Years ago, when I lived in Brooklyn, a Catholic priest friend listened to several of us grip about how bad the homilies were in most parishes, and how lousy was the catechesis. He told us that we were absolutely right, but that we didn’t have the right to complain. “All of you can get on Amazon right now and order the kind of libraries that Aquinas could only have dreamed of, and have them delivered to your front doors within a week,” he said. “There are so many resources out there if you really want to teach yourself about the faith. Don’t be so passive.”
He was right. I thought of him when I read this Atlantic interview with Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds, who has a new book out about education innovation. Excerpt:
At the K-12 level, we really still have the 19th-century model. That is relatively easy for the people who are teaching, but it doesn’t necessarily serve children well. It’s not sufficiently customized, and it just doesn’t respond to a lot of the newer things we have learned about how people learn and how to present information. It was designed to teach people how to be punctual and orderly and well-organized and diligent and all the sorts of characteristics that you needed to have a successful Industrial Revolution. We implemented it and we did have a pretty successful Industrial Revolution and the Industrial Revolution made people a lot healthier and wealthier and better off, so that was all great. But the structure of the schools was factory-like. The output of the schools was as close to a standardized product as they could make it. If you were a kid who didn’t fit in very well, if you were a square peg and they wanted you in a round hole, the solution of the traditional schools K-12 was basically to use a bigger hammer. That was hard for a lot of people, and a lot of people didn’t get as much from it as they should have. And it’s no longer necessary.
The book is called The New Education. Must-read, sounds to me like.
This bit above makes sense to me, in my experience. We always wanted to try homeschooling, but when our firstborn became of school age, we put him in kindergarten in Dallas, and then in school, just to see how he would do. Because of his Asperger’s, and the accompanying sensory processing disorder, he couldn’t handle it. So we had to embrace homeschooling because our son needed us to. I say “we,” but really, it was 99 percent Julie. It was she who threw herself into researching Matt’s condition, consulting with experts, and working, through trial and error, to find programs that worked for him. It was, and remains, an extraordinary feat of perseverance and love. More than once I have been grateful for the fact that we live in a time and place in which it is possible to educate our son on our own, and tailor his educational experience to his own strengths and weaknesses. I think about how our boy, the squarest of square pegs, would have done in a previous generation, when this wasn’t available, or how he would be doing if he didn’t have a mom like the one he has, and it’s hard to imagine. It would have broken him, most likely.
The thing is, none of our kids are much like the other. The way we educate the other two is emerging to have subtle but meaningful differences. The middle child, a boy, is a tactile, active learner who doesn’t like reading, and who is impatient with sitting still for long periods. The youngest, she is a voracious reader, and more focused than her older brothers, but although she is not an Aspie, she also has some of the sensory problems that Matt has, which makes her fine motor skills weak. Her handwriting is atrocious, because her hands are so weak. She has never been professionally evaluated, but we’ve been through all of this with the oldest child, and we know what we’re looking at. Standard schooling would be hard for her, not cognitively, but in terms of what she would be able to do given her fine motor deficits.
This was the thing that forced us to take Matt out of school. He could not keep up with his class in handwriting and math drills, because his sensory deficit made it impossible for him to understand how to use his pencil. It sounds crazy to imagine that a kid can’t use a pencil correctly, until you see it for yourself. He couldn’t figure out how hard he was supposed to press the lead against the paper; consequently, his lead constantly broke, and he couldn’t complete his second-grade math drills. The shame and frustration broke his spirit, profoundly. So his mother, who loves him fiercely, had to have him formally evaluated (yes, his sensory condition is a diagnosable thing), and then figure out how to teach him herself. The thing is, Matt’s cognitive and sensory orientation meant you couldn’t really do one of the plug-and-play programs available from one of the homeschooling companies. Some of them worked, sometimes. Matt presented an extraordinary challenge, though, simply because of who he is. He was blessed, and is blessed, to have a mother who is up to the challenge, and blessed to live in a time and place where there is hope that he can find what he needs.
This, from Reynolds’ interview, is certainly true:
Well, homeschooling of course isn’t for everyone. It is, however, very useful for a lot of people. The real advantage of homeschooling for people who want to do it is no one cares about your kid as much as you do. And if you’ve got the time and inclination to put that into it, you can get good results.
No teacher, in a public or private school, could care for Matt more than we do. This is not the teachers’ fault. They have entire classes full of kids to educate. Even if they would take a kid like Matt into their hearts, they simply don’t have the time and the energy to devote to him and his needs. If Julie weren’t willing to homeschool, and very capable of it, and if we didn’t have the resources available to us to supplement what she does at home (e.g., Sequitur, and Mathnasium), and I didn’t have a job that provides the financial resources both to let her be free to educate the kids, and to purchase supplementary educational services like those … well, we wouldn’t be able to do this. That’s a lot of ifs. We are privileged people. If we had none of those conditions in place, we would muddle through. But Reynolds is right: we are very lucky to live under conditions in which it is possible to educate your child in ways tailored to his own strengths and weaknesses. If you can do it, why not try it? It’s not for everybody, and indeed is not for most people. Homeschooling will never and should never replace standard schools, only exist as one alternative. But for those somebodys who have the particular talents, resources, and (this is huge!) determination to do it themselves, this is a Golden Age.
Don’t forget, religious readers, what my Brooklyn priest told me: quit complaining about how awful the teaching from the pulpit is, and get busy educating yourself. We are all free to do that in ways previous generations could only have dreamed about.
UPDATE: Here’s Ryan Booth, from the comments thread; Ryan owns Mathnasium, and oversees our children’s math education:
Thank you very much, Rod, for the plug for Mathnasium. I completely agree that the attitude toward learning is critical, and I would expand your thought to say that I think we are all responsible for homeschooling our children, even if we send them to a conventional school. I think this is what so many parents miss. My own daughter goes to a regular school, but we don’t have TV, in part so that she can read. We read together every night and have done so since she was two. In the car, we listen to audiobooks. In summer, she has some authority over the things she will learn, but I hold her accountable for them. When we had last saved up enough miles to go on a real vacation, we went to DC and spend our time in museums. And, naturally, she does math with us at Mathnasium.
I really don’t say any of this to brag, only to say that it’s not an accident or only genetics that enabled her to get perfect scores on her state LEAP tests the last two years. There is an attitude in our home that learning is important, and she always sees me reading. So, I consider myself a homeschooling dad in a lot of ways.