BY: JESSICA BURDE
According to a study by the U.S. Department of Education and National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read and 21% of American adults read below a 5th grade level.
The reality is that public schools are failing our children.
Although this year the United States reached a 40-year peak for graduation rates, literacy rates continue to fall, dropouts are on the rise, and, when compared to other industrialized countries, education in the U.S. is dismal. For many people, the answer is educational reform. Others have a different solution: Get rid of schools entirely and teach children at home.
Homeschooling has been around for as long as children have been learning their reading, writing and ’rithmetic, coasting under the radar, only of interest to those who practice it. Now, with an increased focus on the problems in education, homeschooling is in the spotlight. Some hail it as the ultimate solution for today’s youth, while others see it as a fundamentally flawed idea that isolates children, stunts their social growth, and limits their opportunities.
“I am very glad I was home schooled and intend to homeschool my children,” Havva, a 28-year-old woman who was homeschooled until college, told me. Her only complaint is the way people treat her—as if she were a social pariah. Like most people who are members of a minority group, homeschooled children learn at a young age that they are representatives of homeschooling to everyone they meet. A friend’s daughter, Havva says, once told her, “It’s not that I don’t want to be homeschooled, but sometimes I wish I could meet a new person and not have to talk about being homeschooled.”
But homeschooling in itself, Havva says, is valuable because it allows children to learn at their own pace, “when they’re learning things that interest them, when they get enough sleep, when they aren’t forced to start math before ninth grade.” This is what homeschoolers call “child-directed learning.” By allowing children to pursue their own interests, they learn more and faster than in forced educational situations. A child interested in space, for instance, learns best through age-appropriate biographies of astronauts and the history of space exploration, not through vocabulary lists. My own brother resisted reading for years until he discovered books about wrestling, which saw him jump from behind grade level to ahead of the curve in a single year.
In the same fashion, Havva’s parents assembled an impressive home library and encouraged their children to explore their own interests. At 16, Havva was learning genetics by conducting breeding experiments with the family goats and studying advanced math by exploring the mathematics behind braids.
Homeschooling also let Havva and her siblings interact with people outside of their own age group. “Children are designed by God and evolution to learn by emulating older humans,” she says. “When you divide them by age, you get children trying to learn how to be nine-year-olds from other nine-year-olds…. It’s the same problem in college. Who could possibly spend time around a 19-year-old boy and think, ‘I know, we should get a lot more of them and make them all interact without too much outside influence.’”
Havva says she got out in the wider world regularly, far more than children in public school. Today, she is as comfortable with infants as she is with the elderly and can fit into almost any social situation.
But Havva’s experiences aren’t universal. While her parents encouraged her to explore and learn, other families use homeschooling as a way to restrict their children’s exposure to the world.
One such example is Jesse Lashley, who shared his experience online: “I was indoctrinated pretty hard, and I’m still upset about that…. I memorized Bible verses for math tests, I was told that evolution was completely false without supporting evidence, I was taught history as the story of God working through humans, and so many other quirks that I don’t have the time to detail…. I spent a lot of time watching DVDs over and over and staring blankly at textbooks because I didn’t have a teacher. It’s frustrating, because there’s no one you can ask questions of when things get confusing.”
The failure to distinguish exploration from indoctrination is what’s tainting the homeschooling debate. Homeschooling doesn’t work when it shelters children from the world and propagates a mandated worldview. But when it encourages exploration, governed by a child’s pace and interests, it’s everything public school fails to be.