Thursday, October 10, 2002

On a recent note on The Corner, Jonah Goldberg stated:

I don't blame homeschoolers for choosing to educate their kids at home. To me it seems like a rational response in many circumstances, in much the same way it is a rational response -- and strategic retreat -- to put your kids in a Catholic parochial school even if you're not Catholic. But, what I am saying is that if the public schools weren't such a mess, if the educational culture in this country were in better shape the need to homeschool or for school vouchers for that matter would be much smaller and so would the numbers of people who homeschool.

I understand what he's saying, and to a certain extent agree. When my wife became pregnant with our now 3 year old son Alexander, we decided that we were going to homeschool him. If public (or government, which does seem more appropriate if you think about it) schools were better then we would undoubtedly never have considered it. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. However, that doesn't mean that if in the next 2-3 years public schools were 'magically' cured of PC problems, crime, poor teachers, etc., etc. and reverted back to some 'golden era' of public schools that we would then decide to send him there. The wretched state of public schools was just the impetus for us to consider the question. After looking at the issue in depth, we would never send a child of ours to any public school, and very few private schools either.

The real problems with schools are embedded in their very foundation. If anyone is interested in some radical perspectives on our school system, I highly recommed that they read just about anything by John Taylor Gatto (a conservative) or any of a number of books written by the late John Holt (a liberal). A sample of each:


From the Six Lesson School Teacher

The first lesson I teach is: "Stay in the class where you belong." I don't know who decides that my kids belong there but that's not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human being under the burden of the numbers each carries. Numbering children is a big and very profitable business, though what the business is designed to accomplish is elusive.

In any case, again, that's not my business. My job is to make the kids like it -- being locked in together, I mean -- or at the minimum, endure it. If things go well, the kids can't imagine themselves anywhere else; they envy and fear the better classes and have contempt for the dumber classes. So the class mostly keeps itself in good marching order. That's the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.

Nevertheless, in spite of the overall blueprint, I make an effort to urge children to higher levels of test success, promising eventual transfer from the lower-level class as a reward. I insinuate that the day will come when an employer will hire them on the basis of test scores, even though my own experience is that employers are (rightly) indifferent to such things. I never lie outright, but I've come to see that truth and [school]teaching are incompatible.


"Children begin life as eager, successful learners, Holt points out, but their lust for learning soon dies. "What happens," he writes, "is that it is destroyed, and more than by any other one thing, by the process that we misname education—a process that goes on in most homes and schools."

Schools and parents unwittingly do this damage, Holt explains, by making children perform senseless, tedious tasks; by encouraging and compelling them to "work for petty and contemptible rewards"; by breaking up life into "arbitrary and disconnected hunks of subject matter"; but most of all "by making them afraid, afraid of not doing what other people want, of not pleasing, of making mistakes, of failing, of being wrong."

And we do all this, Holt writes, "without knowing that we are doing it, so that, hearing nonsense shoved at them as if it were sense, [children] come to feel that the source of their confusion lies not in the material but in their own stupidity."

Holt lays out this harsh indictment in his final chapter. But How Children Fail is not long on sweeping generalizations; rather, it is filled with stories about the kids in Holt's classes and his thoughts as he puzzles through their struggles and failures. This is the beauty—and the weight—of the book. We know these children, and we recognize their difficulties. Holt makes us squirm because so much of what he's saying rings true."