May 06, 2003
Old school home schooling

Last week I dined with some home schoolers. I briefly met the two daughters (aged 8 and 5), who seemed to be happy, confident, well educated people. Whatever is being done, something is being done right.

I won't attempt a total description of everything that we talked about. I will instead focus in on two things that struck me as particularly interesting.

The first concerns the motivation of this couple in opting for home schooling. They did not opt and are not opting for home schooling out of any radical or ideologically-based disapproval of the principle of schooling as such. They are, after all, home schooling their children, not protecting them from schooling as such. What they are protecting their children from is what they believe to be bad schooling. It began as a one-off holding operation in response to one especially neglectful teacher, and has continued because it seems to be working okay, and because other better alternatives still do not seem to be available. Like many apparent radicals, these radicals are really thwarted conservatives. They had a very traditional idea of what "good" education ought to consist of, and they felt that they could supply this better at home than any available school now could. They favoured rather old fashioned children's books, and a decidedly old-fashioned respect for the traditional arts, notably the visual arts.

If I'm being deliberately vague about names and places, this is because I'm taking my cue from them. They even said that when they started doing this, they kept it a secret from their friends. What they were anxious to avoid was any possibility of their daughters being labelled as strange or unconventional. Home schooling for this family means keeping it normal.

The local state school seemed to be bad in all the ways you would expect, such as discipline, unambitious curriculum, and so on. What was more interesting were their worries about the local "good" school, which is a fee-paying school with a formidable local reputation. They could have afforded this. They just didn't like it. And what they particularly didn't like was that had they gone there, their girls would have had to work too hard, doing solidly academic stuff not only all the morning, but for most afternoons. These girls get solidly schooled by mum all through the morning, but after lunch their time is their own. Sometimes they go on expeditions with mum, but as often as not, they amuse themselves, in their part of the house.

Getting into the habit of spending long hours keeping themselves interested seemed also to have developed their powers of concentration.

The second especially interesting thing I was told was that the girls seemed to be much happier with their own company than did their regularly schooled friends. Partly this was because, they said, they weren't being driven too hard, and wer being allowed to grow intellectually at their own pace. But there was also, she said, none of the "I'm bored" stuff that other parents got from their kids during the school holidays. These girls didn't seem to depend on adults to keep them occupied and entertained. They had been educated to be happy. That happy was my first adjective to describe them in the first paragraph of this is not, therefore, any sort of accident.

In other words, what I found was a family which believed in our old friend, a broad-based "humanities" education – a liberal education in the old fashioned sense. These people agreed with Sean Gabb about what education should consist of and what kinds of virtues and insights it should inculcate, and home schooling was their way to achieve this.


Despite the keeping-it-normal theme to what they were doing, the news is now leaking out to some of their friends. And some of these friends are now starting to mention home schooling as an option that they too might explore. It's a relief to know, they are saying, that there is an alternative to fall back on, should they need it.

Even more interesting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:54 PM
Category: Home education