Do you know what everyone says about you? Hmm? They say that you're a homeschooled jungle freak, that's a less hot version of me!
That famous line is what Regina George says to Cady right before she gets hit by a bus in the movie that defined the early millenium, Mean Girls. If you live under a rock and have never seen this movie, it’s about a girl who is homeschooled until her family moves to Evanston, Illinois, and she is thrust into the abyss of high school for the first time at age 15. The opening sequence of the movie describes common conceptions of homeschoolers:
“I guess it's natural for parents to cry on their kid's first day of school. But, you know, this usually happens when the kid is five. I'm 15 and until today, I was home-schooled. I know what you're thinking. "Home-schooled kids are freaks."
[Cut to a spelling bee] : X-Y-L-O-C-A-R-P. Xylocarp.
Or that we're weirdly religious or something.
[Cut to a bunch of kids sitting on a hay bale staring at the camera] : And on the third day, God created the Remington bolt-action rifle so that Man could fight the dinosaurs.
And the homosexuals.”
First of all, I thought this scene was hilarious when I saw the movie, and still do. This falls into the category of comedy known as funny because it’s true. Well, it’s not really true, but people believe it’s true, so what’s the difference? This is the image modern Americans have of homeschoolers -- kids with freakishly controlling parents who stage-manage them into weird, niche competitions like spelling bees, or hicks who want to teach their children some fundamentalist Christian creationism instead of math and science.
I used to buy into these stereotypes. I thought that homeschool kids must be weird, because they spend too much time with their families, and not enough time with the outside world. They can never make friends their own age. They grow up weird, sheltered, and without the opportunities that schools can provide them. How can they compete with “normal” people out in the real world? It seemed cruel. It took me awhile to figure out how wrong I was.
Formal schooling, the competitive mentality, and a zero-sum world
I went to intensive prep schools that were supposedly the best in Chicago for K-12 education. I was very aware of my performance in school ever since first grade, probably the first time I got a report card in my gifted education program I had just begun. I was dismayed to learn that by being sent to this new school, I would be entering the world of being formally evaluated at every turn.
I have some terse words for people who do that to children, but I’ll keep them to myself. Formal schools make children hyper-aware that they are being evaluated, and even more so, evaluated against each other. No matter how much teachers try to claim their classes are not graded on a curve, kids intuitively know that someone in their class will define what an “A” is, and the teacher will grade according to that. Worse, teachers will decide what students define the “A-student,” (sweet, obedient, docile) and judge the rest of the class on that model. Have your spirit beaten out of you, or do poorly in school. Children are observant and eager for adult validation. If you think they are unaware of these things, you are wrong.
This particular paradigm never left me. It may be one of the most damaging parts of formal schooling. No matter how hard I tried, I could never stop comparing myself to my classmates throughout my education. It’s something I work on every day.
Some people might argue that this is a useful function of school -- the world is competitive, so you might as well learn the rules of the game when you’re young.
Except that isn’t how the world is.
Being graded on a curve, compared to your classmates, and evaluated by someone who, in all likelihood has no business evaluating people, are part of a zero-sum paradigm. If someone gets an A, you get a B. If someone gets into a college you wanted to go to, that’s one less spot for you. Children begin to view the world as dog-eat-dog, competitive, and threatening. Peers are, confusingly, both your friends and your competitors. You start to care less about learning and more about grades, and, more importantly, the grades of your peers.
But the world isn’t zero-sum. The marketplace isn’t zero-sum. If one person is successful, there’s not less success out there for the rest of us. Jeff Bezos’ wealth created by Amazon’s success didn’t make us all more poor, in fact, it made us all richer, offering products at cheaper prices so that we could consume more, for less. Those who think that it’s necessary that some succeed at others’ expense are wrong -- as some succeed, our society gets wealthier, and new opportunities arise that no one could have imagined before. Who could have imagined all of the tech opportunities that arose with the invention of the iPhone? Apple made a ton of money, and a ton of new opportunities for entrepreneurs. Win-win.
So, if the world isn’t zero-sum, why are we teaching children that outpacing their peers is the most important thing in life, and, in the process, making them miserable, self-conscious, and envious?
Isolation and socialization
Most objections to homeschooling come from the idea that children are isolated during a home education. This is only sometimes the case. I’m not asserting that isolating children is a good idea, and neither are homeschoolers. That aspect of homeschooling is mostly a byproduct of the fact that homeschoolers are traditionally targeted by the state and have little choice but to hide their community away from the public eye. If schools were more free and flexible, homeschoolers could let their children play together more freely.
Not all socialization is a good thing, either. Kids are forced to sit in class for seven hours a day, and then, shockingly, they are not very nice to each other. Bullying is a very real part of formal schooling that can cause irreversible damage to children and teenagers’ self esteem. No, this doesn’t build character, but it might lead to violence and self-harm. Letting children form more voluntary friendships with children of a wide variety of ages is much more healthy than forcing them to fend for themselves in a pen full of agitated children of their exact same age.
Plenty of fully schooled children and adults are weird, just like plenty of homeschooled people are outgoing and social. There is no conclusive evidence that schooled children are more likely to be social, or that homeschooled children are more likely to be anti-social. It's just a matter of values and personality. Maybe being social and outgoing is a bad thing if it comes with a need for constant validation from others. Maybe a love for reading is more important than constantly being surrounded by other kids. It's their choice, and their life. Let them decide when and how they make friends.
Access to Knowledge
School used to be the best way to access centralized knowledge so that kids could learn more than what their parents could teach them. This argument doesn’t require a lengthy rebuttal anymore, because anyone with wifi can give their children access to virtually all of human knowledge via the internet.
Thanks to technology such as iPad and iPhone apps, YouTube, and Wikipedia, children can learn to speak a language, how to code, and information on almost any subject or historical event for free. This is pretty revolutionary.
Homeschooling is really just a way for people who don’t want to subject their children to the rigid misery of formal schooling to allow their children to learn at their own pace, foster a love of education, and develop a view of the world that recognizes opportunities instead of competition. And it’s not just for spelling bee champions and Christian fundamentalists in rural America, I promise.