What is Old is New at Home
Homeschooling bridges generations in the virtues of giving and receiving, and of sharing the load together.
I recently had a memorable stroll through Home Depot with seven of my children. As I was leaving the screw aisle for the wood aisle, a clerk asked me: “Are all of those yours?” “Yes,” I replied. “One hundred percent natural.” He proceeded to shake my hand and commented: “I thought maybe they were cousins.” I answered: “If they were here, I’d have about fifty kids with me.”
As I completed my purchase of the materials I needed to build my daughter’s birthday gift, another clerk commented on the quantity of my progeny, remarking at how well behaved they were. “Where do you go to school?” she asked them. “We’re homeschooled,” they replied.
I am not someone you would expect to become a homeschooling dad with nine kids by the age of thirty-seven. As an early millennial, I am part of the overwhelming majority of my generation who attended public schools – around ninety percent. Most of the remaining ten percent attended private schools, and less than a million – or less than two percent – of students were homeschooled. The general assumption for most of my generation was that our children would also attend public schools.
But the public schools of today are very different from those of 1990s middle-class suburbia. In the last couple of years, parents have increasingly taken notice of how the woke revolution fueled by identity politics has infiltrated their schools, from pornography in their libraries, to coerced racialized struggle sessions, and transgender bathroom policies that have allegedly led to sexual assaults and subsequent coverup. In the latter case, the alleged victim’s father’s rowdy protest at a school board meeting was one event cited by the National School Board Association’s call for President Biden’s Department of Justice to leverage the FBI and the federal counterterrorism bureau to intervene. The invitation to investigate concerned parents as domestic terrorists was initially accepted by the Biden Administration.
If there are any benefits to an education increasingly infused by identity politics, improved performance in math and reading are apparently not among them. In the most recent NAEP national report card there was a historic decline in performance in reading and math. The average reading score for fourth graders over the past couple years, already well below “proficient,” underwent the steepest decline in over thirty years. And math scores dropped for the first time ever. It is established that children who cannot read by the fourth grade are drastically more likely to struggle with reading the rest of their lives and experience a whole range of negative outcomes, including poverty, crime, and incarceration.
It therefore seems undeniable that America is at a crossroads. How shall we educate our children? While the woke revolution has been met with political resistance from the Right with some successes, in many places it will prove to be too little, too late. Parents have a natural moral duty to educate their children, which is the ground of their natural right to educate them as they see fit. Given the trajectory of public school education, parents have a duty and a right to reevaluate it, and seriously consider withdrawing their children from the public school system entirely. It is parents’ civic duty as well, inasmuch as we are all members of the American polity.
A society, Edmund Burke taught us, is a partnership across generations, between the dead, the living, and the unborn. Each generation is therefore an inheritor of the traditions and institutions its (great-) grandparents and parents have bequeathed. And each generation cannot escape the duty to evaluate what has been received, preserve what merits preserving, and reform what does not contribute to the common good.
What I have found is that, very often, old things that were once discarded need to be rediscovered again. This is especially true in education.
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre concluded his survey of the moral and political detritus wrought by advanced modernity by calling for a new, doubtless very different, St. Benedict. As MacIntyre penned those words, the homeschool movement was already under way at the grassroots level in many states, and it has been spotlighted by prominent commentators as an instance of what MacIntyre called for. As the Benedictine monasteries of old kept classical learning alive after the collapse of the Roman empire and the advance of barbarism, so homeschools today are outposts of broadly teleological, classical education in the late-modern wasteland. The recent spike in homeschooling by a factor of five to ten across races and ethnicities suggests that more and more American parents agree.
While my wife and I have homeschooled all our children, this was not a foregone conclusion. It was less likely considering that the only homeschoolers I knew growing up seemed to me to be an assortment of religious weirdos and socially awkward dorks who played board games because they were no good at sports, and girls who wore abnormally long skirts.
Of course, I later realized that those were silly and shallow beliefs, as indeed, many other Americans apparently have. But why my change of heart? You could chalk it up to my conversion to Catholicism and embrace of its traditional moral teachings, and the basic God-given duty is to do all that I can to help my kids get to heaven. But religious reasons alone were insufficient for both my traditionalist Catholic wife, who was very much opposed to homeschooling during our courtship and before we had kids, and me. Seeing the examples of family and friends successfully homeschooling was just as important. But there were equally important factors, and which the survey data indicate are widely shared among homeschoolers. The school environment – including concerns over negative peer pressure, drugs, safety, etc. – is actually the most frequently cited reason for homeschooling. And about the same number of parents who cited the prime importance of religious instruction, cited a primary concern about poor instruction.
The controversy over reading pedagogy is illustrative. For decades, most schools have been taken in by so-called “whole language” or “balanced literacy” approaches to reading, which deemphasize traditional systematic instruction in phonics as rigid and outmoded. Even though the science of reading clearly demonstrates that the older phonics method is superior, as of 2019, seventy-two percent of K-2 teachers reported using “balanced literacy.”
I confess I knew little of the reading wars when I first sat down with my oldest and started teaching him phonics with homeschool resources like Bob Books. As I have taught each of my subsequent children how to read and myriad other things, I discovered that the pedagogy of reading is synecdochic for the whole of education: rediscovery of the old is the key to rebuilding it anew. And with two working parents trying to hold together an orderly homeschool room while also raising preschool-aged kids, a strong foundation in reading and writing turns out to be essential. It enables significant independence in the pupil to learn through textbook reading and workbook problems while allowing the parent to give individual attention where it is needed.
Why not send my kids to a private school with a morally serious environment and sounder pedagogy? As is the case for many Americans, it is simply impossible financially. To send my school age kids to one of the more affordable local private Christian schools would cost more than double my annual mortgage. Of course, homeschooling is not necessarily prudent for every situation. But it is notable that many who homeschool are of modest means. While we are fortunate enough to be well educated and work jobs with flexible hours, those benefits are themselves the product of much sacrifice. As with anything worth doing well, no homeschool is without it.
While some states are moving in the right direction by broadening financial support for educational choice, my wife and I realized that, even if we had state support, we would still probably homeschool. Many private schools have integrated newfangled and pedagogically questionable personal electronic devices and screens into the classroom, which also risks undermining their environmental health. I am but a humble homeschooling dad but, in our school, we have found that tuition is considerably more affordable when we stick to pencil and paper. And the lessons stick, too. Make the old new again.
Of course, pencil and paper were once new technologies. And it would be incredibly naïve to deny that the new is much of the warp and woof of our lives. Whatever its demerits, we live and breathe and often benefit from the new. Indeed, I have taught my children these very lessons using Leonard Read’s little book I, Pencil, which shows how rational self-interest, combined with specialization of knowledge and labor, technology, integrated free markets, and profit incentivization of innovation makes it possible for me to stroll through Home Depot and conveniently and cheaply purchase wood and screws. But, how? And, for what purpose? Neither techne nor the market can answer these questions.
Our Home Depot trip illustrates our answers to the questions of how and why. Each of my three oldest are assigned to help with one younger child, and the littles know they are supposed to respect them. Even during a simple trip to a big-box store, they were practicing the virtues characteristic of order, of giving and receiving. We practice these virtues in our home classroom when a bigger kid explains to a younger the differences between compound and simple leaves or changes the baby’s diaper while mom explains long division to a younger. How do we do it? By developing and practicing the habits of sharing the load together.
Perhaps the clerks were struck by my kids precisely because their lived answer to the how question was in contradiction to the spirit of our age.
When I asked my daughter Belén what she wanted for her birthday, she replied: “I want a bookshelf like Cormac has.” Last Christmas I built a bookshelf for her older brother that stretches the seven-foot length of the top bunk of the boys’ triple bunk bed. He had run out of space on the bookshelf for his approximately 120 books. And now my eldest daughter’s book collection has outgrown her shelf.
So with my daughter helping me, I showed her how to cut the boards, how to drill the pocket holes, and how to join the boards with screws and glue. Then, we painted it. How? Together. For what purpose? If that isn’t apparent yet, allow me to state it in the admittedly old terminology of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. It is the end that is distinctive of human beings, given our nature as dependent rational animals: the good of the intellect. Our purpose, like the homeschool movement more broadly, is to seek truth together. And if you haven’t already, you should consider joining us.