To get an education is to go to school. Right? In the course of small talk with acquaintances as I was growing up, I cannot count how many times someone asked a supposedly simple question: “So, where do you go to school?”
“I don’t,” I would reply flatly. “I’m homeschooled.” Most people didn’t quite know what to do with that information, leading to the inevitable reaction: “Oh…”
The reason being, of course, that in chatting with a young person, you expect them to share a little about their current experience in school. Men usually ask questions about school sports or clubs; women like to ask about homecoming, whether you like your teachers, and if you’re making friends. I couldn’t partake in common conversational scripts because I simply didn’t have that experience.
Watching friends grow up out of the public school system, I’ve become increasingly convinced that “school” is primarily a social staple in our society, not an educational one. It is a tool of socialization primarily wielded by progressives, and an experience millions of parents believe is crucial to a normal, healthy upbringing.
Novelist and essayist Grant Allen used to say, “Don’t let school interfere with your education.” Yet, from a cultural perspective, this is exactly what our country has been doing.
The way we think about education is shaped around the public school system. We have large peer-group classes, with one teacher the whole year per class. We have two-month summer breaks. We have mandatory physical education and cafeterias. We have pep rallies and “school spirit.” All the images and ideas that come to mind when you think of school are essentially what constitute our popular “imagining” of education.
Does Education Equal Schooling?
In essence, education = school; or, more specifically, the Western concept of school. To further my point, the word “education” doesn’t summon memories of your mom reading Little House on the Prairie aloud to you and your siblings, or dad showing you how to balance a checkbook (unless, of course, you were homeschooled).
Pundits argue over this school standard and that school requirement, and how much power teachers’ unions should have, even what we should feed kids in school. As for curriculum, conservatives and concerned parents have been waging a massive battle against Common Core education mandates. Ultimately though, at a 10,000-foot view of what it means to “educate” our children, these arguments are really just splitting hairs.
That may be an unpopular view, especially to those who are fighting-mad over education reform and efforts to indoctrinate the next generation. But it is nevertheless true. All our thoughts about education revolve around this particular model called “school.”
They Can’t Read, But They Can Socialize
The pro-schoolers (or anti-choicers, depending on your view) like to perpetuate the myth that without our public school system, we would have an illiterate population. Schooling would only be for the elite, and education would become the great and permanent divide between a bourgeoisie and an industrial proletariat that cannot aspire to better circumstances. This is the staple argument of the Left.
Tim Slekar, an anti-reform activist, is quite confident in the absolute necessity of school: “[Public schools are] a system that is supposed to deliver a free and equitable education to all children regardless of background, socioeconomic status, or zip code. A system dedicated to promoting democracy and citizen participation in the government by educating the masses.”
The South Orange Town Central School District (NY) discusses the importance of education on the basis that, “Public education provides a foundation of common literacy in such areas as language, mathematics, the arts, and the natural and social sciences.”
Who wouldn’t want an educated and capable society? Yet when schools are failing, despite ever growing “investments” in education, pro-schoolers fall back on a second defense, which is actually the one that has shielded public education from reform for so long: It’s the intangible, warm fuzzy feeling that is unity and the common social bond: “Public education is perhaps the single common and binding experience for Americans…As the national debates over taxes, debt, school reform, the environment, and the responsibility of the individual versus society continue, there must be a consideration of the necessity for the shared experience of public education and the value that it brings to the common good and to the wealth of the nation.” (Emphasis added.)
This sentiment has permeated pop culture and American parenthood, although it’s not always so obvious. To borrow a cliché, we often can’t see the forest (our education paradigm) through the trees.
The Glory of ‘Collective Experience’
Essentially, the Left has a tacit buy-in from the mainstream population that school is a critical experience for our young people. I have never once heard any parent—or student, for that matter—say they go to school, or like school, because they are hauling home useful knowledge by the cartload. I’m sure such people exist, but they are the distinct minority.
I knew young adults who actually used their school “community experience” as an excuse for not trying to pass Running Start entrance exams. The cost of being two years ahead in college (which is what Running Start can do for you) is not being able to attend school with friends? What a preposterous proposition.
Instead, the vast majority of parents send their kids to school and dismiss alternatives such as homeschooling because they don’t want their children to miss out on experiences they had, especially common rites of passage: Getting your heart broken, making new friends, getting stabbed in the back by said friends, making it onto the cheer squad or football team, going to prom, participating in a graduation ceremony, etc.
To pack it all into one sentence, we’ve romanticized public school and bought it on impulse, at retail price, because it makes us feel good, or at least fosters a sense of satisfaction in dutifully passing on the experience to our children.
Remember “graduation goggles,” where suddenly your last four years seemed more like the upbeat, cheery “High School Musical” than the music video for “Mad World”? People are more likely to pass their graduation goggles onto their kids by sending them to school than they are to base their education decisions for them primarily off the less-than-pleasant experiences they may have had.
The Socialization Myth
Do we want better for our children? By and large, absolutely. But we also want a shared baseline of experience with them. Joined with the other conveniences of sending our children to public school, such as allowing for two full-time incomes, the school’s status as the natural, default choice, and the unfamiliarity of homeschooling, it’s not surprising the state is, in large part, raising the vast majority of our kids.
The number-one response from people who have participated in the public-school experience, when asked why they hold homeschooling in such low regard, is: “Homeschoolers are sheltered; they aren’t socialized.” Never mind that homeschool students consistently outscore public schoolers on pretty much every academic metric. There’s a reason 3 percent of K-12 students are homeschooled, and the numbers are growing—if the “real world” is as competitive as guidance counselors make it out to be, public-school parents need to get their head in the game.
The “anti-social” myth, although demonstrably false, is so entrenched in our cultural perception of education that it has even become a legal defense against the right to homeschool. Behavioral scientist Dr. Robert Epstein recalls hearing an attorney for the state of North Dakota claim, “Every child should experience a bloody nose in the school yard. This is simply part of growing up and part of the socialization process.”
Of course, this argument is ridiculous on multiple levels. It’s not just that physical peer abuse shouldn’t be justified, or that the socialization argument is a cover for poorly performing schools—it’s that the schools don’t even do a good job at socializing.
Think back to your high school homeroom. There are 25 to 30 of you, in one room, all the same age. As a general matter, were your classmates carrying on mature conversations and going out of their way to help struggling students, or were they more likely to be gossiping and drawing lewd pictures in the margins of their textbooks? Even in college I’ve seen this kind of behavior.
I’m biased toward homeschool socialization, but in all seriousness, what person in his right mind thinks putting dozens of peers, or even just three or four, in the same room for eight hours a day is a good idea? This kind of mass lateral socialization seems bizarre and unnatural, and it does nothing to speed maturity and foster responsibility.
Homeschoolers, on the other hand, tend to socialize vertically. They are challenged to attain to the maturity of their older siblings, and encouraged to help and guide their younger siblings (it’s also a myth that your mother is your teacher; generally you receive instruction from multiple family members). I also spoke more with adults as a teenager than I did with people within two years of my age in either direction, which is far more common among homeschoolers. It’s not that homeschool students are less socialized, it’s that they’re differently socialized—in a vastly more constructive manner.
I agree with those who say socialization, not just academics, is part of a healthy upbringing. Yet even some Christians have been promoting the idea that the collective “agreement” that is supposed to be our public schools outweighs any benefits homeschooling might offer, academically and socially.
An Attack on Individualism
Tony Jones says, “We have decided to publicly and collectively educate our children. When Christians opt out of this collective societal agreement, society is hobbled.” And here I thought we had choices as free individuals. No mention here of academic performance—just an argument for pushing everyone into the social bubble that is the public school.
Those who are capable of “seeing the forest” from time to time would chalk this up to parental naiveté, a foolish misunderstanding based in ignorance. But for those who have been pushing this idea, the declaration that our children must be “socialized” (selectively defined to represent the social environment of public schools) is not based on naïve romanticism. It is a sinister attack on the individual right to choose how you want to live, how and when you want to participate in “the mainstream” culture, and especially how you want to raise your children.
School attendance was compulsory in all U.S. states at one point, because the government supposedly knew what was best for all children. That threat hasn’t disappeared, and the culturally dominant idea that the social experience in public school is a critical part of a proper upbringing keeps power centralized in the state and the door to tyranny propped open.
Knowing this, “High School Musical” graduation goggles no longer seem like harmless romanticism. Do you still have that warm fuzzy feeling you get from knowing “we’re all in this together,” or are you wondering with me if we are socializing our kids out of a good education?
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