When we were in Paris last autumn, I finally got to meet the Catholic blogger Amy Welborn, with whom I had been corresponding for a decade. She had taken the autumn to travel around France with her sons; she called it “roamschooling.” I thought of her just now when I read Tara Isabella Burton’s account of being homeschooled through seventh and eighth grades in Paris and Rome, where her mom’s work had taken the family. Excerpt:
Yet the majority of my learning took place outside the bounds of the curriculum. Language learning happened by default—we were living in Paris, then Rome. I was encouraged to spend as much time as possible outside on my bicycle, visiting the historical sites that interested me most, teaching myself to communicate out of sheer necessity. I was given free rein to explore the household bookshelves—to craft a humanities course according to my own interests. Textbooks and popular history books were readily available; my mother encouraged me to “read them like novels”—in other words, to visualize the vast panorama of human history not as a series of facts to be memorized, but as the stories: vivid and gripping, of real people, people I could care about and remember.
For me, novels—and the freedom to spend my days reading as many as I liked—formed the backbone of my education. My mother had filled my bookshelves with classics. I read them all—missing nuance, no doubt, but internalizing from early on the possibilities of the form. I developed my own, curious, not always age-appropriate obsessions—the poetry and novels of fin de siecle Paris, the scandals of Ancient Rome—and allowed them to guide me ever deeper down the educational rabbit hole. In Paris, I spent hours walking through Montmartre with a marked-up copy of the “late nineteenth century” chapter of Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris and the entire macabre output of Dedalus European Classics, visiting the streets where my literary idols had lived. In Rome, I read Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance—a cultural history of Russia—and promptly taught myself a serviceable amount of Russian and started on Anna Karenina in translation. I learned about romanticism from Goethe and modern Egyptian history from the novels of Naguib Mahfouz. Sex education came courtesy of D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and the diaries of Anais Nin.
This wasn’t our experience homeschooling in Paris for only a month, of course, or even the breadth of experience that Amy and her kids got from wandering through France for a semester. But it is close enough for me to relate. My two younger children were really too little to have an adequate grasp on what it meant to be in Paris, I think, but the times I spent alone with my son Matthew, who had just turned 13, are among the happiest memories of my life. Walking through the museum of technology, my kid introduced me to Lavoisier and so many other great scientists of whom I knew very little, but whom he had read about and adores. Here is an account of the day I spent in the Louvre with him. Excerpt:
On and on like that. We finally had to leave, because it was too much.
Walking back across the river, I thought: I am so joyful we did this, this trip to Paris. Thank you, God, for giving this opportunity to us. It has been so thrilling. To walk through the Louvre with my son, to be with him in front of the Greek ceramics, and Pallas Athena, given how much pleasure we’ve had together reading “The Odyssey” — well, words can’t describe how much it meant to me. And to have him teaching me things as well! Something happened between us today to bring us closer, and has been happening with us since we started “The Odyssey” together. Dear readers, this has been a costly trip, in monetary terms, but the experiences we have been having are priceless. If something like this is at all within your means, please do it. Please!
More generally, and in a more quotidian sense, this has been what much of the homeschooling experience has been like for us and our quirky, gifted middle schooler. He is obsessed with space, as I’ve said here, and our homeschooling situation allows us to let him go as far as his intellect will take him. He does an internship at the Baton Rouge Observatory, and comes home filled with facts and discoveries far beyond the ability of his parents to understand, but that he gets. Matt has had a hard road in many respects, but I’m glad we have been able to give him the joy of discovery and intellectual fulfillment through his non-traditional way of learning. This fits him, in the same way it fit Tara Isabella Burton. Not everybody can do this, and it’s not the best way to teach every kid. But it works for our kids, and we are blessed enough — especially through my wife’s infinite patience and work ethic — to be able to offer it to our kids.
I appreciated especially this statement in Burton’s piece:
Yet, even as a full three percent of the school-age population in America embraces homeschooling, according to a 2012 New York Magazine article by Lisa Miller, homeschooling is all too often treated as a monolith: Homeschoolers are either fundamentalists or anarchists, religious extremists or hippies. Rarely, if ever, is it explored as a potential educational setting for so-called “gifted” children–those looking for an academic challenge beyond that which their local educational facilities can provide.
Yes, this! This is us.