Dewey or don’t we (or, la Petite École Française Latone)

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. 

He didn't wear specs for nothing. John Dewey unleashed this nugget on the world back in 1916: "What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life. This education consists primarily in transmission through communication. Communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession."

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. 

After. We've started collecting wee wooden chairs.

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. 



15 Responses to “Dewey or don’t we (or, la Petite École Française Latone)”

  1. 1 Louis April 19, 2010 at 06:08

    Vivre les etudes á la maison! Vivre les murs vertes! le plus important, vivre la Petite École Française Latone!

    • 2 jstwndrng April 19, 2010 at 07:54

      I was going to say “I couldn’t have said it better myself”, but then I realized that I couldn’t have said it, period. How many languages do you speak, o man of voices? Or did you use Google’s translate function as I did?

  2. 3 scottmerilatt April 19, 2010 at 15:22

    I’m glad you wrote about this. As my formal education is running down to a close (for now) I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect back on my education and figure what worked well and what didn’t.
    I do agree that the American education system seems to be solely geared towards economic factors rather than learning. Especially in college, career building is the center focus and a student can only go beyond this with a strong personal drive to learn for the sake of learning and not for the sake of future employment. It has been frustrating to say the least.

    On the other side of this argument, I’ve been seriously contemplating the idea of going into teaching. This is driven by a somewhat idealistic notion that I can be a small difference in the overall institution, but these sort of issues that you bring up really make me question the best route for a person who genuinely wants to educate others.

    There was an article in the NYTimes today about some alternative routes for teachers (like Teach for America) that are gaining steam and are focused on reform for the American educational system. Might be an interesting read.

    • 4 jstwndrng April 19, 2010 at 15:50

      Scott, thanks for this. I’ll take a look. Understand, I hold my opinions loosely, like the reins of a horse. While I own what I’ve said here, I also am friends or acquainted with many teachers who are the kind of teachers I wish I had had. Individuals can make a difference, and they must. I may appear to condemn certain cutltural institutions, but I only do so “at large”, not on a personal level. Whenever the conversation becomes about “you and me”, I’m all about finding common ground. Is that slimey and relativistic of me? Maybe, but like Whitman, I am large and contain multiples. As you know, I oppose Disnification, but my house is full of official Disney Princess gear. We didn’t go looking for it, but when Mara became enamoured of her friends’ toys, who was I to impose my idealism on a kid? I am appalled at what MacDonalds “Restaurants” stand for, but I’m not going to go and preach whole foods to a single working mom who’s trying to feed her kids on a budget of time and money. Same with education. I think if I had more energy and time, I’d become a vocal, pesky irritant under the skin of the public schools in my neighborhood and agitate for change. So I realize there are other ways and perspectives, and those ways and perspectives are valid. I think you would be an excellent teacher, and I know the students in the public school system, or any school system, would benefit from your efforts on their behalf. I’ll read the article and get back to you.

  3. 5 jstwndrng April 19, 2010 at 15:59

    Scott, here. I’ll trade you this inspiring (and funny) talk by Sir Ken Robinson on creativity and education, and I’ll read your article.

  4. 6 roccosmusicamusica April 19, 2010 at 16:02

    I speak four languages poorly. And one of them is english.

  5. 7 Kip April 19, 2010 at 18:33

    Warning: This respose may be disjointed. I am stll trying to deal with this very subject.

    Well, This is a great topic, especially for these times. Will is in a GREAT preschool program in the public school system. He is getting evrything he needs at this point, things we could not give him at home (speach therapy, occupational therpy, physcal therapy), and is progressing very well! However, in these tough economic times, the school system is forced to make cuts, and teachers and parents are left to supply various items. When the next step comes, well, therin lies the rub. Personally, I find myself in the middle. There are some thngs the public school system can teach that has nothing to do with “Book Lernin'”, from K through the last class. SOme teachers are great (WIll has one of them!), some not so good. Ami has a good friend that s a grade school teacher, and i I may paraphrase, she believes that it does not matter the school…the best private or the worst public…or ‘tuther way ’round…the students that do the the best have parents at home that give a darn about their kids and what they learn, and HOW they learn.

    Anyone able to follow that?

    • 8 jstwndrng April 19, 2010 at 18:49

      Loud and clear, good buddy. I’m really glad on Will’s behalf that the system is giving him what he needs. And let us be grateful for teachers like Ami’s friend. I love what she said and I believe it to be true, which is sort of how we ended up with a green basement, though I know that “giving a darn” would not necessarily lead to a green basement for everyone.

      Incidentally Kip, since you’ve mentioned it in public now, I’m extra glad to see you here again since I know that you’ve got your hands full with the providing of special needs. I know that you must be busier than a cat on a hot tin roof, so I’m gratified all the more that you stop by to read the blog.

      Love to you and Ami and Will and Claire. We have you in our hearts as you git along down a rough road.

  6. 9 Kip April 20, 2010 at 17:32

    Thanks Matt! It’s been a little crazy! I am glad the posts have returned, if I have not been able to get to them all. There is always the chance the lucky streak will end with Will’s teacher and classes, and we shall be prepared for that, but for now we will takes what we can gets!

    And good luck to the three of you in your continued adventures!

  7. 10 Invisible Mikey April 20, 2010 at 21:51

    Speaking as a product of what public school once was and is no longer, I agree with you. I like your work generally, but this one had more resonance for me personally. I do wish children today could have the kind of open-minded, multi-cultural, non-judgmental and creative experience I had especially in grades 1-8. We had art and music every week, and foreign languages from 5th grade on, including Latin. Economics, Architecture and Psychology in middle school, imagine that! Class field trips to see Shakespeare. And then in high school I had 20th Century Revolutions, and Black and Women’s studies in addition to the regular college prep.

    Good luck in your educational adventures.

    • 11 jstwndrng April 21, 2010 at 08:32

      Thanks for stopping by again, Mikey. Yes, much has been pruned from public school syllabi in order to maintain a supply future corporate managers, which we won’t need, and to make computer “literacy” a reality for all students. Among other things.

      I had Latin, too! And Latin II.(There’s a rhyme there, but it doesn’t work so well in Roman numerals unless you read it out loud), but by my day they were electives. Some of the most useful classes I ever took, say I.

      (Mikey’s beautifully written blog — click on his name, yeah? — chronicles his spiritual and occupational quest so compellingly that I’ve become a regular reader there. His link’s in my blogroll above. Check him out. I recommend starting with An Obscure Trophy as an apertif, before moving into the more recent posts.)

      • 12 Ben April 24, 2010 at 13:37


        Your writing as always, sets me at ease, even if I don’t agree with it. As you know we have homeschooled for years, partly due to our faith, partly because my state is somewhat discombobulated when it comes to good schooling, partly because when standing in the school hallway there is a sense of complete loss of control of normal life. The children are guarded, the teachers carry radios and can rally and cut off a sniper faster than I can get out of my fire engine, they are herded hounded and locked up half the time, to protect them from each other. But mostly, ….we just like having our children around us. My children are comfortable among my firemen, they participate in every home event, they play and play and play, and we (mostly mom, because she not harnessed to a shift shedule) teach our children about life and the world. And mind you, we try to do so in an open fashion, though I imagine many would take issue with what I consider open. Homeschooling is difficult, we are characterized and it takes enormous amounts of motivation, but my children are mine, not the government’s. Good on you, boy-o!

  8. 13 Ben April 24, 2010 at 13:42

    To add illustration to the above public school comments, imagine if you will, a scene in which a group of firemen arrive on their engine, children looking at us through the windows, and as we walk down the hall, a teacher goes running by shouting into a radio, “Go!!! Go!!! Block A supervisor, initiate lock down, Go, Go!!!!!” All for a student who passed out in a classroom, everyone else is locked up and shutdown like a prison. I’d laugh at the teachers if it wasn’t so scarey.

    • 14 jstwndrng April 24, 2010 at 20:01

      Did this really happen? Yeah, that’s depressing isn’t it. Your comment above about just liking having your children around you…that’s how we feel. Homeschooling’s not for everyone, and there is also a certain real courage in deciding to send your kids to school, engage the schooling process within the public school system, and work to make things better. And as Kip notes, they can’t give Will what he needs at home right now, even if they’d rather. This is tough stuff. And Ben, I believe you’re a pretty open minded person, or you wouldn’t be reading and commenting here. Being able to disagree civilly gives you away. I read a very informative article on homeschooling the other day posted by a “red state girl living in a blue state” who took the effort to describe the kind of people she has no patience with, and the list pretty much described me. I commented that while I acknowledged that my type was unwelcome there, I was grateful for her finding and posting that article, and thanked her for it. She never replied.

  9. 15 Ben May 3, 2010 at 08:39

    Yes, Matt. This really does happen on a regular basis when any incident, large or small threatens to fit into the list of “possibles” that might threaten the collective student body. Kinda crazy, kinda sad. The teachers could qualify for Presidential Security after the performances I’ve seen in the local public schools.
    As for “open mindedness”. I try to be, I try very hard. Don’t always succeed, especially when I feel that someone is speaking completely out of their ass without having experienced one iota of what they are talking about. But that has never been the case here. You run a tight ship, matey…

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