About My Homeschool Success Story . . .

I posted earlier this week about David McGrath, a college professor who used to be anti-homeschooling but became avidly and uncritically pro-homeschooling after having a homeschool graduate in his class who impressed him with her academic work and interest. Here is the relevant quote from his article:

All that changed when I started teaching at the college level, on an evening when I came home from work, slipped off my shoes, collapsed into the recliner and announced to my wife that the best student in my college composition class had been home-schooled.

An 18-year-old only child, who had been educated by her parents for all 12 grades, chose a seat in the front row on the first day of class.

The following 16 weeks, she maintained eye contact throughout lectures and discussions, listened intently to me and her classmates, raised her hand to offer an observation, an answer or to ask a question when no one else would, followed instructions to the letter, communicated verbally and in writing more clearly than everyone else and received the highest grade on every assignment.

She was the first student to arrive, had perfect attendance the entire semester and was a catalyst for every lesson I ventured.

In his piece McGrath goes on to praise homeschooling up and down, and to argue that homeschooling de facto provides a better education. In my response, I noted that the student he is describing could have been me as an undergraduate ten years ago, and that I am not okay with homeschool success stories like mine being used to erase the many stories of homeschool educational neglect that I saw growing up or have heard from other homeschool alumni since.

Homeschooling does not de facto provide a better education. Homeschooling is only as good as the parents who use it and the resources they have access to.

But there’s another point that needs to be made as well. The comment section on my post filled up with statements like this:

It’s also possible to be a “homeschool success story” while having experienced educational neglect. I had great SAT scores, was offered lots of scholarships, and graduated college with a perfect GPA. I got used to presenting myself as a poster child for the homeschooling movement. But now, looking back, I think my success was in spite of my home education, not because of it.

I was expected to teach myself most subjects – with absolutely no guidance, little supervision, and inadequate materials. As in, my parents handed me an outdated college-level science textbook when I was 15 and expected me to teach myself the material.

But if a homeschooler is successful in her studies and in her future career, that must mean that her parents did an amazing job and that homeschooling is the best educational option, right? I mean, what other explanation could there possibly be?

In comment after comment after comment after comment, other homeschool alumni who had also been “homeschool success stories” shared tales of educational neglect or the inability to fit in socially. “I didn’t take the subjects I was under prepared in,” explained one while another described her college experience as “so crushingly lonely that at times I couldn’t breathe.” I had left this side of things out of my post because I was focusing on the problem of using homeschool success stories to erase stories of debilitating homeschool neglect, but this too—the frequent surface-level nature of many homeschool success stories—is a tale that needs to be told.

One thing I wondered when reading McGrath’s piece was whether he ever asked the girl he described whether she had liked being homeschooled, or whether she considered herself better off for having been homeschooled, or whether in her estimation there were any inadequacies in her education. I have seen so many people go on and on about how wonderful homeschooling is without ever asking a single homeschool alumni for their thoughts. But then I remembered that, given that many if not most homeschooled students are raised to defend homeschooling to the teeth, asking is unlikely to get a straight answer.

I spent my entire college experience praising my homeschool upbringing. I was a model student with a perfect GPA. I believed homeschooling had gotten me there and fully intended to homeschool my children too. I believed that homeschooling was a better educational method than any other (and also that sending your children to school every day was akin to abandoning them and handing them over to teachers to be raised, of course). But then, one day, Sean (my then-boyfriend, now-husband) put a question to me that stopped me up short.

“Well yes, Libby, but don’t you think, given your parents’ educational backgrounds, the value they put on education, and your drive and motivation level, that you’d have done just as well academically if you’d attended public school?”

I had never once considered that, but in that moment I realized that he was right. I succeeded not because I was homeschooled but rather because I had parents who cared about education, who promoted academic learning, and who expected me to succeed. I excelled academically not because I was homeschooled but rather because I was a motivated and driven learner, ready to consume any knowledge I could put my hands on. And if I’d attended public school, I’d have had actual math teachers during high school, rather than be left struggling through textbooks teaching myself, alone.

For all that I was a model student, there were some important things missing from my homeschool experience. I have no criticism of my early years—my mother worked hard to teach me and siblings and I learned reading, grammar, math, history, and science thoroughly and in ways that were interactive and fun. But my high school years I was mostly on my own. I had an instructor I met with once a week for languages—Latin and Greek—and I attended a weekly homeschool co-op that covered choir, band, and art. I also attended speech and debate club, and two homeschool moms served as our coaches. But other than that, I taught myself. I was self-motivated and driven, so this wasn’t entirely a bad thing, but there are a number of areas where I would benefited from having an instructor or a more structured class.

Government? My parents counted my volunteer work on various political campaigns as government, along with reading the Federalist Papers on my own. Economics? My parents had me read Whatever Happened to Penny Candy and complete some consumer economics workbooks, once again on my own. Actually, I’m pretty sure my parents counted the anti-government summer camp I attended as government and economics credit as well. History? My mom counted my independent reading as history, which she figured was okay because I was a bit of a history nut. In college I lapped up the history survey courses like I’d never tasted water before, even as most of the students around me were bored because they’d already had history survey courses in high school. I hadn’t. Much (if not most) of what I was learning was new.

Once in college I avoided the subjects I wasn’t good at (as another commenter noted), and that meant staying the hell away from math. In high school, I had been expected to teach myself out of math textbooks. Because I’m a quick learner, this worked for a while, but then I hit calculus. I finished the book and we put it on my transcript, but I had completely lost track of what was going on. If I had majored in math, I would have started out behind. I’m a quick learner, and hadn’t had an instructor for math since grade school, so it’s possible I might have caught up quickly, but I preferred not to try. I chose to stick with subjects I knew I could handle.

But actually, we need to talk about English too. I never had an English class the way you would in a public high school. Most of the books everyone read because they were required for high school English classes I never even touched. I never analyzed themes in literature or studied the history of literature. And critically, I never learned how to do footnotes or write a research paper. My freshman year, I had my college friends read every single one of my papers before I turned them in, and I found myself at the writing center asking desperately for someone to please show me how to do footnotes. Do you know how confusing it is to have to figure out how to write a research paper for the first time ever, completely by yourself? I’d done timed essays, sure, and I knew basic grammar. But this? Nope. This was new.

Let me tell you a dirty little secret: Some homeschool graduates excel in college because they are intelligent and driven and college is the first time they’ve had access to instructors and education. They drink up education because they’re starved for it.

And then there’s the social element. Early on in college I formed a sort of community for myself with a number of other highly motivated and academically inclined students who shared my evangelical beliefs—everyone else thought I was weird, and I had trouble fitting in with other groups socially. Going to college felt like moving to another country. I didn’t understand the culture, but I also didn’t know the language. It wasn’t just that the other students were different from me—though they were—it was also that I literally did not know how to behave in social situations. I mean I could be in those situations, I just didn’t know any of the rules. And so I would sit in class surrounded by strangers I didn’t know how to interact with—and was in some sense afraid to interact with—and then return to the safety of my small circle of friends to study or hang out. If I hadn’t made these close friends quickly, my social experience would have been completely different.

But let’s talk about those friends for a moment. My friends were, like me, model students. And yet, they had graduated from public schools. It wasn’t until after Sean’s question about how well I thought I would have done in public school that I really thought about this. My college friends were just as driven and prepared as I was—if not more so—and they had attended public school. And if I’m honest with myself, a number of them were more prepared and more well-rounded than I was. Indeed, their high school education was objectively better than mine.

And yet, I would never once have criticized homeschooling during my college years. I was raised on such a strong strong dose of homeschool supremacism (I’m honestly not sure what else to call it) that I could not easily shake my belief that homeschooling was superior and public schooling was always sub-par. It’s all to easy for a homeschooling parent to see any criticism of homeschooling as criticism of them, but it was more than that. Having been homeschooled was part of my identity, too, and to admit flaws in that experience was simply out of the question. It was years—years—before I was able to reach a place where I didn’t feel like I had to homeschool my own future children. Actually, my oldest was two or three before I was able to reach that point—the point where it felt like an option, not a mandate.

When I put my oldest in public school, my mother cried. Wept. Please, next time you talk about homeschool graduates, remember that many if not most of us are in a position where our parents will see any criticism we may have of homeschooling as a direct attack on them. And I didn’t even criticize homeschooling, I simply put my kids in public school—but that was enough. Even now, I think carefully before mentioning any of my children’s school activities or accomplishments to my mother, because I never know how she’ll react—or whether such mentions will cause her further pain.  Those who use successful homeschool graduates as evidence of how awesome homeschooling is never stop to think about the tightrope we must walk.

I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school, and I went on to excel in college and now graduate school. I am to all accounts a homeschool success story. But that is not all of my story. My story is also one of flaws and struggles. Would I have been better off if I had attended public school? I don’t know. Homeschooling gave me some opportunities I would not have had had I attended public school, even as it removed others. Do I wish I had not been homeschooled? At this point, no. I have walked through a lot of crap, but having been homeschooled is part of what makes me me, and I like where I am today, and who I am.

But I can say that there were things about my homeschool experience that were subpar, and that while I must have seemed like a model student to every one of my professors, there was something about that that was only skin-deep.

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