Desiring and Learning

D

I never really quite know how to begin writing about things that are based largely around my own experiences. With most of my posts I try to begin with some sort of rhetorical flair, a compelling exordium which Quintillian himself would approve. Well, I suppose that may be reaching too far; most times I would be satisfied with his shade at least checking off the box for a strong introduction. Much as I was relieved to receive an A- in Statistics (curses and anathemas upon the subject!), so I could gladly lie down in the embrace of the final sleep knowing I at least got some points for effort.

But then again, I am a very light sleeper.

Full disclosure: I don’t know what that previous statement is supposed to entail for my demise, but it seemed a pithy enough rejoinder at the time. Best perhaps to just leave it there and move on.

What, the quickly-becoming-weary-reader might ask, has any of this to do with homeschooling?

Nothing. And everything.

Ok, that was admittedly trite. But this is also a blog, so there must be some allowances made for conversational tropes. Quintillian may be doing his best to generate electro-magnetic energy in view of such rhetorical travesties, and I will admit that I find it difficult to write without a certain amount of snark and ironic self-commentary. How else could I achieve such extents of verbosity?

As the reader may suspect (and perhaps hope beyond all hope), all of this is actually leading to something, which is a little window into my experiences in education.

Awhile back my friend Andy suggested that I share some of my thoughts and experiences concerning homeschooling, and I have tried to collect my thoughts about the subject for the last couple months. I have found that- in that blessed realm called the internet-this sort of subject is one the Touchy Subjects, which, to be fair, is true of just about any other subject. But the Touchy Subject of homeschooling often seems to set off a great deal of silliness in the comboxes, which I confess is a delightful thing for those of us who revel in witnessing that sort of silliness.

What makes Homeschooling one of the Touchy Subjects is that it generally ends up being positioned onto one side of the Necessary Polarization for which the internet is renowned. Generalizations abound, fingers are pointed, enemies are identified, and so the function of the online discussion forum is realized when people start calling each other little Hitlers.

I speak only slightly in jest.

It is thus with this caveat that my experiences in this regard should be understood to be simply my own and not to be taken as universals. Granted, I have my own preferences and philosophies about education, but that does not entail that I am proposing a grand unified theory of education. In fact, I would argue exactly the opposite, which is why I ultimately found homeschooling so rewarding. Education is ultimately all about desire on the part of the learner; no system or plan or program can bring education about unless that desire is kindled. And since each person is different in extraordinary ways, that desire for understanding and knowledge will manifest itself and be accomplished in often distinct and sometimes seemingly contradictory ways. I hope that this thesis- if that is what it is- is brought to bear through a recounting of my experiences.

I was not always homeschooled. From Kindergarten through 6th grade I attended public schools in at least two different states. All of these schools were in relatively small communities- until 5th grade we lived in towns of less than 7,000 people- and after that we settled down in the burgeoning metropolis of Casper, Wyoming, boasting a bursting-at-the-seams mass of humanity numbering nearly 60,000.

As such, most of my public school experiences involved very small classes with fellow students whom I knew, played with during the summer, went to church with, and jumped off of sheds with. (Seriously, that was fun.)

For my part I have always found that the academic side of educational systems comes relatively naturally to me. And yes, I was that obnoxious kid who always got really good grades and, shall we say, wasn’t exactly shy about letting others know it. I was also really efficient at doing my schoolwork. I was also the obnoxious kid who got done far sooner than everyone else and helped the teacher grade the other kids’ work.

No doubt I was loved for that.

And for those of you who remember the Book-It program; yes, I was also that kid. I was already a voracious reader, but I wanted more than just to fill up my name line with the star stickers. So I read and read and read. Granted, I also gamed the system a little bit- there wasn’t exactly a page minimum on the books we could read, so I kind-of sort-of counted a lot of really short books towards this. I may have even thrown a few Choose Your Own Adventures into the mix. But even despite this, I still read a lot of legitimately sized books, and so not only was I the kid whose line was always filled up, but I almost always had stars looping all the way around the poster and back, until the teacher couldn’t put any more on. Because, darn it, I really wanted that personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut.

No doubt I was a hugely popular person. Come to think of it, I don’t recall any of the other kids ever coming up to me and telling me how awesome I was.

Go figure.

As the astute reader may have guessed, little obnoxious Jason placed a great deal of stock in grades. I’m pretty sure that in elementary school I never got less than an A, and I was always the kid who went above and beyond to not only receive the available extra credit, but also to hopefully convince the teacher to give me a little extra. There was one time my report card was filled will D’s and F’s, and the other kids teased me about it. To be honest, I was kind of hurt. But the joke’s on them- that was during my first bout with cancer, and I had been gone for 3 months in the hospital and getting chemo.

Ha! Oh, wait a minute…

This has nothing to do with homeschooling, but as a brief aside it’s not exactly easy to be a nine year old who just had surgery and was going through chemo. Firstly, the surgery was pretty major, and I wasn’t able to run for months. Imagine being a nine-year old who doesn’t really understand what’s going on and can’t run but really wants to play kickball. Note- I actually did play kickball and kind-of sort-of didn’t exactly ‘not-run.’ Just don’t tell my parents or the surgeon.

And then there’s the baldness. On the one hand, it’s kind of a neat trick to have your friends stand around and watch you pull your hair out. It’s a less neat trick to have to stay home from hanging out with your friends because you are ceaselessly vomiting. So yeah, a bit of a mixed bag. On the plus side, I got to break the rules a bit and wear a hat inside at school.

And I still managed to get my A’s.

From the aforementioned, the reader may get the impression that I was an obnoxious little jerk who thought way too much of himself. And that assessment would probably not be too far off, at least in some respects. But on the upside I discovered that one of the virtues buried beneath so much ickiness was that I was a very self-directed and self-motivated learner. My teachers no doubt showed a lot of patience and wisdom with me in that they allowed me to cultivate that while not beating me down for my less than savory inclinations. In many ways I am grateful for all my teachers in that they gave me the space to discover that about myself.

It was this self-motivation style of learning that actually propelled me into homeschooling. The motivations for homeschooling one’s children are incredibly diverse, but in my case, as far as I can recall, it was my (and my brother’s) desire to do it that brought it about for the most part.

We had friends from church who were homeschooled, and in many ways it seemed really appealing. After all, they didn’t have to sit in school all day, but could work on their schoolwork when they wanted and then do other things with their time while the rest of us were sitting in a class. I found that notion appetizing, especially as I was realizing that I was a self-directed learner. Granted, in my little 7th grade mind these things were probably only shadows, and the real motivation was probably wanting to do things I wanted to do other than schoolwork with what I thought would be more free time, but no one is one motivation, and I like to think that there was at least some virtuous undercurrent in the whole thing.

No homeschooling regimen is the same. Some people kind of make it up as they go along, some use curriculum from online sources, while others use curriculum from actual schools. (And of course anything in between.) For our part we utilized curriculum from some Christian school in Illinois (I don’t recall the name), so it was essentially as if we were a satellite location of that school. In many ways this was really valuable since there were reports due, tests to take, papers to write, etc. As self-motivated as I was to learn, when you are still so young some sort of structure is probably essential, if for nothing else than to instill some manner of discipline.

For us, we started off in 7th grade, which was kind of a weird time to start. Initially my parents were involved in the entire process, almost as if we were in a school. Gradually, however, we all came to find that my brother and I were both really self-directed and motivated and could thus handle most of the day-to-day aspects of learning ourselves. My parents of course were still really involved, but they pretty much let us go at our own pace and along our own schedule.

I found a couple valuable things from this process.

Firstly, we pretty much didn’t have a choice about having jobs since they didn’t want us doing nothing all day. We started out with a paper route which, while it didn’t pay much, taught us to be able to get up early and get after things, as well as to keep working even under adverse conditions. There was an additional bonus: since we were out delivering papers at 5am or earlier, by the time we got home we were wide awake and could start right into our studies. When you don’t have to sit through a lot of lectures or class time you can pretty much fly through any type of curriculum, and so most days we had all of our schoolwork for the day done by 8 or 9 am and had the rest of the day to pursue other things and work. I for one was over at the gym playing basketball every single day for at least two hours 🙂

Secondly, I learned that– shocking, I know- books can actually teach you something. Being a self-directed learner, I came to discover that if I wanted to learn something I didn’t necessarily have to take a class or have someone explain it to me; if I could read enough and comprehend what I was reading I could assimilate the information just as well, and often more efficiently. I had always been a voracious reader, and my homeschooling experience was no different. Granted, I was still an obnoxious teen, and in my stupidity for awhile thought Shakespeare was a hack, but it laid the foundation for how I approach learning anything now. (And I came to appreciate Shakespeare after all.)

One really valuable experience in homeschooling was that we had to write a lot of papers. And then some more. It seemed like we had to write papers for almost everything, and so I became very accustomed to reading for comprehension, finding main points and arguments, and then reiterating or restating them in the papers I would have to write. I also learned gradually how to research something well and sift through lots of competing information, which I was able to fine tune through college and afterwards. But all that paper writing prepared me well for my college experience; for while a lot of my classmates struggled to get enough words to meet the minimum requirements (you know the drill- larger font size, arial, fudge on the double space distance), I found myself having quite the opposite problem in that I often had way too much to say and write. But that aspect of college was essentially effortless for me, since I had had so much practice earlier.

Of course, homeschooling is not without its challenges. One of the major arguments I often hear revolves around the notion of socialization, or lack thereof, and there is kind of this stereotype that homeschoolers are all these weird, socially awkward kids who don’t know how to interact in public.

No doubt there are some like that, but stereotypes are kind of bland. In my experience there was plenty of socialization, and it’s not terribly hard to find if you actually seek it out. Our situation may have been unique in that there was a fairly strong homeschooling community where we lived, and so sometimes there were different events and such that we were able to participate in together. Every week we had something with the YMCA that essentially functioned as our gym class; we even had a basketball team. I had lots of friends at church who I saw on a regular basis, so I never felt isolated or lacking in socialization.

I think that in much the same way that public schools often fail students because it is necessarily a kind of cookie-cutter type of approach, homeschooling can fail for the same reason. As I mentioned earlier, every student is different, and that desire to learn must be present for it to occur. Homeschooling is not some panacea that cranks out excellent students. Nor does it doom anyone to social oblivion. I think homeschooling was great for me because I am more naturally introverted, if such a category is even meaningful. We all need some level of socialization, but for some of us the solitude is often more desirable and conducive to our own personal flourishing than the social scene, just as the opposite is true for others.

Because of that, homeschooling the way that we ended up doing it worked really well for me and prepared me intellectually for college and adulthood. To be sure, there was a lot I missed out on in the normal high school experience: I went to no proms and attended no sporting events, but that was by choice more than by necessity. Because of my personality and my learning style, I don’t feel any sense of loss from missing out on those things.

I do feel as if I gained a lot from my experience with homeschooling, and I think it helped me to realize that learning has little to do with the titles or credentials you have and has more to do with how you form your intellect and utilize it. As an example, it may surprise you to know that technically I am a high school dropout. We actually fulfilled all of the requirements to graduate from the high school of which we were technically a satellite, and I’m not sure if it was a money thing or something getting lost in the mail or something else altogether, but by the time I was ready for college I discovered that I had no way of actually getting into college, since I didn’t have a diploma. So there was only one thing to do:

Take the GED.

Yep, I have a GED. At the time I was far less mature and felt a great deal of shame walking into the community college classroom to take the test; it was as if the world was snickering at me, saying ‘oh look at him- he has to get a GED.’ And yes, it was pretty easy. It was something I really wanted to forget and put into the past; eventually I just wanted to get my bachelor’s so I could put that on job applications rather than mentioning I had a GED.

But eventually I came to discover- after a lot of heartache and disappointment and dashed dreams- that I cannot rely on pieces of paper to tell me know much I know or to validate my ability to reason and think. We all tend to look at letters after a name and think it means something, but that really acts as a kind of mask, even if we don’t intend it. I came to discover that intelligence and- more importantly- wisdom are not things you gain by checking off the boxes of courses taken or classes attended or tests aced; rather, these come as a result of the desire to learn and the humility to stand before the great and wonderful world with awe and gratitude, and realize that part of being human is discover its wonder and search out its beauty.

There are many paths to this, and that desire deep within us to learn and to know can be utilized and cultivated in many different ways, but just as a garden must be tended if it is to flourish, so our minds must be tilled by that desire so that we are constantly renewed and continually growing in our knowing.

For me homeschooling was an integral part of my intellectual development, and it’s a part of my story that I don’t regret.

3 comments

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  • Thank you! I appreciated that. We have great hopes, of course, for our 4 children and for various reasons have chosen to homeschool. I hope our children are able to look back as you have. I think your thoughts on the individuality of each learner is such a key thing, and the flexibility that homeschooling provides with this sort of thing is so crucial. Also, as we recognize that we will not really be able to help our children pay for college, as well as the fact that college will be ridiculously expensive if nothing changes, I appreciate your closing thoughts in regards to true learning and wisdom. While I love being a student and greatly appreciated my time in seminary, there are other ways to learn, and you can go through all that stuff and kind of be an idiot anyway if you really work at it. Also, my current appointment is in a community with several high school grads who are entrepreneurs who make more than I do, so that sort of puts things into proper perspective – combined with my spiritual gifts of skepticism and anti-institutionalism I am led to question if we are being sold a bill of goods with most undergrad degrees, but I digress. Finally, the socialization question is ridiculous and only demonstrates the questioner’s lack of commitment to actually think through what they are asking. In the stylings of what I read earlier, if my salad were to ask such a question, I would think to myself, “What a stupid salad.” I usually respond with something like, “Did you have no weird kids at all in your high school? No one who was socially awkward?”

    • Hey Andy- thanks for your comments and the initial idea! I appreciate it 🙂

      As far as the value of college- I think it’s more important than ever for those who choose to attend college to have really good reasons for doing so. I know that the ‘college experience’ has been part of the American ethos for quite a while, but it’s seriously not worth the money, especially since at a lot of schools that ethos has little to do with the academic side. Rather, going into college now more than ever people need to have a clear understanding of why they are going, what they hope to accomplish and what sort of return it is going to offer them. I know there is kind of the trope of going into college, not knowing what you want to study, changing majors over and over, etc., but that is more and more becoming financial suicide, especially since a degree offers no guarantee of any future payoff.

      I was fortunate in that I didn’t rack up a lot of student loan debts, even though I kind of drifted into college without a clear direction and such. And while I don’t necessarily regret the experience, I’m not exactly utilizing my degree directly, but rather found a career very randomly and (admittedly) through a lot of hard work. I definitely don’t have a problem with pursuing knowledge for its own sake (and even encourage it very strongly), but if one is going to use that as a reason to attend a university or take a class then I think one just needs to be clear about one’s motivations. And of course be able to pay for it!

      thanks again!

  • I think that approach to college is right on. There are still several situations where it is not only necessary, but helpful. In fact, in my own undergrad, there were several classes I really valued, maybe half of my undergrad classes. But only half, and there is the rub. I had to be a math minor to teach math to middle schoolers (I was a teacher before seminary). This means I had 4 classes of calculus and a few classes beyond calculus, and I have retained almost nothing from them. I simply did not need to know differential equations in order to teach decimals to 7th graders. But it was required. I hope to finish paying off my student loans this year. I graduated in 1997. The situation has only gotten worse. I think doing what you suggest is the best way forward, and it makes the student take responsibility which has implications towards the school and for that student’s life.

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Jason Watson

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