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"I Know What’s Best For My Education": A Lesson In Uncertainty

by Richard J. Prystowsky

During our college’s first two weeks of the Fall 2005 semester, I dealt with an incident at our college that caused me to reflect on the relationship between my homeschooling life and my college work life.
For years, when our kids were young, I felt that my growth as an educator resulted largely from what homeschooling was teaching me about healthy learning paths and from what my mainstream educational life was teaching me about unhealthy learning paths. I had become, one might say, a radical homeschooler who was nearly one hundred percent committed to following unschooling paths. Slowly, however, my certainty about radical unschooling began to waver. As I’ve grown older and have continued to reflect upon what I think I know, I feel more and more akin to the persona in Bob Dylan’s song “My Back Pages,” who sings, “Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” Let me explain.

During the first week of classes, a young woman student paid me an office visit. She was, to say the least, irate. She had hoped to take a Calculus I class from us, as well as an engineering class in Statics. The prerequisites for Calc I are college trigonometry and college algebra; the prerequisite for Statics is the first course in a three-course sequence in engineering physics. Last spring, this student had taken a college trigonometry class, in which she had earned a “D.” She had never taken a college algebra class. For some reason, although she clearly had not satisfied the prerequisites for Calc I, she wanted to take that class anyway. Somehow, through an error on someone’s part, she was allowed to enroll in Calc I. Her being a currently enrolled Calc I student helped her successfully challenge the prerequisite for Statics and thus win a seat in that class, too.

Shortly before the semester began, someone at the college who was working on discovering mistakes made with respect to prerequisites not having been met, caught the initial mistake in this student’s registration. Subsequently, the student was dropped from both Calc I and Statics. Enraged at hearing this news, she came to me to appeal the decision.

Throughout our conversation, the student remained adamant that she was right and that we were wrong. She repeatedly told me that she could do the required math. Repeatedly, I tried to explain that, from the college’s point of view, she had yet to demonstrate that such was the case, and that, therefore, we concluded that it was in her best educational interest for her to be dropped from Calc I and Statics, since she stood a good chance of not doing well in them. I explained that we hoped that, instead, she would register for a math class more suited to her level of mathematical proficiency. Remaining intent upon proving to us that we were wrong about her mathematical abilities and that she was right, at one point she said — or, rather, nearly screamed — something to the effect of, “I know what’s best for my education!”

Early in the second week of classes, this student came to see me again. She had retaken the math placement exam in an effort to prove her case, but she had not scored highly enough to place her into Calc I. I sent her to talk with the Math Dept. Chair. I don’t know precisely what he told her, but somehow he seems to have convinced her that we were in fact acting in her best interest by not allowing her to continue on an educational path that she had insisted upon taking but that we felt would most likely lead her to fail. In other words, we had indeed intruded upon her learning path because, contrary to her initial belief, in this instance we, and not she, knew what was best for her education. Accepting our decision, this student registered for a lower-level math class.

But more than that, she now seemed a changed person when she returned to my office after having talked with the Math Dept. Chair. She was calm, and she expressed what I felt was genuine gratitude that someone had taken the time to help her understand why, mathematically, she wasn’t yet prepared to take higher-level math classes. Now enrolled in what for her is a more appropriate math class, this student seems to have moved on.

Although I, too, have moved on, I continue to be struck by the student’s initial claim that, in terms of her own education, she knew best. As I reflected on her statement, I kept thinking about the differentiation that my two homeschooled children (now both in college) make between unschooling and what they call “non-schooling.” In their view, unschooling, like freedom, entails restrictions and structure, however minimal or non-traditional they might be. Non-schooling, like license, connotes an absence of restrictions and structure. In my kids’ view, non-schoolers at best, do little or nothing to enrich their own learning, and their parents act irresponsibly by allowing this state of affairs to persist. We hear about the worst of such cases when a news report about severely neglected children informs us that the children were homeschooled. “No, they weren’t,” my kids would say. “They weren’t homeschooled, and they weren’t even unschooled. They were non-schooled.”
This distinction having been duly noted, I nevertheless wondered about my own previous, more or less rigid position with respect to unschooling, in which I understood unschooling-oriented, child-led learning to mean that we parents and other adults ought to stay out of a child’s way when it comes to the child’s attempts to forge a learning path of her own. As the case of the student with a problematic math course placement reminded me, we need to ask ourselves if we are always necessarily doing our child a favor by staying out of her educational way. Of course, by choosing to homeschool and, in particular, to unschool, we have hardly stayed out of our child’s educational way; in fact, we have placed her on a very particularly directed educational path -- one that often lacks clear structure or direction, to be sure, but a distinct and chosen path nonetheless. In short, we parents act from a position of knowing (or thinking that we know) what is best for our child when we decide to homeschool her.

That having been said, I do not mean to imply that we should ever force our child to learn something that he adamantly does not want to learn. In fact, we should never do so (unless our child is in dire straits and needs to learn something in order to be free of danger). Let us remind ourselves of how little desire we have to further our education in a subject matter that we dislike but about which we are forced to endure learning. As an old Jewish ethical teaching instructs us, we should not do to others that which we find hateful if done to us.
Also, despite my recommending that you sometimes get in your child’s educational way, I urge you, my fellow homeschooling parents, to allow your child to pursue learning paths that he finds worthwhile, whether or not you also find them worthwhile, unless he is likely to harm himself or others. For, you don’t want to quash your child’s natural learning proclivities or, as Thomas Armstrong or James Hillman might say, harm the development of your child’s natural genius. Ultimately, even though you might need to intrude upon your child’s learning agenda, you can still trust his inner genius to help guide him into meaningful learning pursuits, whether or not you understand the nature of these pursuits.

Nevertheless, sometimes you will need to step in. With respect to the student registered for inappropriate classes, for us to have allowed this student to remain in classes in which she most likely would not succeed would have been tantamount to your allowing your child to touch a hot stove were she to want to find out what heat feels like on her hand. Surely, you would stop your child and then, in a safe and healthy way, help her reach an understanding of heat. However much our student and your child might be convinced that they always know best when it comes to their own education, we know that we would be acting like cruel non-schoolers were we to allow harm to come to these persons when in advance we knew about the potential harm and were in a position to prevent it.

So, how to proceed on a course of occasional, purposeful, justified educational intrusion? Fortunately, as a homeschooling parent, you have many promising options not available as often or as readily to parents whose children are in mainstream learning environments (public or otherwise). For example, you might be able to arrange for your child to spend extended amounts of time with professionals who are working in fields that have captured your child’s interest; you might be able to take long car journeys in which you and your family can explore different regions and meet all sorts of interesting persons; your child might be able to serve as an apprentice to someone whose work interests her/him; and so on. Getting in your child’s educational way need not mean that you be or become an unwelcome intruder; in the world of teaching and learning, pedagogical trespassers often play a vital role.

If I had the time and freedom at the college that I had at home when we homeschooled our kids, I would have told the student who had come to see me that, before taking any more math classes, she might first want to spend some extended time with engineers, on the job site, not only to see if she really wanted to pursue a career in engineering (she had told me that this is her goal), but also to receive from them some useful educational information and advice—for example, information concerning the kind of math that they use in their work and advice on how she ought to pursue her own studies in math. I have a feeling that this student was a changed person after having talked with the Math Dept. Chair in part because he spoke her language, insofar as he and she talked mathematics, whereas she and I had talked procedures and regulations. Subsequently, the Statics instructor talked with her about the use of math in engineering. I wonder if she now willingly accepts our intrusion into her scheduling plans at least in part because, having spent some quality time with these two instructors -- persons in her own fields of study who demonstrated to her a genuine interest in her educational well-being -- she has begun to realize that, as did her mentors and models, she, too, needs to follow a particular sequence of courses if she wants to achieve her educational goals.

Taking this limited case as your cue, imagine the possibilities for positive educational intrusion (otherwise known as “responsible parental involvement”) that you could have with your child. Unrestrained by class periods, age segregation, routine situations of humiliation and punishment, and all of the other problematic conditions that mark both public and private forms of traditional schooling, you and your child are free to explore learning in depth, with joy, at your leisure, without pressure. With so much to gain from this mutually healthy learning path, why would you not get in your child’s educational way (or he in yours)?

Of course, one of your key questions will remain, “How will I know when to be in the way and when to stay out of the way?” At this point in my own growth, other than feeling sure that you should step in if you know that your child is about to cause harm or be harmed, I have to say that I’m not sure how to answer this question for you. I’m not even sure how to answer this question for my wife and me. Our son, who is a math major, studied very little math when he homeschooled. Although he has told us that he wishes that he had studied more math, he also acknowledges that, had we tried to force him to have done so, he probably wouldn’t have been happy and the outcome might not have been good. We all agree that we did the best that we could, trusting in each other to look out for our son’s educational well-being; in the final analysis, we simply don’t know what might have been the best course of action for any of us to have taken.
However, we also all agree that, more than anything else, my son’s homeschooling journey prepared him well for college by giving him the freedom to learn subjects deeply, helping him understand how to form and then ask good analytical questions, and, most important, providing him with a nurturing, validating, loving environment within which to pursue his learning desires. It’s likely that his not having studied math while at home and his not having taken tests put him at a disadvantage (even if only slightly) when it came time for him to begin his college math classes. On the other hand, the self-confidence that he developed as a homeschooler and the enduring love of learning that continues to mark him as a student have helped him to become a highly successful math major. Currently, he is taking Linear Algebra and Calc I, and he is working on special projects with two of the Math Department’s most distinguished professors -- at their invitation. He hopes to transfer to UC Berkeley in the fall of 2007; there, he plans to continue his studies in theoretical math. He also is a very noble, funny, loveable, mature human being, with a heart of gold. I think that, all things considered, his homeschooling journey has served him well, all of our uncertainties notwithstanding.

Ultimately, I hope that the student with the initial math course misplacement has come to understand that it was because we genuinely wanted to do what was best for her that we dropped her from Calc I and Statics and helped her register for a math class that will better help her reach her academic goals. A number of individuals at the college spent quite a few hours helping her do the right thing. Intent upon helping her succeed, we weren’t afraid to intrude upon her educational decision-making, to get in her educational way. In fact, we understood that, knowing what we knew about her case, we were responsible for stepping in to help and would have been acting irresponsibly had we done otherwise.

Similarly, I ask that you, my fellow homeschooling/unschooling parents, not be afraid to get in your child’s way if you believe that doing so is in her best educational interest. As did our student, your child might initially become upset and accusatory; in time, though, if you both remain open to discussion and open to changing your minds if the evidence leads you to do so, you and your child should be able to reach some healthy, mutually rewarding common ground. As I’ve suggested throughout this column, I’m not sure that I can pinpoint exactly when (and how) you should step in and when you should stay away. However, I can share with you my sincere belief that it’s okay if we’re not always certain about what to do. Our being uncertain, however, doesn’t mean that we cannot or should not act on behalf of our children; rather, it means that we should act on their behalf with a bit more caution and humility than we might have had when we were younger and more certain of our ideas and ways.
Having realized that, as we grow older and accumulate more life experiences, we know far less than we thought we had known, we come a little closer to understanding what the poet means when he sings,

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.

(Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages.” These lyrics are copied from