My wife and I teach our three children at home. This is a rather generous assertion on my part, as she does most of the teaching. My primary job is to keep the whole endeavor funded. Beyond that I also teach the sciences, higher math, wood shop, physical education, and occasionally music.
Society calls what we do “homeschooling”, a semantically-ambiguous term that generally refers to families who opt out of both public and private schools and take full personal responsibility for the education of their children. But our reasons for doing so are different from those of the millions of other families who follow a similar path. In fact, there are probably as many reasons to homeschool as there are homeschooling families.
In conversations with friends I regularly find myself answering the question, “What made you decide to homeschool?”
My wife likes to say that we started teaching our children as soon as they were born. We helped our kids learn to roll over, sit up, crawl, stand, walk, and run. We taught them to speak, read, and write. We were among a small minority who did not send our kids away to preschool. Instead, we picked up a homeschool kindergarten math curriculum from Saxon.
We soon found ourselves facing a dilemma: Our oldest daughter was a year ahead in math and several years ahead in her reading and writing by the time she was supposed to be starting kindergarten, not because she is a savant or child prodigy, rather because we taught her those things at an early age when she was ready for them. Should we put her with peers her same age so she could “fit in” socially but be bored academically, or should we put her with peers of similar ability and have her be a social misfit among older kids?
Neither of these was an acceptable option, so we rejected them both. We opted to in-source the teaching and relied on church, music, sports, and other networks for social connections to her peer group.
This period of our lives coincided with my time in graduate school, and I enjoyed applying what I was learning there to the questions we were facing at home regarding education. I understood that our daughter was a statistical outlier among her peer group at the time in terms of her math and reading skills, but those aren’t the only two types of intelligence, and in all likelihood she was below the mean in some other areas. By the law of large numbers, the education system in general (and the classroom setting in particular) caters strictly to the mean. So how could an undifferentiated classroom experience possibly be optimal for anyone who is an outlier, positive or negative, in any dimension?
The answer, of course, is that such an experience is not optimal for any student. And that fact is obvious when you consider the way the system is constructed. Any rational system is designed to economize around its most scarce resource. For example, certain parts of our healthcare system are characterized by big, expensive buildings filled with expensive people and expensive equipment. Why do we build these expensive hospitals and make the patients show up and wait around? Because the doctors and the equipment they use are the most scarce resources in the system. We optimize the system to make sure that those resources are fully utilized, and we waste the more abundant and less-valuable resources, like the patients’ time.
Our education system is similar. We build big expensive buildings and fill them with expensive (unionized) teachers. We make the students come to the buildings and do a lot of sitting around, standing in line, waiting their turn, etc. Why? Because we view the teachers as the most scarce resources. We optimize the entire system around the most efficient use of their time. Individual student outcomes are of vanishingly small importance.
It’s the collective outcomes that matter most to the education system. Public schools in the United States are modeled after the system established in 18th-century Prussia, whose purpose was to instill in its citizens the doctrine of social obedience to the King and to produce a steady supply of qualified labor for the bureaucracy, the military, and emerging industry.
In other words, the education system was not designed to produce excellence (positive outliers), rather a predictable mean and narrow standard deviation. Why? Because people who think the same are easier to govern, easier to lead into war, and easier to manage at work. To these age-old insights I will add a modern one: It’s also much easier to market to a population that has been systematized into thinking the same way.
I have a habit of waxing verbose on these points whenever I am asked why we homeschool. After one such conversation a few weeks ago, a good friend sent me the following illustration of a TED talk given by Sir Kenneth Robinson. It’s worth watching because it conveys these same ideas graphically and much more succinctly than I do:
So I have come to understand that our fundamental reason for homeschooling our children is because we see unique greatness in each of them that we don’t want the system to destroy in its endless quest to reduce variance. We want our children to think in ways that are not strictly correlated with how everyone else thinks.
And in the present environment, the stakes are so high that we cannot afford to outsource this job to anyone else.
That’s why we homeschool.