Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

One morning, as the four children and I prepared to start the school day, I consulted the saints’ dictionary, as I habitually do, to see whose feast it might be. That day there were two feasts: those of St. Damasus and St. Daniel the Stylite, the latter of whom particularly captured everyone’s imagination. Saint Daniel’s long tenure on his pillar by the Bosphorus is described in my saints’ dictionary as “mainly uneventful,” an assertion followed by a remarkable catalogue of events, including miraculous healings of the sick, the forecasting of a devastating fire, and a visit from a demon-possessed prostitute. After his death, when the monks, having brought him down at last, tried to straighten his body out of its long-accustomed fetal position, “his bones cracked so loudly that an accident was feared.”

Eeeeeewwww, said everyone with an appreciative shudder, the four-and three-year-olds leaning raptly against my shoulders. The twelve-year-old and the nine-year-old spent some minutes in serious discussion about potential hermitages in the backyard—the top of the swing set versus the fort—until, with the useful observation of monastic writers that some lives are “worthy of admiration, not imitation,” I recalled us all to work.

The night before, we had gone to dinner with old friends, and in the course of the evening the conversation turned to our homeschooling. Our hosts didn’t want to argue with the decision my husband and I had made to homeschool; in truth, people do that a lot less often than we had steeled ourselves to expect early on. I suppose they didn’t ask how we expected our children to be “socialized” because there the children were, in front of everyone, doing their best impersonations of socialized people. The nine-year-old talked to the grownups about Star Wars, the four-year-old helped to carry dishes to the table, the three-year-old played nicely on the floor with our friends’ baby granddaughter. The twelve-year-old, away at a ballet rehearsal, proclaimed her socialization by her absence.

In fact, our friends’ questions had nothing to do with the welfare of our children, because they could see for themselves that the children were fine. But they were curious, and what they wanted to know was simply this: What do you do all day long?

That’s never an easy question to answer. When people think of school, typically they think of a day dominated by a roster of discrete subjects. In English, you do reading, writing, spelling, and grammar. In math, you do numbers. In history, you do what’s been done before.

In our homeschool, though we cover all these necessary subjects, the delineations between subjects are often far from clear. For example, this fall my math-tutor brother gave us a book entitled Famous Mathematicians, a series of little biographies beginning with Euclid and ending with Norbert Wiener in the twentieth century. The nine-year-old asked if he could read it, so twice a week, during our math time, instead of doing regular computational math, I let him read. When he finished the book, he chose one famous mathematician to profile and wrote a little report. As I was describing this exercise for our friends, I kept thinking that we had either done an awful lot of math and given English the short end of the stick, or else had done a lot of English and shafted math. But then I realized that in fact we had done it all. He had learned math concepts, he had learned history, he had practiced reading and writing and spelling and editing—all by reading one book and writing about it.

In recent years, as homeschooling has moved closer to the mainstream, much has been said about the successes of homeschooled children, especially regarding their statistically superior performance on standardized tests and the attractiveness of their transcripts and portfolios to college-admissions boards. Less, I think, has been said about how and why these successes happen. The fact is that homeschooling is an efficient way to teach and learn. It’s time-effective, in that a homeschooled child, working independently or one-on-one with a parent or an older sibling, can get through more work or master a concept more quickly than a child who’s one of twenty-five in a classroom. It’s effort-effective, in that a child doesn’t spend needless hours over a concept already mastered simply because others haven’t mastered it yet. Conversely, a child doesn’t spend years in school quietly not learning a subject, under the teacher’s radar, only to face the massive and depressing task of remediation when the deficiency is finally caught.

To my mind, however, homeschooling’s greatest efficiency lies in its capacity for a rightly ordered life. A child in school almost inevitably has a separate existence, a “school life,” that too easily weakens parental authority and values and that also encourages an artificial boundary between learning and everything else . Children come home exhausted from a day at school—and for a child with working parents, that day can be twelve hours long—and the last thing they want is to pick up a book or have a conversation. Television and video games demand relatively little, and they seem a blessed departure from what the children have been doing all day. “You know I don’t read all that stuff you read,” a neighbor child scornfully told my eldest some years ago during one of those archetypal childhood arguments about what to play. Our daughter wanted to play Treasure-Seekers or Betsy-Tacy and Tib; her friend insisted on playing the Disney cartoon character Kim Possible. Book-talk was for school, and she wasn’t at school just then, thank you.

At home we can do what’s nearly impossible in a school setting: We can weave learning into the fabric of our family life, so that the lines between “learning” and “everything else” have largely ceased to exist. The older children do a daily schedule of what I call sit-down work: math lessons, English and foreign-language exercises, and readings for history and science. The nine-year-old does roughly two hours of sit-down work a day, while the twelve-year-old spends three to four hours. But those hours hardly constitute the sum total of their education.

We spend some time formally learning Latin, for example, but we also say our table blessing in Latin and sing Latin hymns during prayers. Both older children sing in our parish treble choir: still more Latin, which is not a dead language to them but a living, singing one. The twelve-year-old is working her way through an English-grammar-and-composition text, but she is also, on her own, writing a play, which our local children’s theater will produce in the spring. The nine-year-old has his own subscription to National Geographic and fills us in at dinner on the events of the D-Day invasion or the habits of the basking shark. He practices handwriting, with which he struggles, by writing letters to friends in England, where we lived when he was small. Last November, the older children and a friend adopted a project for sending care packages to soldiers in Iraq; they wrote letters, knitted hats, made Christmas cards, and one Saturday went door-to-door around the neighborhood collecting funds to cover postage and to buy school supplies for the soldiers to hand out to Iraqi children. This undertaking by itself was something of a mini-curriculum, involving reading, handwriting, composition, art, math, community service, and even public relations. At their best, our days are saturated with what school merely strives to replicate: real, substantial, active, useful, and moral learning.

Most important for us in the ordering of our life is that our homeschooling day unfolds from habits of prayer. We begin the day with the rosary and a saint’s life; we say the Angelus at lunchtime; we do a lesson from the catechism or a reading in apologetics and say the evening office before bed. Our children have internalized this rhythm and, to my intense gratification, the older children marshal the younger children to prayers even when their father and I are absent. The day is shaped and organized by times of turning to God.

A lot of unscheduled learning seems to happen during these times. In saying the rosary, for example, we exercise our skills in memorization and recitation, as well as in contemplation. The little children practice sitting still; they also practice counting. In remembering our daily intentions together, we practice the discipline of inclining our hearts and minds toward the needs of others. Often, too, during devotions we find ourselves plunged into discussions about current events, ethics, and questions about God and life that have been simmering unasked in some child’s mind until just that moment. The saints, whose dates we record in our family timeline book, provide us not only with examples of holiness but also with insight into the historical eras in which they lived. We have even found ourselves doing geography during prayers: Though I now forget why we needed to know this in praying the office, I distinctly recall dragging out the atlas one evening to confirm the exact location of Chad.

On reflection, if I had to give our homeschool a name, as some states require, I might be tempted to call it Saint Daniel the Stylite Academy. This would be original and memorable—for one thing, we wouldn’t be constantly saying, “No, we’re not that Saint Daniel the Stylite Academy.” Moreover, it captures something of what I believe the essence of homeschooling to be: an integrated life of learning, ordered by and emanating from the discipline of prayer. After all, despite the admonition of the monks, Saint Daniel’s career may be more worthy of imitation than I had thought.

The homeschooling life often feels like life on a pillar: isolated but visible, removed yet immersed in essential undertakings. We have not so far, in our own “mainly uneventful” life, done single combat with sword-wielding phantoms or been shown off as a “wonder of the empire.” And yet, what looks like not that much on the daily surface of things proves in the living to be something greater than the schedule on the page suggests, a life in which English and math and science and history, contemplation and discussion and action, faith and learning, are not compartmentalized entities but elements in an integrated whole from which, we hope and pray, our children will emerge one day so firmly formed that nothing in this world can unbend them.

Sally Thomas is a poet and homeschooling mother in Tennessee.