Campus Scenes

Home Sweet Homeschool

A family odyssey now in its eleventh year.

By 9.15.05

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My wife and I are gearing up for our eleventh year of homeschooling. We started in 1995, after our two younger children, Nathan and Anna, had completed the first grade and kindergarten in a parochial school. They were close enough in age and talent for us to start both of them in the second grade. This coming year they will be high school seniors.

Our kids are all gifted with a tad more gray matter than the average, I suppose, but we were never of an inclination to push them ahead. One of the older two skipped a grade, at the suggestion of the school he was in, but that was as far as we ever went with the kid-genius business. We wanted a normal, leisurely paced social and emotional upbringing for our children. Our principal reasons for taking up homeschooling were moral and cultural rather than intellectual.

The two older ones, David and Ben, did grade school and high school within the system. As they made their way through, weird things intermittently happened to shore us up (or wear us down -- whatever; it all seems like a long time ago now) for the plunge into homeschooling.

There was, for example, the aging former nun who -- apparently smitten by a religious studies course she had taken a few decades earlier -- was applying an outmoded Bultmannian demythologizing technique to her sixth-grade Bible class; or the eerie eighth-grade teacher who, though plainly a fraud and ignoramus, was stoutly defended by the administration against the parents' complaints about him (and was subsequently arrested for child molestation); or the days when our sons would come home to inform us with innocent fascination that America was the chief oppressor of something called the Third World, or that crime is caused by something called sinful social structures, or that the next pope might be a woman.

In their Jesuit prep school, our sons were getting old enough to be on to the scams. The required courses in "social justice" were dubbed "Socialism 101." The religion classes used older texts with copyright dates between 1968 and 1978 -- that is, the squirrelly decade following the Second Vatican Council, before the Vatican under John Paul II had started the endless effort to clean up the mess. In strict conformity to the ad hoc norms cooked up during that decade, psychology trumped religious sensibility, and moral training, such as it was, took its cues from the secular culture. Students were urged to get in touch with their feelings, whether or not they cared to do so, and to obsess over their personal troubles, and of course homosexuality was no longer deemed troublesome.

But aside from what seemed to us a premature cynicism welling up in our two older sons, they appeared to be none the worse for the wear-and-tear of regular exposure to the abrasive smugness and stupidity of the school's superannuated liberal culture. Like most of their friends, they were wise to the scams, and in any event the training in math and science was first rate, as were a number of AP courses in literature and history. The screwy parts of the curriculum, we assured ourselves, could be thought of as a relatively gentle initiation into the wayward pretensions of the secular ethos.

Then came the two-by-four that broke the camel's back. While David and Ben were in high school, Nathan and Anna had started grade school, and one day the mostly pliant parents were suddenly informed at a meeting that a new sex education program was to be imposed the following year. The educational theorist hired to introduce the program seemed to me and my wife, and a few other parents, to be from a different planet. Instruction in human sexuality, we were told, would begin in the first grade.

Well, some of the parents, including my wife and me, put up a brief struggle. I found myself writing a long letter to the principal, using terms like "false anthropology" to describe the ghastly program. If I had been more alert at the time, I might have tried to couch my arguments in terms of the pop psychology dominating the slender imaginations of the unhabited nuns and ex-nuns who ran the school. I might perhaps have come up with a term like "toxic knowledge," now used rather freely by therapists to refer to the emotional damage caused by a precocious ingestion of information that the little ones just aren't ready for.

Somehow, though, I don't think it would have helped. There was something about the hollow tones and empty stares we would get in response to our objections. Jesuit theologian Edward Oakes, alluding to the 1956 SF cult classic Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, has recently coined the term "pod-people" to refer to the trendies on the periphery of the Church. Like the movie characters whose bodies have been seized by a coldly hostile alien intelligence, the pod-people in the Church and the schools look and sound generally familiar, but something about them is vaguely off -- something in their glazed eyes and distant looks when you try to engage them in any sort of reflection on their projects. Late in the spring of 1995, my wife and I suffered our last encounter with the pod-people.

We took Nathan and Anna out of the school system. My own habits as a college teacher, still more-or-less tangled in the system with which my wife and I were now at loggerheads, gave me cold feet. But my wife had become sufficiently adamant to stir the small wisdom and smaller courage nestled somewhere down in my depths. Looking back, I am certain we did the right thing, and I am still surprised by the energy, the mutual support, and the strength of the homeschool movement.

FOR ONE THING, THE MOVEMENT does not seem to be in any serious danger from its hostile critics. Writing in the Jesuit weekly America a few years before his disgrace and dismissal in a sex-and-blackmail scandal, Milwaukee's former archbishop, Rembert Weakland, averred that his favorite kinds of parishioners were those who write their checks and keep their mouths shut. The American public school system -- and its increasingly slavish imitators in the Catholic system -- is dominated by secular liberal busybodies of a disposition analogous to Weakland's.

They don't like outspoken parents, and they sense that the kinds of parents who would go to all the trouble of homeschooling are exactly the pushy types they don't want in their own system. It may be of political and financial concern to them that some two million American families now homeschool -- but it is also indisputably a relief that fewer parents are raising hell in teacher conferences and PTA meetings, even as the system gets worse and worse. In an odd twist, then, homeschoolers are protected not just by specialist legal defense teams but by the very corruption that drove so many of them to the homeschooling alternative in the first place.

Also of amazement to me within the close-knit homeschooling community is the breadth of Nathan and Anna's social life. Neither of their older brothers was ever involved so much in the sports activities, dances, and outings for which the two younger ones have abundant time. In prep school, David and Ben would bring home hours and hours of work every weekday, subsisting on about six hours of sleep per night. The two younger ones are finished with their schooling each day by mid-afternoon, have leisure time every day, and, every night, get the ten hours of sleep kids that age apparently need. They cover at least as much school material as their older brothers did, yet they both have keenly mellow dispositions in cheerful defiance of the DNA bequeathed them by their high-strung dad.

As we gear up for their senior year, they look forward to physics, advanced math, a survey of Western history and the attendant literature, Latin literature, one modern language (still undecided), introductory economics, composition and research techniques, music, and Biblical studies. The materials available to them through the homeschooling network are dazzling, and require an outlay of less than a thousand dollars for the whole year.

And for all the occasionally daunting personal demands of the regimen on my wife and me, very little of it is tedious. In the event, it's been rather a joy to bring an adult consciousness to bear on material we hadn't looked at since our own school days. The Periodic Table, for instance, together with its fascinating history, is downright spellbinding -- not exactly what I recall from my first, grizzly encounter with the scary chart 44 years ago.

It seems strange, in retrospect, that the possibility of these wonderful eleven years with our two younger children was opened by a series of shabby crises. In an odd way, we are now grateful for the earlier, unpleasant years that finally forced our hand. I don't suppose, however, that it would be of much purpose to go out and thank the pod-people.

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About the Author

John R. Dunlap teaches in the Department of Classics at Santa Clara University.