Friday, February 3, 2012

Avoiding the Monoculture through Homeschooling?

I recently read the Newsweek article "Why Urban Educated Parents are Returning to DIY Education" at The Daily Beast. It grabbed my attention because my husband and I have been been discussing it as an option for when we have children. Since neither of us were enamored with our own school experiences and we both hold graduate degrees in differing fields, we feel it is a viable option for our family. Linda Perlstein's piecean interesting readreiterated some of the concerns I have heard about homeschooling such as the possible social and psychological effects on children and parents.

The concern I have heard voiced most often about homeschooling is that the social skills of these children may be retarded. Frankly, my social skills were retarded by attending public school (a very good one, in fact). Through peer bullying I learned that expressing dissenting opinions and unusual interests would result in name calling and isolation. Through in-class shaming by teachers I learned that saying, "I don't know," is a fault, and that asking for help is a weakness. I was constantly afraid of speaking up because I might be made fun of, or told I was wrong, or called stupid. What I learned in school was that if you wanted  to be left alone, you had to seem like everyone else.

The sociologist in me says that this is simply part of socialization, implicitly and explicitly giving students tools to navigate the larger society. I certainly learned what was acceptable and what was deviant. I suppose if I wanted to take a traditional route in life, the tools I learned in school would serve me well, but as I attempt to carve my own path I find it difficult to put those tools down. After all, when all you have is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail.

I am not a fan of monoculture and what our public, and many private, schools are producing is a monoculture. Teachers are handed a test booklet and a overfilled classroom and told to make it work. Children and teens who do not learn the same way as the majority of the student body get left behind and told it is their default; while special, sensitive or curious students get beaten down. They have become factories, mass producing bodies for the service sector and managerial positions.A monoculture is great for standardization and mechanization, but what about innovation?

Homeschooling can allow for innovation. As a parent you can follow your child's curiosity wherever it may lead. Parents can tailor lessons to a child's learning style and inspire them to become their own teachers-- a feat most of us do not master until college or graduate school. I think one of the greatest gifts I could give my child is to deprive them of in-school socialization. Innovators are not afraid to ask questions, offer opinions or be wrong. Failure becomes a learning tool, not an ascribed status.

There seemed to be two primary psychological concerns for homeschooled children mentioned in the article. The first comes from Psychologist Wendy Mogel, who "wonders how kids who spend so much time within a deliberately crafted community will learn to work with people from backgrounds nothing like theirs." I would ask the same question about school students from the racially segregated suburbs (and yes I am also aware that many large cities are just as racially segregated--I live in one). We, unfortunately, do not live in a society which embraces diversity on a large scale, most schools give it the same lip-service corporations do, all talk and no real change or action. If you want your children to be able to interact with people from varied backgrounds, then make an effort. Commit to meeting with as many people as possible and to be candid and honest with question about race, religion and culture, regardless of whether your child is homeschooled. 

The second concern is that parents may spend "too much" time with their children. This, I take some issue with. I have never heard and adult say, "I just wish my parents did not spend as much time with me when I was a kid." Having recently lost my father, I know that memories are precious and the opportunity to create more for my children if a great gift. Yes, I agree that controlling your child's life through scheduling and demands for perfection can be crippling to a child, but that is just as large a concern in families who chose traditional education. I think that part of homeschooling is getting to know your child and their desires, interests and needs--not foisting yours upon them.

Finally, the effects on the parent. First of all I do not think everyone is cut out for homeschooling and there is nothing wrong with that. If it is not something you are interested in or suited to, than do not attempt it. I do think that for those of us who may choose to home school it is a disservice to assume it will lead to an unfulfilled life. I think that these arguments come down to a difference in perception. Happiness is not a fixed point, is very personal and looks different for everyone. If becoming a CEO for a Fortune 500 company makes you happy than good luck with that. It would make me miserable. I may find that teaching my children and writing blog posts make me happy. When we project our own very personal idea of happiness onto others, no one wins. 

All in all, I do not know if homeschooling is the route our family will take. We are no where near making that decision. Life changes quickly, and with it so do our desires and abilities. More than anything else I think children need to be taught how to be be happy and define success for themselves--that is one commitment I can put in stone.

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