Homeschooling: A Report from the Front Lines
In July, there was an enthusiastic exchange in the Civil War blogosphere between Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory and Richard Williams of Old Virginia Blog over the issue of homeschooling. The debate, while respectful, attracted a variety of viewpoints and responses. Familiar with my homeschooling background, Mr. Williams asked if I would write a guest post about my homeschooling experience in order to provide readers with a concrete, personal account of a subject that is often reduced to contradictory statistics and vague generalities.
To fully introduce myself, my name is Crystal Marshall, a freshman at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Homeschooled from kindergarten through 10th grade, I completed my last two years of high school at a local community college as part of a dual-enrollment program. While my homeschooling experiences are unique to my personal situation, my heavy involvement in the homeschool community gives me a position of authority to speak on issues such as academic achievement, intellectual curiosity, social activities, and personal development as they relate to homeschoolers. I am not speaking out of pride or of a sense that I represent every homeschooler. Rather, consider this post as a report from the “front lines” of homeschooling by someone who has served in the ranks of homeschoolers for the vast majority of her pre-college academic career.
Speaking of academic careers, often the first topic that rears its head in the homeschooling debate is that of academics—after all, the basic goal of any formal education is to learn, regardless of how that learning is imparted. Although their parents’ educational backgrounds may differ, most homeschoolers are united by virtue of their high academic achievement. My mother—a former elementary school teacher—was the primary instructor during my homeschooling years, diligently and faithfully educating me in all subjects with the best materials available. In subjects such as chemistry and Spanish, we joined with other families in a small “co-op”, pooling resources to hire qualified tutors (usually former public school teachers) who met with us once a week to train us in that particular subject. The personalized instruction I received as a homeschooler prepared me well for the rigors of my community college classes, in which I consistently received “A” grades in areas ranging from biology to English.
Other homeschooling friends had similar experiences. Two of my closest friends, “Amy” and “Katie” also participated in the dual-enrollment program and benefited immensely from it, due to the academic preparation that homeschooling provided them. Amy is now a freshman studying engineering at UC-Berkeley, while Katie is pursuing a nursing degree at Liberty University. Both received substantial scholarships to attend their prospective schools. While their parents’ educational backgrounds are vastly different—Amy’s mother holds a doctorate in physics, while Katie’s father is a truck driver for UPS—what unites their experiences is the dedication of their parents to provide them with the best education possible.
And lest we forget standardized test scores—as this is an anecdotal post, I will avoid the temptation to quote statistics—my homeschool friends and I have consistently scored in the top percentiles on standardized tests for every year from elementary up through high school. (I also want to reiterate that as I mention grades and test scores, I do so not out of pride, but as an illustration of the wonderful instruction and preparation provided to my friends and me by our dedicated parents. All credit goes to them.)
However, grades and test scores don’t necessarily reflect intellectual curiosity and the ability to “think for oneself”. Happily, homeschooling can provide the most opportune forum for discussion and debate—and I’m glad to say that this was case in my homeschooling years. As I studied classics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey in high school, my mother would ask probing questions about the literature and challenge my answers, seeking to develop my mind and instill in me a passion for questioning and research. This was frustrating at times, especially on those occasional days when I suffered from intellectual laziness, but it prepared me well for my college classes. In one particular English class at the college, I wrote a 10-page research paper on Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and the resistance of my professor to the paper gave me an opportunity to put my research and argumentation abilities to respectful use. I ended up with an “A” on the paper and, more importantly, with respect from my professor, who acknowledged that my arguments were solid and well presented even though she ultimately disagreed with many of my conclusions. (As a side note, I would like to extend a public “thank you” to Mr. Williams, who provided crucial research assistance for this particular paper.)
Another often-cited “concern” with homeschoolers is in regard to socialization. It has taken no small amount of patience and tact to respond to the hundreds of inquiries that I have received over the years of “Do you have a social life as a homeschooler?” I am sure that most of the people asking this question were well meaning. However, instead of having restricted social lives as many erroneously assume, homeschoolers are actually ahead of their peers when it comes to social fulfillment. Instead of spending their days solely with a group of peers and selected adults (as is the case with public and private school students), homeschoolers come into a wide variety of contact with many different age groups in many different contexts. Beginning in elementary school, my mother purposefully took me to places such as the bank, library, and grocery store so that I would not only learn practical living skills, but also so that I could experience the diversity of ages and ethnicities in our society, and thus learn how to interact with different groups of people. The flexibility of a homeschooling schedule also allowed my friends and I to take part in opportunities such as volunteering in nursing homes, taking dance classes, participating in sports leagues, and traveling to foreign countries such as Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico for humanitarian work.
Despite the benefits of homeschooling in areas such as academics, intellectual curiosity, and socialization, such benefits are not, and should not, be the end goal for homeschoolers. The vast majority of public and private schools provide their students with a stellar education, imparted by dedicated teachers who sincerely care for and guard their students’ hearts and minds. Public and private-schooled students also excel academically, motivated by their eagerness to learn, and enjoy spending time with those outside of their peer groups. Simply put, homeschooling is not the best option for every child, and parents must seriously consider which schooling environment is most beneficial for their son or daughter.
However, for those who do pursue homeschooling, why are they pursuing this particular method of learning? What is it that makes homeschooling distinct? The commitment to the moral education of a child is what sets homeschooling apart, more than any other form of education. In deciding to homeschool me, my parents made a conscious decision to utilize all of life, including schooling, to form my character. Such a commitment to a child’s character formation requires concerted effort; when the child becomes unbearable and unmanageable, there is no outside institution, no unlucky teacher, to take the child and give the parent a well-deserved break. No, homeschooling parents are charged with the added responsibility of training their children for longer periods of the day, and in different contexts, than most other parents of public and private-schooled children.
This is not to say that parents who place their children in public and private schools are neglecting their moral role as their children’s primary character-formers. As mentioned above, the decision to homeschool is highly personal one; all parents are charged with instilling moral values and virtues in their children, and homeschooling simply provides another context in which to perform that responsibility.
In what manner, then, do homeschooling families impart moral instruction to their children? Often this is done through religion, especially Christianity. At this point, many critics of homeschooling scoff and label this as nothing more than indoctrination. Really? Are public and private school students receiving anything different? Wherever formal education takes place, moral education transpires concurrently. Teachers, as human beings, bring a set of conceptions to the classroom that inevitably is displayed in their teaching; students, as human beings, bring a set of conceptions to the classroom that inevitably is displayed in their response to the teaching, whether through class discussions or homework. When the teacher’s views collide with the student’s views, a worldview formation takes place, even if the teacher and students vehemently disagree. This process takes place in any educational context; with homeschoolers, the process involves the imparting of an ethical, moral, Christian worldview based on objective standards of revealed truth; with public school children, the process involves the imparting of a relativistic, “anything goes” worldview, which may on the surface contain morals, but yet the morals do not have any firm foundation on which they are based. Having encountered both of these worldviews, I stand firmly in the belief that the former will greatly increase the happiness and quality of my life much more than the latter.
In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle postulates, “to be a competent student of what is right and just…one must first have received a proper upbringing in moral conduct”. Homeschooling provides an avenue in which this upbringing can occur, providing a foundation for further study that ultimately leads to the full cultivation of the mind and the outpouring of this knowledge into action for the good of the individual and the community.
Thank you Crystal for a very thoughtful and well-written post. May God continue to bless you as you continue your studies at Hillsdale. ~ RW