My wife homeschools our seven-year-old daughter, so I read with sympathy David Mills’ piece in the January issue of First Things on the suspicion he encounters when discussing publicly the homeschooling of his two children. Opting out of the public education system feels a bit like jumping off a moving train. As you tumble down the side of the embankment and struggle to gain your footing, passengers on the still-moving train crane their necks and crowd to the windows to stare at you with wide eyes and slack jaws.
They jumped? What are they, nuts? This train is so nice.
As the locomotive puffs into the distance—it must, after all, keep to its schedule—you dust yourself off and begin to plot the rest of your journey on foot. Suddenly you realize you are alone in the wilderness. “Oh boy,” you think. “Maybe we’ve made a terrible mistake.” Then it hits you: The air smells great out here. The landscape, previously just a wooshing blur in the train’s window, is suddenly alive with colors and sounds.
“Hey, we can stop and study this patch of wildflowers for a while if we want to!” We can wander away from the train tracks and into the wilderness if we choose. The best part? We no longer need to keep to the schedule. We can plot a course around the next station. We can sprint, we can crawl, we can stand on one foot for half an hour if it suits our fancy.
But how will they survive all alone? They’ll starve! They’ll be eaten alive! Those poor children.
As Mills notes, modern homeschoolers have inherited the counter-cultural mantle once borne by the 1960s left. It’s a reversal that inspires dissonance and puzzlement in nearly all quarters. We live in the northeast, where homeschooling is a rare choice and generally viewed as a socially radical act. That my wife is a former Catholic school teacher has helped some digest the news.
Well, yes, but she didn’t teach all subjects in all grades, did she? What will you do when your daughter gets to high school?
We haven’t thought that far ahead. This alone provokes barely-disguised astonishment from some. I’m sure many imagine our daughter will now suffer terrible, right-wing indoctrination at our hands. Taken together with the other well-known public fact about our family—we are also parents of a five-year-old with Down syndrome—things must come suddenly into focus.
Down syndrome. Homeschool. Okay, I get it. These are Sarah Palin people. Wow. And right here in Connecticut. Who’d have guessed? They look so normal.
In places such as Iowa, I’m told, candidates win elections on waves of support from homeschoolers. I could sooner imagine a Connecticut politician courting the support of a Wiccan coven than of the local homeschooling community. Indeed, as word spread of our decision to homeschool, previously well-oiled relationships with neighbors and friends suffered from a noticeable uptick in uncomfortable silences and forced smiles.
Ooooh, that’s so interesting. We thought for a while about doing it, but my husband didn’t like the idea. Aren’t you worried about socialization?
As Mills correctly points out, there is widespread anxiety over the socialization of homeschooled children. I met more than a few anti-social kids when I was in public school, so I’m not inclined to lose sleep over this. Of greater concern to me is the prevailing conventional wisdom holding that a modern definition of parental duty encompasses not just the socialization of one’s own children, but of the children of others as well. I imagine this is a notion that would appeal to Elizabeth Warren, who would only have to slightly alter her stump speech to highlight it.
There is no one in this country that got socialized on their own. Nobody. You’ve got a socialized kid, good for you. God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take your socialized kid and socialize the next kid who comes along.
Socialization is education school code for, “Give your kid to us. Let us raise her.” I’m not much interested in having the talent, creativity, and faith socialized out of my daughter, so I am happy to play a small part in frustrating the system’s designs on her. Yet I am always mindful that we homeschool only at the pleasure of the state. As a wise man once said, “If you think you’re free, try not paying your taxes for a while.” At any moment, I know, we can be forced back on that train. I can hear it now.
Matthew Hennessey is a writer and editor who lives in New Canaan, CT. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHennessey.