Saturday, February 4, 2012

Thoughts on Homeschooling

Recently I had the privilege of sharing with a group of homeschoolers about my experiences living and working overseas. I appreciated their interest and the questions they posed. Our time together passed quickly and could have easily extended another hour or more. A brief interaction with the parent who organized the session stands out to me because it hinted at something that, despite all the positive aspects of homeschooling, troubles me about some members of the homeschooling community.

As I was gathering my things to leave I was talking with this mother—a very friendly, polite, and intelligent woman—about my children's situation now that we are back in the United States. I told her that my daughter currently studies at one of our local public high schools and then commented that she was thriving there and it seemed in fact to be a good environment for her. This seemed to rather surprise this mother. We didn't have time to discuss it further, but from my impression she found it quite difficult to believe that someone could consider a public school to be a good environment for their child.

I do not want to accuse this woman of any particular bias, because we did not have time to really discuss the issue. But her reaction hinted at something I have picked up at times from other homeschooling families: the sense that homeschooling is really the most godly and superior choice for teaching children. Depending on the degree to which this philosophy is held, it may express itself as a complete disdain for anyone who doesn't home school, or it may be expressed more as pity for those who do not home school due to either family constraints or other reasons. Admittedly, not all homeschooling advocates actively demonstrate this philosophy and those who truly disdain non-homeschoolers are probably a quite small minority, but I think that the philosophy does pervade most homeschooling families. They are so convinced of the benefits of their method that they must perceive every other schooling option as inferior in some degree. Perhaps this is only to be expected, given the commitment and effort it takes to home school.

When our children were young, my wife and I did not envision sending them to public school either. In fact my wife often had quite critical things to say of our local public school system. Now as our children are in or prepare to enter high school, imagine our own surprise as we enroll them in the same public school system which earlier we had viewed so critically. We are not unaware of the weaknesses and drawbacks of doing so, but at the same time we see our daughter thriving in her current school environment as she has not thrived in the past several years of her education and we look forward to launching our son into the same system (albeit to a different high school) next fall.

Our children have spent most of their educational lives either in small, Christian school contexts or studying at home in a semi-homeschool environment (not a “true” homeschool environment because we did not choose and implement the curriculum ourselves, although our children did their study at home under our supervision and with our assistance.) To the extent that they had classmates, they were largely from the same or similar cultural backgrounds as they. Although we lived in other cultures and they had some interaction with these cultures, their key educational environments were distinctly evangelical and American.

Now that one of them is in public school (our son is finishing his middle school years in an on-line virtual academy), she is for the first time in her life immersed fully in a secular world. She is surrounded by people who are not like her, people who do not share the same underlying values or beliefs. She has made friends with people who are quite different in their worldviews, not necessarily the people we would have chosen for her had we been the ones making the choice. But we are not and at age 15 we no longer should be, at least not in a directive sense. We do converse with her about her friends and as she interacts with them it has opened opportunities for conversation with her about many issues. She is, for the first time, having to consider the meaning, implication and impact of Christian faith in a decidedly non-Christian context. The outcome is not certain, but my wife and I are convinced that the process is worthwhile.

I see a trend among some evangelicals in America, a trend to condemn the secular culture in which we live and to respond to the increasing secularization by retreating and withdrawing from it. Homeschooling can, in its more negative forms, constitute a part of this trend. It seems that some families feel that we can no longer engage with the culture and our best response is to try to isolate ourselves and try to remain pure and unsullied. I do not think this is a healthy response. Nor do I think it is a realistic and workable response. At some point our lives must cross those of others who are different from us, who do not think and act and believe as we do. If we do not prepare our children for this interaction when they are growing up, when we are most able to influence and teach them, they will instead crash into it later in life. I fear that children who grow up in an isolated conservative Christian environment, even if they are “armed” with apologetic skills to “defend” their faith, will find it difficult to deal with a secular society. But deal with it they must at some point. For this reason, among others that I will not go into here, I am glad that my daughter is in public high school.

I am not opposed to homeschooling. It may be the best option for some and it definitely has advantages. The group I talked with recently were certainly polite, generally engaging and interested in what I had to say. I don't know that the average public school classroom would have been such a receptive environment—though in fact I do not know because I have not had that opportunity. What I would say to homeschool advocates is: recognize that homeschooling is an option, not a mandate. It is not more or less godly than placing our children in public schools, so do not judge those of us who take that route. Recognize also that your child will have to deal with a world in which the majority of people around him or her will not share the same beliefs, values or worldview and consider how you can foster a healthy ability to engage and interact with people from that world. Let us not be guilty of creating a Christian ghetto culture. Salt doesn't do much good if it just sits in a salt shaker, no matter how comfortable and welcoming that may be.

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