Homeschoolers are funny.
Catch us in the right mood and we can be vocal and convincing apologists for our cause. We’ve found something good and we want to share it with the world. Mention to a homeschooler that you’re thinking of taking the leap and prepare for a lengthy monologue on the benefits of home education and the demerits of traditional schooling.
This is how we behave in person, and occasionally online, when we feel protected and at ease, which is most of the time. But catch us when we’re feeling vulnerable and persecuted, and you’ll get the opposite of vocal and convincing. You’ll get reticent and defensive.
Most homeschoolers are certain that, given the power to do so, certain hostile elements of the progressive education establishment—the teachers’ unions and their political allies—would force our kids into the public school system. Merely contemplating this possibility darkens the mood of a homeschooler.
When we’re feeling this way, as we often are these days, the last thing we want to do is draw attention to ourselves. We worry that if word gets out about this good thing we’ve found, someone will find a way to take it from us.
And so it is that I read something like Glenn Harlan Reynolds’s recent op-ed in USA Today with a weird mixture of gratitude and foreboding.
Traditional public schools haven't changed much for decades (and to the extent they have, they've mostly gotten worse). But the rest of the world has changed a lot. The public who eagerly purchased Henry Ford's Model T (available in any color you want, so long as it's black!) now lives in a world where almost everything is infinitely customized and customizable. That makes one-size-fits-all education, run on a Fordist model itself, look like a bad deal.
Indeed. What if I wanted to customize my kid's education in the traditional environment? What if, say, I wanted her to learn math Montessori-style but to do old-fashioned rote memorization for English vocabulary and history? The typical third grade social studies curriculum focuses on geography and community. What if I felt it a better direction for my 8 year-old to learn about Roman civilization?
I think it fair to say that this plan would meet with some resistance on parent-teacher night.
For good or ill, technological advances have revolutionized the way we consume and experience just about everything. Yet education has proved strangely immune to disruptive innovation. We’ve figured out how to bypass the gatekeepers in realms such as politics, entertainment, medicine, the media, and many, many others, but we’re still operating our primary school system on a model that was developed in Prussia in the early 19th century.
As Reynolds notes, folks are removing themselves from the system in ever-greater numbers.
At some point, it's a death-spiral: As kids (often the best students) leave because schools are "notoriously inadequate," the schools become even more notoriously inadequate, and funding—which is computed on a per-pupil basis—dries up. This, of course, encourages more parents to move their kids elsewhere, in a vicious cycle.
And this is where the homeschooler’s default paranoia rears up. My guess is that as this vicious cycle accelerates so too will the efforts of the entrenched interests to outlaw or severely limit alternatives to the traditional public education system. That fight—between a gigantic, well-funded network of state and national teachers’ unions and a poorly organized, unfunded, and dispersed network of American homeschoolers—will be really unfair.
“Who will win out in the end?” Reynolds asks. “Well, how many 19th century business models do you see flourishing, here in the 21st?”
I wish I shared his optimism. Part of me wants this fight. The other part just wants to be left alone.