Uniconformity? Photo by Scott Webb, via Unsplash (https://unsplash.com)
It’s no mystery that there is a serious crisis in the operation of human society, and there are many explanations for why this has come to pass, but it looks increasingly as though humanity may be nothing more than a failed evolutionary gambit and that we are about to bring our temple down around our own ears in the most Samson-like fashion, at least partly through a lack of ability to deploy the reasoning that was touted as the distinguishing feature of humanity (our opposable thumbs may have been the instrument of our undoing).
This thought got somewhat focused most recently via a piece from urban homesteader Erica Strauss about the fine experience she has had schooling her children at home. There are a couple of really important and relevant reasons why this works, and she lays all this out in a very readable and thought-provoking manner that leaves me with more questions than answers (as thought-provoking pieces should).
Reason number 5 is a good place to start, because it is at the source of all that ensues. Says Ms. Strauss:
The Vice Principal isn’t a bad person, but her world is juggling legally mandated administrative bullshit constantly. I have very little tolerance for administrative bullshit on a good day, and when I think it’s jeopardizing the safety of my kid…well, I know a few terms that describe how deep inside the administrator’s intestinal tract such concerns should be filed, but they might scorch the eyeballs of our more delicate readers.
The public education system has become increasingly tied up with administrative constraints as a succession of governments in most locales have become more prescriptive about what will and what will not be taught and about how student and faculty interactions will be moderated. This, of course, coincides with the rise of litigious behaviour on the part of most everyone concerned with education. In most jurisdictions, the clear trend over that last half century has been to standardization of both instruction and of evaluation and the questions and answers that guide the educational process have been increasingly written by people who know how to run a business within the current paradigm and are more concerned with perpetuating that paradigm than they are with providing an education that will produce a society whose citizens will have some sense of belonging to a common, yet flexible entity. The intellectual and emotional agility to navigate and sustain the sense of belonging and the flexibility to tolerate and encourage a multiplicity of approaches to participating in and shaping society is difficult to engender when the answers must be machine-scored multiple choice in nature, and often, if there is only one right answer, the question it asked would have been totally irrelevant. The saddest part is that the education system abhors unresolved questions and conflicts and enforces conformity of one kind or another using the biggest hammer it can find. It’s the kind of authoritarian treatment that many would like to be able to implement themselves, but that has produced a likely preponderance of students who come through the system with a sense of having survived rather than having been launched on a path to some version of fulfillment.
From this idea stems the rest of the reasons for keeping the kids at home. “It fits our lifestyle” may not be for everyone, especially a household where either or both parents (or a single parent) has an enforced schedule that precludes any thought of spending any substantial part of the day with the offspring, but obviously works for those who have created a life that revolves around the homestead and where both parents, in this case, can devote time to both direct instruction and to the creation of experiential learning events. If we consider that the whole of the school day can be devoted to a “field trip” where there are directed experiences and reflections, we are already likely to generate more curiosity and interest that we would with the typical day in public schools shuffling from one desk to the next, and the encouragement to reflection without outside direction gives the possibility of even greater exploration and synthesis.
A quick digression might be appropriate here, because this is not intended as a diatribe against public schooling. There are many teachers and administrators who go to great lengths to provide students with the opportunity to engage in experiences that will stimulate reflection and questioning. There are, thankfully, still field trips, visiting guest speakers, internet explorations, work experience and other vehicles deployed by concerned educators to flesh out the bare bones of an educational curriculum that is almost constantly in need of supplementation. These educators also know how to modify and adapt both standard curriculum to the needs, readiness and abilities of their students, and they also understand that the impact of the experiences may be delayed as students process and integrate what they have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and shared with other students and staff. However, not all educators operate on this premise, and even those who do face enormous constraints in terms of time, resources and money, as well as strictures in operating procedures and militate against the implementation of anything that deviates in the slightest from the core curriculum and the published institutional routines.
Free from these strictures, parents can achieve what most educators can only admire from afar, and Ms. Strauss is quick to acknowledge that helping hands are readily available:
The resources for homeschooling in our area are incredible. We live in a little pocket of suburban Seattle with many homeschooling families and strong school district support for homeschoolers. In fact, there is a public homeschooling school – with a campus and everything – that we partner with.
If society encourages home schooling and fosters the initiative of parents by providing resources and constructive guidance, and if there are other homeschooling parents willing to share resources and perspectives, the chances of desirable outcomes are considerably enhanced. This goes hand in glove with being curriculum nerds:
Tactically, we find the planning aspect of homeschooling just kinda…fun. My husband has his masters degree in Adult Education and designs educational curriculum for a living, and nothing makes me happier than a complicated, intricate project requiring nerdy research and multiple spreadsheets. Ask us to plan 4 years of classical high school education and we’ll call that date-night.
I suspect that the Strauss couple has much to contribute to the home schooling of other students in this little universe, endnote everyone would consider the development of learning maps for students to be pleasure on the “date night” scale, but almost everyone can have something to add to the resource pot and many can benefit from the expertise of those who know how to encourage and channel learning. This is like public school with only the enthusiastic and knowledgeable educators and without the strictures and administrative bullshit.
The other two reasons fall into the general heading of a process that allows for allotment of time according to the needs of the student and the homeschooling parents:
Early grade homeschooling is more like one-on-one tutoring. Unless (student) is a giant ass, it takes us about 45 minutes a day to do a core curriculum – what we call “table work.” We cover math, phonics, handwriting, and reading. He’s 6, heading into 1st grade. That’s all he needs. Over the course of the day we also do history, some art, some science – but that happens more organically. That leaves him a lot of time to still be a kid and just play or deep-dive on his interests.
Homeschooling makes traveling with children so much easier. You can take advantage of off-season discounts and odd-routings to nab great deals on airfare, apartment rentals and more. You can hit popular destinations off-peak and spend less time battling crowds who all have the same 10 day spring break window.
There are some students who go through the standard school system as happy campers, navigating the shoals of curriculum, regimentation, staff and student personality issues and general growing pains with a minimum of fuss. For many, there are anxieties and conflicts to the degree where these vicissitudes can’t be seen as an opportunity to generalize and synthesize some constructive learning. and where the greatest need is for refuge: home schooling can provide that cocoon, but what Ms. Strauss shows is that there is more than shelter in the home school, that learning happens at all hours of the day and night and in physical surroundings far removed from the classroom. The outdoors can be the place and time for all manner of “curriculum fulfillment”, as can time spent at work with a parent, or a trip to the beach, or a visit to a local merchant, baker, or animation studio. Even those who are well-adapted to the maladaptive system often do a great deal of their real learning outside of the classroom, particularly once they can read, and as they learn to observe and interact with their surroundings, the whole world becomes the classroom in a way that is much less constricted than it has perforce to be for those spending the bulk of their days within the four walls of the schoolhouse. If a student doesn’t have to measure learning by keeping pace with his peers in a class, then time and space can be trump cards rather than limitations.
The fly in the ointment arises from this question:
If society is a common undertaking, how much commonality to we need to make it work?
A look at what goes on in what passes for society of late indicates that there is a lot of pull in different directions, intellectually, politically, spiritually and economically that makes us look more like cohabitants than social beings, and, with the “Let’s go to Mars first” crowd, we seem even less inclined to even cohabitate. The recent rise of the terms Fake News and Alternate Facts seems symptomatic of the splintering of any coherent knowledge that would bind us together as a society, and it looks, as times, as though there is an amorphous mass of humanity that is so deeply asleep as to be incapable even of denial of the need to establish common knowledge and, horrors, common sense. The way our current education system works, it seems unlikely that it can be much of a remedy for our current quandary, and the kind of home schooling undertaken by folks such as the Strauss family is great for those who have parents willing to shoulder the load, but for those students without such parents, the options close up quickly, and there will also be those who are homeschooled with the idea of narrowing the education to a set of tenets held closely and dearly by the educating parents who wish to isolate their progeny from the hurly-burly of broader society, meaning that there is a good possibility of cultivating citizens unwilling to participate and interact with all manner of groups in society that don’t share their world view.
There is, of course, no easy answer, and I fear that time and inertia will militate against our being able to achieve some sort of consensus balance in our educational endeavours, though Finland seems to have devised a system where they rely on a short school year, short school days, an inclusive and flexible curriculum implemented by concerned and involved parents and educators and which acknowledges the central rôle played by parents and students in engendering learning outside of school locations and hours. However, even the implementation of that sort of structure seems hard to envision in our current circumstances.
I, of course, have all the answers, but mostly, so does everyone else.