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Colfax Corner

by David and Micki Colfax

The Colfaxes are the authors of Homeschooling for Excellence and Hard Times in Paradise, available from Mountain House Press, P.O. Box 353, Philo, CA 95466; $19.95 + $2.50 and $11.99 + $2.00, respectively. Readers of The Link are invited to submit questions to the Colfaxes c/o Mountain house Press at the above address.

Dear David & Micki:
My 13-year old son was doing very well in school until this year. Now his grades have slipped and he’s barely passing several of his courses. We can’t understand what’s happened to him. Should we consider homeschooling?
` M.D., Bowie, MD

Dear M.D.:
We’ve always found it interesting to observe how little attention school authorities pay to this phenomenon. There should be a term for it, a kind of “hitting the wall” or “bailing out”, that happens so often at about this age. Bright kids, often those who learned to read at the “right” age, were near the top of their classes, and who never presented any kind of problems for their teachers, who suddenly lose all interest in school. Part of it is often due to hormonal changes at the onset of puberty, to be sure, but part of it can usually be attributed to the very simple reality that in the middle school years -- roughly, between grades six and ten, learning comes to something of a standstill. Here, subjects which were fresh and challenging the first time around are represented in a more systematic but relatively undemanding and less-than-intellectually-engaging fashion. The reasons for this are varied and range from the “dumbing down” of the conventional curriculum to the inability of many students to handle the higher level concepts and abstractions they might encounter at higher grade levels. Exposed to what is, for all practical purposes an organizational “holding action”, many brighter students lose interest in its bleak and uninspiring educational agenda. Some recover, but many do not. For the most part, this does not become a problem for homeschoolers. Because homeschoolers generally proceed at their own individual rates, there is no need to rehash old materials: their progress is determined by their own interests and abilities rather than on the basis of what is possible for a given age cohort of students of widely varying interests and abilities. Homeschoolers have the luxury of slowing down and of even abandoning subjects if interest wanes, without being penalized for not “keeping up”. And homeschoolers can pursue new interests in a wide range of subjects not available to the typical middle school student.

For these, among very many other reasons, we felt that homeschooling is a very real option for young people who have hit that middle school years wall. But, as always, we would urge parents who find themselves in this situation to talk it over in great detail with the child before committing to what in all probability will be a long transition period in which results may not become immediately apparent. We would suggest that your son spend some time reading Grace Llewellyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life Education. It’ll be a big step in the right direction.

Dear David & Micki:
I know that you have been asked the “S” question. “What about socialization?” many times, and I know that homeschooling has produced a lot of bright, socially-competent young adults. But what about children who just don’t fit in, kids who are perceived as “different”, for one reason or another by their peers. Is it right to keep these kids out of school, where they would have a chance to learn how to cope with the real world?
B.J.Y., Falls Church, VA

Dear B.J.Y.
While we would agree that there are kids who, for a variety of reasons might not be popular with their peers, we would argue that “fitting in” as you put it, might not be such a good thing, given today’s youth culture. But if “fitting in” is something that you put a premium on, we’re not so sure that continued exposure to rejection by one’s peers does a whole lot to enhance self-esteem. Kids can be cruel -- how many books and films, from “Lord of the Flies” to “Heathers”, have worked that worn-out vein? -- but to suggest that they might somehow “learn to cope with the real world” by being in school doesn’t strike us as being terribly promising. Nietzsche once said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and while we would agree that school peer cultures kill very few, indeed, we would also argue that they make very few much stronger.

I (David) recall a high school classmate, Eddy who was something of a mathematical genius and the class fool (this is before the word “nerd” had been coined). Bored and besieged, he spent his high school years tap, tap, tapping his pencil on his desk in class after class, for he had decided for reasons never explained, to count to a million before graduating. (He made it.)

Eddy was the butt of practical jokes, was routinely beaten up, and his days could not have been anything other than sheer misery. And yet, oddly enough, he returned to each of his school reunions over the years, and has reportedly been greeted politely, if a bit uncomfortably, by his one-time tormentors. (It would be nice to be able to say that he returned as a great success and his classmates begged for his forgiveness and perhaps a few stock market tips, but Eddy, alas, was no Bill Gates or Steve Wozniak.) But did Eddy “benefit” from his exposure to the “real world” of the school? Did it help him in any way? I never saw any evidence of this. Clearly he survived, but at what price?

Indeed, “socialization”, as we have said many times, is the last refuge of the educrat. A few years ago, “We might not be educating them, but at least we’re socializing them,” was the semi-official rallying cry of the National Education Association leadership. Perhaps so, but one has to ask, “What kind of socialization?” It would be nice to know that kids who have a hard time coping are provided with genuine opportunities to learn to relate to their peers a bit more effectively and to “enhance their self-esteem”, as the phrase goes, but we see little evidence of this. Rather, it would appear that “dys-socialization”, ranging as it does from learning to follow pointless directives, tolerate boredom and endure petty injustices, to acquiring self-destructive and even sociopathic attitudes. And while some school authorities have recognized this and have instituted “It’s all right to be different” programs, the culture of the school, of pressures of the peer culture, are unlikely to be moderated in any meaningful way by limited projects of this sort.

The reality is that the schools can and do harm kids in many different ways, and are especially harmful to kids who “don’t fit in”. Homeschooling is by no means perfect, but it is misleading to imply, as you do, that it isolates and thereby harms the child. Rather, homeschooling can provide a supportive environment in which the very qualities that make a child a social outcast among his or her peers can be transformed into assets. Our friend Eddy became a department store manager, and to all appearances, a competent enough one, but we cannot help but wonder what might he have contributed if he had been given an opportunity to develop his mathematical talents so many years ago instead of having to worry about who was going to beat him up after class.

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