Monday, October 11, 2010

a bit more on education . . . or, Homeschooling is School, Part III

First though, for all my friends who have read The Republic, a question: would you characterize it as a treatise on education? And, to follow up: would you take Plato's recommendations about education within his thought-experiment republic literally, i.e., do you think that that is how he actually thought children should be educated?  

My memory of the book has me answering "no" to both questions, but that memory is also fuzzy enough that I'm realizing I really ought to just go and read the book again. Still. A lecture I attended tonight made me curious (okay, riled up) about the subject, and I'd love to have an answer in a shorter time than it will take me to reread the masterpiece. (Patience, thy name is . . . well, not me.)

(Also, would you say that the man who came up with the theory of recollection considered children to be a tabula rasa, as Locke did? That seems inconsistent to me, but I'm probably missing something.)

Right, that done, a bit more on education and academics.  

I really appreciated all the comments on my last post. I was especially grateful to Stephanie for suggesting the distinction between education and schooling. She said:

Eighteenth-century Americans from various denominations often used the term "education" to mean Christian/religious training and "schooling" to mean learning to read, write, and do math.

This, I think, encapsulates exactly what was bothering me about the educational philosophies I've been running into, the ones that imply (and sometimes explicitly state) that if a homeschooling parent raises a child who loves God and loves others - but is not academically excellent or competent - than that homeschooling parent has still succeeded.

To which I would answer: Well, she has mostly succeeded as a parent. She has failed as a teacher. (Or, I suppose, her children have failed as students. It's a two-player game, after all.)

And I'm not arguing that the latter is more important than the former. I don't think it is. I would rather my children loved God and their neighbor than that they were academically successful. 

But, if I am incompetent to lead them to academic success, I don't have any business homeschooling them. 

I suppose I should modify that slightly. I suppose that there could be circumstances where it was homeschool or end up with a child who didn't love God and his neighbor, in which case it would be an either/or choice: homeschool and be an academic failure or public school and be a moral failure. But I really don't think that choice happens very often, if at all, and it bothers me when it's framed as an either/or, as if all public school students were automatically destined for hell.

So, back to education and schooling. I think that children should, ideally, have both. Education is more important to the whole person, especially if we take Gabe's definition. He says: 

To answer my own question - education is for developing whole, virtuous, well-balanced people. It's not primarily for learning a trade or accumulating facts or getting a piece of paper. That can be said of all the subjects, and if you approach them from a utilitarian perspective I think you miss the point. For example: we don't learn Geometry because it will be useful at our job, we learn it because mathematics trains our minds and teaches us discipline and gives us insight into the ordered mind of God.

So, in his view (correct me if I'm getting it wrong, Gabe), education would tend to lead to schooling (e.g., the desire to train the mind and gain insight into the ordered mind of God would lead us to study Geometry). But, presumably, you could be educated without being schooled in the manner required by modern American law: say you're a member of a non-literate society who is nonetheless raised in the church, aurally receives the Word of God and meditates on it, is apprenticed to a trade, etc. It wouldn't pass muster legally here, but you're educated - you've been given the tools for becoming a whole, virtuous, well-balanced individual.

But also, this view leads me to say that whatever schooling your education does lead you to ought to be good schooling. If you really want to study Geometry because you want insight into the mind of God, doing a bad job at Geometry is unacceptable. Attacking it lazily, without care for the right answer, is not going to lead the results you want.

So, in this view, academic excellence should be considered important, right? And, if you slack on your academics because "character is what matters" aren't you, ironically, developing bad (slothful) character? In our Geometry example, if you are slack, sloppy and lazy in your endeavor, aren't you failing to bow your neck beneath the yoke of immutable mathematical law? Aren't you missing the chance to learn humility when you finally (as you will) come to the branches of math high enough to defeat your intellect? Aren't you failing to learn the virtue that comes when you have to do something that not only bores you, but that you are bad at?

And yes, in every subject save the few (or one) that become your specialty, there comes a point where you admit defeat, and you can quit. But unless there's a developmental disability, that point is not in the first grade! And I think it does a disservice to the homeschooling parent to constantly imply that the academics are not important. The academics are a legal requirement, and not an unreasonable one, in the culture we live in. In taking over your child's schooling (given the definitions above, you are already primarily responsible for her education), you have in effect promised that you will see that she is academically competent. And, given what you believe about education and virtue, why wouldn't you see that she was, as far as her abilities allow, academically excellent?

So, to conclude, I think the emphasis on character bothers me for two reasons: 

1) It seems to say that a rigorous education somehow excludes the possibility of being a person of excellent character. This is seen in the many, "If only they're good people who love Jesus, their SAT scores don't matter" talk. Well, yes. Of course. But why are you linking those two things together anyway? Because you're scared you're going to make a hash of the academics, that's why, and you want to point to the part you did well.*

(But if we're going there, I'd actually much rather think I was responsible for my child's poor SAT score than her damnation. Doesn't taking credit for your child's good character scare anyone else? Doesn't taking credit for it also mean you have to take the blame? Oh dear, that could be an whole other post . . . the idea that homeschooling = salvation . . . so I have two, no, Three! reasons for disliking the emphasis on character. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition . . .)

2) It assumes that character training is only done by homeschooling parents, that education is only done by homeschooling parents.

That second one might be another subject for another post. This one is already too long, I know. Thanks for listening to me think this out, friends. If you've got a corrective line of reasoning for me to follow, a helpful definition, or anything else, please chime in. I'm new to thinking hard about this, so I'd love to have help.**

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

*See Jess. See Jess assume. Assume, Jess, assume.

**Among other things, this is code for, "I'm aware of the fact that a few more years of growth and maturity might have me eating my words." :D


Ma Torg said...

A thought: but could it be that the people who emphasize the character aspect say that under the assumption that the academics are a given? As in, of course we're teaching our kids reading, writing and math, but we're doing it ourselves because we want to really focus on their character.

I say this because, with all the homeschoolers I've come across, I can't recall having met any whose children are less educated than kids in public school. Yeah, maybe they could've been better educated, but they were still basically educated and I'm not quite certain they would have gleamed more if they were in a classroom.

So, anyhow, I suppose I just don't understand why it seems to be a problem to say that character is important.

Yes, I want my children to academically excel and I know I can help them do that which is why I think it is okay for me to homeschool them because I value character more than academic excellence.

And, I also don't think the two necessarily go hand in hand. Everyone can potentially have good moral character, but not everyone can necessarily excel academically. And that is not because of lack of failure necessarily, but because not everyone is gifted with academic abilities.

Every family has their individual values and ways of achieving those values. Some families feel confident that they can shape their children's character while sending them to public school. Others don't. I frankly think that either choice is a hard decision. If you send your child to school, I think you really do carry a greater burden to MAKE SURE YOU FOCUS ON CHARACTER when family is together. However, if you homeschool, the burden is obviously then to make sure you are disciplined enough to make sure that your child's education is covered.

So, I guess, I think although the goals should be the same, how you carry the burden is different. I frankly think it would be very hard to help a child with character development when they were gone most of the day. And, honestly, there are very few families I admire who don't homeschool their children. I really think the sense of family can easily get lost these days when everyone is just so busy doing their individual thing.

Which brings me to my last point in this terribly long discussion: I think that character is best built within a family unit. Families bring with them tension, love and forgiveness. A very natural dynamic for learning virtue. I think it is very sad in our society that the family seems of so little importance these days and gets so little time together. And, so, yeah, you can help your child develop a virtuous character if they are in school. But don't you think it is a bit harder to do?

Ma Torg said...

So it occurred to me after I wrote my way too long response, that maybe I don't quite understand the "attitude" behind the families who say we homeschool for character. I can see how that would be annoying if statements like that were said in a "Im a better parent" attitude.

I forget that I live in the Bay Area where Christian homeschoolers aren't the majority.

That said, I have been surprised by the number of secular families at our school who say they homeschool because they want to focus more on their family values and have their children raised to be like 'them' and not their teachers.

Elena said...

On Plato: Socrates is describing the sort of education necessary to produce the sort of people who can fill a particular function necessary in order to maintain the sort of city that Gloucon wants to live in. Which may or may not be the sort of education you want for yourself or your children. It all depends on your goals.

So by my read, it's a fairly literal (albeit hypothetical) education described inside a story that's fundamentally about education... but it's not a straightforward recommendation of how Plato (or even Socrates) thinks you should go about schooling your kids.

Jessica said...

Hi Kelly -

Yes, I'm sorry, I should be adding more context to these posts, but I really don't want to attack the individuals I've met who I've heard these from. They seem like really well-intentioned individuals, and I'm hoping it's all just coming out wrong. But the problem is that there does seem to be an implication that character formation is the primary goal of homeschooling, to the point that if you don't homeschool, you are automatically incapable of guiding your child's character formation. In effect, yes, it is, "I'm a better parent." Or, "if you don't homeschool, you must be a bad parent who doesn't care about her child's character formation." And I just don't think that's true.

Also, this same attitude seems to have the unfortunate side effect of minimizing academics. That would be the "it doesn't matter if your child can read, as long as he's a good Christian." And, big picture, yes. But . . . when you're taking on the responsibility of educating your child . . . no. That's just not okay, and it bothers me every time I hear it.

(Oh, and good point about the differences between different children's abilities; if I wasn't clear, by "academic excellence", I mean "academic excellence according to each child's ability." Everyone should strive to do his best, but each person's best is going to look different.)

Jessica said...

Elena, thank you so much for your comment. Here's the reason I was asking:

I attended a lecture where the speaker made up a dialogue on education between Plato and Charlotte Mason by lifting quotations from each of their writings. But she took her Plato quotations from the Republic, from that section, and treated them as Plato's own literal views on education.

Given that they weren't his own literal views, and Charlotte Mason's were, it didn't seem like a fair fight at all. (And she had Plato losing the debate, obviously.) It bothered me greatly, especially from a speaker who professed to greatly love books. He wasn't the only author she quoted out of context either (Lewis suffered the same fate, though it wasn't as bad). I'm thinking of writing her a short email, pointing out the problem, to see if there's something I'm missing.

kate ortiz said...

enjoying reading over your blog. especially these recent education posts. they mirror quite a few of my thoughts.

have you by chance ever come across the book "a thomas jefferson education" by oliver van demille? i was just handed a copy by a friend and am thus far enjoying it. he makes interesting distinctions between education that produces managers and professionals and education that produces "leaders," or people/students who know how to think and not just what to think. i'm curious to see how he fleshes all that out!