Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2003 / 25 Shevat, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Consumer Reports

Teens, homeschooling, and the lonely crowd | Parents who homeschool are often accused of trying to isolate their children, keeping them from the necessary "socialization" that comes with schooling in the "real world." And the parents typically reply by noting that their children actually participate in all kinds of group activities, from multi-family homeschool field trips to the local soccer team. Some will also note that the kinds of "socialization" available at many schools present problems of their own: bullying, lack of respect for learning, and pressure to act in immoral ways.

But to me, one of the most interesting things about homeschooling is that it turns the anti-homeschooling argument on its head, and underlines the ways in which contemporary schooling itself is deeply isolating. This isolation spurs entire industries of television shows ("Daria"), music (Nirvana), "young adult" books, and even clothing for the fashionably alienated. There are, similarly, shelves upon shelves of books for parents whose children seem wounded by unpopularity or cruel classmates. Magazines run long articles about the "alpha girls" who dominate elementary-school classrooms. We almost take it for granted that middle school will be awful, high school a world of inbred cliques and petty cruelties. Segregating students by age creates an artificial, hothouse environment; nothing could be further from the "real world," where people of all ages mingle and must be dealt with.

A world inhabited only by people one's own age is an enduring childhood fantasy--that's one source of the popularity of the Harry Potter books, and all the other boarding-school narratives that stock the shelves of children's libraries. In the boarding-school books, the adults hang around the edges of the story to wink a benevolent eye at youthful hijinks, or to serve as obstacles for the high-spirited protagonists to overcome. There are just enough teachers and headmasters and nurses to provide a sense of adult protection, but these adults can be readily gotten out of the way, and the main action centers on children. But the reality of the age-segregated world is rarely as pleasant as the dream. Even affectionate boarding-school memoirs (as opposed to fiction) note the ways in which isolation fostered schoolboy hierarchies, cruelties, and obsessions; and there are many more scathing remembrances, like George Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys."

This should come as no surprise. A world of children is a world guided by a child's moral compass, and such compasses are at best undeveloped. A world of teenagers--a world in which the vast majority are in that in-between, not-quite state of mind, desperately casting around for certainties, trying on various poses and costumes to see if any of the available societal roles actually fit--is no better. Even the isolation produced by the average junior high or high school, though far less dramatic than the isolation of boarding school, provokes much of the same artificial hierarchies, cliquishness, and corresponding alienation.

Isolation by age has its benefits, to be sure. College may be the best example--the ideal of college is a four-year truce with the world during which students can spend as much time as possible figuring out what their purpose is, how they should approach their lives. Being surrounded by other people all in the same exuberant, unformed, questing stage of life provokes great camaraderie. The pressures of family and childrearing are to some extent lifted--more or less depending on one's finances--and the pressures of career can, at least, be temporarily withstood in order to sneak a few literature or philosophy classes into one's premed schedule. (Be careful, though--those classes can seduce!)

But even in college, we felt the losses that necessarily accompany age-segregation. One Halloween night, I was at a pumpkin-carving party in a friend's room, when someone glanced out the window. "Hey, look!" he exclaimed. "There are some kids out there trick-or-treating!" Everyone rushed to the window and crowded around to view these exotic beasts, human children. We so rarely saw them on campus, you see, and we missed them.

Age-segregation at earlier ages is, in my view, much more dangerous than the college segregation. It encourages the formation of worldviews in which peers are the most important judges and adults are the enemy. ("Adolts" or "drone-ups," the nicknames each generation of kids rediscovers.) This worldview induces conformity and faux-rebellion. It encourages us to view parents and children as natural antagonists; inculcates resistance to authority; and, since humans are drawn to hierarchy, encourages the formation of hierarchies based on attributes like looks, popularity, wealth, and perceived rebelliousness. (Children are among the most severe judges, drawers of the most rigid and arbitrary hierarchical lines, perhaps because they have not yet learned to be flexible.) Age-segregation is by no means the only factor driving these problems, but at the very least it doesn't help mitigate them.

Homeschooling, by contrast, enmeshes students in the real "real world," where there are babies to be fed, where people still recall the Great Depression, and where every stage of life and learning is represented. Homeschooling avoids the monolithic teen-culture, providing a wide array of models for kids to emulate. Natural hierarchies like age and experience are much more evident, and so there is less pressure to form hierarchies based on superficial or damaging attributes. Children whose better qualities or talents are overlooked by their peers are likely to find that other age groups are more open to what they have to offer--for example, a shy boy might blossom when teaching a younger student; a girl who often seems defensive and snobby might mellow when she finds an adult who appreciates her intellectual talents.

One of the most interesting developments in homeschooling, to my mind, has been the rise of what we might call partial homeschooling. A partially-homeschooled child may take chemistry and calculus classes at a local private high school, receive instruction in English and history from his mother, participate in an all-homeschooler French class taught by a neighborhood father, have a tutor for oboe lessons, and play on a public school sports team. Admittedly, that's an especially complex combination--I'd hate to see that family's daily planner! But there are many simpler combinations of public, private, and homeschooling; the possible variants are almost endless. Such patchwork combinations can help parents who are not able to homeschool or do not want to go whole hog on homeschooling, but nonetheless recognize the benefits of homeschooling. Such parents can still ensure that their children don't wind up isolated in the teen bubble. Schools often feel, if anything, more threatened by partial homeschoolers than by full homeschoolers, but recently more districts have begun to open up to partial homeschooling, seeing it as an opportunity and an acknowledgment of the importance of schools.

And for parents who keep their children in full-time schools, homeschooling can nonetheless provide a model for integrating children into the larger society (just as "regular schools" can provide homeschoolers with lesson ideas, community, and expertise). Public- and private-school parents might find it worthwhile to seek out homeschooling groups and perhaps coordinate field trips or other extracurricular activities. Outside of the age-segregated classroom, children may well be more open to influences that don't mimic their peers' codes and assumptions. This will come as no comfort to the alienation industry, but it should be a relief for parents.

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© 2002, Eve Tushnet