Last week the New York Times Magazine carried an interesting article on the subject of home-schooling . In ” My Parents Were Home Schooling Anarchists” , Margaret Heidenry relates how , in 1972, her parents , then in their early thirties decided to drop out of the rat race and explore the world. Her father quit his publishing job and he and his wife took their four children , all under 7, in tow as they lived in a succession of places. There were stays in Nerja ( Spain), , in Dorset (England) , in San Miguel de Allende ( Mexico) and in the mid-West before the family setled down in St. Louis , Missouri.
During their four years on the go , the family lived a hardscrabble existence and were often short of necessities while Mr. Heidenry worked on his novel and his wife ” taught” the children at home . Mostly , she used workbooks and ” an ever-changing stack of library books ” to teach the children but there was little formalized education .Mr. Heidenry apparently had hated school in his childhood and wanted to spare his children the experience . Personally , I think he had more selfish motives ( namely he wanted to drop out) . Mrs. Heidenry , however , had some avant-garde notions about home schooling ; she wanted to do what she genuinely thought was best for the children. When the family settled down in St. Louis where Mr. Heidenry got a job , the children entered public school and had a rough time fitting in . They eventually did and all of them went on to successful careers.
I have never thought well of home schooling and this article did little to change my mind. For one thing , the Heidenry children were only homeschooled for six years and they re-entered the school system at a relatively early age. They were able to adjust to the change even though it wasn’t easy. They have some good memories of their travels but those , it seems to me, are more than offset by their deprivations and by the difficulties they experienced when they started attending school.
I can see home schooling as a good alternative but only if the local schools are bad or unsafe . I am appalled at how bad some teachers are. Many of them entered the profession because it is a secure job with good benefits . They have little desire to improve their skills and many of them pass on their dislike of math and science to their unfortunate students . I had one student tell me that in her Math ( honors) class her teacher does not know even the basics and looks to her for help when he gets into difficulties when solving a problem on the blackboard. Another told me that in his Science class , the teacher spends most of the time telling the class about her son , the lawyer , and how smart he is . Not all teachers are like this , of course, but more than a few are. That is why I get I ticked off when I see self-serving bumper stickers with the exhortation ” THANK A TEACHER TODAY ” . Really ? What for ?
Bad as schools can be , I think that home schooling alternative is , in almost all cases, worse. These are the problems that I have with home schooling.
First and foremost , most homeschooled children do not get a good education in math and science , something that is going to be increasingly important in the coming years . That is because most adults themselves have sub-par skills in these areas. How then can they do a good job teaching the children these subjects ? Even if they had good science skills , the home environment lacks the laboratories needed for the science experiments that reinforce science instruction .Homeschooling may result in superior language skills but leaves children deficient in the areas of math and science . This conclusion is borne out by career choices of the Heidenry children. I note that none of them had careers in science or medicine or accounting or engineering or architecture. Three of them graduated from good colleges ; Mary became a partner in an ad agency , James became an editor and Margaret a writer. The fourth, John, dropped out of college and knocked around for a few years before becoming a successful real estate developer.
On the social front , home schooling may provide a safe cocoon for children as they are growing up but what happens when they leave home ,as they must sooner or later.I think it has to be pretty traumatic . Also , home schooled children have no competition and are not pushed to excel. Will they be able to adjust when they enter college or , later , when they enter the workforce ? At the very least , it must be difficult.
The only case where I can see home schooling as a plus is if one or both parents are trained teachers with good math and science skills and who are committed to providing their children a better education than is available at the local public school. This is very seldom , almost never , the case. According to the Times magazine article , 83% of the parents who are homeschooling their children are doing so out of a desire ” to provide religious and moral instruction ” for their children . Not a good idea.
Providing that the school a child attends is halfway decent , the best thing parents can do is to take an interest in his progress , make sure he does his homework and din into him the importance of education . Frequent visits to the public library can be used to foster a love of reading and occasional trips to museums can broaden the child’s horizons. Some East Asian parents carry their involvement too far , scheduling every minute of the child’s day with activities. On the other hand , parents who strike a balance between control and laissez faire will be richly rewarded when their children grow up to be happy , responsible , successful adults.