Presented at the 2014 NOLA Homeschoolers conference on May 23, 2014.
Well, much to my surprise, you are all still sitting here. And because you are at a homeschool conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, you perhaps have realized that what was just said is not completely true, or if it is true, not many at this conference will uphold the fullness of these sentiments, myself included.
If you spend enough time in home education you will realize home education often gets the kind of wrap just presented, and, this may surprise you, some of it is correct. As a generalization, it misses the mark of what home education is. But when it comes to specifics, much of it rings quite true for many families and many children. In my line of work, I come across all different types of families approaching home education in all different kinds of ways and for different reasons. I see some families flourishing, whose children have been prepared both academically and personally. I see other families floundering out to sea, hardly able to stay afloat academically or emotionally. I have met some who lay lifeless on the bottom of education’s ocean, reaching out for serious help, but only because the underwater current is moving their arm, and not really because they want help. And I see others building sand castles which will be gone with the rising tide. In each of these scenarios, one factor matters most: parents.
Strip away home education of all its parts: take away curriculum; take away co-ops; take away gifted students; take away conferences and parent survival guides. Take away dual enrollment. At its base, home education succeeds or fails on the backs of parents. There are three main attributes to all successful homeschool parents: a love for their children, a love for discipline, and a love for learning. I will deal with these in that order, leaving more time for the latter, since it stands as the central topic of this talk.
First, homeschool parents must love their children. I present this first because this is the starting point for a successful home education. Many people home educate for many different reasons. Some home educate because the public schools are too deficient. Others home educate because the private schools are too expensive. Some home educate because they simply can’t let their child out of their sight or away from their control. Many more home educate because it is the latest educational fad. And still others home educate because it is simply more convenient for their tennis schedule…not kidding. While the last three reasons are deplorable, the first two reasons (deficient public schools and over-priced private schools) are good reasons why one should home educate, and I believe they are correct reasons. Even still, these two reasons, in and of themselves, are incomplete. If you home educate for one of these two reasons, the good reasons, you cannot stop there in your motivations. Ultimately, home education cannot be a reaction against other people’s bad educational decisions. Home education ought to be driven proactively by a love for one’s child and a vision for that child’s life. When we home educate because we love our children, and not simply because we love our own educational ideals or love our own social reputation, we will educate in such a way that builds a strong teacher-student relationship. In this way, loving one’s student is a mark of good education generally. Love and respect are not only the most basic bonds of any good society, they are the basic bonds of any learning environment, and especially the learning which takes place between parent and child.
Second, a successful home education requires a love for discipline. If we love our children, we will discipline them, and I do not simply mean spanking them or chastising them when they have done wrong. By discipline, I certainly mean working faithfully at teaching them right from wrong and correcting them appropriately when they have done wrong. I do mean ethics. But when I say we should love ‘discipline’, I am moreso referring to the etymological root of this word. Our word “discipline” derives from the Latin disciplina (“instruction”) and discipulus (“pupil”). To love discipline is to both love instruction and love the one being instructed. And this means putting in place two important educational realities: play and structure.
If we love our children then we will set good structure for our children, and we will mature in setting good structure for ourselves. Much of our modern conception of freedom boils down to the idea that true and abiding freedom is the absence of restrictions. To be truly free, so the argument goes, one must only throw off all hindrances, thus becoming whosever and whatsoever one feels will most free them. If your gender restricts you, says modern man, throw it off. Change it. If your sexual orientation restricts you, throw it off. If God restricts you, no longer believe in him. If your society restricts you, restrict them by making them succumb to your strict rules of non-restriction. For modern man, everything but the self is eschew. Thus, modern man does not seek to change himself in order fit something, even something that may be good and right. Modern man seeks to change everything but himself. In this, we have gravely misunderstood freedom. Freedom is not the absence of restrictions, it is the presence of the right kinds of restrictions. As the 20th century writer and theologian G.K. Chesterton put it, “We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall around the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased…A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expect any number of adventures if he goes travelling in the land of authority.” (page 153-165 Orthodoxy) Pope John Paul II said it this way, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
There are three steps in this establishment of healthy boundaries, one stemming from another. First, we must determine the principles which we seek to reinforce and teach in our homes. Second, we must determine which spatial and relational boundaries best reinforce those principles. When and where should the boys play war? When and where should they not play war? Where should parents argue, in the healthy sense? Where should they not argue? Where do our shoes belong? Third, in setting boundaries and disciplining when boundaries are crossed, we must make sure we are clear about the violation and the boundary.
A homeschool child plopping down to the breakfast table at 9:30 A.M. in his pajamas, because this is when he happened to wake up for the day’s lesson, is hardly a mark of a good home education, and it is certainly no proper exercise in teaching our children to be free-spirited. A good education requires structure. And a home education even more so, given the apparent ease with which many homes fluctuate between education, family obligations, and other distractions. It is easy in home education to blur the lines, to become enmeshed, eventually sacrificing a child’s education. Structure in a successful home education requires, among other things, a good yearly schedule, a good weekly schedule, a good daily schedule, a clear curriculum, accountability for parents and students, and a plan for when interruptions come, because they will come.
Finally, a successful home education requires a love for learning. When proper structure is set in place in our homes and schools, we will likewise recover a true and abiding sense of play, of imagination and joyous creativity. Learning will be loved. It is a first principle in education of all forms that one cannot give what one does not have. I often meet parents who say their child doesn’t enjoy reading and has a difficult time loving school. “It is a war just to make them do math!” says the mom with grit in her teeth and clinch in her fist. My first response is always the same: “Well, do you love to read? Do you love math? Do they see you love learning?” The answer is typically a resounding and empty “Well, no.” And then my response is “Then, why should they?” Teachers pass on their values to their students, and, again, this is doubly true for parents, and ‘quadrupley’ true for home education, where parent is both parent and primary educator. More is caught than taught. Kids can sense hypocrisy, calling bluff in their own rebellious way to a parent who commands the child “love to read” and is then never seen holding a book for more than a few seconds. This is why home education is dangerous, and not easy.
When we home educate, we tell our child, “We are your standard. We are your academic, spiritual, and daily standard.” What often times doesn’t happen is we don’t recognize how low of a standard we actually present to our kids. Therefore, parents must be lifelong learners. Parents, as men and women upon this earth, must discover anew the wonders of this life, the joys of reading, the pleasures of writing, the dazzles of poetry, the brilliance of music, the magnificence of science and medicine, the intricacies of logic, the depths of politics, the crowning jewels of theology, the charms of community, the artistry of the universe, the passions of childrearing, and the pure gift we call this life. We must recognize the depth and breadth of our own ignorance, even in the field we know the most about, and we must find kindled within us a desire to understand.
Apathetic parents create apathetic children. Bored children come from bored and boring parents, no matter what homeschool curriculum we choose. Therefore, not only should it be desired, but it is necessary that parents become lifelong learners. For those of us who profess Christ as the Lord of all, we ought to consider anew what this profession means for our becoming lifelong learners, inquisitive and curious in God’s spoken world. Stratford Caldecott in his book Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education states, “Precisely because religious faith affects everything, even changing the way we view the cosmos, it cannot be compartmentalized…Revelation subtly alters the way every subject is taught as well as the relationships between them. What is revealed connects them severally and together to our own destiny, to the desire of our hearts for union with infinite truth. At that point, everything becomes interesting. There are no ‘boring’ subjects- nothing can be ugly or pointless unless we make it so, turning our backs on the Giver of Being.” When home educators love their children, love discipline, and love learning, they will consistently look for new and gracious contrivances in order to become better students of their children and better students of truth, goodness, and beauty.
For some of you, being here at this conference is the first step in wanting to be a lifelong learner, the first step in asking the kinds of questions that need to be answered. For others, being here is perhaps one step among years of many. Either way, you are here and this is the kind of place where questions need to be asked and answered. It is the kind of place where you can find a few subjects in which you delight and run into with conviction and vigor, not as a home educator, but as a person. This is a place where those new to home education catch a vision and you veterans see what bad habits you perhaps have accumulated throughout the years. When I came into classical education, I jumped in head first, and submersed myself into all I could learn. Thankfully, it was deep enough so as to dive in without fear of hitting my head on the bottom. I still do this: not because I have to, but because I get to. The beauty of good things creates in us a delight that seeks nothing short of union with that thing. Our children, our students, can sense that, and they can sense when it is not there. Horace Bushnell, a 19th century minister and theologian stated it this way: "[A child's] character is forming under a principle, not of choice, but of nurture. The spirit of the house is breathed into his nature, day by day. The anger and gentleness, the fretfulness and patience - the appetites, passions, and manners - all the variant moods of feeling exhibited around him, pass into him as impressions, and become seeds of character in him; not because the parents will, but because it must be so, whether they will or not. They propagate their own evil in the child, not by design, but under a law of moral infection...The spirit of the house is in the members of the children by nurture, not by teaching, not by any attempt to communicate the same, but because it is the air the children breathe...Understand that it is the family spirit, the organic life of the house, the silent power of a domestic godliness, working as it does, unconsciously and with sovereign effect - this it is which forms your children to God." (Christian Nurture by Horace Bushnell)
Home education is tiring. It is work. Home education means self-discipline for mom and effortful intentionality from dad. Good home education means doing the kind of academic work that is often not being done anywhere else. But home education done well is also deeply rewarding. It makes for children who know they are loved, homes that are well structured, and parents who delight in learning.
Resolutions for Lifelong Learners
By Brian G. Daigle
“I never cease to learn as I grow old.” Solon
- Resolved, to have something to say about every topic.
- Resolved, to have something to learn on every topic.
- Resolved, to love questions.
- Resolves, to love answers.
- Resolved, to run hard after ever-increasing Gospel knowledge.
- Resolved, to know the depth and breadth of my own ignorance.
- Resolved, to aim my priorities, time, gifts, and talents to reflect number one and two.
- Resolved, to have true interest in the other person and their knowledge.
- Resolved, to “read until my brain creaks”.
- Resolved, to play.
- Resolved, to retire into good works.
- Resolved, to die with frayed edges.