by Steph W.
At my younger girl's first soccer game, I met a mom who is officially beginning to home school this year; her older daughter is starting Kindergarten. I was surprised and saddened to hear that she is already getting flack about this choice -- from total strangers no less. People stop her in Wal Mart to say "Isn't she old enough to be in school?" When the mom replies that she home schools, they respond, "Why would you do that?" and -- yes, you knew this was coming -- "She won't get socialized."
I am not going to ponder the inappropriateness of stopping strangers in Wal Mart to question their educational choices. Maybe Wal Mart is the modern day agora where citizens gather to exchange gossip and bad advice. I'm also not going to discuss this absurd -- but still prevalent -- misconception about home schoolers and "socialization." I'm not sure how it started. Perhaps there is an urban legend afoot that home schoolers are rearing their children in isolated subterranean caves or sealed compounds. How else would we avoid having our kids "socialize?"Furthermore, we all know that "socialization" -- the process by which kids acquire values and learn to relate to other human beings -- takes place within the family and community. Schools can certainly play a part in that, but real socialization always -- for better or worse -- occurs in the heart of the family and community.
The thing that was running through my mind (aside from being surprised at people's gratuitous rudeness) -- and has troubled me for many years -- was not the way the "socialization" myth does a disservice to home schooling families (though, of course, it does). I was thinking of the way it does a disservice to public schools, and to society as a whole.
People seem to be buying into the notion that the role of "socializing" children -- an incredibly broad and complex task in which families and communities traditionally have led the way -- can be, or should be, taken on the one institution: the public school system. Much has been said about the "failure" of the school system. Schools struggle in many ways, and artificial, politically motivated "standards" seem to be exacerbating the situation. But if public schools are "failing," the root of the problem may be that this system is shouldering roles and expectations which they are not designed to handle. In addition to being educators, they are expected to transmit values to the next generation (the real job of "socialization") and play the role of police, psychologist and social worker. Is it any wonder that they seem unable to rise to the task?
It seems that our society no longer questions the premise that schools should assume the role of educating kids, even though this is a relatively new development in our country's history. This assumption is flawed, since parents of schooled children still need to bear the primary responsibility for their kids' education and development. Schools struggle, I think, to meet the needs of each child in a system that often doesn't allow for letting each child's innate drive to learn unfold at its own pace. But thanks to many talented, devoted teachers and administrators, they move forward and many publicly schooled children thrive.
But their role doesn't stop there. Compulsory education laws have placed the school system in the role of an enforcement agency. They are also supposed to teach values, and they are expected to intervene -- often single-handedly -- when children are unable to learn because of emotional or family problems.
In a previous life, I was a counselor who "consulted" with public schools -- which often consisted of spending a little time each week with the most troubled students and trying to guide their families into therapy. These schools were working with many kids who had difficulty learning in the classroom because they were recovering from sexual abuse, were coping with alcoholism in the family, were abusing alcohol or other drugs themselves, or were victims of parental abuse, among many other things.
Sometimes a child was labeled with ADHD when really he was coping with an angry, abusive parent. I remember one "hyperactive" boy who told me, between math and reading lessons, that his stepfather got drunk and terrorized the family. Another boy -- a fourth grader -- had already become so angry and violent he had kicked another child in the head until he was nearly unconscious. And yes, as you'd guess, behind that child's behavior was an extremely violent father. There are many stories like this. Sadly, I am not surprised that there are school shootings. :-(
In the face of all this, despite lack of time or training, teachers and guidance counselors are expected to be therapists, mediators, and violence prevention experts.
Then came the phenomenon of "Values Education" in public schools. Faced with a seeming decline in moral values, the Commonwealth of Virginia decided that schools should add values like "Honesty," "Trustworthiness" and "Kindness" and their already crowded curricula. Teachers and guidance counselors found clever ways to work this in. One school counselor created a bulletin board which focused on one value at a time. For example, one month it focused on "Kindness." She took photos of children doing nice things and posted them under the heading: "Look Who Was Caught Being Kind."
It was a clever, fun solution. But the problem is clear. True social and moral values are not captured in lessons or curricula or on bulletin boards. For better or worse, children are learning how to live and treat human beings -- from whatever "teachers" are at hand -- every waking moment. If, for whatever reason, families and communities are not helping them build a strong moral foundation, the schools simply can't fix that. The best they can do is try to be good role models during the hours the kids are in school -- teach by example -- and intervene when they can. No one can design a "curriculum" that will be a magic bullet for society's troubles. It just doesn't work that way.
I don't have a grand solution to these problems, nor do I have any compelling words of wisdom. But I look forward to the day that the rearing of children -- taking the lead in their education on every level, helping kids in troubled families, and guiding them in their emotional and moral development -- will truly be the job of families and communities. Government-funded agencies, such as mental health and social service agencies, can certainly play an important role in that.
Public schools would be viewed by families and society as a resource -- a place that offers classes, books, and time with talented, encouraging teachers. No one would assume they're there to make sure we're competitive in the world market, hold everyone to the same "standards," teach values, or "fix" troubled kids. No one would look to them for "socialization." They would have some role to play in all that, of course, along with the rest of the community. But we would all acknowledge the real travelers on this journey -- parents, along with extended families, faith groups, and communities.
At that point, life without school wouldn't be seen as lifestyle that is off the beaten track. After all, children's academic, physical, emotional, and spiritual education would l be understood to be the role of families, their support systems, and their communities. Schools would be seen simply as a part of that community and a public resource -- in most cases, freely chosen -- to help them on their journey.
Stephanie W. lives with her family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has been learning at home full time with her three wonderfully creative, feisty and quirky children -- Sarah (14), James (9) & Patricia Elizabeth (4) since 2003. Her other interests include literature, writing, editing, and the internet.