Of Education and an Integrated Life
Despite its hazards, homeschooling also provides an unparalleled remedy for a splintered existence.
Despite all technology's promises to the contrary, never in history have humans experienced a more dis-integrated existence. The many components of life—which previous generations tended to experience as intimately intertwined—today often seem no more related than one feels towards that awkward second cousin seen every five years at the family reunion.
It's the vast gulf between the workday and family life, old people and children, science and religion, home and community, our roots and our future, Sunday services and Monday morning. The diverse pieces of our own lives and society as a whole both seem to be moving ever outward, like the universe itself.
Historians rightly make much of the disjointing caused by the industrial revolution. As farm-dwellers moved to factory jobs in sprawling cities, the age-old bonds that previously knit individuals into families, communities, and local economies unraveled. Thread by thread, the personal ties that had always held life's many distinct pieces together dissolved. Along with the many benefits of industrialism, a sense of dislocation and disconnectedness pervaded life as never before.
The technological revolution amplifies this fractionalizing tenfold. Consider the TV screen as one vivid emblem: fifty years ago, every TV-watcher in North America watched the same three channels, typically viewed with others on a home's single TV set. But year by year, three channels became dozens, then hundreds. Today, with YouTube and Netflix and tablets and iPhones, every resident of New York City could easily watch a different show at the same time.
The fraying of relational ties is just one aspect of the splintering. In fact, it is hard not to feel that the links between many other aspects of life—things we know deep down should be connected—are precariously thin as well: faith, work, leisure, purpose, friendship and more. We sensed deep down that life would be better, richer, more what it was meant to be if these often disconnected elements could be more fully joined. Yet everything around us seems to pull continually in the opposite direction. The gravity of modern life is centrifugal.
How we approach education will play a watershed role in either amplifying or healing this dis-integration. Homeschooling, in particular, can be a driver of division and isolation. Ironically, it may also hold the greatest potential to work against fractionalization. Homeschooling offers an unmatched forum for helping children to understand and experience more integrated lives, and ultimately to become menders of a torn social fabric for the broader community as well.
Ed Theory 101
A few years ago, as parents of toddlers, we noticed questions about school plans frequenting the conversations of our fellow young, city-dwelling families in Washington, D.C. The options public school, homeschool, private school made for lively conversation alongside mild concern over the looming decision.
Key value questions rose to the surface as we compared approaches: To what extent should our desire to engage our local community and its needs shape our choice? Which environment would most grow character alongside knowledge? What priority should be given to maximize the unique strengths of each of our children?
As we walked through our first year of public school with our oldest daughter, Siena, another question began to rise in our discussions as well. Could we do more to re-integrate the many pieces of her life that had suddenly become far less connected?
Consider just her relations with different age groups. Siena previously interacted regularly with a wide variety of individuals. But full-day Kindergarten meant little time or emotional energy left for her younger siblings at the end of the day. Nor was there much chance for doing life with grandparents or any others who had a half-century or more under their belts. In fact, Siena now spent her weekdays almost exclusively with children within a year of her age.
We saw integration decreasing in other realms as well. Siena's education day no longer included any form of work save mental exercise and games. Nor was she was presented with clear opportunities to serve or sacrifice for others. Spiritual discussion was also now segregated from day-time learning. Instruction happened almost exclusively in a classroom—no gardens or museums or animals or other wider-world experiences. In short, Siena spent the bulk of her waking hours in an environment that enabled very little connection with many of the things we believe make for a life well lived, from work to faith to nature.
We knew some of these sacrifices were necessary to the focus required for learning. And yet it seemed to foretell a future in which the many necessary components of a vibrant life, if co-existing at all, would remain unnaturally distanced from each other.
Dangers of Homeschooling
Let's just say it. Homeschooling has often proved to be the least integrated of all learning models.
Why? The majority of learning typically happens in one's house, separated from the rest of the community. The parent-teacher must step away from broader engagements to educate his or her own children, tending toward isolation. Meanwhile, a protectionism that emphasizes an "us-them" view of the world can permeate the learning process. Particularly in the first wave of the modern homeschool movement, this separatist ethic was a central motivation of many families, often creating a removed and segregated sub-culture. (Little wonder that we and many of our friends initially assumed we'd choose anything but homeschooling.)
These factors, no doubt, are at least part of why the 2011 Cardus Education Survey Phase 1 Report seemed to indicate that homeschooling of recent decades produced an array of uninspiring results—from lack of clarity in direction, to minimal political involvement, to unimpressive levels of volunteerism and charitable giving. (Cardus is the publisher of Comment.) All of these outcomes at least hint at diminished capacity for integrated living.
Admittedly, the survey results are not nearly so dismal when accurately understood. For example, in its attempts to isolate the effects of each form of education, the Survey reported that the effect of homeschooling itself was minimal, and sometimes negative, on many key indicators of adult thriving. Yet the actual outcomes (raw scores) for homeschoolers in most of these areas were quite positive—in fact, often better than for Catholic and nonreligious private schools.
One also must acknowledge that the sampling classified by the Survey as "homeschool" represented a narrow and particularly zealous sub-set of homeschoolers. Only those who'd spent the majority of their high school years at home were considered "homeschoolers." Children who, for example, homeschooled for nine years but then attended a Protestant private high school for three were classified as "Protestant school."
Perhaps most significant of all, the majority of Survey participants began their educational journey between two and four decades ago. Homeschooling then was a very different world than it is today. Many parents who choose homeschooling now do so for a much broader set of reasons than their highly protectionist forebears. Meanwhile, the homeschool education experience itself is vastly broader as well, from curriculum options to co-ops and community arts, music, volunteer, and sports activities.
All this acknowledged, the danger remains. Homeschooling carries a certain gravity toward isolationism. It can amplify the excesses and blind spots of parents in children's lives. It can allow students to grow strong in a few areas and stunted in others. There's a reason, too, why "socialization problems" are a favorite talking point of critics and even a matter of self-deprecating humour for those who are homeschooled. Ultimately, homeschooling families must diligently cut against isolationism if they are to avoid the shortcomings of the prior era.
An Engine for Integration
Despite its hazards, homeschooling also provides unparalleled opportunity to cultivate integrated lives. Most contemporary school settings—bound by everything from state laws and teachers' unions to parental assumptions—simply aren't free to creatively cultivate more integrated educational models. Homeschooling uniquely allows for the flexibility and innovation necessary for weaving formal instruction together with whole-life experiences. What follows are a handful of examples of how we've seen this modeled.
Integrating Service. Learning a language or musical instrument or even math skills gains much greater significance when understood to include the purpose of ultimately utilizing these skills to serve others. One homeschool family we know annually hosts a community-wide carnival to raise funds for orphan care in Africa. Not only do the kids learn about a significant global issue as part of their education—they act upon that knowledge. As they do, they put to practical use the math, art, web design, and other skills learned in class, while also developing other key capacities like event organization, marketing, volunteer management, and more.
Integrating Age Groups. School settings typically segregate by age, isolating children from all but their immediate peers. In contrast, homeschooling allows regular interaction with a wide range of ages. For our girls, that includes a half day every few weeks with their 90-year-old great-grandmother in her retirement home. There they hear stories of their heritage, learn to knit (yes, knitting is cool), and visit neighbours who give them firsthand accounts of Pearl Harbor and the Great Depression. Meanwhile, they are also part of a weekly book club populated by girls several years both above and beneath their ages. From group discussion to giving short presentations, they have a chance to learn from older, more capable girls and to be a friend and inspiration to the younger ones.
Integrating Thought Life. When weekdays are shared beyond fleeting mornings-and-evenings, there's more room to process all elements of life together. For us and many homeschoolers we know, a core element of education includes interacting with our children as they experience art, culture, and entertainment. This isn't just museums and events, but also (perhaps most importantly) the subtle messages of commercials, billboards, and NPR. Meanwhile, experiencing life together also allows more opportunities to naturally discuss and weave biblical wisdom with watershed issues as they arise: death and loss, evil and injustice, sexuality and body image.
Integrating Work. Participating in work instills a deep understanding in children that they are an integral and needed part of the family. Jedd recalls working alongside his three brothers on the small family farm with their father, learning both specific skills and (most importantly) disciplines applicable in every area of life. Identifying work opportunities for kids is a bit tougher for us with the smaller house and yard we inhabit. But from dishes and laundry to flowerbed weeding, there are still many great options. These tasks aren't just about "helping the parents"; they are a key part of education, too—building life skills, character, and a confidence in children that they are indeed growing into young men and women.
Integrating the Foreign. Little is more nourishing to the mind and perspective than experiencing things beyond what's normal and comfortable. Some homeschool friends of ours recently made major sacrifices to move as a family to Kenya for a year, serving together at a home for street children. Undoubtedly, that decision will deepen their children's learning far more than any course of study alone ever could. And while Kenya may be impossible for most, there is much nearby that is also "foreign." For us, that includes an arts education program for students in a low-income apartment complex in a particularly rough part of town. Rachel volunteers while all four of our kids join in the program. They enjoy the art and games, but also regularly see evidence of the hurt many of the kids there experience daily—including a shooting recently witnessed by one of the girls in the program. The conversations initiated by our kids afterwards often wade deep into some of life's most significant questions. Likewise, the weekly experience of seeing their mom serve teaches them about both the cost and value of reaching beyond themselves and choosing risk over comfort.
These and myriad other ways to pursue integration are indeed possible whether kids are in public, private, or homeschooling programs. (We've experienced—and valued—all three.) But at present, we love the ways homeschooling allows us to intertwine and interconnect the many aspects of our kids' education into a more integrated whole.
In a world pulling hard in the opposite direction, we've come to believe that helping children toward integrated lives is a goal worth pursuing—perhaps just as significant as the knowledge, skills and character we hope to cultivate in the process.
This month, Rachel and Jedd Medefind unceremoniously graduate from having a large-but-respectable family of four to becoming one of "those" families with the birth of their fifth. All seven Medefinds live in central California.