Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”
– John Dewey
Our basement family room is suddenly green, and it’s because of what has happened to our views on educating children.
There was a time when Angela would have resisted the idea of homeschooling, but I’ve learned not to mistake my wife’s mainstream views on a given topic today as her final views. She’s generally not an agitator, doesn’t look for ways to be nonconformist, is not oppositional to cultural norms for the sake of being oppositional. Her view, once upon a time, was probably that public schools are there for a reason and that they can’t be doing that bad a job or more people would be doing something else. Homeschooling was more of a Matt thing, one of those ideals that fit in snugly with my chronic romantic pastoralism. I wasn’t homeschooled, but I’ve often talked about the advantages I saw in it.
But as the years have quickly ticked by and we have grown as parents, and the time has approached for us to decide what we shall do about educating Mara, the more Angela’s views have changed about this. This was none of my doing. Through her own research, Angela began to agree with me that modern public schools, which are the product of a well-intended 19th-century mandate to get children out of factories combined with the 20th-century need to train workers and raise consumers, are failing miserably at the thing we regard as the most important job, and that is nurturing and guiding children’s innate proclivity toward learning and discovery. This may be what teachers wish they could do, but it is not what we see happening, because teachers are forced to design their courses around the administrative madness that is testing and so-called “accountability”. The flop and twitch that has gone on in education policy in the past decade, combined with our understanding of Mara’s personality and what environments she thrives best in, has convinced us that we could do better at home.
It was Angela that started investigating the homeschooling community in Seattle, which is large and active and supportive. With the encouragement of one other mother we knew who was homeschooling, Angela began taking Mara to Tuesday “park days”, in which any and every member of the homeschool community is welcome to — and invariably some large subset does — convene at one of the parks or playgrounds around town so the children can play and parents can talk shop. Angela and Mara began making new friends this way and bringing them home for play dates.
In Washington State, rules about homeschooling are progressive. You can homeschool until you don’t feel like homeschooling anymore. Many of Mara’s little buddies were in preschool as soon as they could walk, but we have deliberately avoided that rush. We are not concerned that Mara be the smartest person in the world. We want her to be the happiest. The intense competition of the school system, where students are basically pitted against each other and rewarded for their dominance over their peers (I’m generalizing here, but this is what the grading and testing systems achieve) is not healthy for children. For anybody. I know, this is a radical view.
So we’ve worried and stewed and stewed and worried about what to do, until we gradually became aware that we have become part of the homeschool community. My wife leading the charge, we have become homeschooling wackos. There are several kinds. There is a large fundamentalist Christian sector — one that I would say has rather defined the wider public’s perception of the homeschool community — that refuses to subject their children to the teaching of evolution, and that’s their reason for homeschooling. There are accordingly many distinct Christian news groups online, but there are also many news groups whose identies are defined by other things than religion, and there is even an expressly pagan homeschool network (I don’t know what their beef is; maybe they just wanted to make sure that no one confused them with the Baptists). Many of those parents not motived by religion just feel that they can do a better job of preparing their children for whatever career they choose. These networks use email and social media such as FaceBook and Yahoo Groups to organize outings and events and share information, advice and encouragement.
Angela and I have found ourselves a little bit on the fringe even of the homeschool educational philosophy: we believe children have a natural propensity toward and love of learning, and that all you have to do is not make it a nightmare for them and they’re pretty much golden. We don’t cotton to the idea of loading kids down with homework, for this reason. Also, we see learning and discovery as organically interwoven with the rest of life; you could think of it somewhat as though we were polar bears or elephants. The kid travels with us and does what we do, and thus learns about life and the wonder of the created universe (yes, we believe it is a creation, even though in this regard we ride with the unaffiliated). The reading, the writing, the math, all that will come when she is interested, and she will be. She’s interested in everything.
Play is also under attack in schools. Recesses on the playground are being shortened and done away with altogether, despite research that shows how critical unstructured play is to the the emotional and psychological development of children. It may look like a lot of goofiness, but when children are playing they are working through new experiences, processing stresses and emotions and trying on identities and roles. Children who don’t or can’t play are damaged. We’re turning our schools into stalags.
What a lot of this boils down to is that the public school system, and even colleges and universities, focus a lot on training, as though the whole purpose of education is the job waiting at the end. One can understand parental fears of seeing their adult children unable to make the salaries we expect them to have, that we in fact see them entitled to as American children. Angela and I believe, as classical education theory did, that schooling should be about giving children the tools, the larger patterns and lenses for exploring the world that will make them more fully engaged as perpetual learners, no matter where their career path leads them. Learning a foreign language, for example, activates and engages certain parts of children’s brains that enable them thereafter to learn other things that are much more specialized. Learning a language may not be directly in the line of career building, but it’s a vital developmental building block.
That’s why I came home and found the basement room painted green a week ago. Mara started attending a children’s French class once a week more than a year ago. Not a rigorous one. It’s not Berlitz trainers preparing kids for a commando raid in Dijon. The teacher, a French woman named Veronique, teaches the kids a few nouns each weak, or a phrase, and they color pictures of whatever it might be; un arc-en-ciel (rainbow), maison (house), or pomme (apple). Mara regularly calls a medium-sized thing a “moyen one” because she learned the French word for medium before she learned the English phrase “medium-sized” and she does not yet register a barrier between the languages as distinct and separate systems.
When the course was over for Mara’s age group, Angela organized a French class in our home with Veronique, and invited the homeschoolers to sign up (space limited to seven participants). Now every Wednesday morning Veronique holds what she calls “French Club” downstairs with Mara and her fellow étudiantes (I call it the “Little Latona French School”) while the parents have tea and engage younger siblings upstairs. (I would have posted a photo of this happening but we didn’t want to distract the students or create a disturbance.) Angela had been fretting that the mud-tan carpet and white walls looked drear and depressing together, so she painted the room the night before the first class started (the paint is non-off-gassing, in case you had a moment’s doubt).
Bienvenue à la Petite École Française Latone! Off we go.