Sunday, July 21, 2013

Library Shelf: Keeping Them Out of the Hands of Satan

I love to cook. I also like to learn from watching other people cook. I enjoy comparing different ingredients, different tools, and different techniques and sampling the various results.

Education is much like cooking.

True educators, like professional chefs, use their knowledge of available resources and their technical expertise to design a plan and effect desirable results over time. It is possible for a dedicated amateur to follow the same steps at home and achieve an equally delicious product. It is also possible for an unskilled cook to easily serve meals with much less time and effort. Frequently, however, a reduced investment of time, expense or effort coincides with a reduction in quality.

Like macaroni and cheese, or tiramisu, all education is not created equal. And I'm not even talking about the religious components or motivation.

In this 1988 book, sociologist Susan Rose compares the educational experience provided by two very different church-run private schools. She notes differences in curriculum, teacher experience and training, tests and grading, parental involvement, and organizational structure. And like a truck stop diner versus a five-star restaurant, the two systems turn out very different results.

I was fascinated by Rose's account because I was homeschooled from 1984 to 1993. (After that I continued unaccredited college-level studies from home for a few more years.) Through the 1980's, many of my friends attended private church schools which had significant resemblances to the schools in Rose's study. The children she observed were my distant peers.

One school Rose describes is highly authoritarian in structure. It is run by a trucker (the principal) with no training in education, and one or two assistants. Curriculum is purchased as a package from a single source (Accelerated Christian Education). Individual students absorb information from booklets at their own pace. They do their work in separated cubicles in a single room, only receiving instruction when they request help. Study consists primarily of reading and memorizing. There is a narrow dress code. The school is tightly bonded to the church. Students come primarily from "blue collar" families, many with two working parents. Parents do not expect their children to go on to college. Students are not encouraged to set goals that reach beyond the local community and church. The girls, in particular, are not motivated toward professional careers. In the end, a graduate from this "school" is mentally prepared for a job at the local factory and not much more.

In the other school, parents are involved to a much higher degree and have stronger relationships with the teachers. The grades are divided into separate classrooms. Creativity, personal expression, and leadership are encouraged. Relationships, and conflict resolution, are valued both inside and outside the classroom. The church gave birth to the school and while the two entities overlap at points, they have distinct foci. Teachers are involved in curriculum development and lesson planning so education is more individualized. Children come from mostly middle class families; parents represent a variety of professions and not all the mothers work outside the home. Students are encouraged to pursue higher education and choose future professions that put their individual gifts to use for personal fulfillment and the good of the community.

Reading Susan Rose's observations helped me to understand my own. Ever since kindergarten when I observed my public school classmates learning the alphabet (I could already read), I have been a student of education. I watched my mom and her friends figuring out how to teach their kids math and grammar and spelling and science. I went along to curriculum review "parties"; I sat in the classroom of a Mennonite one-room schoolhouse and in classrooms of a big non-denominational Christian day school. I knew who published their various textbooks and where they kept their art supplies. I grew up hearing about the controversies over requirements that teachers be certified and over the rights of parents to educate their children at home. I have read Amish teachers' magazines and shopped at homeschool curricula fairs.

My own study experiences have included: parents, library books, computers and e-books, correspondence school, week-long workshops, a music "camp" at an ATI training center, private classes, state university, and community college. I have studied with teachers who had authored the textbooks, and with teachers who had never encountered the material before. And I have taught/tutored children in numerous settings--small groups, individuals, online, classrooms public and private, at home, overseas, age-segregated and age-diverse, my own siblings, my own progeny, smart kids, kids that needed help.

ATI, which my parents joined in 1987, was first touted as a homeschool curriculum, though families quickly learned they needed to supplement the Wisdom Booklets with other educational materials. IBLP staff actually used curriculum from A.C.E. (School of Tomorrow) to "homeschool" juvenile delinquents sent to their Indianapolis campus by the Indiana court system. When I first began learning at home, my parents used similar materials from Christian Light Education for science and social studies. Reading horror stories of students who were subjected to A.C.E. for years on end, either at home or in private "schools", I feel lucky to have had the academic experience I did.

The difference between taking in data and spitting it back out on the appropriate blanks and actually: learning the bounds of science, engaging with concepts, asking questions, hunting for answers, working with a group, interacting with characters, and creating original works expressing personal understanding... is simply immense.

Today, I am convinced that education is a serious science. It is also an art and some individuals are uniquely gifted teachers. But gifted or not, we should be insisting on quality educators. Investment in the training and welfare of our teachers is an investment in our children's future prospects, after all.

There can be no excuse for mis-education or educational neglect. (Especially in the name of Christ, but that's another post!) Children cannot take responsibility for their own education any more than they can be held responsible for their own diets. They don't know how to evaluate the credibility of a text any more than they know the long-term health effects of french fries. Our children depend on us to teach them what is important, and to equip them with all the tools they will need for life.


  1. Hi! Just another quick note to say how much I'm enjoying your blog. (In fact, in nosing around today, I realized I'd read your post about Arda Rushdoony a few weeks ago but in a brief moment of insanity failed to add your blog to my RSS reader.) This post grabbed my attention since I'm in the process of reading Rose's book right now. I was homeschooled (grades 2-6) and church-schooled (Amish Mennonite, grades 1, 7-12) on ACE's fore-runner, BCE (Basic Christian Education). Graduated in 1992. Somehow I've managed to get two college degrees (working on the third) in spite of that terrible, terrible curriculum. Mostly because I was a reader, I think, so even though I didn't have the background for a math or science field, I was able to do English.

    I'm writing my dissertation on the political influence of family values rhetoric. I really wanted to write about the whole homeschooling/quiverful/Gothard/Rushdoony phenomenon, but "family values" rhetoric was the best way I could capture it for my academic colleagues even though that term feels very watered down/Dobson-esque for me personally. I say all that to explain why I'm so appreciative of your blog and the way it is clarifying connections that I had suspected, but wasn't sure about. Have you thought about writing a book?


    1. I would love to write a book. Right now a blog and three children are about all I can manage. :)