Homeschooling: The Bad

Homeschooling: The Bad May 9, 2012

My homeschooling experience was basically the opposite of this.

Having already covered what I think were the benefits of my homeschool education, now it’s time to look at some drawbacks. They probably aren’t what you think.

The main problem I had with homeschooling was having no way to measure my own intelligence. It was easy for me to buy the line that I was stupid, awkward and worthless because I never knew where I stood in comparison to my peers. I knew that I tested at college level reading and writing in middle school, but I didn’t think that made me intelligent. I just thought I was a gifted stupid person. This was only reinforced by the homeschooling mothers in my church bragging incessantly about their boys’ academic performance and personal accomplishments. When I talked to the boys themselves, I automatically deferred to them on politics and economics because they controlled the jargon. They took liberties to correct me until the conversations became tiresome. Later, I realized that they were simply parroting lines from Atlas Shrugged (which I refused to read).

Going to college was a massive revelation for me. I started getting As, and went wild with excitement. Then I kept getting As, and felt like I had secret super powers I had to keep hidden. I stuffed my grades into my notebook so other students wouldn’t feel like I was a show-off. I spent all four years of college marveling at my ability to understand things and struggling to shake my inferiority complex. The persistent sense of stupidity and worthlessness that I felt as a teenager didn’t come from my mother. It didn’t really come from homeschooling, either. Homeschooling just prevented me from taking my own good work seriously. After all, it was my mom grading me! I regarded the grades the same way I regarded my parents’ claims that I was “beautiful”: I knew better. They were just my parents. When impartial teachers started to notice my competence, I was shocked.

I don’t know whether I would have gotten good grades in public school. I was seriously depressed for three years of high school. I might have done poorly and sabotaged my college career. I might gave decided that I really was stupid based on my report card, an “objective” measure. I might have decided that I was a C-quality student and never aspired to university life at all. Or it might have been great – a place filled with mentors who knew their subjects and took me under their wings. That’s what I found in college.

In terms of the nitty gritty details, homeschooling let me down on three fronts: My math skills suffered due to my lack of aptitude and interest. This, oddly, had nothing to do with my mother’s teaching. She loved math and tried to involve me in the fun of solving puzzles. I followed along a little, but it never inspired me. When I did go to community college, my first course was remedial algebra.

Second, my science education was minimal and had no lab (I resisted doing a biology lab with our homeschooling group because I was afraid to dissect anything). I eventually got a lab credit for environmental biology (doing a plants-lead experiment) in college. I honestly don’t know if I missed out on much by not dissecting a fetal pig. I’m leaning towards “not so much.” I did witness my cat giving birth and learned how to make homemade formula to raise another set of orphaned kittens, so my mammalian anatomical knowledge was not totally a lost cause. (I learned all the cat parts before I learned my own!) The only thing I regret about high school science was not attempting to take chemistry or physics. I was convinced I was too stupid, and they weren’t required by the state.

Third, I had no structured projects to acclimate me to the pressures of time management and long-term project planning. Having written two dissertations (one undergrad and one master’s), I’ve obviously figured it out to some extent by now. But I still go through cycles of working all the time and doing next to nothing. I seem to have two speeds, and one of them burns me out periodically.

One of my homeschooling credits was “Bible.” This is something that a lot of people would consider bad, indoctrination, etc. I don’t. I think it’s great that I learned to read the KJV. Not only does it make me culturally literate in a majority-Christian country, it means I’m comfortable reading sixteenth-century English and actually understanding its syntax (hint: “helpmeet” is not a word). I would still encourage my kids to read the Bible, although I’d supplement it now with the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Greek philosophers and whatever other religious texts I could get my hands on. Reading primary sources rarely steers you wrong. It more often prepares you to spot shoddy interpretations and personal agendas when you encounter them cloaked in religious language.

I was a bit socially awkward in college, though I made friends right away. I honestly think that my social difficulties came from my church, not from homeschooling. It was always a relief to me when I got to hang out with secular homeschooled kids at curriculum fairs; they didn’t have the perpetual stinkeye I got from other religious kids. But I was very shy nonetheless. I was never the one to initiate contact. What I had to unlearn was being afraid of people. I wasn’t afraid because I was homeschooled, but because I was warned constantly about the perversity of “the world.” You walk into a hippie bookstore, and you come out drunk, wearing drag and making out with your sister. Or something like that.

What could I have gained from public school? Potentially: good teachers, normal friends, better science and math preparation, career counseling, college application help, better time management skills, a place to go where I didn’t have to be pious, perhaps an earlier awakening.

My homeschooling experience must be taken with a grain of salt again, though – it wasn’t the norm. I do think that I share some disadvantages with kids from poorer schools: I had no idea what careers existed or how professional people lived. I had no idea how to strategically place myself in line for grants and opportunities. I wasn’t able to participate in sports. All of those things can open doors for kids. Homeschooling didn’t encourage me to see adults in different fields or ask them about how they channeled their early interests into later careers. This is probably why I entertained the idea of becoming a truck driver for a year!

When it really comes down to it, though, I believe that homeschooling is just a frame. The content you put in that frame, and the transparency of the walls you give it, are what determine the outcome. If I had been homeschooled entirely for secular, academic reasons, if I had been given full access to secular summer camps, internships, sports teams, parties, friends and academic tutors, I probably would have had as good a start as any valedictorian. It was my church, not homeschooling, that precluded those things.

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