Tuesday, November 9, 2010

homeschooling is school . . . but maybe school gets in the way, sometimes

So, I've been thinking more about the women I've met this fall, the ones who take care to repeat at every meeting that "character is more important than academics," as if the two were in opposition. I've been trying to understand not just what makes them say that, but what makes them say it so many times over.

It's a warning. It took me awhile to figure that out. It's also an educational philosophy, and that's where I get hung up, because as an educational philosophy I disagree with it, even though as a statement by itself I think it's true. So I get tangled up in the educational philosophy side and spit out lots and lots of words trying to cut myself clear of the brambles.

But lately I've been thinking, Okay, I disagree with their methods. I get disturbed when I see veteran homeschoolers advise new ones "not to worry about academics" and "academics will come; don't worry about them" and "put away the books till after Christmas and concentrate on deschooling your child" and "cooking and playing is school" when the child is old enough to read and figure. But . . . what makes them do that? What makes them so scared? What am I missing?

And I don't have a firm answer. But I'm beginning to have a theory. And it goes back to the point where I agree with them: character is more important than academics. And these women - who have more experience than I do - consistently act like academics are an enemy to character, or at least, a potential one. I don't see it that way, and that's where I start getting riled up. All my life, academics has led me closer to God, has made me see new ways to live my life well, has introduced new beauties and truths to my eyes . . . it's never been in opposition to character or Christianity - even when I was taking classes from professors and teachers who were opposed to Christianity. I still dove into the new knowledge, certain that all truth was God's truth. The academics, the intellectual life, always led me closer to God and not away. So I've been having trouble understanding these women.

But, I remembered something important: my experience isn't everyone's experience. And if these women are so set on seeing academics in conflict with character, that must have been their experience at some point. My impression, also, is that it's not academics itself that's the problem, but that, at some point, their zeal for academics led them to neglect some other part of parenting.

And that, finally, strikes me as a problem that could be particular to homeschooling. If you are playing this dual role in your child's life, if you are both Mother and Teacher, well, then it's possible to get those two roles out of balance, and I'm beginning to think that that is what they're trying to say when they keep urging me "not to get hung up on the academics". I think that they're talking about a focus on schooling that eclipses our duties as Christian parents.

And I can see how that would happen. It's easier to check academic skills off of a list than to pay attention to all the multitudes of little moments that form a child's character. I can see how you could get lost in the one to the detriment of the other, simply because it's less daunting to attempt to teach a child algebra than it is to teach that child to love Christ. 

(Not to mention - and I keep coming back to this - that you have more control as a teacher than you do as a disciple-maker. You can probably force someone to learn math; you can't force anyone to become a Christian. And that powerlessness is scary. It could make you run in the other direction, in fact, towards something that you can control.)

And if it's a warning not to let a secondary duty distract me from a main duty, then I welcome the warning.

I still have trouble saying that it's okay for your child not to learn, when you have taken responsibility for seeing that she does. I still think that putting academics in opposition to character-building is making the apples to fight the oranges. I wish that they didn't see it that way; I think it leads to academic laxity that is irresponsible.

But I am glad for the warning against distraction, against substituting one good (academic achievement) for a better good (Christian character). That's something I can understand. 

And I'm glad to understand these women better . . . if I finally am understanding them.

So, what do you think? Am I closer to understanding what they mean by it, do you think?

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell


Matthew Green said...

My first thought is that they see public schools as offering no (or anti-) character development. The response tends to be to swing the pendulum to its opposite extreme...

ooshela said...

It seems to me the statement could be taken to emphasize the importance of actually learning the subject being studied instead of just doing the next workbook page because you need to check it off the list. Building a character of fortitude, perseverance and determination to learn well...that translates into the rest of life and character building in general. "The Core" by Leigh Bortins (CEO and founder of Classical Conversations) is an excellent book with a lot of food for thought for the homeschooling family on this topic.

Jessica said...

Hi Matt - I've certainly seen that attitude, but I don't think it's what's going on here, because these were moms who were already committed to homeschooling talking to moms who were already committed to homeschooling - in other words, they were talking about a danger that was particular to homeschooling, not to parenting in general.

Jessica said...

Pamela - I like that idea! I think that aiming for real learning as opposed to just checking items off of the list is a great goal. But these women were talking about ditching academics altogether when the need arose, so I don't think that's what they were getting at.

Matthew Green said...

Just because you're not talking about something doesn't mean you're not talking about it...
But I could certainly still be wrong.

Queen of Carrots said...

I think sometimes this concept is expressed in the context of a child whose poor character is affecting their academic work--i.e. the child who screams and whines over every new assignment. In those cases it may be better to focus on the character first in a different context to allow a more concerted effort and to keep schoolwork from getting a lot of negative emotional baggage.

But I have seen it used as an excuse for not doing so hot academically. Honestly, though, most people who use it as such are not very academically inclined in the first place and tend to see academics as opposed not only to character, but to practical skills and the rest of life--anything beyond basic literacy tends to be seen as a set of meaningless hoops set by the state. I suspect their children probably wouldn't have a drastically better academic experience in most schools, either. But they will be far handier around the house than mine will ever be.

Amy said...

Lots of interesting comments!

Perhaps these women are heavily influenced by leaders in the early homeschooling movement - Dorothy and Raymond Moore. They believe in putting off formal education until 8-10 or even later.

What is most important is that I think you have it right - offering a balanced environment. Academics are important. In order to see and know the truth, you do need a strong global foundation.

One really cannot separate character development from academics. IMHO, an integrated and balanced approach will lead to a better integrated individual.

BTW, this is one of my pet peeves too. I was appalled the other day when a fellow homeschooling mom was talking about college prep tests and how "our kids don't test well in math & science." Research shows differently and my daughter scored very well...and she loves the Lord with a maturity & passion that is deeply rooted. So, I think perhaps part of the problem is the veteran leadership. They preach the same thing in my area.

As a veteran homeschooling mom I can say, listen to what the Lord is telling you and where He is leading. When we take the responsibility for the education of our children, the only accountability we have is to God. (I do know some have to show accountability to local officials.) I don't want to have to say, "but they said" when He looks at how I attempted to glorify Him in raising up my children.

Amber said...

Something that comes to mind is what happened with my brother when he was in middle school. He had an absolutely horrible middle school experience where he was horrendously persecuted by a group of boys. The school was not willing to do much of about it, and one of the teachers was actually egging this group on. It was very, very bad and my brother started doing some self-destructive behaviors and finally my mom yanked him out of school and decided to homeschool him. She knew nothing about homeschooling as a movement or anything, so what they were essentially doing was school-at-home using the public school curriculum. They got absolutely nowhere in the first few months - my mom couldn't get him to do anything and he hated everything. After several months of this, my mom decided to back off on the academics a bit and give him different opportunities for learning experiences. In retrospect I think she could have gone a lot further than she did, but that would have entailed leaving the school district behind and she wasn't ready to do that. But still, even what she did helped and it started to reawaken his desire to learn.

I know this isn't exactly what you're talking about here - the parents you are talking about are most likely not dealing with this sort of situation... but if character issues are getting in the way of being able to learn anything, then I am definitely in favor of jettisoning formal academics until the child is in a better place. Why spend huge amounts of time making school a battleground when instead the character issues could be improved and then formal academics could proceed with far more success and much less angst on everyone's part.

And I think your second commenter has a good point - a lot of times learning something gets confused with checking off boxes and filling out worksheets... and any thought of fostering the desire to learn gets completely lost. And that is the real tragedy in any educational experience, no matter how much or how little knowledge manages to get crammed into a child's head!

MomCO3 said...

Thanks for thinking through this out loud.

Jessica said...

Queen of Carrots - thanks for the comment. Yes, I could see how you'd need to stop and address character issues that interfere with academics before you could, you know, go on with the academics. :) Thank you for another interpretation of what I'm hearing; I appreciate it.

Amy, thanks for the encouragement and the observation that character and academics are intertwined. I think you're probably right, and I just need to think more about HOW they're intertwined, since what I'm hearing is so troubling to me. I'm trying to take the time to figure out what I think about this topic so that I'll be able to respond well to the views I disagree with, and not just be distressed by them!

Amber - thanks for sharing your story; it feels like another piece of the puzzle to me.

And thanks, Annie, for the encouragement.