A response to Pleiotropy re: homeschooling

This post started out as a comment on Pleiotropy's recent blogpost, The homeschooling trap. However, Blogger apparently doesn't like comments that run longer than 4,096 characters (I think that was the number), so I'm posting it here. Head over to Pleiotropy and read his post if you want some background!

His post is primarily about homeschooling, but one of the main underlying issues is teaching kids creation vs. evolution. I don't feel, myself, that that really ought to be the main issue (information content and quality are two different matters, as I'll get into later in the post) but it's the one where debaters on all sides have the strongest opinions.

I invite comments and discussion! But because this is an issue where people have very strong feelings, and because I (hope I still) have readers who practice what they preach on both of them, there might actually be a discussion. We are all here on the blogosphere because we are intelligent people who a) know how to read and write, and b) like doing both of those things for the fun of them. It is my hope that any discussion that happens here will be fun for everyone involved! If I have unfairly characterized or insulted anybody, please let me know, as this was not my intent.


For me the biggest struggle moving from homeschool to school away from home wasn't even the socialization factor. It was the routine. Since my mom was teaching just me, my older sister and my younger sister, that meant that whatever I was learning, I was the only one learning it. And I would study it as long as I needed to do so. Which meant in my case whipping through the reading, vocabulary and history parts and dragging painfully through the math and science parts.

The thing is, my mom did a damn good job of teaching me. Leaving aside for the moment the God-shaped orientation of the curriculum itself, she is a smart lady who taught me how to read and write and spell and do math. And my dad was a smart man who, though he wasn't our primary, everyday educator, encouraged all his daughters to think critically and ask questions and to love the encyclopedia (in the pre-Google era) and the dictionary. My parents read to us. They talked about stuff with us and liked it when we asked questions. Us getting a good education was really important to them.

So for me, for the most part, homeschooling meant I got lots of one-on-one, personal tutoring from my mom. And got used to being able to learn as quickly as I wanted if a subject came easily to me, or stay on a unit or do extra work if I had trouble "getting it". The structured pace of school away from home, having to sit still in a desk instead of doing my homework in my room or on the back porch, not being able to provide 50% of the conversation for every lesson, was even more excruciating than trying to socialize with my peers.

I went to Sunday School. I played with kids on my block. Our homeschooling families group went on field trips together. It isn't like I was totally isolated in a nuclear family bubble with zero outside contact. The transition wasn't from non-socialization to full socialization. It was from one kind of daily routine to another kind of daily routine.

So what if I had to re-learn all that history and science without the pro-Christian bias when I went to high school (or, if you prefer, re-learn it all with the anti-Christian bias)? The material itself was never the problem for me, only the social consequences. I said evolution wasn't true once in freshman biology, because it was what everyone my whole life had always told me. (Except Dad, who secretly believed in evolution, but had stayed pretty vague on the subject when I was younger.) And the result was comparable than the time I said "Who's Kurt Cobain?" Except this time the teacher was exasperated with me, and not just my fellow students.

Cultural indoctrination occurs on many simultaneous levels. Expected common knowledge is only the most superficial of these. Behaviors, values, emotional display levels, taboos, and subtle group-hierarchy signaling methods are much more difficult to learn. All cultures indoctrinate: this is how culture functions. Members of a group learn to share common habits, norms, and social signals so that they may interact with one another with a maximum of understanding and a minimum of stress. This is why transitioning between two different cultures causes "culture shock"--a myrad of things one learned to take for granted must be re-learned and placed in a new context.

Going from a private, Christian school to a public, secular high school is a massive dose of culture shock. Going from being homeschooled to attending a school away from home is a massive disruption of habit and procedure. I do think that having to deal with both of these stressors at once would be terrifying for any young person. If I have a problem with homeschooling, that's it. However, going to high school is inherently terrifying, and I think that many young people probably could deal with the extra changes, given the right emotional support etc. I think it would be very possible for a parent or parents to help cushion the shock for their kids, provided they are in a position to do so.

But I think it is oversimplifying the matter to urge parents not to homeschool because it indoctrinates their children into a culture and belief set in which the parents themselves are heavily invested. THAT IS WHY THEY DO IT. They believe that indoctrination as such is not wrong, so long as it is done in service of what they earnestly believe to be the truth. And as I mentioned earlier, when one is a member of a culture, so a certain extent indoctrination must occur! You believe (and, having deconverted and given the evidence another look, I also believe) that evolution is the way things happened. They don't. They believe evolution is a dangerous lie that makes people more likely to be amoral and unhappy. They don't want their kids to be amoral and unhappy. They are willing to do whatever it takes to protect them from this fate.

And it is not, primarily, access to the information itself that poses a problem, as they see it. It is the attitude towards that information, learned in a cultural context. When a person has an attitude, an opinion, a belief, about an important subject, the attitude they possess is a primary signifier of the group to which they belong.

Saying that homeschoolers are likely to be more ignorant presumes that the parents doing the homeschooling are generally unfit to teach. Some aren't fit to teach--but many are, especially the types of basic information that gradeschoolers need to learn. "Ignorant" in the sense of not having been given access to science texts with evolution in them, I will grant you. In the very narrow sense of not having been provided with otherwise generally available information on a particular subject.

But this ignorance is easy enough to overcome later in life so long as the person is able to read, learn, hear, and speak. Triply so if they have any love of learning. Human beings, however they are raised, have an insatiable curiosity, especially when it comes to forbidden things. And those of us raised inside the evangelical bubble all know perfectly well that vast troves of information were being kept from us "for our own good." To a young person this is fascinating, frustrating and in short, a dare.

(This post is getting the Tuesdays tag because, like other Tuesdays posts, it deals with issues of social structure. The irony of the fact that today is Friday is not lost on me!)


Bjørn Østman said...


Good post. Nice to hear a personal account.

A couple of comments:

I am glad that homeschooling also works, meaning that not only would I prefer that children are given educations that cover subjects in an unbiased way (as much as is humanly possible), I of course also care very much that they get the attention and efficient help that they need (as your clearly got from your parents). My fear is that this is not always the case - while I have no data to show, I know people personally whom I do not think are capable of teaching children beyond, say, 5th grade (including a few who have decided to homeschool).

There is a big difference homeschooling children in the first grades, compared to junior high and high school. Very few parents are proficient in all the subjects that has to be taught at those levels, and so I think it is of great import that the discussion is separated into homeschooling at K-5 (say) vs. above.

As for the point I made about children socializing, I have since read that there is some evidence that homeschooled kids are not lagging behind in social skills. I hope that is true, but will hold my judgment until I find out if there's any evidence to the contrary (if anyone knows, please pass it on). But again, I think this is different for lower vs. high grades. At some point in life children need to break free of their parents and join a larger community of peers (I believe), and I have doubts that parents can provide that, even if they do their best to get the kids into various "after school" programs (which might even be hampered by some homeschooling parents' fears that their children will be influenced in ways they dislike (non-Christian views, etc.).

But, but, to finish let me say that I am willing to let evidence inform my views. I am looking forward to seeing it. Until then my predictions stand (recalling that we are talking about averages).

Anonymous said...

I would have to say that labeling ALL home schooled children one way or the other in absolute terms would always be the wrong thing to say.

In my opinion every single homeschooling experience is different from any other, given the abundance of parents out there: angry, smart, abusive, gentle, Christian, atheist, good mannered, evil mannered, etc.

Personally, I don't like homeschooling, because most parents aren't honest enough to impartially asses whether they're doing a good job or not.

My sister in law, for instance, did a terrible job, but she will never admit to it. You can hear her slamming the school system as often as you talk to her.

She didn't give the kids any structure. School was done anytime between 9 am and 11 pm, with any luck. And even though she claimed to be teaching them more than schools do, when they went to high-school, they underachieved and lost a whole year.

The issue of structure is a big one. Because in the world place, you're supposed to show up on time and to stick to your desk and do what you have to do on a strict schedule.

As for the social aspect, homeschooling works well when the teaching parent has great social skills. When that isn't the case, however, the kid misses out on the opportunity to see how better adjusted grown ups function in social settings.

kisekileia said...

This is a really interesting post.

Personally, I know that I may end up having to homeschool my future children in order to protect them from abuse. This is because I have ADHD and Asperger's syndrome, both of which are highly heritable, and giftedness runs in my family as well. Schools rarely deal well with a child who comes into first grade reading novels like I did, and that "rarely" becomes "pretty much never" if the child also has disabilities. I got spotty gifted education, no help for my disabilities whatsoever (except for a few sessions with guidance counselors who didn't really know what to do with me, and some private counseling later on by people who didn't know anything about Asperger's), lots of bullying because of my Asperger's combined with my intelligence, and expectations that were inappropriate and unfair for someone with ADHD.

My parents tried to get the school system to do right by me, though they failed partly due to ignorance of my disabilities (and, in my mother's case, willful refusal to believe that my ADHD behaviours were not my fault). However, they weren't nearly strident enough; if the school system wouldn't do what was needed, my parents would often give up. They assumed that I did not need any sort of psychological or psychiatric evaluation because my teachers never said I did. They got me moved out of an abusive school once, but when I was bullied severely in the new school (worse than in the first school), they felt they'd be complaining too much if they did anything beyond speaking to the teacher and principal, which was ineffectual.

I'm not going to be like that. If schools refuse to fully protect my children from abuse and give them educations that are suited to their abilities and disabilities, I will bring in lawyers and, if necessary, pull my kids out. I'm simply not prepared to live with the things my parents were willing to live with.

Kids with my problems are not quite as likely to go undiagnosed as they were fifteen years ago, but they are still very likely to be maltreated and to get inadequate or unconscionably delayed help. Therefore, I know there's a good chance that public schools will, at some point, be unwilling or unable to meet my children's needs. If that happens, my kids will be out. I will not let them grow up with the pain and frustration that I grew up with. Whether I choose private schooling or home schooling will depend on my circumstances at the time and on what is available. However, I know that private schools with good special ed are limited, and private schools that can simultaneously provide good special education and good gifted education for the same child are probably even more limited. And that means that homeschooling may be a necessity.

Because of situations like mine, I think homeschooling needs to be an option, unlike in Germany, where it's banned. However, I do think it should be regulated; there should be minimum educational qualifications for homeschooling parents, and possibly guidelines for what a child must learn at each grade level unless the parent can give reasonable evidence that the child's special education needs make it impossible for them to do so. At least, the child should be required to pass standardized tests (again, unless the child's exceptionalities make that inappropriate). It should not be possible to use homeschooling to shelter children from truth.

jhedeen said...

When I saw your topic I wanted to run away (you know me, shy, introverted . . .) but actually it really was a nice respectful conversation. Crystal, you know my bias--I believed in homeschooling for all the reasons mentioned; preferring to present my own bias along with the others, not all public school socialization is good, and especially with kids who have different needs/abilities. The assembly line method is really NOT a good way to deliver education or healthcare and I'm not even too sure about cars! Kris and Michael are really doing well homeschooling their kids. Part of it is they are both committed and involved, and part of it is there is a pretty good support system for them around here. They can do the standardized testing for their kids, there are options to take some classes with the public school kids, and as they get older they can participate in their own goals, including work experience, early college entry, etc. However, when it was me doing the homeschooling, I kind of wussed out, and ended up sending them all back to public school. While it provided me with some temporary relief, it ended up giving me a whole different set of problems in the end. (Reference my "not all socialization is good" remark.) There are definitely things I would do differently if I had it to do over, but I would also probably make different mistakes too! So thanks for being kind to us older folks. We really wanted to be perfect for you!

Fiat Lex said...

:D Thank you all for commenting!

I confess, Bjorn, that I might not not go hunting up research on the topic unless and until I seriously consider having my own kids. (Or the mood strikes me and I happen to be at a library.)

You make a good point, though, about the early grades vs. high school. Being able to adapt oneself to a complex social environment while under great internal stress (from puberty, even if there aren't other situational stressors) is more than half the challenge of high school.

Lorena, your sister in law seems like she created the kind of situation for her kids that Pleiotropy was up in arms against, and that I also find disturbing! Another good point--the change in structure was a big, big challenge for me, even though I actually did learn a lot. Plus I developed a habit in homeschooling that has been tough to break. If someone's talking, my instincts scream out to me that the speech is addressed specifically to me and I'm expected to answer. XD

And I don't know if the social adjustment depends so much on whether the parent has good social skills or not. (Though bad social skills would enormously exacerbate the problem.) Rather I think it's the limited input. Every family has their own cultural assumptions and communication styles--but the number of different subcultures among schoolkids is bewildering, no matter how complex one's family interactions are. Some possible form of communication is always left out. (For me, it was showing up at grade school completely unaware of the existence of sarcasm. Not using it on me was good parenting, but not being able to recognize it got me into some sticky spots.)

Kisekileia, you brought up something really important that I hadn't even considered. There are probably a lot of situations where a kid has special needs with which a local public school may be ill=prepared to cope. Like in your case, being both gifted and learning disabled. In some ways neither your parents nor the school had the proper training (or to a certain extent, insight!) to recognize, which made a difficult situation even worse.

The idea of homeschooling being illegalized doesn't seem too likely, though it is a scary thought. But there have got to be a ton of families out there who would love to homeschool, but can't afford to do so because both parents need to work to support the family.

Aunt Julie, thanks again for commenting! It's good to hear from someone who's had the experience of homeschooling their own kids. You make a good point about standardized testing. It's far from foolproof, but it's definitely a useful tool to look for parents who aren't actually putting in the effort to teach their kids. Kudos to Kris and Michael for putting forth that effort with their brood.

You're right, and I think everybody here can agree, that not all socialization is good socialization. The question really is, at what point is a kid ready to handle it? Where does a parent split the difference between protecting their kids from bullies or unscrupulous or ignorant (in the interpersonal sense, if not the informational) teachers, and making sure they have a chance to learn the life skills necessary to deal with bullying coworkers and unscrupulous or ignorant bosses? I don't think there's a perfect answer, and for every individual family it's got to be a judgment call. And unfortunately, one that is often decided by necessity rather than what the parent(s) may think is the best thing to do.

Personally I think some kind of a voucher system would be awesome if it could be made practicable. Like maybe parents with school-age kids would have a school spending account, the way insurance providers have HSAs, that they could use either towards tuition at a public or private school or towards books and supplies and stuff for homeschooling.

Thanks again very much to everyone who commented, and to our silent friends who stopped by to read as well! I will try to post again soon.

Anonymous said...

I will try to post again soon.You'd better, young lady ;-)