An Academic’s Case for Homeschooling

December 16, 2005
For Professors’ Children, the Case for Home Schooling


If you want to bring a conversation to a dead stop on the academic cash-bar circuit, just mention casually that you are home schooling your children. You might as well bite the head off a live chicken. Most professors are likely to be appalled, and those who are not will keep their mouths shut.

Still, all indications are that the number of families who home school is growing rapidly — somewhere between 5 percent and 15 percent per year, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the number of home-schooled children now hovers somewhere between one and two million. A recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll indicates that 41 percent of families had a positive view of home schooling in 2001, as opposed to only 16 percent who did in 1985. By almost every measurable outcome, home schoolers in general outperform their public-educated peers, and many colleges are beginning to rework their admissions procedures to accommodate the growing numbers of home-schooled applicants.

Nevertheless, I have spoken with more than a few professors who say that home schooling is dangerous: It is a threat to public education, it is anti-feminist, it isolates children, it is a form of religious fanaticism, it is a means of avoiding diversity, and — most withering of all — it is an instrument of ideological conservatism. They sometimes joke about home education by mentioning horror films such as Carrie and Children of the Corn.

I’m an English professor, and my spouse used to work in academic administration. We have three daughters, ages 6, 4, and 2. And we have been home schooling them for two years now. If all goes well, we plan to continue teaching them at home at least until they are old enough for high school.

We always planned that one of us would stay home while our children were young, but the idea of home schooling only developed recently in the context of our present circumstances.

Teaching our daughters to read and write, beginning around the age of 4, seemed like a natural thing for us to do. Along with potty training, it was just part of the ordinary business of being a parent. Being avid readers ourselves, we have about 4,000 books in our house, which now includes a children’s library. I suppose it was inevitable that we would spend a lot of time reading to our children, and they would have an early desire to learn to read for themselves and for each other.

We live surrounded by woods and farmland, so our daughters are constantly asking us to look up plants and insects in the Audubon field guides. We have a reasonably well-supplied children’s science lab and art studio. And, in the course of routine travel and shopping, it’s easy to cultivate our daughters’ curiosity about the world by visiting museums, zoos, libraries, schools, factories, and farms. These are things that most parents do, though they may not regard their activities as part of some kind of curriculum.

In a typical day, our 6-year-old daughter will study phonics, spelling, writing, history, geography, and math. She may perform some elementary science experiments, or she may work on an art project in emulation of Seurat or Pollock. On some days other children — not necessarily other home schoolers — will come to our house to play. Sometimes they’ll open our costume chest and dramatize something they’ve been reading, such as The Hobbit. Other times they’ll go outside and play hide-and- seek or go on an “expedition” to find specimens for the family museum. Even though our younger daughters have not yet started their formal schooling, they are eager to imitate their oldest sister, and the pace of learning seems to accelerate with each new child. On good days, home schooling seems like the most natural method of elementary education one could imagine.

We are not ideologically committed to home schooling any more than we are opposed to public education. And we are aware of the limitations of home schooling under some circumstances, just as we are aware of the difficulties faced by many public schools, even in relatively well-financed school districts. Ultimately, we want the best education for our children, and, on the whole, home schooling seems like the best option. It is also one that our daughters seem to desire, and, if any of them wanted to go to the nearby public school, we would certainly consider it.

Nevertheless, my spouse and I do feel the sting of criticisms that we hear in academe from people who don’t know that we are home schoolers — or, worse, from those who do. Of course, we agree that these criticisms apply in some cases. But we also think it is unfair to judge a diverse range of home-schooling practices by associating the movement — if it can be called that — with its most extreme and marginal practitioners.

In search of some reassurance, I have had many discussions with other professors who home school, primarily at my home institution but also with a number of faculty members in other parts of the country. From those conversations I have noticed a number of common motives, circumstances, and beliefs among faculty members who educate their children at home:

They are rarely religious or political extremists. Many professors observe that it is difficult to achieve consistent moral training in public education. They sometimes state that private education in religious schools is too doctrinal or resistant to modernity, particularly in the sciences. Some lament that public and religious education seem to have become battlefields for activists for whom the “vital center” has been abandoned, along with a spirit of civic responsibility.

They want the best education for their children, but they are not wealthy. Professors are usually well informed about what constitutes a good education in terms of methods and resources. The experience of small classes and one-on-one tutoring inevitably convinces teachers of the effectiveness of methods that can easily be replicated in the home, though they are prohibitive for all but exclusive private schools that are usually beyond the reach of academics with more than one child. Home schooling, therefore, becomes a logical choice when the costs of private education and day care become greater than one parent’s income.

They enjoy learning. For nearly all professors, the chance to review and expand their own youthful education in a variety of fields is a treat that almost transcends the educational needs of their children. Mathematicians, for example, relish the chance to reread the literature they half-missed when they were mastering geometry, and English professors, like me, enjoy the chance to relearn the astronomy they once loved before calculus crushed their hopes for a scientific career. They often see themselves as learning with their children rather than simply teaching them.

They are confident in their ability to teach. Professors often see teaching their own children as part of a continuum of pleasurable obligations to the next generation; they seek to integrate the values of their profession with the values they live at home. Since professors often teach the teachers, they tend to believe — perhaps with some hubris — in their ability to teach effectively at all grade levels. But more often, they recognize their limitations and seek collaboration with other parents — often professors themselves — with different areas of expertise.

They benefit from flexible schedules. Academics tend to work about 50 hours per week during the academic year, but they also have control over their schedules and long periods of relative autonomy. Most professors have a co-parenting ideal, but in practice one partner — usually the mother — becomes the primary home educator, while the father assumes a secondary role with some seasonal variation. Some express discomfort with this circumstance because they recognize the sacrifices that each partner requires of the other.

They value unstructured learning. Professors know how much time is lost by learning in an institutional setting. A large portion of the time spent in school is devoted to moving students around, dealing with disruptions, health problems, different amounts of preparation, and unequal rates of learning. Without all the crowd control and level seeking, the formal requirements of education can be completed in only a few hours a day, leaving lots of time for self-directed learning and play. As a result, home-schooled children generally learn faster and with less boredom and less justified resentment.

They see the results of public education. Every professor seems to complain that most high-school graduates are not really prepared for college, either academically or emotionally. More and more, our energies are devoted to remedial teaching and therapeutic counseling. Most believe that something is wrong in public education, or the larger culture, that can only be dealt with, in part, by selective withdrawal. Home-schooled students are not always perfect, but they seem more respectful, attentive, mature, and academically prepared than their peers. And they do not automatically perceive teachers as “the enemy” out of peer solidarity.

They privilege the family over peer groups.
Professors often celebrate diversity as a value in education, and, among those who home school, many mention the value for their children of cross-generational experiences instead of identifying only with a peer group. In large families, children also benefit from teaching their younger siblings, who are generally eager to keep up. Home-schooled students are less likely to become alienated from their families as a result of antisocial, anti-intellectual peer conformity. They develop a set of values that enable them to resist the negative socialization that outweighs, by far, the benefits of segregation by age.

They have negative memories of their own education.
Although it takes some probing, nearly every professor with home-schooled children mentions traumatic childhood experiences in school. Professors, as a group, tend to have been sensitive, intelligent children who were picked on and ostracized. They foresee the same treatment for their own children, and they want to do everything they can to prevent the children from experiencing the traumas they experienced. Professors recognize how many of our most brilliant students have been emotionally or physically terrorized for a dozen years before they arrive at college. School sometimes teaches otherwise happy and intelligent children to become sullen and secretive and contemptuous of learning.

It is hard to overemphasize this last point as a motive for home schoolers. In my own memory, the difficulty of school was never the work; it was surviving the day without being victimized by students whose violence was beyond the capacity or desire of adults to control. My spouse remembers the cruelty of girls in cliques, who can be even more cunning at the infliction of pain and permanent emotional scarring than any of the boys who sometimes sent me home with torn clothes and a bloody nose.

No doubt, my spouse and I have had to forgo some career options for our present way of life. Home schooling our children means we have to live on an assistant professor’s salary. It also means living in a small town in the Midwest instead of an expensive city on one of the coasts. It means living in an old farmhouse that I am, more or less, renovating by myself. It means not eating out or going on vacations very often. It means driving older American cars instead of shiny new Volvos. But the big reward is the time we get to spend with our children.

I suppose, on some level, my spouse and I are rebelling against an academic culture that tells us we should both be working at demanding professional jobs while our children are raised by someone else. But we value this time with our children more than career advancement for its own sake. We don’t regard ourselves as conservatives. We feel like we’re swimming against the mainstream of a culture that has sacrificed the family for economic productivity and personal ambition. We don’t think home schooling is right for everyone, but it works for us, for now. Of course we will make some mistakes, but on the whole, we think home schooling our children may be the most important thing we will ever do.

W. A. Pannapacker is an assistant professor of English at Hope College.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 17, Page B14

14 responses

22 09 2009
Michael Ray

Thank you for putting into words many of the reasons we have chosen to home school. As a former teacher who is still involved in public education, it is often awkward to deal with the stereotypes and assumptions associated with our decision. It is good to find a kindred spirit!

22 09 2009

There are several of us here in that boat, Michael. (My doctorate and career were directly in education policy, you think I can ever go back?? [grin])

Some of us at Culture Kitchen too. Liza Sabater was homeschooling two when she started it. And you might enjoy our collaborative Evolved and Thinking Homeschooler wiki pages too, set up your own! — or at least you can point your skeptical colleagues to them as proof such creatures as we, really exist. Here’s mine for example:
JJ’s Evolved Homeschooler page

Welcome to the the fight to distinguish ourselves from what ought to be called home indoctrination — fellow academics (also young feminists for some reason who are particularly cranky) are a tough crowd to persuade but who better than we to do it? I still think it’s worth working on for the long haul, which would be transforming American education so we don’t keep having to deal with public ignorance politically, not just getting my own kids well-educated which can’t even put a dent in Public Stupid. . .

Now I just wish the sane, humanist Christian homeschoolers (hopefully the majority) will make a similar outspoken effort to manage their colleagues and kin, take back homeschooling’s reputation from their fringe. . . .

29 06 2010

Frisky cock of the snook to COD for this:

“Math is the new Sanskrit, the new Latin.”
He believes we overestimate the value of math as a tool to assess a student’s ability.

4 08 2010

Adding another professor’s better-than-school perspective on good students:

“Raise children with a wild streak”

Many `ideal’ students lack inventive, restless and self-reliant spirit . . .

However you choose to do it, give your children, their teachers and society one of the greatest gifts of all: Help your kids become creative, independent, curious, interesting people.

17 09 2011
Team Suzanne

I’m running across your article many many months after it was published/posted. But I’m glad I did. I enjoyed reading it.

What resonates with me is that for us, and I think many of the families whose sentiments you describe in the article–homeschooling is not the radical, heavily principled departure from institutionalized schooling that people think it is. We’re not angry at public schools, furious about anything or die-hards about any particular educational pedagogy. We just saw homeschooling as the best option, were confident we could do it (we’re former academics) and just gently went that route. No protest or prosyletizing is involved.

It’s never felt like a big deal, but to others it is, and they’re looking for a big explanation. And there just isn’t one, at least for us.

17 09 2011

Nice to meet you, Suzanne, thanks for speaking up. 🙂 And I think I’m really gonna enjoy YOUR blog! LMAO!

(Seriously–anyone who thinks seriously about the importance of democratizing education should think long and hard about me and this graphic. What you see here is the end game of letting the riff raff into graduate school, people. What will the riff raff do if you let them into a PhD program? They will drink a lot of expensive scotch because they irrationally think they’re a rock star, they will hone their taste in blues music, have babies on the health insurance and then dabble in pointless graphics about pipe cleaners and glue for years after they walk out with a free M.A.)

I digress…Which, incidentally, I also learned to do in graduate school. . .

17 09 2011

Except I’m from the South. Bourbon.

17 09 2011

You might enjoy some fun we had with a writing challenge in which COD set us the task of choosing a new religion, one with which we’d never previously been affiliated, and I came at it the same way I came at grad school 30 years ago:

(It’s a good thing I already did the dissertation thing when it counted and they can’t rescind my degree for this essay!)

I disciplined myself to do my review of the literature, definition of the research question and design [yes, I said DESIGN and if it’s not intelligent, really, why bother?!] of my methods first, rather than just jump to the fun part, browsing and trying on different religions from the rack, maybe taking a friend to advise me and have lunch with afterward. I tried — and tried and tried — to honestly set out my objectives, criteria and methods for choosing a new religious belief system at this age and stage of my life BEFORE I went shopping and wrote up my choice for you.

And failed utterly. Which is pretty bad, because I am extremely flexible and creative. If anyone could have bent this task into dissertation shape, it should’ve been me.
Um, I.
You know what I mean. 🙂

This was more like trying to list criteria for a new bathing suit I would shop for, knowing full well I wouldn’t be caught dead in a bathing suit of any kind no matter what I wrote in some pandering paper for credit! So my comfortable intellectual process didn’t fit. And it’s not all that comfortable anymore after all these years of freedom from academic stricture. . .

But I’d rather go up than down, truth be told. Call it research bias.

About a month later, I followed up with New Fodder for Our “Choose a New Religion” Essays:

Eagleman rejects not only conventional religion but also the labels of agnostic and atheist. In their place, he has coined the term possibilian: a word to describe those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.”

17 09 2011
Nance Confer

Love your blog, Suzanne. I will be stopping by for regular amusement. So get on that, will you? 🙂

17 09 2011
Team Suzanne

Nance and JJ–nice to meet you both! Thanks for stopping by my blog. I look forward to reading here and posting on my own when I can! I’m new at it, but it’s been great fun so far!

Thinking people that can laugh are my favorite types.

17 09 2011

You sure came to the right place!

17 09 2011

Suzanne where have you been All my life? !!!

Your blog is some hot-brain-stuff!

18 09 2011
Team Suzanne

Aw, thanks man! Thanks for clicking through to me and reading.

I think JJ is right–I did come to the right place. I see lots of words with multiple syllables here, and sentences with more than one clause–and the sense of humor is thick. I repeat, my kind of place.

19 09 2011

I love it here too. It reminds what I imagined life would be like when I reached adulthood.

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