Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Few More Ground Rules

Correction: I wrote the name "Dana" when I should have written the name "Dawn". I plead sleep-deprivation. It's fixed now.

I've been contemplating writing about one or more of the topics that were brought up in the comments of my post "On Gaining a Quality Education at Home", and which I pulled out and listed here. But it occurred to me that I'd better give a little more context first, and set a few more ground rules.

The posts I've written that seem to have offended people the most were the aforementioned "On Gaining a Quality Education at Home", and last month's Virtue, Peer Pressure, and Homeschoolers.

And these posts were very similar to each other. They had the same form, because they were essentially trying to do the same thing. Each of these posts took a commonly-made criticism of the practice of homeschooling, and attempted to debunk it.

As I mentioned in the "Time to Set Some Ground Rules" post linked to above, there are many commonly made criticisms of the homeschooling movement and of homeschoolers themselves, that we homeschoolers find ourselves answering over and over. This fact was amply demonstrated in the comments of my "Gaining" post, where in the space of three comments, I was subjected to every one of the following objections to homeschooling:

  • If families pull their kids out to homeschool them, it hurts the public schools and the teachers who work in them.

  • It's selfish to do this, since for some kids that's their only option.

  • Education in this country has evolved from homeschooling to one-room schooling, to public schooling; so going back to homeschooling would be a reversal of progress.

  • Selectively pulling out of the public schools is elitist and unfair to those who can't.

  • The public schools need the support of educated parents for the benefit of uneducated kids

  • Homeschoolers don't know how to handle reading disabilities.

  • We're unaware of alternate teaching/learning styles.

  • Public schools prepare kids better by putting them in more lifelike situations.

  • Homeschoolers don't get exposed as much to people of different ethnicities.

  • Christians need to understand the culture if they are to reach out to people.

  • Homeschoolers are more likely to present only one side of any argument.

  • Homeschooling hinders the formation of a common culture.
  • Now, when confronted with objections like these, the homeschooler will often find value in examining the question carefully (at least, for the first couple of times. After that, it just gets old). What exactly does the criticism say? What do the terms mean, exactly? Are these criticisms valid? If so, why--and to what extent? If not, why not? What are the underlying assumptions of the objection, and are the assumptions valid or not? Does the objection point up a potential weakness in the homeschooling model--and if so, is there a way the homeschooler can compensate for it? Are there any potential advantages in the homeschooling model, that can be leveraged to smooth over any weaknesses?

    When the homeschooler confronts these questions and answers them fairly, the exercise can have tremendous benefits. For one thing, the homeschooler arrives at a much stronger understanding of why she does what she does. Often times, after contemplating the objection the homeschooler will realize that there are some changes that should be made; that homeschooling can answer the objection just fine, if the parent makes the effort to do this and this and this. And when the homeschooler finishes the contemplation and arrives at a better understanding of an issue, writing about it can have great benefits for other homeschoolers, who are often facing exactly the same issue. So I'm all for diving in and answering these questions.

    And this is exactly what I did with the two posts mentioned above.

    • In the "Virtue" post, I examined the common criticism that homeschoolers--being educated by parents in a sheltered environment--grow up without learning to cope with peer pressure, and thus are unprepared to deal with the real world when it comes time to leave home. To answer this, I examined an unstated assumption underlying the criticism, and concluded that the assumption was faulty; then I suggested a different model for the way peer pressure operates, and observed that homeschoolers are actually well-positioned to learn how to deal with peer pressure, if they take certain steps.

    • Then in the "Gaining" post, I examined the common criticism that homeschooling parents, being (frequently) not as well educated as professional teachers, are thereby unable to provide as rigorous an education. To answer this, I pointed out that there is at least one other educational model than that of the traditional classroom, and it quite effectively makes up for lack of teacher education by leveraging better student-teacher ratio. I also pointed out that if a student has been trained to be well-motivated and well-disciplined, that student will acquire a good education on his own initiative regardless of the quality of his teachers. And again, I observed that homeschoolers are well-positioned to raise students like this, so long as they pay special attention to the character education of the students.
    But the mere act of answering these criticisms was itself interpreted by certain readers as a de facto attack on the institution of public schooling, the students who attend there, and/or the teachers who work there. (But Note: if you're looking for it, the criticism of my "Virtue" post didn't show up in the comments there; it showed up in the comments of the "Gaining" post.) And I'm by no means the first homeschooling parent to whom this has happened: one of my commenters in the "Gaining" post, who uses the handle of "Dawn", put it very well:

    ...I've found that sometimes just talking about the positives of homeschooling seems to make people defensive. At times they hear things I didn't say and think that by talking about my choice, I'm putting theirs down. I think it's an emotional reaction, not a rational one. People hold certain things very dear, like public schools, and are hyper-sensitive to those who don't feel the same.

    Part of the issue stems from the very structure of these defensive arguments. How does one begin to answer a charge levied against homeschoolers? Well, just about any answer to any question in the above list would look like the following, in the abstract:
    • State the charge as accurately and completely as possible. After all, we don't want to make an inadvertent straw-man argument; we want to refute the real thing.
    • Make sure all the terms are defined well enough to avoid ambiguity. For example, if we're confronting the "socialization issue", we need to know--are we talking about enculturation, or are we talking about manners, or are we talking about schmoozing? The term "socialization" has many meanings; we have to be clear about which meaning we're using at any given time, and what exactly we're talking about.
    • Explore the underlying dynamics of the issue. In the socialization example, we might ask: what are the good forms of socialization, and what are the bad forms? Which environments are conducive to the spread of each? To what end do we wish our children socialized--that is, how do we want them to turn out, and how will the different kinds of socialization help us or hurt us?
    • Identify unstated assumptions in the original charge. Does the charge rest on some assumptions about the nature of classroom education, or the nature of the homeschooling environment, or the nature of childhood, that just aren't true? For example: does the charge assume that there are certain universals, true of all children, which are in fact mere social constructs, which could be changed if the children were raised differently?
    • If unstated assumptions exist, explore them. If these assumptions are invalid, the entire objection may collapse, or may need to be completely restated. I happen to think this was the case with the objection I answered in my "Virtue" post.
    • Ask whether the public schools are in fact subject to the same objections. Here's what I mean. One may level the charge that many homeschoolers do X wrong, but that argument--even if true--becomes much weaker if many public schools are also doing X wrong. For a purely hypothetical example, if some percentage of homeschooled children were growning up illiterate, one could make a serious charge against homeschooling. But this charge would be blunted if the public schools were turning out a similar percentage of illiterate students. While one could still make the argument that homeschooling is flawed, one would be hard pressed to claim that putting the kids back in public school is the answer.
    • Ask whether there are any advantages homeschoolers have over public schools, that could be leveraged to answer the challenge. After all, homeschoolers typically have much more flexible schedules; they have very flexible curricula; they have very low student-teacher ratios; they have many opportunities to interact with a broad strata of adults during business hours; they have more time with their parents. Is there any way these advantages could hypothetically be leveraged by a parent, to satisfy the original charge?
    • Ask whether there are any disadvantages that homeschoolers have compared to public schools, with respect to the initial challenge, and what homeschoolers could do to mitigate these disadvantages. For example, the schools often have some resources that homeschooling parents do not have: reasonably well-stocked science laboratories, sports teams and facilities; enough warm bodies to field a choir or orchestra; and so forth. However, in many cases it is possible for homeschoolers to come up with work-arounds that do just fine. For the above examples, there are often youth sports leagues and youth musical ensembles available that are community-based instead of school-based; and it is often possible to send teens to junior colleges for access to lab-based science instruction.
    • Identify a strategy that will allow the homeschooler to satisfy the challenge. For example, In my "Virtue" post I suggested that homeschoolers can do just fine preparing their children to stand up to peer pressure, so long as they take the time to get their children out into the adult world more often; that peer pressure is mitigated when children have lots of connections to people in all life stages, and not predominantly to people their own age. If this argument is true, it suggests to the parents a tangible strategy to follow, which would provide a satisfactory answer the original charge.
    • Check to see if there is any evidence out there that validates the strategy. It's all very well and good that you have a theory of how to do X. But the argument becomes much stronger if someone else, who's been doing X for many years now, can weigh in with an affirmation; or if you can find documented evidence somewhere that X works. For example, I pointed out a couple of news items at the end of my "Gaining" post describing how college admissions offices are increasing their outreach efforts to homeschoolers, and I highlighted the comments of an admissions officer that the formerly-homeschooled students are academically among the best prepared students they have.

    Now, note that a complete answer to any one of the charges listed earlier in this post will follow this outline pretty closely; this is pretty standard rhetorical stuff. It may not need to have every item on the above list, but it will have most of them.

    However, if a person is very sensitive about criticism of the public schools it's not hard to see how such a person could perceive an attack in such an answer. After all, a defense that follows this outline inevitably explores the avantages that homeschoolers have over public schoolers; inevitably looks for ways that the apparent advantages of public schooling over homeschooling can be neutralized by out-of-the-box thinking; and points out those ways in which the public schools are imperfect, as well. So while such an answer may generate outrage in some quarters, it is in fact entirely fair: it is still a defense against an attack, not an intentional attack itself. To claim that such a defense is out-of-line is to claim that homeschoolers are not permitted to offer a defense of their practices when they are criticized, since all such defenses will say these sorts of things.

    So: with all this in mind, I have a few more ground rules to set.

    • Just because someone says "this method of education does these things better than that method, and this is why...," that is absolutely not a slander, and is not out-of line. It is in fact an integral part of any defense of homeschooling--and it is also an integral part of any defense of public schooling, as well. No one gets to declare that kind of argument off-limits.
    • As I have made clear in previous posts, I have nothing against anyone who works in the public schools, nor any student who attends them, nor any parent who sends their children there. I also believe that homeschooling is not for everyone, just as I believe that public schooling is not for everyone.
    • Because of this, I will not entertain accusations of bad faith made in the comments. If I say something that sounds like I'm passing judgement on public school teachers, parents, or students, ask for a clarification. Do not come in with guns blazing, declaring "you need to stop bashing..." or " never think about..." or the like. If it sounds like I'm bashing someone, chances are there's been a miscommunication somewhere, because I have no intent of bashing anyone, and because I do my best to keep avoid inflammatory and contemptuous language in these posts. If you ask nicely, I will do everything I can to clarify what I said, and correct things when I misspeak.
    • All rules I laid out in my post here are of course still in effect.

    I have turned off comments for this post as well.