We're officially in our first full year of homeschooling this year. At least, some of us are. My oldest son is not homeschooled, and Simon, my five and half year old was homeschooled for kindergarten last year, but legally, we were not required to file any paperwork because kindergarten isn't mandatory. This year we're doing the "official" thing complete with lists of materials (my kid reads so fast that I can't keep up with him - do I really want to write down the titles of all 38 Magic Tree House books plus everything else he's absorbed since August?), dates of evaluations (Call it parent testing, clearly designed to make sure you don't shut them up in a closet) and the urge to make snide comments about required subjects (Must. Resist. Temptation. To. Put. Chomsky. On. Syllabus. For. "Patriotism." ;-)). It is definitely an education - for us.
We're also homeschooling Isaiah, 3 1/2, who will be entering his second year of "kindergarten" and who is a very self-disciplined, hard working little person, proud of accomplishing his share of studying and maintaining his garden. Asher, 22 months, is entering his second year of being a major hindrance, old enough to be a pest, really too young to fully participate. But he cheerfully colors, dances, dumps flour into baking projects and tootles as loudly as possible (which is really loudly) on his recorder during music. By next year, we have hopes of being able to include him in "kindergarten."
Our approach can best be described as a mix of Waldorf curriculum, a whole lot of books, Jewish education and whatever works, combined with a total lack of parental organization that looks surprisingly like unschooling. I read books about homeschoolers whose days are disciplined, well organized and who have planned out their entire year in detail. We are not them. But Simon is well ahead of things in most areas (although woefully behind in handwriting and superhero underwear collecting), so we're not worrying too much about it.
Now a lot of homeschoolers do what they do because of a passionate dislike of public school options or from strong religious convictions. I'm not one of them, although both are factors to a degree. I hated school from first grade until I went to college - college was such a relief that I danced through my entire freshman year. My husband didn't hate school until fifth grade, but experienced a similar delight at his release. The problem wasn't that we were bad at school - the contrary, we were both very good at it, but easily bored and impatient. School to both of us was eight hours of grinding monotony - and I admit, I don't see a compelling reason to send a kid who is learning everything they need in a couple of hours hanging out with their parents to school.
And certainly religious factors enter into things - our rural school district has been very kind about us, but Jews are an anomaly here, and we constantly have to explain ourselves "No, Chanukah should not be described as 'Jewish Christmas.' "No, it is not ok if you read a story about the birth of Christ just because you read some story about a little girl lighting a menorah." "No, my son may not have a ham sandwich." "No, it isn't a beanie, and no there aren't horns underneath it." It gets old - fast. And while I expect my kids to be able to operate in mainstream culture, I think there's really no great urgency for them to confront it - 8, rather than 5, will do just as well.
But I'm hardly a homeschooling absolutist, and most of my reasons have more to do with energy than educational philosophy. My oldest son, Eli has been attending school since he was 2, receiving large quantities of speech, OT and other therapies designed to help him function in the world. Although both of his schools have been private, the first an integrated preschool, the second a school entirely devoted to the needs of children with autism, our public school district has helped us find these programs and paid for them, bused him there (actually a shorter ride than to our regional school) provided wonderful people to transport him and been generally both accomodating and supportive. We're very grateful to them. Our hope is that one day, Eli will return to the school district in as integrated way as is possible for him. We may someday homeschool him, by choice or necessity, but for now, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have a supportive school district.
So obviously, I'm hardly the person to condemn public schools, and I'm grateful for the resources we have access to. Sooner or later, the buses will probably stop running. I suspect for Eli it will be later, fortunately, since the district is obligated to provide him with an appropriate education, but as in New Orleans where thousands of special needs students went a year or more without appropriate facilities, these things slip by the wayside. We are prepared, if necessary, to homeschool Eli, but it isn't our first choice. And since the whole of society, not just our family, benefits if Eli achieves his fullest potential and becomes an independent adult, we don't have any deep qualms about taking advantage of this.
Not only am I not opposed inherently to public education, which meets real needs in some case, I've often thought that if my developmentally normal children could attend school the same way my autistic son does - surrounded by enough supportive adults with a lot of attention to give him, and an entirely individualized plan for his education, I'd send them all to school in a heartbeat. Obviously, that's hardly feasible in economic terms - but effectively, that's why we homeschool, to provide my non-disabled children with the same richly supportive and individualized atmosphere that my oldest child gets.
Eli gets what he does despite the cost and inconvenience because he literally cannot function without it, and our society recognizes that a large investment in such children now is likely to have greater net benefits than leaving him dependent all his life. But while my other children are better able to adapt to a generalized, one-size fits all program than Eli, who simply can't, I'm not sure they are in fact, better served by such a thing. While Eli is an extreme case, the notion that an education should be customized to fit non-disabled children as well doesn't seem that radical to me. My five year old is as unique, and in many ways as different from other children as my autistic son. He learns better in some ways than others, and has things he needs special assistance with and things he is radically ahead in. School tends to reduce all these distinctions to a sameness, as though they do not matter. And while my son will not always find himself in a world customized to his needs, I'm not convinced that, as some people have argued, my son must prepare himself for the "real world" by living in the unfettered harshness of the "real world" from five on. We could probably wait a little on that one.
Thus, we homeschool. But of course, there's more than that. One of the reasons we do is because it is an environmentally wise choice. We live in a large, rural school district. My sons would cover many miles on the bus each day, on a bus that doesn't have to come down our road except to pick up my kids. Right now there are school districts all over the country struggling to provide busing for their students, and some are ceasing to bus entirely as higher energy prices make transportation expenses difficult to bear. Similarly, many school districts are struggling to keep buildings heated or cooled. Stephen Beltramini kindly posted this link over at ROE2: http://tinyurl.com/38odq4. I've heard stories about bus system changes all over the country the last few years, as energy prices rise and already strapped districts tip past the point of no return.
The push to regionalize and expand schools has led to a number of consequences that are potentially troubling in a lower-energy world. Students are travelling more miles on the bus and in cars, and more children are travelling that way, rather than walking or bicycling. Streets and communities are often less accomodating to walkers, and schools are often in inaccessible neighborhoods, that involve crossing busy streets or highways. Many towns and neighborhoods no longer have their own school systems - they are now in large consolidated districts, and as we are less and less able to transport children long distances, many children will be less and less able to go to school.
The sheer cost of maintaining large regional schools that have put their money heavily into extraneous things like football fields and training grounds is likely to make them, like everything else, collapse under its own weight. The buildings are huge, requiring enormous quantities of heating, cooling and maintenence. Weirdly, in the Northeast, these all seem to be designed by the same architect, mostly from the school of butt-ugly - and all seem to have flat roofs (easily damaged by heavy snow loads), air quality problems and large expanses of green lawn regularly treated with toxic chemicals. This is not going to last.
There are psychological and cultural problems associated with large scale education. Classrooms of 28 kindergarteners (as friends of mine in an affluent suburb have) simply can't have the same degree of individual attention that smaller groups can. Thus, there is an enormous amount of pressure to conform. I live in the school district that has the honor of, having been the very first (but hardly last) in the US to try and legally force a family to administer Ritalin to a child whose parents didn't think he needed it. Such things are far more common now - a friend of mine who is a school psychologist in a low-income school district in Massachusetts observes that many of the teachers he meets recommend drugs for nearly every difficult child - in part because they simply don't have the time or energy to use them. Boy children are particularly a concern, partly because they are more likely to have a disability, but often because we have eliminated physical activity by reducing PE and recess time.
All schools provide pressure to conform, and large regional ones have even more reason to provide such pressure. Simon, our first grader is an independent minded, imaginative bookworm, rather like his mother. He liked preschool just fine, and enjoys Hebrew school and was well behaved and compliant, but is happiest following his own interests. He's also an obsessive kid, who focuses intensively on one or two ideas at a time. Since he was two, he's gone through periods of obsession about birds, space, dinosaurs, jazz, Winnie the Pooh, the Beatles, mythology, geography and presidents. At 5 1/2, he routinely corrects me on the capitals of small African states, can tell you how old John Lennon was when he first picked up a guitar, has a stuffed Penguin named "Coltrane" and is mad as heck that Kuiper Belt objects don't qualify as planets.
None of which is to imply that he's anything of a prodigy - he's an ordinary small child, bright in some ways, average or below in others. But he's a specific small child, and both my husband and I vividly remember the limitations of a system meant to do the best by everyone. When we spoke to his future kindergarten teacher, trying to decide whether to send him to school or not, I joked that all of Simon's games eventually "turn into Calvinball" (for those that remember "Calvin and Hobbes," "Calvinball" was the imaginative, constantly rule changing game Calvin and Hobbes played together), and that he tended to spend a lot of free play time doing his own thing. The teacher responded, "We'll fix that for you!" I know she was being helpful, but yikes! I didn't want my son to be "fixed." The qualities that I like in him - his imagination and autonomy, were immediately perceived as potential problems to a teacher who has so many children to tend that "unconventional" means "trouble."
And the reality is that large chunks of public school educations are about conformity, and sometimes conformity in itself isn't the problem, but the shape you are being forced into is. I'm not at all convinced that the conformity that they encourage is the sort that will help my kids in the future. That is, much of what is being taught is preparation for (as almost every school says) "being part of the global economy." Lucky kids, who get to be cogs in that wheel! But whether I like the idea or not, the reality is that I don't think the global economy with its hyper-specialization and emphasis on make-work is going to be around when my son is 18.
Our school is definitively not preparing our children for a local but not parochial society - in fact, the curriculum in things like patriotism that I've seen seems to be quite the opposite - we are trying to create a parochial and globalized society. That is, we are teaching children that they are supposed to participate in a "global" economy but also to believe that Americans are better than other people. My own goals are precisely the opposite - to have my children experience a wide world, through the lens of their particular place. So while foreign languages are not offered in our public schools until middle school, our children study Hebrew and Spanish now.
But for all of this, I'm not an opponent of public schools, and believe public schools can be valuable. In part, my children have the luxury of homeschooling and a better education than could be provided locally because their parents have the luxury of time, which stems in part from frugality and care (our annual income for a family of six is in the mid-30s) but also from comparative wealth, a stable two-parent family. I believe that public schools are important, and I strongly believe in participating them, and helping to shape the curriculum so that it better mirrors the realities of our world. We do that too - we participate in our public schools as well as our homeschool group, and we believe that we do not serve our community if we completely absent ourselves from the institution that does so much to shape what our kids understand about the future. We see homeschooling as a necessary corrective, the reality that we're not going to sacrifice what we value in our kids' education to the inadequacies of public schools, but we also believe good public schools must be available.
Some homeschoolers like to say that all parents should home educate. This is clearly not the case. For example, there are millions of parents who have to work two or three jobs, millions of parents who lack the basic ability to teach their children - including a minimum of 84 million Americans who are functionally illiterate. Teaching your children at home when you can barely read in any meaningful sense is not like staying two piano lessons ahead of your students - it is impossible. There are also millions of parents who are simply too poor, and work too many hours to homeschool. There are tens of thousands of disabled children like Eli who will benefit more from school than home, and millions of developmentally normally children who love and benefit from schools all over the country. And we also all know the simple truth - that there are millions of children in the US for whom school is a far better place than home. It does not do to romanticize too much here - there are millions of households where violence, drug and alcohol addiction and other factors simply mean that children are better and happier at school than at home. There are millions of children whose only hope to escape their bad homes is for them to get lucky enough to have a teacher take an interest them, or for them to show a special spark. Unfortunately, school can't and doesn't do that for everyone. So we need not just good home education, but much better public schools.
Blanket dismissals of the value of public education are wrong too. Homeschooling is an excellent choice for many families who don't think that they are served by public schools, but all of us have reasons to be invested both in public schools and in home education. That is, it isn't an either/or choice. For example, many parents who send their children to school also provide supplemental education to their kids in religious studies, areas of interest, languages, etc... As we develop the skills of relocalization, all parents, homeschoolers and public schoolers are going to have to teach their kids subsistence skills. And for every parents who is happy with their local public school, there are reasons to consider homeschooling in a post-peak, post-climate change society, and to be prepared to do so. For every parent who can't now imagine homeschooling, there may come a time when their children cannot go to school.
But also, if those times come, we cannot simply retreat to our own private households, all in all. We must recognize that homeschoolers, just like everyone else, are dependent on public education - our children will play with children whose parents can't take the time to homeschool. Our children may marry children whose parents didn't speak enough English to homeschool them. All of us benefit enormously from living among well educated people - the kind of society we get depends on our ability to understand the issues that face our society, and to address them, and those are often factors of education. While I think the public schools suffer from some serious deficits, I think we are better off as a society with more education, not less, and we cannot abandon people who cannot or do not which to homeschool.
One strategy we can use while there's still time and resources is to advocate in our communities against larger, district schools and in favor of local, walkable, smaller schools designed to serve neighborhoods. This will difficult because it is bucking the consolidation trend, but it is also important - as oil prices rise, busing and its associated plowing costs become a larger and larger portion of the town or district budget. Small, community schools can cut those costs enormously. They also can bring about other benefits - a small community school with simple infrastructure can also serve, in many ways, as a community center. Here, after all, is where the parents congregate. Here is a kitchen used every day to prepare meals - perhaps it could be adapted to become a community canning kitchen during the weekends, or perhaps a school cafeteria that used local food ingredients could also send home pre-made, local ingredient, healthy meals to be reheated by community members at home, or the cafeterias could be opened on weekends. It is not an accident that in many small towns, the school is the center of communal life - and that it could be again.
All of us can help shape the education children receive in public schools, both by voting and also by participating in discussions about educational culture. Schools generally welcome community participation, and teachers are generally overstretched and have enormous demands placed on them. There is no reason an energetic and devoted person couldn't get a school garden started, or a cooking program using seasonal ingredients. Certainly you could bring out your skills and offer to come in to school to teach ecology or how to build a solar oven.
Most importantly, we can lobby to bring back agricultural education to our schools. The one point in Richard Heinberg's essay about _50 Million Farmers_ here: http://www.energybulletin.net/22584.html that I strongly disagree with is the idea that we should center the educational aspects of agriculture in colleges. Not only do I think that our agricultural colleges have stepped away from relevant missions in many cases (the largest section of many ag schools is now turf and lawn maintenence), but I also think that that's far too late. We need to be teaching our kids to grow food in elementary school and high school, not when they are in college. And since less than half the population ever goes to college, this absolutely cannot be an elitist pass-down from the university educated to those who actually grow the food. One of the great class divisions in the US is between those who actually get to go to college and those who don't, and we can't, now that food growing is finally being seen as important again, associate it with class division more than it is now. But I digress.
As I've said, the line between homeschooler and public schooler can be quite fine. Any of us may find that our child wants to go to school, or that we have a child whose abilities or disabilities suit them better to public school than to home. That is, instead of thinking in terms of "public education vs. homeschooling" I think we need to consider ways in which we can integrate the two. Ways in which we can meet our own needs whenever possible, but also offer a *good* and *responsive* and *public minded* education to people for whom homeschooling is not a good option.
What does that mean? First, in practical terms, I think simple preparedness means that those of us who have children should have a plan for a long-term disruption in existing educational services. That doesn't necessarily mean buying a curriculum or anything, but it does mean having easy access to (either in your private library or at your local, walkable public one) a good variety of educational materials, it means parents picking up textbooks and other materials at local library sales, and being prepared to introduce algebra if the schools are closed for a while due to a natural disaster or the inability of the district to afford heating oil. And it means knowing what your local educational resources are - it isn't necessary for every parent to be able to teach physics or Latin poetry if there's someone on the neighborhood who can help. In a relocalization system, where you want to keep as much of your wealth in your neighborhood and area as possible, educational services are just one of the items of exchange available in our new home economies.
But what if there's a longer term disruption in services and you can't homeschool forever? This doesn't have to mean an end-of-the-world disaster. It could simply mean that the system can no longer afford to run the buses and you can no longer afford to drive them. Or it could involve a localized natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Either way, your region or school district could be unable to meet needs for long periods, and even if you can personally homeschool, the neighborhood may be full of kids whose parents can't school them.
That's when parents should get together to consider collective home education. Generally speaking, it will not serve your community to have kids hanging around doing nothing (or better yet, coming up with creative things to do ;-), all the time. It certainly won't serve the long term good to have kids miss years of education. And while the unstructured life has some advantages, in a crisis, those are likely not to be the salient points. So getting together with your neighbors and dividing up the teaching just makes sense. There's no reason a child shouldn't come to your house on Monday to study history and botany, and to learn about herbs, and go to the neighbor's house on Tuesday for cooking and arithmetic.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that one should mimic the schools exactly - public schools have valorized some kinds of education while neglecting or rejecting others. For example, we've long emphasized that "smart" people don't need "vocational" skills like fixing things, building things, growing things and making things. This, of course is errant nonsense. We need to teach our kids to think critically, to write well and compellingly present their ideas, to read complicated material and understand it, to be able to grasp the science and math they are encountering and to recognize the literary, philosophical and historical origins of things. But we also need them to understand how nature works and how science is as yet only a thing that describes one aspect of nature, but is not nature itself. They need to know the limits of book knowledge as well as the potential of that knowledge. And they need to have experience with the basic work of providing for ones own needs - growing and making things.
In his seminal The Archaeology of Knowledge Michel Foucault argues that the way we organize our knowledge always and utterly transforms our relationship to it. And just as peak oil and climate change are in the broadest possible sense "market failures" - that is, failures that illuminate the deep inadequacies of our present economic system; they are also "education failures" - that is, profound revelations about the inadequacy of how we organize knowledge.
The way we categorize our knowledge, segregating our pieces of it as belonging to X or Y part, seperating "reading" from "art" from "mathematics" and "ethics" has led us to this particular point in history. The idea that we can take something and seperate out ecological impact from something like "work" or "sex" or "science" has driven us to a real crisis. That, if nothing else we must change. That is, we have to teach our children new ways of looking at the world and of imagining our future. We need to naturalize, from birth, the connections between moral principle, science, history and our daily actions. We need them to understand the whole impact of what they do and how they live.
I will write more about this in time, because it is far too large a subject for a single (already really too long) post. But I wonder, some times, if the breakdown of our existing educational structures might not be one of our best hopes for the future. Because, in the end, it will all come down to education - the education we offer at home, and in schools, the self-education of billions of adults who transform their lives without any real guides to help them and the messages we pass on to the next generation. It will all come down to what gladly we would teach and learn.