March 30, 2009

Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense by David Guterson

Successful homeschooling,

after all, is a kind of educational self-sufficiency,
a farm that produces precisely what it needs without drawing on public funds. Such self-sufficiency should be promoted rather than mistrusted;
It should be recognized as a legitimate and reasonable alternative to other educational possibilities.

If you read Snow Falling on Cedars, you may recall how fun Guterson is to read. His prose is quirky, though not ever clumsy. In this non-fiction book, he informs, educates, inspires, and entertains. You need to know that he is awkwardly placed as a public school high-school English teacher who home-schools his own kids in the Pacific Northwest, so he has a rather unique view on the complexities of the home-school vs public school discussion.

Guterson opens Chapter One: Teacher, Parent, with these words: "We schoolteachers constantly complain -- into a steady, implacable wind -- that with much smaller classes and more one-to-one contact we might make better academic headway" (p. 11), which leads nicely into his observations about the parent as the teacher, pointing out that -- in a homeschool environment, the teacher student ratio can't be beat.

In Chapter Two: What About Democracy, Guterson addresses the concerns that home-schooling somehow undermines democracy, pointing out that "your average classroom is more like a little Kremlin than a little congress [ . . . ] more like totalitarianism than democracy. There are bells and PA systems and student cards and hall passes and classrooms where you listen day in and day out to authoritarian voices" (p. 42).

Chapter Three: Homeschoolers Among Others capably addresses the concern about socialization -- that homeschooled won't get socialized properly if they are not with their peers. Guterson points out that "Schoolchildren may be openly and consciously obsessed with their peers, but their unconscious desperation for meaningful relationships with adults can be plainly seen in their eye" (p 65). In addition, a child not tied to the school clock has the opportunity to live "as an integral part of a community, among the elderly, store clerks, gardeners, carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, and electricians in their world, [ . . . ] are apt to develop a sensitive social understanding and a sophisticated feeling for the lives of others as they are lived on a daily basis" (p. 64).

I sure see this in my children's lives. They do errands with me and see the mechanic at his work, the flourmiller and his mill, the grandfather and his care-giver; every week they get to practice their manners and their social conventions, carry groceries to the car for the old lady, go with me as we help a neighbor. I have many concerns, but lack of socialization is not one of them.

Chapter Four: My Father Comes to Class, cleverly presents the legal aspects (via Guterson's attorney-father), as well as provides a polite primer on regulations, statues, court decisions, and constitutional interpretation. Regulations are set by state agencies, but are ultimately held up or overturned by state statues. Of course, state statues are interpreted and these interpretations are rendered into court decisions which are (we hope) in alignment with the state constitution. And of course, the state constitution has to be consistent with the federal Constitution. Why does this matter? Because regulatory agencies across the country vary in their restrictions on home-schooling. Though these agencies may be the most visible aspect of the law to the home-schooling family, "the real questions -- for home-schooling families is what the federal Constitution says about what they're doing" (p 82).

And what does the federal Constitution say? Nothing. Why not? " [ . . . ] the Constitution doesn't mention homeschooling in part because its writers didn't have the word in their vocabulary. Learning outside of schools, back then, was pretty common. [ . . . ] In the past, governments didn't take it upon themselves to see to education. They didn't think of it as their proper role as governments do today." So in 200 years we've gone from one end of the spectrum (families are responsible for educating their off-spring) to the other (families can barely be trusted to educate their young, and even then must be supervised by a state employee and submit reports and show results lest they lose their grudgingly-granted privilege). Indeed, "Every child is entitled to a public education," as Texas Governor Rick Perry asserts, then adds, "but public education is not entitled to every child."

Chapter Five: School, Home and History, presents a very succinct overview of the history of schooling, at home and in institutions.

Chapter Six: Abiding Questions, asks and responds to the essential question, "what is education?" and laments the fact that very few educators bother themselves with reading or discussing educational theorists. Remember, Guterson is a high-school teacher. He remarks that, "in fact, I know of very few teachers who have, for example, read Plato, not to mention Dewey or Rousseau" (p. 119).

In Chapter Seven: The Matter of Money, Guterson addresses the economic concerns of home-schooling, acknowledging the very real economic impact of staying home to educate the kids rather than sending them off to school and using that time to earn money. Yet, Guterson points out, "This state of affairs seems particularly ironic in an age widely characterized as postindustrial [ . . . ] at no time in the past one hundred years has working at home been as feasible as it is today, when many Americans hold the kids of jobs that do not really require a daily commute to a central place of business. [ . . . ] Whereas the industrial age meant adults left home to work in the plants and factories, the information age might well mean that many are free, should they so desire, to work at home again" (p. 135-136). In addition, Guterson points out, schools used to have an advantage over a family home, in that it had the educational stuff (maps etc.) that were not readily available to an ordinary family. Not so in these times, "Home is no longer necessarily the kind of information vacuum that once made school seem mandatory" (p. 136).

Chapter Eight: Before Schools, takes a closer look at life before schools, admonishing us to not naively over-simplify the 'native' education (a heads-up to the un-schooling movement), and clarifying that in earlier societies "To be rich was to have a life in the web of one's people; to be poor was to have few children or to rarely see them or to work apart from those one loved. [ . . . ] With industrialism, as Robert LeVine and Merry White suggest in Human Conditions: The Cultural Basis of Educational Development parents began to provide for their children as opposed to working, teaching, and living with them" (p. 166). Huge difference.

Chapter Nine: What We've Learned About How We Learn, presents a very readable overview of Learning Theory. Anyone going to a teaching college should read this chapter just to get their bearings before starting their coursework.

Chapter Ten: Schools and Families: A Proposal, discusses the relationships between schools and families, advocating that "Families rightly should look to schools to assist them in meeting their educational needs, and schools should take seriously their constitutional mandates to provide for the education of every child -- even the children of families who want to guide that education themselves" (p 185). Guterson then shares several examples of excellent school/family cooperation. He also acknowledges (and laments) the current trend towards "espous[ing] schools as full-service institutions designed to do what families once did: Schools, [some reformers] assert, should be open dawn to dusk in every season fo the year, providing day care, m,meals, advice about birth control, counseling for teenage alcoholics, sex education, AIDS education, late-afternoon volleyball, basketball, and badminton, and finally Home and Family Life course in which children learn about -- what else? -- the home and family life they have left behind" (p 184).

Guterson argues that "a school district should encourage more families to homeschool privately, without recourse to district resources -- if the families can do so with good results -- since this frees the district to devote greater energy to those families truly in need of what it offers. Successful homeschooling, after all, is a kind of educational self-sufficiency, a farm that produces precisely what it needs without drawing on public funds. Such self-sufficiency should be promoted rather than mistrusted; It should be recognized as a legitimate and reasonable alternative to other educational possibilities" (p. 198).

Chapter Eleven: A Life's Work, wraps it all up, but not before articulating an aspect of our society that I have never been comfortable with. "In should be easy to understand how friendly conversation in America -- where probing into the particulars of other lives is considered courtesy ("Always ask about their lives" is the advice we get as teenagers about making polite talk)-- [ . . . ]" Guterson goes on to make his point but I stopped right there. He said "probing", didn't he? I hate asking people for details as it seems so snoopy, so rude, yet I recognize that I fail the polite conversation test at nearly every opportunity. So if you know me face-to-face and have wondered why I am so rude and never ask you a lot of questions, just know that even though I acknowledge that I should, in my heart it feels like probing, and I am tickled pink to get even the littlest hint from Guterson that I may not be the only one. If you are still reading this very long post, and have any wisdom to share on this, please do so.

I can't tell you what else Guterson discussed in Chapter Eleven, as I was completely derailed by the aforementioned probing.

All in all, I was found the book informative and the writing very enjoyable; Guterson has a droll sense of humor that had me chuckling throughout.

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  1. Wow, great synopsis! I definitely have to look for this. I love that quote, "every child is entitled to a public education, but public education is not entitled to every child." A lot of the things you listed here explain why we homeschool. I will have to look for this book.

  2. Suzanne, I always fail in "probing" too...though I think for me it's a mix of not wanting to pry and being socially self-absorbed (I'm not accusing you of the later!).

  3. Oh yeah, and the word "probe" is one of my pet peeves. Hate it, unless it is used in context as a medical instrument or space thingie. I hate how the media uses it!

  4. Sounds like a book worth reading. I will have to look into getting my hands on a coppy. Thanks for the post.


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