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The Education Liberator, Vol. 2, No. 7, August/September 1996

Arguing with Jim

The false problem of parents who don't care

by Lehi Sellers

What do you propose to do with kids that are difficult to teach and whose parents don't give a rat's hindend about education? Stuff them in a sack and dump them in the ocean?-Question posed on an Internet discussion group, by "Jim."

Jim refuses to accept the fact that parents are responsible for their children's education ahead of the state, ahead of "society," ahead of Jim, Himself. The fact that some parents "don't give a rat's hindend about education" makes him nervous, because he believes that every child must be educated. I agree, but I do not think that I have the right to force those parents into educating their children according to my prejudices, nor do I think that all children should be forced to be educated in accordance with any one set of ideals. Some children do not want Jim's version of education any more than some parents would choose to educate them according to Jim's parameters.

For argument, let's concede that only force will give some parents a reason to send their children to school. The question now is, "Which is more important, schooling, while the student is a child, or a parent's right to choose for his child what he believes is most important?" Inherent in this question is another: "Who should choose what the child should be taught?"

Before we can answer this, we must examine our prejudices. If we believe that all education happens in a classroom, and that a child not in the schoolhouse is not receiving an education, we may be wrong and never know it.

Each of my four oldest children has graduated from high school at age 16. The youngest of these has never seen the inside of a schoolroom. Each has started college and each has at least a 3.85 GPA. My older daughter graduated cum laude. My oldest son has taken every computer science and related math course offered in two different colleges, and has a GPA of 4.0 in those classes (he got a B in an English class once). He'll graduate with honors, too. These two have been homeschooled since fourth (for her) and fifth grades. We care deeply about "education," but don't give a rat's hindend about "schooling." Would you, Jim, castigate us because we don't do things your way?

Education is too important to be left in the hands of pseudo-experts calling themselves "educators." Most educators disdain parents except for three purposes:

  1. We provide grist for their mills
  2. We (involuntarily) send money so they can pay themselves
  3. We reinforce their authority even when the children are out of school.

Jim presupposes that a child will get an education in a traditional classroom. This is a false assumption. Any unbiased survey will show that most of what we learn, we learn in "living," not in "studying." But beyond that, most children don't learn much in class anyway. There are several reasons for this, but here are four:

  1. Even if there were only twenty children in a classroom, as Gov. Pete Wilson recently provided for K-3, that is still too much dilution of the teacher's time and attention.
  2. The child is bombarded in a classroom by so many stimuli that learning is difficult at best, and, for many children, impossible.
  3. The rest of the school environment is hostile to children, indeed, to life itself. While a substitute teacher in a middle school, I witnessed both the precursors to and the after-effects of a drug buy. I didn't get around the corner fast enough to see the buy itself, but many students were there. They had learned to look the other way.
  4. Schools demand virtually nothing from students. The "dumbing down of America" is now so well documented that even his enemies don't chide Rush Limbaugh for using the phrase. If, however, Jim doubts it, I challenge him to look at an eighth-grade science book from the late 19th century and compare it to the science books used today. Indeed, there is no comparison!

However, the primary reason that many children do not learn in a classroom is that the most important thing they have learned is that learning is unimportant. They've picked it up from two sources, both significant:

  1. Their parents, who do not read or study anything beyond the sports page, Penthouse or All My Children. Never having seen an important adult read for pleasure (Penthouse is not reading), why should they believe Mrs. Furgussen when she says that reading is fun or exciting or anything else? When a parent says, "I studied this in school, but I've never used it," or, "but I didn't understand it, either," the child learns that this stuff is useless and is a torturous experience forced on him by a society whose actions are malevolent and uncaring.
  2. Their teachers, whose need to "cover the subject" and "ready them for a statewide testing,"often incents them to convey to the children that uncontrolled study, serious questioning of received "wisdom," and personal experimentation (i.e., real learning), are not valued in school. Any question that strays from the recommended curriculum is often either ignored or shot down. Honest questions or comments that don't fall within the party line can be cause for rude dismissal.

When I was in fifth grade, I asked Miss Garret, "So, the Romans had their own place system?" during arithmetic after being shown that an "I" or "V" placed to the left of a higher-valued character reduced that character's value by its own. She torpedoed that idea so fast I've never forgotten it, even after 38 years. Did she ask how I got the concept into my head? Did she see what I was driving at? No, the point she was making was that the superiority of the Arabic (misnamed, it was Hindu, but that's another story) system derives from the concept of a character's having different values depending on its position in the digital string. My observations were too difficult for her to address, perhaps too unsettling. Fifth graders can be so disruptive.

My definition of "education" is the development of the innate capacities of a child, by instruction, whether formal or informal, with the goal of making him an independent, thinking adult who can successfully negotiate life. It includes the French definition of "education" which means "to rear [a child] to be polite and a decent member of society." I do not use it as a synonym for "teach," although it can be identical in some situations. I do mean it to include "indoctrinate," as many statists do, without admitting it.

The word "indoctrinate" is important to the discussion, because, while "educate" is not a perfect synonym, most people do not recognize the connection. In fact, educators are by necessity indoctrinators, in that it is impossible to teach history, or language, or any of the "humanities" without doctrinal basis. An objective approach, even if possible, would be far too lengthy for any school to include it.

Most sciences, too, are full of subjective content. Anthropology, biology, zoology, astronomy, archeology and a myriad of others have religious and philosophical overtones and underpinnings, without which they would cease to be science. I can teach any of these from an atheistic, Christian or Muslim point of view, and while the facts might be the same, the hypotheses and purpose for learning would vary greatly depending on the outlook of the instructor.

Even the most strident NEA supporters will not admit it publicly because it is so easily refuted, but there is an ongoing undercurrent that, without their brand of education, any child will fail in the pursuit of life. If the child is learning the trade of his father, say cotton harvester, plumber or leather worker, why should you or I arbitrarily grab the child out of that environment and throw him into a classroom so he will "get an education?"

So, while some of those parents (the ones who don't give a rat's hindend) may, in fact, not care in the least that their children may never get "book learning," they do not all fail to educate their offspring. Plumbers have more math, more reading and a host of other skills than the output of most high schools in America. Would a child from this environment be less prepared to deal with the problems of the world as he encounters it than a graduate of Prussian Way High? Would the son of the artisan know less physiology or less about planning, or "how to order from a catalog" than a diploma'ed kid from Horace Mann High?

Answer number 1: Permit parents to teach their children. It worked for millennia. It works today. Children in remote parts of Alaska and Australia learn at home. They use the radio and books from a government, but the teacher is Mom or Dad. (Incidentally, they only need spend about three to four hours a day to "keep up" with their state incarcerated peers.)

Plumbers' kids learn from watching their fathers. Milliners' daughters learn by watching their mothers. Farm kids usually help plow, sow, milk, clean, weld, drill, repair, deliver baby animals, castrate pigs, dock sheep tails, and many other tasks. Their education is so far beyond most city slickers that by the time they are fourteen, they know more general science, geometry, chemistry, biology, zoology and who 'knows' what than some college professors. Admittedly, they may not have the erudite vocabulary of the latter, but is that reason to call them uneducated?

Answer number 2: Let the kids wait until they are out of their parents' control. If the parents don't educate their children, at least these children will not grow up hating learning. Most of them will eventually seek learning on their own. Deprived of the advantages they see around them, they will value the opportunity when they get it, and they will learn far more, far faster than they ever would have under state duress.

Answer number 3: Let friends, family and churches take care of the problem. Private charity worked in America for centuries before Big Brother started commandeering the resources people used to give their churches, community chests, united funds and so on. Remember: Big Brother is not part of the family.

Variant to answer 3: I call this the Huck Finn phenomenon. The "widder Douglas" took Huck in and got him going fairly straight. True, his earlier background made it difficult, but it happened. Now Jim (the supporter of government schools, not the character in the book) may say that this was fiction, but Clemens could not have brought it off if it wasn't common enough to ring true for his 19th century audience.

The blindered vision of so many statist "educators" appalls me. They portray themselves as the salvation of the nation, but they have yet to prove that their method works at all, much less works better than the alternatives. Why, I wonder, do they so adamantly oppose a parent's having a choice in the matter of educating his children? If they offered a quality service, wouldn't most people prefer theirs to whatever else was available? But since their service is mediocre at best, and detrimental in so many cases, they rightly fear that their heretofore captive clientele will abandon them at the first chance. May it happen soon, Jim.

Lehi Sellers lives in Roseville, California, and is a technical writer and a retired military officer who holds a Master's in Business Administration. He and his wife have seven children and have been homeschooling since 1985.

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