad” or “less than” and (as Jesus would have) should be treated with the respect due to all God’s creation. However, Annie says children. Children should be encouraged to explore different options. Uh, no. You can not simultaneously be Christian and believe that there are multiple truths. If I tried to teach Aellyn that Hinduism is just as valid a spiritual way as Christianity then I would by default not be teaching her Christianity since Christianity does not believe in multiple paths to God (I’m avoiding a diatribe of scripture but there are, of course, verses to back this up).
Therefore, to teach as Annie is suggesting should be taught in public schools would be to completely demolish my right to practice my religion.
I think when moral relativists state this view about making sure children aren’t taught “one truth” the real worry is, as another commenter put it, “indoctrination is scary and dangerous. It is the basis of intolerance and of totalitarianism.”
tr.v. in·doc·tri·nat·ed, in·doc·tri·nat·ing, in·doc·tri·nates
The sad thing? I can see why non-Christians worry about this type of thing. There are plenty of examples of Christianity Gone Bad and I’m often embarrassed or feel like I have to add a caveat: “I’m a Christian, but not one of those psycho, hateful, doctor shooting kind.” It can feel very isolating to be a liberal Christian when the loudest squawking is from the most conservative wings but I am not alone. I go to a church with a lot of love and light. Intolerance is about as likely to be taught as Devil worship. It is completely antithetical to everything we believe and “love your neighbor” is a central tenant of the teaching.
I don’t want the government teaching my child about morality any more than I want them to teach my child about “Honest Abe” or what a great man Columbus was. The public schools have shown themselves completely unworthy of educating my child and therefore I’ll do it myself. For those who can’t or don’t homeschool I do support the idea of publically-funded education. However, I don’t want those kids taught morality or bullshit, propagandized history either. If you disagree with me that’s great – I’m just glad we live in a country where I can have my view and you can have yours and neither of us is forced to compromise our beliefs as we would be in Germany (and perhaps Canada, although my knowledge of the content of those ethics classes is scarce and I’d have to read more – at least it is legal to homeschool).
This post has been in my DRAFT folder for a long time. I think I was hesitant to post it because I know I’m passionate about the topic and didn’t want to come off like I was attacking Annie. I hope I’ve been clear enough! Anyways, due to my lack of blogging lately, I thought I’d finally hit PUBLISH!
How do you feel about homeschooling? How do you feel about moral relativism?