When it comes to a child’s primary and secondary education, parents have three choices: public, private, home. Each has both its peculiar advantages and its undeniable drawbacks.
Teaching freshpersons this past semester I was presented with the strangest study in contrasts, all the reasons to home school, and all the reasons not to. The reasons to run screaming from public education were the four female education majors in my freshman-level class. One was a senior, completely incapable of constructing a thesis statement or of taking even the tiniest steps toward stating a position, let alone defending one. She earned D’s and F’s on her papers, which consisted largely of quotes strung together from the text with no interpretive context whatsoever, and she came regularly to my office hours and cried because she found my class so hard. I asked her if she’d taken composition classes. Yes, she claimed, and they were not nearly as unreasonably difficult as my class was. [Clearly someone, or lots of someones, had not done this young lady a favor by allowing her to become a college senior incapable of writing so much as a thesis statement.] The other education majors weren’t much better. One look at them, the future elementary-school teachers of my hypothetical children, and the realization that is the germ of so much homeschooling came to me: I could teach circles around these girls. Why on earth would I put my hypothetical children into their incompetent hands?
But at the front of the very same classroom sat the reason I might want to do just that: an extraordinarily bright young man, whose grasp of intellectual history was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a college freshman, who had won state competitions in Latin, and who [sigh] had no qualms about repeatedly announcing the fact. He was among the most competent writers in the class–his essays were perhaps the most grammatically flawless I’ve ever seen in ten years of teaching. But he was a complete social disaster. He dominated the discussion in an extremely loud voice. He hadn’t the first clue about the basic classroom etiquette I have never even had to hint at for a single other student in all my years of teaching–don’t interrupt the teacher, don’t run roughshod over the discussion, let others have a chance to speak, don’t sit in the front of the class and disdainfully read the newspaper during a discussion you consider beneath you, don’t go on tangents just to show off. I spoke to him several times about toning it down, letting others have the floor, staying on topic, but he never seemed to get it, and finally, after all of this subtle and not-so-subtle hinting around, one day I was forced to tell him flat-out, in front of the entire class, that he was simply wrong about some aspect of his analysis. After that fateful day, he disappeared, and I have to admit that class was much easier to run without him jumping in and attempting to derail the discussion to his own preferred topics every five minutes. I often felt as if this poor overeducated eighteen-year-old was, socially, little more than a toddler yanking on my skirt, screaming for my attention.
I can’t speak to private education, having had no experience with it, but I’ll cheerfully admit that public education is often shockingly bad. I and all of my siblings were subjected to thirteen years of public school each, and when we get together one of the games we occasionally slip into is comparing the dumbest things we ever had to do and the dumbest classes we ever had to endure. There was the substitute teacher several of us had in junior high who liked to tell the story of how a bear had ripped the bone from his leg, and he was forced to use his shotgun as a makeshift bone. (The hunting-and/or-fishing tall tale was a flourishing, almost galloping genre among a certain minority of the faculty.) After a time he had to preface this story by announcing that the principal had asked him to please stop telling it but that–of course!–he was going to tell it anyway. There was the history teacher who didn’t bother much with history but used his eighth-graders as a captive audience for the antics of a bizarre alter ego who placed a prune at the end of the flagpole, pledged allegiance to it daily, and talked a lot about his sacred home in Ulaan Bator and spontaneous human combustion. There was the fifth-grade teacher one of us endured who was obsessed with Satanic ritual, and who didn’t teach much but really liked to coax all of her ten-year-olds into describing the Satanic rituals they were, she desperately hoped (!), performing in their back yards in the middle of the night. (This was the eighties.) In high school there were the inevitable golf and tennis coaches who went through the barest notions of teaching us social studies or math, and there was the brain-searing horror that was drivers’ ed. There was the music teacher who generally couldn’t be prevailed upon to show up until class had been underway for twenty minutes or half an hour. And there were the touchy-feely personality-test and health classes that tried to instill self-esteem and occasionally reviewed all the different kinds of drugs we might be offered and how, precisely, to ingest each to maximum effect. Although we all had devoted and memorable teachers who actually knew and loved their subjects and enjoyed the company of children or teenagers, it’s not surprising, given what public-school teachers are paid, that such were in the minority. To a certain extent, public school is down upon its knees before students begging to be satirized. It’s almost impossible to endure thirteen years of it without becoming a hopeless smart-aleck.
I certainly can’t say I’d never home school. Such decisions ultimately depend on a number of unforeseeable factors–the quality of local public education, the affordability of private alternatives, and most important, the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of the individual children involved. But I have to confess to having as many reservations about homeschooling as I do about public school. Homeschooling was much less common, more bizarre, more suspect in the eighties, but of course it’s always had a serious toehold in Utah. And I well remember the few home-schooled kids who started high school with the rest of us (by then) incurably zoned-out smart-alecks. They were markedly different in ways that exceeded the usual range of difference, almost uniformly socially inept in the same ways that my unfortunate student was, excessively dependent on adults and completely unable to relate to their peers. Perhaps the homeschooling landscape is different now, when so many more home school and homeschooled children have so many more opportunities to interact with each other. But for someone like me who’s already borderline deficient in the area of social intelligence, extended homeschooling would probably have been a disaster.
During our long years of public school, my mother repeatedly informed us that never had any illusions that we’d learn all that much there, but that she believed that we needed to be socialized. She definitely had a point, and she was kind enough about all that that socialization involved to allow us occasional mental health days and to be not-so-secretly amused during the periods I got through school by reading a book all day (although she was, understandably, considerably less amused at my very bad grades).
Hypothetical kid ‘o mine, it’s off to the land of the public-school loonies for you, I’m afraid. But I’m not completely heartless. Just read a book all day to yourself. No one will be the wiser.
- 4 November 2007