Responding to NPR Stories

Two stories I heard on NPR during the last couple of weeks made the bells in my head ring loudly enough that I need to respond…at least briefly to silence my brain.

The most recent one, about gifted minorities, clanged painfully inside my skull. As a suburban white woman who has butt up against this idea of “giftedness” and rejected it as damaging; I hate hearing about its growth in any sense.

I expect the idea of identifying minority children as gifted will be embraced by a lot of people I know, but the whole concept of gifted versus non-gifted education leaves me feeling like I stepped in dog shit. So I’m not including a link to that story. I’m just getting its ugly clanging  out of my head so I can focus on a much happier note…

Which is the story I’d heard a couple weeks earlier on NPR about the growing interest in homeschooling among African Americans… I’ve been hoping this would happen. I’ve been expecting this to happen. I’ve been waiting for this to happen. It just makes sense.

The perception of homeschooling, in general, suffers from an imagination deficit. This will only improve as more examples become visible to the world.

Years ago, when my children were small and our family life was still ours to create (in other words, public school and all its organized accomplices had just started waving its Mickey Mouse Wizard Wand over our lives so the marching broomsticks hadn’t drown us yet), we met another family who I was fascinated with. There was something about the way they lived that suggested they’d found the door at the back of the wardrobe and Narnia was really there.  When the topic of school came up the mother told me they planned to homeschool. I asked why.

She answered that they didn’t like what school did to their family. I understood. I understood really well. Yet… while this idea that there was actually an alternative gave me an overwhelming feeling of magic potential – it also left me with a sad realization that I would not be experiencing it. I  didn’t know how. The myths I had been raised on had too strong a hold on me to imagine leaving them behind.

That moment has stayed in my memory like some great foreshadowing. The idea was so appealing to me, and raised such a strong yearning. But it was also so foreign to me. I wasn’t strong enough to venture into such a huge undertaking without having the support of my world behind me.

Years later, when I described this memory to another friend and mentioned the extent to which I was drawn to the idea of homeschooling, she responded with surprising intensity and said “Thank God you didn’t do that!”

I was so disappointed.

She dismissed homeschooling as a crazy idea without any hint that she understood its appeal. Why?  I’d thought of her as being imaginative and open minded, and I’d expected her to think it was a really interesting idea – a creative opportunity. Instead she seemed to see it as fanatical and antisocial. It was a reaction that didn’t match my own visions of exploration and community at all. Later I came to understand a bit better that she, a left wing liberal who had moved from California to live somewhere in the south for a few years, had encountered one very specific kind of homeschooling. She had experienced homeschooling as a Fundamental Christian practice aimed at sheltering children from exposure to outside ideas. This is what homeschooling meant to her. Even if she knew I wasn’t religious, her mental image of homeschooling was based on an image of people with insular beliefs who wanted to shut out opposing viewpoints.

Not the free thinking picture I’d conjured in my own head. Just an extension of religious stereotypes. Depressing.

I also realized in a flash of embarrassing self recognition that having a left wing liberal ideology doesn’t necessarily make someone, more precisely my friend and/or me, more open minded than our right wing counterparts.

When I stepped back and took a longer view of that particular friend’s perspective, the one who was so set against the practice of homeschooling on religious grounds that seemed intolerant of other ideas – the rejection seemed equally intolerant, and equally controlling. Then I looked at myself and saw the same intolerance staring back at me.  It all started me thinking. I’m glad for that lesson.

I reexamined my own thoughts about Fundamental Christians and decided that they have every right to raise their children according to their beliefs, even if it means they are teaching things I disagree with. This is something that a lot of people I know don’t agree with, and it represents a real change in perspective for me. It is NOT, however, what homeschooling actually represents – and I doubt that my imagined view of homeschooling Christians is even slightly realistic.

Anyway, we didn’t homeschool, but that mother I’d met years ago was right. School had an enormous, and not so positive, effect on our family life.

I say we didn’t homeschool, but that isn’t 100% true. I gave my son the choice to leave school for a year after 8th grade, so we experienced one year of living without school. We learned a lot from that year, but he ultimately chose to return to the local high school as a Sophomore.

My early inclinations were not off target. Narnia does exist – but it is very well hidden. If I had been confident or resourceful enough to reject school from the start we would be very different people than we are now, and there is nothing about that choice that would have been inferior.

Meanwhile, I’ve spent a LOT of time thinking about the preconceptions, practices and potential of “homeschooling”.

Some themes are constant. The most critical to me is something I have trouble even putting into words…Autonomy? Freedom? Responsibility? Ownership? Basically, its the difference between education being done to someone and education being done by someone. It’s all about the locus of control. Control has to reside in the person being educated. Otherwise we’re just talking about indoctrination.

One way to take back control, at least in part, is to exercise some choice. Parents who feel like they have multiple choices probably feel more in control, and some of that feeling might extend to their children. It’s not a solution that’s available to everyone, and the choices are pretty limited since private schools are generally all competing in the same arena. Talking about choice also leads to a mistaken idea that “school choice” can be effectively implemented within the framework of forced school, as in charter schools. That kind of choice might work out for some people, but it doesn’t really change much. The arena is still restricted within the same artificial boundaries. Comparing “school choice” to the unimaginable possibilities that fall under the umbrella term of “homeschooling” is like comparing the choice of couches at Lazy-Boy to the myriad possibilities that exist outside of that arena, like Japanese floor cushions, a log by the river, or the experience of designing and building something new. It’s a matter of leaving the predefined arena altogether.

Of course, some people just want a cheap couch for their family room. That’s fine too.

Likewise, when I advocate letting people make their own choices about education I’m not talking about a choice between school a and school b on the public school menu. I’m also not just talking about a choice between public school a, private school b, and alternative school c. I’m talking about expanding the choices to all the possibilities outside the traditional accredited arena, including the choice to create your own version of school, and the choice to mix and match as needed.

The official word that is currently in use for this is “homeschool”.

There’s so much, good and bad, in that name… As an umbrella term that has no real parameters other than the absence of an accredited school, it covers a huge range of possibilities. Which makes it really, really hard to conceptualize or generalize.

And the word itself connotes something small and insular, like just staying home. Most people picture the specific examples they’ve been exposed to and form their mental model around those. That’s the way our little human minds tend to work. Imagining is difficult, so we take the examples we’ve seen and forge a general template from those.

And up to this point, most of the examples of homeschooling floating around our common ether have been very, very….very

white.

While the people who are most in need of educational alternatives are not so very white.

So, every once in a while over the last few years,  I would search the internet for homeschool groups in cities like Detroit or Chicago in the hopes of seeing some not so white faces. Seeing them made me hopeful.

Which is why that NPR story rang my bell.

There is enormous potential for useful alternatives to evolve under this umbrella of “homeschooling”, but they’ve been obscured by pale stereotypes. So that enormous potential has been slow to catch hold in the minds of the many diverse people who need it.

Another problem is that homeschooling is often framed as anti-public school, while public school is framed as our culture’s hero in the quest for societal salvation. Attempts to lessen the authority or control of public education in order to shift some control back to potential alternatives can look like an attack on those who are most dependent on public resources. Public education has been cast as the mythical knight in shining armor that will rescue our disadvantaged citizenry from its doomed future. Any movement opposing the authority of public education gets cast as the evil witch in this fairy tale.

But Prince Charming is not going to ride in and save everyone. He might have grand delusions of saving the world, but he gets really distracted by bright shiny objects…like iPads for everyone, and words like “STEM”, and the children he is supposed to be rescuing aren’t sure he really likes them. Look closely and you’ll realize that what we’re mistaking for Prince Charming is more likely to be Chris Christie or Cory Booker on their way to a fundraiser for their next election – a lot like a Ball, but fewer pumpkins turned into chariots for poor maidens… There is no better evidence in favor of letting people opt out of compulsory schooling to find other solutions than the story of Newark’s failed attempts to reform its public schools.

The schism between the advantaged and disadvantaged has not gotten smaller. There has been some small success in mixing the colors in each group….but the gap between these groups is widening, and the balance, in terms of the number of disadvantaged vs. advantaged, is tipping in the wrong direction.

That is because empowerment is never something that is given. It’s taken. Just like education can’t be forced without becoming indoctrination.  Learning springs from the person who experiences it. Empowerment springs from the person who realizes it.

Personally, I think the real solutions will be born outside our  existing education system. Once born, they may become strong enough to change the existing system and create something new in the mix, but the birth of truly useful alternatives will come from people who create their own models of learning. More examples means more fuel for the imaginations of people who still can’t quite see that another way is possible.

So when NPR aired a story about the rise of homeschooling among Black families, I did a little victory dance in my kitchen for the pajama wearing boy learning history in his kitchen.

 

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