Thursday, May 24, 2012

"I'm homeschooled," she confidently declared.

The other day Little Fire Faery (who is a 'tween and obviously old enough to be in school) and I were out and someone asked her, "What? No school today?"

As a life-long homeschooler, she's been confronted by this question many, many times. In the past, it is usually I who answer, but as my girls have matured, I've found that I need to speak less often for them. This day was one of those times when I was silenced.

In fact, that was exactly what happened. She answered so quickly and with such confidence that I was stunned to silence.

He looked at her and asked, "No school today?"

She stood a little taller and confidently replied, "I'm homeschooled."

He smiled and said, "That's why you're so smart."

I just smiled, hugged her close, and kissed the top of her head. She is amazing, and incredibly smart, and it was a wonderful moment of validation to believe that this stranger had seen her intelligence in those few minutes. Maybe he was just being nice, and it's very likely that he does not know how true his words were.

It was a priceless moment, and even more so, because this was a member of my community - a community, like most communities, where the general consensus seems to be that children belong in school, that there's something odd about (perhaps wrong with) homeschoolers. Too often I see homeschoolers characterized as lacking social skills or fantically religious, but that's very rarely the case with homeschoolers I know.

I think, when we talk about home schooling, in general, we’re continually comparing ourselves to the “school” structure, which is perfectly logical, because we live in a world culture that promotes “education” as the only means to success, and the educational model is pretty much the same worldwide. But I think we’re not using “education” in the right sense of the word – especially when it comes to the classroom model of education.

I love the Wikipedia definition which states that education is: “in its broadest, general sense ... the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next.” And I’d say, that’s pretty accurate - sadly.

For most of us, education has come to represent some arbitrary set of milestones to be achieved, i.e. identify the letters of the alphabet, learn to read, calculate higher math equations, know the Kings of England and quote the fights historical. Which is a little sad. Really? Are these trivial types of information the “aims and habits” we wish to pass on to future generations? And will being competent in algebraic equations and knowing historical names and dates really help us understand the culture that molded us to be who we are and believe what we believe?

In bending to this model of educating our children, I think we are stripping ourselves of our heritage. My three daughters are hardy, straight-forward, no nonsense New Englanders, who are being raised by a southern-born and raised Army Brat with strong ties to the mountain people of southeastern Kentucky and the farmers of the mid-West. If I homogenize their education, they will lose the best of what *I* have to offer, which is who I am – grits and all – and by association, *who they are*.

We are homeschoolers, but that's a very broad brush, and in the finer tuning of our personal philosophies regarding education, what learning/education means and how we should go about it, there are dozens - perhaps hundreds - of little nuances. We consider ourselves "unschoolers", but we're not "radical unschoolers". Deus Ex Machina and I believe in a very hands-on approach when it comes to our children. We are very involved in their lives. We give our girls a great deal of freedom to make choices within a set of parameters. The fact that we've set boundaries means that some unschoolers would question the validity of us using the "unschooler" title.

Unfortunately, sometimes it ends up being a little like the Scotland as depicted in the story of William Wallace. We, homeschoolers, are like those clans, and we're at odds with society, as a whole, because we want the freedom to make our own choices, and while we'd like to be a united front, there's so much in-fighting and bickering about who homeschools the best, that we've ended up as this fractured entity.

The other day someone said to me that if the indigenous people who lived in the Americas had been able to put aside their tribal differences and be united against the European invasion, the western migration would have stopped at the Mississippi River.

Regardless of the individual philosophy, all homeschoolers have to agree that homeschooling (and, especially, unschooling) is not a hands-off approach to educating our children. When we're trying to define unschooling, I think we’re very limited by language, because unschooling isn’t a noun. It’s a verb (maybe a gerund ... which is a verb pretending to be a noun). It requires action.

Even the words we use limit our ability to explain the philosopy. "Un” is a prefix, which means “not”, and, yes, “un”schooling is “not” schooling in the traditional classroom sense, but it’s not “not” teaching. It’s not “not” educating, and it’s not “not” doing things with our children.

It’s not “lack of structure”, either. We can be unschoolers and have a very structured day/week/year. For instance, we are unschoolers here at chez Brown, but we have a pretty structured lifestyle, because Deus Ex Machina has a job with set hours, and I work from home and need to be able to work, and my daughters are involved in several outside classes that have set times. So, in that way, we are very structured and limited by the constraints of hours-in-the-day.

Learning though is totally unstructured and free-range. They’re like chickens, because they can pick up whatever looks appealing, and if they get a hold of it and decide it’s not so tasty after all, they can leave it on the ground. That’s “un”schooling.

In the end, I think we, homeschoolers, can all consider ourselves explorers – even “not” schoolers, if we wish - because, while there’s always been “homeschooling” (in the sense that for most of history children were taught at home and not in a formal “school” environment), this is the first time in history that people have made a conscious choice to consider homeschool superior to a “formal” education. What we do is going to have an impact on future generations, especially if we take Wikipedia’s definition that education is our way of passing on our philosophies to future generations.

Personally, I’m excited, from a historian point of view, to see where we are twenty years from now, and how much this homeschooling movement has shaped our future. At very least, I hope things like playing an instrument, knowing how to knit, being able to cook a meal from whole ingredients, planting a garden, and making maple syrup become common knowledge again – and I also hope that all people, who are able, know how to read. Everything else, is just gravy ... which is and can be a nice complement, but is trivial when compared to the rest of the meal.


  1. Wonderful post, as always. I've always had the greatest respect and admiration for homeschoolers. I know my limitations, and being solely responsible for my children's education definitely beyond them ;D

    I do have to say, though, that Big Sprout has taken it upon herself to "unschool" on top of regular schooling, especially since our move to a different school district. She loves to learn, and the current curriculum neither challenges or interests her. In essence, she comes home from "learning" all day, and starts her own schooling.

    I've been amazed at the variety of subjects she's covered, and how in depth her research has been. She has binders and scrapbooks full of her reports, notes, graphs, etc. All this on top of other important learning like hunting, trapping, butchering, identifying wild edibles, gardening, etc.

    Now if I could just get her to learn how to cook and clean up after herself.... ;)

  2. Great post. I'd sure like to see our view of education take a better turn.