My wife Celeste and I have four boys under the age of nine. This life stage is not a good time for experimentation. Order is the watchword, because order yields control, which preserves sanity, which saves lives — specifically, the lives of four children who some days are much closer to being sold to the local zoo than they think.
We believe everything you need to know about parenting can be gleaned from Little House on the Prairie. Growing up in wildly dysfunctional households, we both learned that you can do much worse than the Ingalls family. We decided when we got married that our home would be better than what we knew as children. The foundation is love, order, and relentless application of rules like: Eat all your vegetables, and Mind your manners, and Don’t push your brother’s head into the toilet.
So we frown on radicalism. Yet we have embarked on one of the most radical endeavors families can undertake: home-schooling. Given preconceptions about this practice, I should note that we are not anti-government wingnuts living on a compound. We like literature, and nice wines, and Celeste would stab me in the heart with a spoon if I gave her one of those head bonnets the Amish women wear. We are not, in other words, stereotypical home-schooling parents. But neither are most actual home-schooling parents.
Even though Ma and Pa Ingalls sent their children off to the little schoolhouse in Walnut Grove, we’ve decided to start our own. In the eyes of Kansas authorities that’s exactly what we’ve done; regulations require us to establish a school and name it. Ours is the Woodlief Homestead School. I wanted to go with something like: “The School of Revolutionary Resistance,” but Celeste said that was just inviting trouble.
The reason we’ve broken with tradition, or perhaps reverted to a deeper tradition, is not because we oppose sex education, or because we think their egos are too tender for public schools. It’s because we can do a superior job of educating our children. We want to cultivate in them an intellectual breadth and curiosity that public schools no longer offer.
Somewhere there is now an indignant teacher typing an email to instruct me about his profession’s nobility. Perhaps some public schools educate children in multiple languages and musical instruments, have them reading classic literature by age seven, offer intensive studies of math, science, logic, and history, and coach them in public speaking and writing. The thing is, I don’t know where those schools are.
Except for one, which is in my house.
My wife is a Montessori teacher, with several years of combat experience in Detroit’s corrupt, bankrupt schools, where her impoverished students routinely blew away standardized test-score averages. Between us we have more degrees than a thermometer. What’s more, unlike too many public school systems, we aren’t content with mediocrity. There’s many things we stink at, like dusting, and lawn care, and filing our taxes in a timely manner. But we are good teachers.
The secret of home-schooling, however, is that you don’t have to be a master teacher to do it well. Energy, dedication, and good materials are what you need. Your competition, meanwhile, is a system that by design and necessity seeks the median. Public (and many private) school students have to move along in all subjects at a similar pace, and in the same order. Outliers — the talkative, the energetic, the gifted, the struggling — are labeled and interventions (counseling, special classrooms, tutoring, medication) prescribed. The goal is not a full realization of the child’s potential, but rather the system’s smooth functioning.
Saying that we home-school sometimes elicits troubled responses. Though conditions have improved since the 1970s, when public school officials routinely sicced child welfare officers on parents teaching their children at home, home-schooling is still odd to most people. That’s just the price we radicals pay. Thanks to organizations like the Home School Legal Defense Association, though state authorities and teacher’s unions don’t like what we’re up to, they mostly leave us alone. Power to the people, baby.
While it’s nice to imagine ourselves living a counter-cultural lifestyle, the reality is that in Wichita, Kansas, home-schooling is widespread. Home-schoolers have baseball teams and soccer leagues. Teaching support groups. There’s even a Boy-Scout troop. Local private schools, meanwhile, offer science and other equipment-intensive courses. Churches provide facilities for home-school association meetings, and even study halls so home-school parents can join Bible studies. If a home-schooling mother falls ill or dies, there is often another home-schooling family who takes on responsibility for teaching her children.
Folks in our neck of the woods embrace the proper goal, which is not supporting public schools, but supporting public education — the education of the public, which is only ever you and me and our neighbors. The goal is educated children, after all, not allegiance to some institution or ideology.
This includes, by the way, a willingness to walk away from home-schooling itself if a better alternative emerges, like our local classical schools founded by groups of home-schooling families. There’s a lot of talk around election time about reforming schools, which always leads to top-down solutions. For many people we know, the best school reform they’ve found is forming their own.