How, then, did they come to write a book called Homeschooling: A Family’s Journey? Two factors intervened in their quest for a mainstream middle-class life, sending them down an unanticipated long-term detour. The first was their decision to live on one income, with Martine a stay-at-home mother to their six children, a choice that put both private schools and neighborhoods with good public schools well out of their financial reach. The second was an incident that occurred at their eldest daughter’s inner-city Catholic school. Their daughter, a second-grader, had answered a test question correctly, but the answer had been marked wrong. After much wrangling for an explanation from the school, they were told that she had given a “fourth-grade answer” to a second-grade question; that she was “not supposed to know that yet”; and that it would be unjust to her “less-advantaged” classmates to reward her for knowledge that they did not possess. “By the time we got back into our car,” they write, “we had decided to homeschool.”
Their new book, part memoir, part how-to manual, chronicles the many years of homeschooling which were the outcome of that experience, detailing both their methods and the development of a philosophy in which a home education provides not merely an alternative school experience, but a radical alternative to the school model itself, for which the real if unspoken question is not how to “teach children to find the truth,” but who gets to decide what “truth” means this year: In other words, as the Millmans baldly put it, “who will have the power to indoctrinate them.” Of course, people often object to homeschooling on precisely these grounds, that parents have chosen to insulate their children from diverse viewpoints, claiming for themselves the power to indoctrinate their children in a particular view of the world. The Millmans argue, however, against the assumption that the institutional school represents any kind of intellectual free market. It may be a free market of competing ideologies and political interests, they say, but what goes on in the classroom is merely operant conditioning in the pragmatic flavor of the day. “American schools have, since the late nineteenth century, demanded various things of children, but never that they become subjects responsible for seeking truth. Instead, children have always been objects of one process or another, and they continue to be.”
Home education as the Millmans understand it is about offering children a level of moral and intellectual agency that a school setting cannot provide. “For us,” they write, “education means a kind of growth and development that seems to have no constituency within the school system.” Though they don’t belabor their Christian identity, the very language they usetruth, virtue, freedomis a vocabulary too mined with a given set of values to be of use even, it increasingly seems, in private schools where egalitarian ideals and “who-are-we-to-judge-ism” are offered as a counterweight to upper-class guilt. Even to think about ideas like truth, virtue, and freedom in large terms is to step outside the institutional conversation, with its overriding concern for what can be quantified. By contrast, in homeschooling, “what matters is not getting the child to produce work but, rather, getting the child to become a fully free and actualized human being.” If homeschooling represents an assertion of the parental right to influence how a child perceives reality, in the Millmans’ view the real point of this kind of education is to develop a person with the clarity to discern what is real. Learning, then, is less about amassing a certain body of knowledge than about cultivating the habit of asking questions and seeking true answers.
The Millman family’s learning routines reflect this philosophy. They balance structure, timetables, and the need to master a given spectrum of concepts in a given spectrum of academic subjects, against the needs and proclivities of each child, and against the spontaneous learning opportunities afforded by daily living. A child watching, through the window, a team of men cutting branches out of a tree absorbs lessons in geometry, physics, andas he observes the group segregating itself at lunchtime, “the browns keeping to themselves, the whites keeping to themselves”sociology and history. The lessons may not be apparent in the moment, but the seeds are sown for later discussion. The Millman children’s educations have been shaped by such diverse occupations as judo, fife-and-drum corps, and forensics, and by textbooks ranging from Saxon Math to the family’s sprawling collection of cookbooks; most of all, however, they have been shaped by the presence of parents willing to pay attention, to hear the questions raised in the present moment, and to help the questioners find answers. The parents’ role becomes not so much that of teacher as of a kind of master learner, working collaboratively with a set of apprentices. At the same time, these parents temper what might seem an overly idealistic lifestyle of learning-by-joy with a measure of reality:
We want the child to master the math concept, but more importantly we want the child to experience the joy of discovery in mathematics, the thrill of victory that comes only with concentrated intellectual effort and achievement. We don’t want the process to be clouded over by a power struggle, but we do want the child to have the security of knowing that someone is in charge. The ideal is that the child will find the joy and choose to do the work. Failing that, we will enforce drill until mastery.
Like David and Micki Colfax, whose 1988 book Homeschooling for Excellence recollects a similarly flexible and child-driven approach to education, the Millmans gain a large measure of credibility from the outcomes of their homeschooling experience. The Colfaxes’ sons, raised on a lifestyle of goat farming and homesteading in the California mountains, went on to attend Harvard; of the Millmans’ six children, the eldest three, the only ones to graduate so far, have all flourished in competitive college settings, at Clark University, St. John’s College in Annapolis, and Brown University. In response to commonly raised questions about whether all this early freedom will restrict a child’s opportunities in adulthood“But what if he doesn’t want to be a goat farmer?”the Millmans usefully recount all that they have learned about high-school preparation and college admissions, as well as myths and realities concerning “homeschooler-friendly” colleges. Though they live and educate improvisationally in the present, their idea is not to idolize happy childhood as an end in itself, but to understand that its discoveries lead to somewhere real, add up to something coherent, and ultimately find their uses in the world beyond the home.
“After our years of homeschooling,” the Millmans write, “we know that there is little that we cannot learn on our own. A college degree functions as a formal attestation of that learning.” The we here is telling. It speaks to the cooperative enterprise, the relationship at the heart of homeschooling. The Millmans are not merely homeschooling parents, but homeschoolers themselves; not standing over their children to shepherd their progress, but sitting with them, doing the math; not teaching, but learning alongside them. To bring up children to see no real dividing line between “learning” and “everything else” is to reap adultsa whole family, in factfor whom learning remains a lifelong journey and a habit of being.
Sally Thomas is a poet and homeschooling mother in North Carolina.
Homeschooling: A Family’s Journey by Martine and Gregory Millman