Home education as a radical act

You* have the right to educate your own children.

Did you realize that?

It can be a source of paralyzing terror to even the most highly educated modern American, but teaching one’s children at home is the right and privilege of every parent.

I wouldn’t recommend availing oneself of this right, however, unless one feels called to the challenge. Teaching your children is a challenge. Let no blog or expert tell you otherwise! But, if you undertake this task, it may be the most important thing you ever do. If your child is doing fine, s/he might do even better in a personalized mix of classes designed à la carte. If your child is failing within the system, you may not have a better option than the radical one to educate your child at home.

radical adjective rad·i·cal \ˈra-di-kəl\

a :  very different from the usual or traditional :  extreme

b :  favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions

c :  associated with political views, practices, and policies of extreme change

d :  advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs the radical right

I’m not a zealot on the subject of home education. I have two kids, one enrolled in school, and one who learns at home. Both of my children attended preschool and kindergarten. We never sought to keep them away from other people; we aren’t hiding at home to avoid the realities of the diverse and populous world.

My son learns at home because it works for him. He is learning, and, unlike when he left school, he is thriving. He is an introvert, so his social needs are easily met with his group classes and private meet-ups outside of typical school hours. He is also a logical thinker, and a practical sort. He realized in early elementary school that it was quicker and more efficient to get schoolwork done without the distraction of other kids. He would rather spend time with his peers when he’s free to interact with them, getting his academic work done in privacy and peace.

Real life and the professional world allow for this kind of personalization in a way that modern institutionalized schooling does not. Some jobs involve constant contact and communication (sales); some jobs demand a tolerance for solitude (working on a oil rig, say, or in a fire lookout tower); the vast majority of jobs fall somewhere in between.

There’s nothing novel about the fact that human beings are individuals with unique characteristics and strengths. The strange conceit is the Industrial Age school that insists every square peg insert itself into its identical round hole; if the peg doesn’t fit, it is the peg that has failed. The hole bears no responsibility for its failure to be round!

People who believe schools, as they are today, are the only way to educate children would do well to note that the common institutional school is at most a few hundred years old. Human beings were finding ways to educate children, including providing formal academic instruction, for thousands of years before that. This is a beautiful illustration of Maslow’s hammer: every problem looks like a nail when your only tool is a hammer.

Emphatically, and with gusto, let me state that I believe in education, and a rigorous, fairly traditional education at that. The standards my kids are expected to meet before we set them free into adulthood include:

  • mastery of written and verbal communication in their native tongue,
  • mathematics sufficient to succeed as 21st century professionals,
  • ability to communicate in at least one foreign language,
  • competence with a musical instrument,
  • knowledge of history and human accomplishments,
  • knowledge of and practical experience with science,
  • study of philosophy and its application to logical/critical thinking,
  • proficient use of and ability to program computers,
  • and physical health and self-care.

We study year-round, and we consistently exceed the hours of instruction mandated by our state, but this doesn’t define our success as home scholars/educators. We are successful because we are giving this child the support he needs to maximize his own potential, academically and personally.

My child learns, for the most part, because he’s excited and motivated to do so. His success is his own. While we, as parents, asserted our authority to define the required goals to be worked toward if he wants to continue learning at home, how he reaches these goals is a process in which the child is an equal participant.

Evaluations, tests, and school structures are mere tools to be employed toward the real goal: the education of our children. Every discussion should bear this in mind; every policy should be crafted to serve the actual needs of our children. It’s shocking how rare this is in practice.

If your child isn’t learning—if s/he isn’t receiving the education s/he needs—consider undertaking to provide it yourself, and be willing to work outside the status quo until you accomplish what your child needs. Systemic failure to endow children with the tools they need to be successful adults and citizens is a threat to the fabric of our republic and the health of the individual.

Have you personally had to address this threat? How are you meeting your child’s educational needs? Have you had to take radical steps to meet them?



8 thoughts on “Home education as a radical act

  1. My experience (having attended a private middle school and also a public high school) is that of a huge amount of time wasted. I was not doing badly in school, and it ended up ok (I’m a scientist now doing research in an academic setting), but in many ways, school was a set of things to overcome – to succeed in spite of, not because of. Some of that is character-building, I suppose, but too random and often Kafka-esque. I still remember being frustrated at the amount of time that was going to nonsense of various types, both social and institutional, because of the need to interpolate to the center of mass of very different students. So much useless stuff taking up time, so that I had to do the things I really wanted to learn and practice on my own very limited free time. So many things could have been optimized; I would have killed for an opportunity to fine-tune my educational experience and time spent learning, as can be done with alternative schooling strategies that are rationally designed to help *your* kid in the way that would be best. If my parents had known this was even possible, we would have done it; we just had no idea it was an option. This is not just for kids who are not succeeding in traditional settings – it’s also for kids that are doing fine but could really blossom if they had input into the process (i.e., practice managing their learning, for a lifetime of that) and a tailored experience.

    If you are worried about doing a good job with this, make sure you are doing the right mental comparison: it’s not the schooling you can provide vs. an ideal outcome – it’s what you do, specifically targeted to your kid’s needs a la carte, vs. what various individuals (under administrative, social, financial, and time pressures) in an institutional setting might be able to cobble together. What evidence do you really have that the people who have charge of your kids for half the day know (and can implement) a better scenario for your child than you can, if you take advantage of all the resources out there? Sometimes they can, but it’s not always true, so make sure you take a hard look at what your child is actually getting in the current setting. Presumably you are the most motivated to make this process go well for your child; and even for those exceptional teachers who have motivation levels approaching your own, they have so many constraints on what they can actually do and how much specialization they can offer. Your kid might encounter one or two fabulous, effective teachers throughout the day; what about the rest? Those prime years in a young life are so brief; are they being used well? Consider the possibility that you can pick and choose from the many, many available offerings – it’s the difference between leaving it up to chance and others’ beliefs about what should be going into your kid’s brain vs. managing the process yourself. If possible, given your circumstances, why not take charge of the process. Don’t assume that anyone else knows how to do this better than you, if you seek out and deploy expert resources for the various components of the education you’d like to see.

    Something else is the fact that this period is critical in kids’ mental growth – it’s so easy to stunt enthusiasm for learning, permanently. I gave a lecture to a bunch of 9-11 year-olds last month – the same biology talk I would give to colleagues (from various fields, so not terribly specialized) at my university. They were incredible; had great ideas, asked all the right questions – they clued in to the central logic and possibilities of the experiments immediately, understood all the main points, and were able to take the ideas and propose next steps to advance knowledge. And it wasn’t just a matter of being uninhibited – they actually had really good thoughts about the material besides just being unafraid to speak their mind (to me, the former is what’s needed – people have plenty of the latter nowadays). The notable thing was how this compares to the many different college students I interact with. Given what I saw in those little kids, they should be incredible by the time they get to college. But that is not what I see; we have shining stars, of course, but they are rare; we are losing most of what I saw by the time they get to college, and it seems to me that the standouts who kept this “effective spark” alive into college are the ones who effectively resisted the next years of the common experience. Grades have little to do with it; the ones who learned how to get good grades in class, to memorize, and to navigate the now ubiquitous “group projects”, are not necessarily the ones who succeed in science and innovation. Something happens to a huge proportion of those kids during the next critical years; whatever it is that blunts their interest, creativity, drive for personal discovery (not teacher/test-pleasing) and capacity for insightful analysis and engagement – I have to think a huge chunk of that happened at school. If there’s a chance to keep it going by curating and optimizing their interaction with learning during those crucial years, who else better than you to manage what they get and how they get it?

  2. Your passion for this topic is obvious.

    I like to remind people who are nervous about starting to educate their kids at home that the public school only promises to “provide XXX hours of instruction” and meet certain needs while doing it. Nowhere in the contract is there a guarantee that a given child will LEARN anything, though, of course, most of us do.

    The best teachers are worthy of the highest esteem. I appreciate all professional teachers. They do a vitally important job under challenging conditions while being publicly maligned for society’s failures.

    Rarely does any teacher commit as fully to an individual child’s success as a typical, healthy parent does, however. And should they?

    • I think I’m helped by two things:

      1) I take it one lesson (day, month, term, year) at a time! Just because learning at home is the right choice today, that doesn’t lock us in for any future period. If it stops working, we are fortunate to be surrounded by good schools. A public school must educate all children, so that’s always an option. Private schools abound in our area as well, plus online choices, and local co-ops. We are fortunate in this area.

      2) This particular child never lost his childlike love of learning. I was watching that happen at school; that’s why we left. It takes effort (from me) to keep a couple of his most challenging areas moving forward at the pace I like, but much of what my son is learning seems like wheels on a track–he’s compelled by his own internal momentum. There’s very little nagging about schoolwork because this child values most of what we’re doing. He gets why we’re doing it. He likes learning this way so much better–and having more autonomy, and having his needs/interests respected–that he’s pretty content to cooperate.

      Household chores, however, I definitely get to practice my nagging over… Sigh. 🙂

      He’s a great kid, but still a kid.

      Thanks for reading!

      • This is true. The average person has always been… average.

        But success today is more often found by those starting the companies. Conformers aren’t the greatest entrepreneurs.

        My young teen has already done some of this, spinning a hobby and a skill (two different ones) into sources of pocket money. He’s learning how to create employment for himself, if he wants that.

        And this child has a logical brain. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t go into engineering or another field with measurable metrics of success. In most innovative companies, getting it done surpasses pedigree for advancement.

        There are no guarantees for any of us. I’d say statistics on recent graduates aren’t particularly heart-warming for the typical college grad, let alone those with only high school diplomas.

        We do have a focus on producing a transcript that will help my son get into a competitive college. We are also demanding that he actually learn to think for himself rather than accepting test results in lieu of a real education.

        We’re willing to bet this is the better course of action for our young scholar. 🙂

      • I am sure you are doing the best. As a 34 female banker in EU I have had to realise that competitors, clients, bossom–friends of the management are lacking moral values and sometimes minimal civilisational rules. So disappointing.

What do you want to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s