Can homeschooling succeed if parents and kids aren’t exceptional?

Can homeschooling succeed if parents and kids aren’t exceptional? April 18, 2020

When people wax poetic about the benefits of homeschooling, I’m sorry, but my eyes automatically start to roll.

It’s not that homeschooling doesn’t offer any redeeming qualities — I’m sure it does, sometimes — but that’s beside the point.

My reading about homeschooling has taught me that it is rarely about parents’ desire to give their kids a broader, better general education, but rather giving them a particularly narrow education — one that is usually targeted to avoid teaching children things that might contradict the parents’ religious views, and to isolate them from the negative influences they can’t control from other kids at public schools.

The end goal seems to be isolating children during their most vulnerable, formative years so that the parents’ religious views and constricting ideals have plenty of time to deeply and permanently embed in their kids’ minds before they must confront the diverse, messy, unorthodox realities of real life.

It’s the opposite of what a useful education should be: liberal and broad, and leavened by critical examination of everything learned, leading to well-considered understandings, not spoon-fed propaganda with no discussion.

I’ve developed an aversion to homeschooling after over a number of years of reading and reading about smart memoirs by people who were eventually able to flee fundamentalist Christian enclaves where homeschooling was the norm. Like Tara Westover’s Educated, Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Lilia Tarawa’s Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult, and Amber Scorah’s Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life.

I’ve previously written posts about the wrenching experiences of Westover, here; the Netflix series inspired by Feldman’s book, here; Tarawa’s, here; and Scorah’s, here.

The thread running through all these heart-breaking tales is inadequate, indoctrinating homeschooling that left its victims intellectually vacant and woefully unprepared for normal life outside their fundamentalist communities.

Each of these young women in one overwhelming moment discovered that they were effectively rendered ignorant and clueless by what they were not taught at home growing up. Yet each, being the independent kind of people who would rationally flee in the first place, were able to survive on the “outside.”

I’m thinking about this today after reading an op-ed article in the e-zine Aeon by Yale poli-sci professor Mordechai Levy-Eichel titled “I was homeschooled for eight years: here’s what I recommend.”

Levy-Eichel, who explained that he was homeschooled from 11 years old to college age by his “old New Leftist” parents, believes that he received a good, even superior, education at home from his folks.

I have no doubt, because he is obviously a smart, thoughtful fellow who has carved out a successful elite career and life for himself in academia. I suspect his own above-average intelligence and the impressive capabilities of his parents had a lot to do with that, plus the extraordinary energy and discipline of all involved. I doubt most homeschooled kids are nearly as intelligent and focused, or their parents nearly as capable, disciplined and energetic.

The hook for Levy-Eichel’s piece is the current “stay at home” phenomenon as people “shelter in place” against the coronavirus scourge. He said it’s the perfect time for parents to help their kids reap some homeschooling benefits, at least temporarily. Whereas education has historically been “the province of parents,” he writes, “society as a whole should pay more attention, instead of leaving it to the professional advocates and their tired debates about charter schools, unions and uniforms.”

Levy-Eichel discredits American education today for not teaching students how to think creatively, and for forcing their version of education on students rather than asking kids more what they’re interested in learning.

Many educational systems fall into disrepute because of how poor they are at soliciting, engaging and stimulating student interest,” Levy-Eichel writes. “Students are often discouraged from participating in their education. After all, how many of them get to choose the books they read, or what science they pursue?”

Levy-Eichel’s name sounds traditionally Jewish, but I have no idea whether his particular homeschool experience included instruction in Judaism or not. Considering that lots of Jews are secular, it’s probably a good bet that it didn’t.

My concern is not that exceptional students with exceptional parents can’t educate their kids properly, as clearly is the case here, but that ill-equipped non-academic parents trying to their their unexceptional children at home by can’t.

And because the vast majority of homeschooling is done by fundamentalist Christian parents, religion is allowed to dilute the potential power and efficacy of a liberal education in preparing kids to face a chaotic, mentally challenging world in which ignorance is dangerous.

“Beyond basic literacy and numeracy,” Levy-Eichel believes, “the most decisive learning comes from what kids see their parents, elders and friends doing, day in and day out.”

But what if those people are modeling religious superstition, ignorance and bigotry. What then? A true education should teach students how to think critically, to sift fact from fancy and truth from bias in any situation.

If the American public school system is flawed, let’s fix that, not abdicate the public responsibility for education and hand it ala carte to parents who more than likely will not be nearly as up to the task as professional teachers are.

The Ted Talk video embedded in this post is about a trendy concept known as “unschooling,” which basically lets kids decide what they’re going to learn. That strikes me as like letting kids always decide what they’re going to eat.

The educational equivalent of French fries and hot dogs sounds intellectually unpalatable to me.


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