Thoughtful Revolution



Thoughts on Homeschooling, Part 2

Part 1 can be read here.

In our last exploration of my so-called homeschooling life, I discussed the social ramifications of my grand educational experiment.  The whole thing ended on a cliffhanger, asking — but not answering — the big question: Have I learned anything?  And how, intellectually speaking, does it compare to school?

Before I begin my attempt to answer these questions, let me reaffirm that I am only evaluating my personal experience.  I am neither “for” nor “against” homeschooling; that is an exasperating (if not unusual) dichotomy that boils the highly personal question down into a simplistic theoretical debate.  I am for homeschooling in some cases.  I am against it in others.  The only experience I can judge with any certainty is my own, and that experience — and no one else’s — is what I evaluate in these posts.

Let me also note that, in this particular case, I will use the words “homeschooling” and “unschooling” interchangeably.  This is not because I don’t know the difference — it’s because my homeschooling experience has mostly worked through an eclectic-unschooling style, and I want my comments to specifically reflect on that style as opposed to the myriad methods of homeschooling as a whole.

At any rate, this second part will by no means be as damning as the first.  Yes, there are many ways in which homeschooling has intellectually failed me, perhaps enough to call the experiment, on the whole, a disappointment.  But I concede also that I have gained a tremendous amount mentally (if not academically, and I will explain what I believe to be the difference) because of the blessing-and-curse freedom that homeschooling grants.

The primary intellectual failure of homeschooling, for me, I have already enumerated: the lack of a diverse and challenging community to provide a forum for ideas.  I don’t mean to say that I lack potential study partners (read: friends) or that the ones I have are stupid — on the contrary, my autodidactic friends are among the smartest, most capable people I’ve ever met.  But there aren’t many of them.  And while that may seem like more a social wrinkle than an academic one, it does hem in the range of discussion topics and frequency of face-to-face discussion.  It is also hard to avoid the fact that the homeschoolers I know are very homogenous, both in background and opinion, and debating any of these lovely people becomes more an exercise in semantics or preaching-to-the-choir than a genuine broadening of views.  Now, it’s worth noting that many suburban Montgomery County schools are similarly homogenous; nonetheless, the smaller size of the social group makes such homogenity more overwhelming and less escapable.  As someone who learns — and doesn’t always feel good doing it, but learns nonetheless — through the constant challenge of others, I feel that my intellectual development has been somewhat hampered in the absence of a “community of ideas.”

Likewise, I have suffered from the failure of unschooling to impose structure, and thereby to challenge me in ways that give me a healthy dose of discomfort.  Call me a masochist, but I refuse to buy the too-common unschooling theory that “if you don’t want to do it, you probably don’t need it, and if you ever need it you can always catch up.”  That’s a perfectly adequate premise for a job search or a summer vacation; for a worthwhile, broadening education, I can’t help but feel that it’s nonsense.  The whole point of education — whether in the conventional K-12 sense or throughout one’s life — is to cultivate a rational/compassionate/generally functional mind and worldview and identity, to develop an interdisciplinary and informed sense of the world, to equip the student with a healthy desire for discovery along with the tools necessary to approach life with perspective and awareness.  I believe that a truly good education — as opposed to a strictly-practical-for-modern-life education, which, while necessary to any worthwhile program, is not sufficient education in and of itself — does not spend all its time endlessly finessing one particular “subject” or skill at the expense of a whole host of others.  It does not caress one field while shrugging off the others as unnecessary.  It certainly does not streamline students into specialized subject areas, reducing them to “a math kid” or “a Latin American history kid” or “a Project Runway kid.”  (The irony here is that what I have just described is essentially what we might define as “tracking,” possibly the foremost trait that prominent homeschool theorists deplore in public school.  If we posit that tracking is bad, we must also posit that exposure to, and education in, a number of fields is good — otherwise, we have a substanceless complaint without coherence, let alone a solution.  And while schools are far from perfect in that regard, unschooling cannot be held up as an antidote.)  That said, higher math does not come easily to me, making it less enjoyable a subject than, say, world literature.  I understand the necessity of doing it, and when I do it I feel the rush and expanding self-definition that comes with intellectual struggle, but it’s hard to motivate myself to do it on my own.  Which is why, increasingly, I’ve had to turn to school-like venues for calculus and hard sciences: if I were to revert entirely to unschooled self-study, the struggle would be much harder and much less pleasing, not only because I learn these subjects better from knowledgeable human beings than from textbooks but because I’m not always automatically motivated to do things that I know are good for me.

And that, I believe, has been my biggest problem with homeschooling as I know it.  There is only so much self-motivation that I personally can keep up (I can’t speak for anyone else), and that self-motivation has long since been exhausted.  Again, I realize that, though I was always referred to in school as a “motivated learner” or an “independent, driven worker” or what have you, I speak as a product of the “factory-farm” school system and may therefore be lacking in the vast reserves of drive that lifelong homeschoolers manage to cultivate.  But, though it may be a failing on my part, it is a factor in my experience nonetheless.  And while I was relatively hardworking in my first year of homeschooling — I certainly entered enough [bleep]ing contests — that power has steadily eroded, and it is now what might be kindly referred to as a shriveled, pathetic nub.  As evidenced by fossil fuels, or cough syrup, or a nice big bag of Orville Redenbacher’s, any resource, when made the exclusive and perpetual source of something, will begin to run out and/or have unhealthy effects on the user.  Self-motivation is no different.  I don’t need to explain that it has slowly exhausted itself, leaving me depressed, ineffective and with no greater desire than to eat leftover pasta and watch endless “Top Chef” marathons (and I don’t even have cable!).  But the part worth explaining is the less predictable one: as my self-motivation has burned out, it has also become an obsession.  The less I accomplish, the higher expectations I set for myself, and they grow higher and higher until they’re not only impossible to achieve in a day but in a lifetime.  This drives me into greater depression, which erodes even more of my motivation, and it all becomes one great miserable vicious cycle.  Which has, of course, had no positive effect on my education.  This only reinforces the need for a certain structure in my life — when it is all left up to me, I inevitably begin to stagnate in a tearful, unproductive, whatever-the-opposite-of-educational-is funk.

Of course, this has its upside, and a profound upside at that.  Though the overuse of self-motivation may eventually cause collapse, it has also forced me to draw on, and create, resources I never knew I had.  By that I mean that, no matter how “self-driven” my teachers may have thought me, I have become a much more independent thinker, learner and worker than I ever was in school.  I analyze, I argue, I question to a degree that I never would have imagined in school.  When something must be done, I force myself to do it, and it may be onerous, but it’s always exhilarating.  I may not like math, but I’m doing better in math than I ever was in school.  I don’t just rely on my basic skills and the knowledge I may or may not have absorbed in class; I study until I can keep myself afloat.  I told myself, last year, I would get a 5 on a pair of AP tests — without having taken any sort of course, and without any materials but a study guide and some self-selected supplementary readings, I did it.  I’ve pushed myself to excel in history, a subject that was neither my best nor my favorite in school, to the point where I’ve fallen in love with it.  I’ve grown more radical (and more obnoxious) politically, mostly because I challenge things now that I’d have taken for granted under school supervision.  More importantly, I act on my political impulses.  I tackle things that are outside of my comfort zone; I don’t always succeed, but I take them on.  I’m much less mainstream than I was in school, and though I don’t know what the term “mainstream” even means I accept that statement on a number of levels.  I started a freaking blog to voice my own mundane freaking opinions.  I could never have done any of that three years ago.

I could say a lot more about the positives of homeschooling: the time it’s granted me to explore new passions, the varying perspectives it’s allowed me to explore within by-nature-subjective-and-therefore-restricted-by-a-teacher’s-worldview subjects (history, English, political science, economics to some degree), the college admissions advantages (yes, I said advantages), the exposure I’ve gotten to numerous groups and venues and features of this glorious city.  I could also say a lot more about its negative effects on my psyche and education: the homebound nature, the dearth of science labs or field trips or school plays, the constant questioning, the disapproval of friends and relatives, the financial guilt, the sadness of seeing good friends demoted to acquaintance status, the unhealthy expectations of myself that, without a report-card checklist, expand past the bounds of reality.  But this post has gone on for far too long, not only because it’ll look ugly on the page but because there’s only so much time worth spending on reflection.  I’ve spent plenty of time picking apart my homeschooling life; now it’s time to return to it, and make of it what I can.

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