The Complacency of Sentimental Education

As another school year begins so too are the media stories with their formulaic reporting about homeschooling: Talking heads debating the pros and cons of learning at home; education experts concerned about gaps in homeschooler’s knowledge; “Wife Swap”-types of videos that contrast strict school-at-home moms with loosey-goosey unschoolers; and the common lead to so many articles and TV segments that I’ve heard since 1981, “The school bus drives past the Farenga home but their children aren’t on it. They are part of the growing and controversial homeschooling movement…” There are occasional well-done stories, of course, but I’m struck by the large amount of cookie-cutter reporting about homeschooling that I’ve seen over the decades and am now re-seeing, as I look through my back issues of Growing Without Schooling magazine, my work files, and the current news in print and online.

Why can’t the media, educators, and most parents get past the standard questions about socialization, college and employment for homeschoolers that I, and many others, have responded to with studies, case histories, anecdotes and the evidence of at least two generations of socialized, college-educated and employed homeschoolers? Why can’t we get into the real meat of the issues, such as: How can society/local communities capitalize on such dedicated parental involvement in education? Why do colleges accept homeschoolers without conventional high school degrees and what can that mean for reforming our schools? Do students who have autonomy in their studies and lives become employees who are team players?

Our sentimentality about children often gets in the way of seeing them as real people and we are further bound by our own sentimentality about our schooling and upbringing. It “worked for us” goes the thinking, so it will work for our kids. The problem is, our kids are growing up in a completely different environment than we did. Talk about socialization should not be about whether or not homeschoolers feel hurt because they don’t get Valentine’s Day cards from classmates (this was how the socialization question was phrased to me on a national TV show), but about the sort of socialization our kids experience from bullies in school, Colombine-type threats and experiences, and the “teach ‘em and test ‘em” policies we have that make test scores more important than social experiences in school, such as playing at recess, art, sports, drama, choir and music. Our “lens of sentimentality” limit not only our expectations of what children can do, but also our relationships with children. Can it be that our sentimental memories and expectations of schooling and youth make us ignore the realities before our eyes? When I came across this piece of unpublished writing by John Holt that we printed in GWS 68, I felt Holt had, again, summed up a complicated issue very plainly and neatly and pointed my thoughts in a new direction.

Here’s what Holt wrote:


…I fear and dislike sentimentality because I’ve learned from experience that it is one side of a coin whose other side is callousness, contempt, and cruelty.  The trouble with the people who think that some of the time children are little angels is that when the children are not behaving in ways they like they think they are little devils.  The people who at one minute are ready to shed crocodile tears at the thought of an eight-year-old doing actual work will in the next minute become indignant to the point of rage or panic if I suggest that that same eight-year-old be given some kind of say about his learning or the conditions of his life.  This dainty angelic creature, who at one minute we had to protect, in the next minute turns into some kind of dangerous criminal monster.  In fact children are not angels or devils, saints or monsters, not naturally good or naturally wicked, simply human beings very much like the rest of us, with the additional assets of having rather more energy and hopefulness than we do, and the liabilities of being somewhat smaller, weaker, and less experienced.  If we could only agree not to take advantage of their weakness and inexperience, not actually and positively to prey on them, they would be safe enough making a great many decisions which we now don’t let them make.