By Allison Burr
In the greatest of ironies, a recent issue of Harvard Magazine has condemned parents being at home with their children all day, even while the governments across America have now required it for the past several weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My efforts to recast homeschooling in a less-threatening light are rooted in two things: teleology and practice.
In the most recent issue of Harvard Magazine, Erin O’Donnell presents Dr. Elizabeth Bartholet’s arguments against homeschooling and her radical call to ban the practice entirely.*
Dear me. My fellow 2 million homeschoolers and I must have unwittingly ruffled her feathers somehow, to be subjected to such accusations ranging from masterminding totalitarian regimes to brainwashing to (my personal favorite) just being plain stupid. Dr. Bartholet, who does not seem to have ever interviewed or even interacted with a homeschooling family, makes the spurious suggestion that homeschooling parents have never been to school, and nay, are quite possibly unable to read and write. My four children are still snickering over this one, as the backdrop of their entire childhood has been composed of the greatest literary, musical, artistic, and historical works of Western Civilization. We’ve already made great usage out of the rejoinder—well, you see, dear one, Mama can’t help you with that, because she can neither read nor write!
In the greatest of ironies, Ms. O’Donnell has condemned parents being at home with their children all day, even while the governments across America have now required it for the past several weeks. She may not see the humor, since the article was no doubt in the production pipeline before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all schools across the nation. But perhaps she may wish to issue a revised article, with a suggestion that the Department of Education visit every home across America to ensure that no parent is uttering anything but platitudes during the pandemic lockdown? This may help alleviate Dr. Bartholet’s fears that parents may be exercising too much authority and influence over their children.
It is no doubt far easier and more satisfying to cast specious claims than to define terms of the argument, since the issue of homeschooling seems to be a bit of a red herring. If intellectual honesty was on the line, Dr. Bartholet should admit to being primarily concerned with parents (rather than the State) raising their own children. Interestingly, she has not yet made the case for something like the Institution of National Orphan-ization, which would strip all children from their families and place them safely in the care of non-blood-related bureaucrats. Perhaps we can look for that in the next issue in Harvard Magazine. Regardless, after having been branded as “dangerous” to the entire American republic, surely I have earned the right of self-defense. I dare say it may be a bit of a fool’s errand to take on the Goliath of Harvard Magazine from my little study in Tennessee. On the other hand, David’s pebbles were efficacious, so perhaps my cause is not without hope. My efforts to recast homeschooling in a less-threatening light are rooted in two things: teleology and practice.
Let me begin this way: the goals, means, and methods of government-run education simply do not accord with a classical understanding of education. Thus, I have no reason to subject my children to its futility. I stand on the shoulders of brilliant classical educators alive today and from the past millennia who have taught that education is fundamentally about repentance and the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. Any educational system without those principles in the first sentence of its mission statement is unworthy of 13 years of my children’s attention.
More particularly, instead of factory-producing students trained to mass conformity, I am interested in the cultivation of “men with chests” (a la C.S. Lewis), women with zesty intellect (a la Dorothy L. Sayers), and human beings with rightly ordered loves (a la St. Augustine).
Instead of acculturating antagonism and disrespect for authority and creating a petri dish for full-time protestors, I am interested in respect for authority, conserving all the wisdom, insight, and beauty of the past, and the promotion of human flourishing for the future.
Instead of cramming, testing, and dumping to an arbitrary test, I am interested in creating attentive lessons, precise thinking, and logical writing about life-changing truths that will become the very lifeblood of the young hearts in my care.
Instead of flashy technologies hoping (and failing) to hold the attention of children, I am interested in a slow and faithful plodding through Jane Eyre so my children can see how character is truly made.
Instead of allowing students to sink into fake and fleeting language and acronyms, I am interested in steeping my children’s minds in the beautiful and brilliant language of ages past.
Instead of letting teens fester in Tik-Tok, vulgarity, and apathy, I am interested in Bach, purity, and curiosity.
Instead of encouraging despair and fear through identity crises, I am interested in deeply rooting children in a family, a culture, and a tradition.
Instead of nurturing materialistic, narcissistic, self-indulgent, entertainment addicts, I am interested in shaping thoughtful, contemplative, virtuous, self-sacrificing men and women who raise families well, lead communities with integrity, and create redemptive culture.
Instead of embracing a reductionistic view of education that idolizes utility, I am interested in selecting books that implicitly acknowledge that my children were created as whole humans, designed for lifetimes of service, self-education, and worship.
Instead of cueing teens to mimic their peers, I am interested in cultivating young adults who absorb etiquette and habits from the wise adults in their lives, both inside and outside the family.
Instead of a shallow, derivate focus on a particular kind of technology-focused math and science, I am far more interested in language, memory, and the unity of all subjects at the expense of none.
Instead of teaching mediocrity as though the classroom is filled with soul-less numbers on a grid, I am interested in teaching excellence, courage, and self-control to the souls under my care, who will go on to create businesses, art, and families, thus influencing thousands of people over the course of their lifetimes.
Instead of rushing, fretting, and bureaucracy, I am interested in pondering, marveling, and efficiency.
Instead of artificially segregating students by age, I am interested in older children who stoop to help younger children, cementing the truth that education is truly covenantal.
Instead of imprisoning (to use Dr. Bartholet’s image) children inside an ugly building with fluorescent lightbulbs and flashing screens all day, I am interested in creating beautiful and inspiring spaces for my children to learn and work both indoors and outdoors.
Instead of putting play, nature, and physical exercise on the chopping block, I am interested in releasing my students into nature for hours on end each week to become amateur naturalists for the rest of their lives in the manner of Teddy Roosevelt.
Instead of bullying as the primary coping mechanism for social disagreements, I am interested in teaching forgiveness, forbearance, and loyalty among my children.
Instead of peer-led groups, I am interested in fostering intergenerational relationships and experiences that create humility.
Instead of isolating music and art to those who can afford it finances-wise or schedule-wise, I am interested in harmonies and beauty creating the very foundation upon which my children understand aesthetics for their entire lives.
Instead of reducing parenthood to wringing hands over screen time management, I am interested in helping create children whose free time brings forth an abundant harvest from many years of well-fed imaginations, bodies, and souls.
No good philosophical rebuttal is adequate without a few specifics, so I humbly offer my own homeschool rhythms and routines as a way to understand the ways in which teleology necessarily shapes practices.
By 9:00 every weekday morning, my four children (ranging in age from 7 to 15) have accomplished the following:
• Composer or artist study
• Nature study
• Made their beds, prepared and cleaned up their breakfast, taken vitamins, practiced personal hygiene, done pullups and pushups or similar strength training
• Completed math studies, ranging from single-digit addition up to Algebra, received graded math, and made necessary corrections
• Helped the youngest sibling as needed
• Spent 15 minutes on household-supporting chores like starting laundry, emptying dishwasher, taking trash/recycles to the curb, feeding dog and wiping paws, watering houseplants, and vacuuming floors
• Read history or literature (early American history is our time period this year, no doubt offending the sensibilities of much of the Harvard Magazine readership)
• Worked on spelling and copy work vis a vis a classical poet or literary work
After our 9:00 am family check-in, schedule debrief, and recitation of a prayer from St. Thomas Aquinas, my four students disperse once again:
• Study Latin, economics, more history and literature, personal finance, phonics, etymology, geography, biology, natural science, more poetry, and handwriting
• Take a brisk walk outdoors for Vitamin D, a mental reset, and to enjoy the natural world
• Before lunch everyone will have practiced at least one of their instruments for 60-70 minutes. For the record, my oldest daughter plays violin and piano and sings; my second daughter plays violin and harp and sings; my son plays cello (and beginning later this summer, bagpipes); and my youngest daughter plays violin and piano and sings. Each of these instruments require an unusual devotion to precision, self-determination, and excellence that I think it is safe to say is lacking in the average high school hallway these days.
Shortly after noon, each child makes his/her own lunch and heads outdoors to enjoy time together in nature and to play.
After 15 minutes of household-supporting chores, Quiet Time commences, a lifelong practice which my children look forward to each day, for it is then when they do handicrafts, Legos, build homemade marble roller coasters, color, sketch, write letters to pen pals, and crochet all while listening to audiobooks.
Quiet Time is followed by more outside play, another 60 minutes on another instrument, and a few afternoons a week, jobs for other families in our neighborhood and the larger community. Some afternoons may include rehearsals for various concerts or preparations for an upcoming family band performance.
And thus concludes a (very non-prison-like) typical day in the life of our homeschool. One thing that strikes non-homeschooling families is the sheer amount that can be accomplished in a single day. That is largely due to the absence of commute times, crowd management, and bureaucracy. A finely-tuned schedule allows students to work with focus for shorter periods, and allows both teacher and student to move at a pace tailored to one particular child rather than 30 children who may be all over the map on mastery of any particular concept.
ECONOMICS AND SOCIALIZATION
Let’s talk entrepreneurialism. Because Dr. Bartholet specifically argues that only a compulsory government education can give children “knowledge to eventually get jobs and support themselves,” I will mention that my son started a lawn care and pet-sitting business at the age of 10 (he started mowing our family lawn at age 8), and a year later, has a business book of 36 customers. My two teen daughters regularly have to turn down babysitting jobs, as they receive more requests than their schedules can accommodate. My 15-year-old also started her own business teaching fairytales and poetry to children last summer. Every single camp she has run has had a wait list. Her 13-year-old sister, and best friend, is her assistant teacher. My 15-year-old handles all parental communication, planning, organizing, finances, and nurturing of the 25 sweet children who show up for each camp. Have my children learned any business or teaching or developed a work ethic as a result of a State program? No. That is simply the role of the faithful parent.
Another oldie-but-goodie objection to homeschooling is socialization, the most overused but most under-defined term in the arsenal of pro-government-only education. All people are socialized according to their environments, both human and physical. The real question is: just who is doing the socialization? Is it better to have children shaped by adults who are thoughtful, articulate, witty, carefully selected, and worthy of imitation? Or is the immature herd shaping the immature herd? As best as I can tell, any cursory scan of most social media site demonstrates that we have successfully socialized a nation of folks who are hysterical, poorly read, inarticulate, flame-throwing, consumer-driven, entertainment addicts. Ouch. Should perhaps our goal be more of a classical one—creating students and subsequently an entire culture of thoughtful, articulate, intelligent, well-read, hard-working, and virtuous people?
I have given a decade and a half of my life (and have met hundreds of other parents across the nation doing the same) to nurturing my God-given flock who are whole humans, with whole hearts, and with whole bodies. The insipid and baseless insinuations of Harvard Magazine article only give more credence to my common refrain when confronted with questions about educational choice: with a beaming smile, I chuckle and say, “Why would I turn my own flesh and blood over to the masterminds of the DMV and the Postal Service?”
Finally, we cannot let the ridiculous graphic used to illustrate the article pass, can we? It illustrated a poor homeschooler imprisoned in the home while the Government schoolchildren were outside playing. What an absolute farce. Any child development expert worth his or her salt regularly bemoans the deleterious effects suffered by this generation of children who have had so little time outdoors, unseen in any previous generation, e.g., children lack coordination, an appropriate sense of risk, are unable to hold pencils or sit in chairs without falling out of them—not to mention the incessant whining for a device. Hyper-scheduled children have never experienced childhood with unstructured free time, quiet time, outdoor play time—and it is destroying their bodies and minds. Children are designed for play, and being required to sit in a desk for eight hours a day from the age of 4 onward (sometimes earlier) is reprehensible and the height of stupidity. The graphic in the article should have been reversed. I have lost count of the comments I have received over the years all echoing the same sentiment: it is so wonderful to see all your children playing together outside! And, they get to study outside too! What a wonderful way to learn.
Perhaps Ms. O’Donnell and Dr. Bartholet ought to turn their crosshairs to the widespread libertarian movement now afoot in homes across America during the COVID-19 shutdown: parents are feeding their children without government oversight AND they are probably giving haircuts without government licensure. Such dangerous propositions certainly warrant their attention. Or maybe a breakout session can be scheduled to cover these social ills at the upcoming Homeschooling Summit (to be hosted at Harvard in June 2020), where no doubt well-credentialed interdisciplinary experts will be calling for an outright ban on home education. Or, if the stated goal of preventing child abuse and neglect is actually true, maybe government intervention and re-education ought to be required for all those parents who hand their infants an iPad and later their tweens a smart phone. I dare say that qualifies as the most dangerous form of pedagogy happening in America today.
*See “The Risks of Homeschooling,” by Erin O’Donnell, Harvard Magazine (May-June 2020)