A girl we know spent one year at the Laguardia Performing Arts High School. She was homeschooled prior to entering Laguardia, got herself the audition and was accepted. A few weeks into the year, she approached her Math teacher and asked if she might move to a desk at the front of the room because she was having trouble hearing the teacher during class from her spot near the back. The teacher denied this request.
When I heard this story I thought, “Well that’s ridiculous. Wouldn’t a teacher be encouraged by a student who wants to do well – wants to hear what the teacher has to say – and let them move closer to the front?” Today I was in Central Park while Ben took a Wayfinders class, and I told the Laguardia story to my friend Elsa, another unschooling parent. She immediately said “Can you imagine if I was taking a class in something and asked the teacher to move to the front and the teacher told me no? I’d leave!” We laughed, because the idea of a teacher speaking that way to an adult is funny – funny because it wouldn’t happen. Yet it happens to kids and we roll our eyes and shrug and say, “What was that teacher thinking?” But if a child got up and left a classroom as a result of such a denial, who would be in trouble? Not the teacher.
The girl decided to return to homeschooling, leaving Laguardia with less than a month to go at the end of that year. It’s amazing to me she stuck it out that long.
Sometimes to see how ridiculous something is, you have to come at it from a different angle. The prevailing point of view in our country (not just ours, but we seem to lead the way) is that from the age of about 5 to 22, nothing worthwhile can be learned unless it is taught in an educational institution. But why? Why just during those years? Why not throughout life? Imagine that I decide next week that I want to learn how to cook roast duck. I must enroll in cooking school, right? Of course not! I could, if I really wanted to, but I could just as easily get a cookbook and follow the instructions on my own, or if I was really brave (which I am not in the kitchen) I could try it without any instruction whatsoever. Might take me a time or two to get it right, but no one would tell me it was impossible.
Or look at it this way: From the day we are born until around the age of 5 we can learn everything we need to know without any formal instruction. We learn to walk & talk – arguably the two most difficult things anyone ever learns – on our own time. Then suddenly we become creatures who can figure nothing out on our own. We remain in this helpless state anywhere from 13 to 17 years (or more). During this time we are separated from our families for a large part of the day and housed in a homogenous looking room in a homogenous looking building. We are put into groups of children our own age and of similar perceived abilities. And we are taught. Mostly what we are taught is that we must be taught in order to learn. We are drilled in the skills of ‘doing what we are told’ and ‘testing’. And THEN, once we leave college we get jobs where we are told that the people who get ahead can ‘think outside the box’ and ‘take the initiative’. All the things we were trained not to do in school. We are exhorted to “Just Do It” and “Think Different”. We are, in other words, supposed to learn stuff on our own again.
If aliens came to this planet and tried to figure out this line of reasoning, they would probably come to the conclusion that we are all crazy with a capital C. But we’ve been so well programmed to think this way that it all seems fairly normal. Reasonable even.
And now, a correction: I stated yesterday that there was no mention of homeschooling in the cover article of the NY Times Magazine this week. I was mistaken. Catherine Fake, cofounder of Flickr, says that she homeschools her daughter. My apologies to the Times.