Ideal School Article

Article was originally published in the Christendom student journal The Rambler, May 1, 2007.


By Draper John Warren

It is an understatement to say that there are many proponents of homeschooling on Christendom College’s campus. Around 50% of Christendom students were homeschooled themselves, and probably an even greater percentage will homeschool their own children one day. It is no secret that I am personally an all flags flying fan of homeschooling. I have worked at a Catholic curriculum provider for around ten years, and I helped start what is currently the largest Catholic homeschooling conference in the country. In discussing the topic of homeschooling with several other students, I began to realize that a significant portion of people who support homeschooling only do so because they lack access to what they would consider an acceptable Catholic school. The mindset is that a good private Catholic school is preferable to homeschooling if such a school were available. While I can understand that position to a certain extent, I still rather strongly disagree.

Let us compare homeschooling to the ideal private Catholic school. The primary reason that parents homeschool their children is to protect the moral formation of their children, and to teach them the Catholic faith in all of its purity (which they feel that the Catholic school down the road is no longer doing). Now, if we are to compare homeschooling with the ideal Catholic school, doctrinal purity isn’t a consideration. We have to assume that the Catholic Faith would be taught appropriately in both environments. However, even though the concern for the faith disappears, the concern about moral formation still lingers.

While taking Dr. Flippen’s class on the Philosophy of Education (which has become one of my top three favorite classes that I have ever taken at Christendom), I was introduced to an ancient Roman orator named Quintilian. One thing that surprised me was the discovery that the debate over homeschooling and private school existed even in ancient Rome. Quintilian talks about the merits of tutoring a child at home and sending him to a school with other children his own age. Quintilian even weighs the benefits and dangers of each method and then puts forth his conclusion as to which is better. Care to take a guess which one he thought was superior? Yep! That’s right. Good old Quintilian says you should send your kids to school. Were you expecting a different answer? I am not telling you about Quintilian because I agree with his conclusion; rather, it is the criteria that he uses to assess the debate which I find most interesting. Furthermore, even though I think homeschooling is superior myself, I don’t want this examination to become a rhetorical exercise. We are interested in truth, and I want to look at all arguments, whether they agree with my personal conclusion or not. Even in Quintilian’s day, the main argument against the schools was that they were a corrupting influence on morals. The arguments were the same 2,000 years ago as they are today. Quintilian himself actually acknowledges the importance of this concern when he says, “if it were certain that schools, though advantageous to studies, are pernicious to morals, a virtuous course of life would seem to be preferable to one even of the most distinguished eloquence.”

Even though Quintilian recognized the importance of the moral argument, he thought that the home environment could be just as dangerous to morals as the school environment. At first, this just seems to be a silly notion, but you need to understand that staying at home for Quintilian met staying with a household of slaves and a hired tutor off the street. While it is true that children in schools can be a bad moral influence, slaves in the household were often worse. For the modern day Catholic homeschooler, the situation is drastically different. Consisting of only family and close friends, the home is most often the cradle and source of virtue as opposed to a corrupting influence (there are always exceptions however).

As soon as we start talking of isolating children from their peers, we are treading on thin ice. Before going any further, we need to address the important issue of the relation between the home and the world. Lets not kid ourselves; talk of isolation just doesn’t seem healthy for a child. After all, if you raise a person in a sterile environment, the moment he leaves that environment, he falls victim to the first illness that crosses his path. A healthy person has a strong immune system. Health does not equal lack of germs, but rather health is the ability to fight off the germs that you do come in contact with. The key to raising morally healthy children is not to keep them away from every threat of vice, but to build the power of their will and reason to resist vice on their own.

If complete isolation is disastrous, how then does a parent keep their child from moral danger? If we continue with the medical analogy, we find an answer to this all-important question. How does a person build up immunity to a disease? The answer is controlled exposure. Some diseases are like chickenpox—you contract it once, and then you are immune for the rest of your life. However, what about diseases which can kill the first time you get it? When smallpox was at epidemic tides in early American history, the only defense that the colonists knew was a makeshift immunization technique. They would take a needle and thread, and run it through a pustule on an infected person. They would then take the same needle and thread and run it under the skin of a healthy person who had not yet contracted the disease. Sure, some people died from this procedure—they contracted full-blown smallpox. However, for a much larger number, this controlled exposure was just enough to fool the body into thinking that it had already survived smallpox, but in reality, they never suffered the full disease. Thousands of lives were saved. Thankfully medicine isn’t quite as barbaric today, but the basic theory of the same immunization technique often still applies.

In order for parents to help their children build immunity from the vices of the world, they need to treat each vice in a controlled way. Parents must control how their children are exposed in order to make sure that they are not exposed to too much at once. Thus, there is a certain extent to which isolation, properly understood, is useful and even necessary.

The concept of the relation between the home and the world can be summarized in one word, socialization. The term “socialization” is the bane of homeschooling. It is the most oft repeated objection to homeschooling, and yet upon examination, turns out to be one of the weakest. Briefly stated, the objection is as follows. The school environment is seen as an important stepping-stone in the social development of a child, because it is an intermediary society between the family and the nation. At an actual school, a child becomes accustomed to interacting with his peers. The fear is that if a child does not have this opportunity, he will grow up without vital social skills and not be able to properly interact with the rest of society. A homeschooler would respond by noting that peer socialization is not the only form of socialization, and that in schools, children learn to interact with their peers often to the exclusion of other age groups. Some would argue that school children have a more difficult time relating to adults than do homeschooled children, thus making homeschooled children better socialized in this regard.

Thus far, homeschooling has only one argument concerning the moral danger posed by other students at a school. Admittedly, while this argument is valid, its strength is perhaps not redoubtable. The bulk of the comparison between homeschooling and the ideal Catholic school must now shift to purely academic arguments. First, let us look at the benefits of a real school. Here are three main academic arguments in favor of school (and one philosophical); these are the best arguments that I have heard. The first argument is from the division of labor. The task of educating one child is shared among many teachers in a school, and due to the fact that each teacher teaches only one grade level, they become quite proficient at teaching that particular material. For the very same reasons that Adam Smith first proposed the division of labor in economic life, the division of labor in the school proves especially beneficial.

The second argument is from expertise. Schoolteachers undergo a more rigorous training to be teachers than do average parents. Thus, schoolteachers know their material better, and should thereby be better able to teach that material. The third academic argument is from Quintilian, who argued that education is largely concerned with imitation. The child observes certain traits or abilities in others and then tries to copy those skills. Quintilian argues that it is easier for a child to imitate people most like himself (i.e. his peers). Thus, in a school environment, a child is able to learn from the slightly older children through imitation.

The final argument is philosophical, and because it comes from Aristotle, I feel I would be remiss if I passed it over. Aristotle said, “And since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, and not private—not as at present when everyone looks after his own children separately, and gives them separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best.”

Aristotle is correct when he says that since all men have the same end, they should have the same education. In a Christian society, however, we understand this one common end slightly differently. Through revelation, we learn that our end is supernatural, and in light of this end, all men should receive an education in the Catholic faith. It only follows that everyone receives roughly the same catechetical instruction, not necessarily the same academic instruction. As Charles Eliot, the late 19th Century American educator and president of Harvard University, pointed out in trying to reform educational practices, the degree to which education is the same needs to be balanced by the fact that everyone has different talents and capacities. The more education can be customized to the individual, the more individual contributions can strengthen society. St. Paul sort of explained this point for us in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 12, when he gives his explanation of the different roles in the Mystical Body. Although we are all one body, we have different roles, and our education would need to differ insofar as our roles differ. Thus, this philosophical argument can only be properly understood in light of the revelation of man’s supernatural end, and it doesn’t really seem appropriate to use against homeschooling.

The academic superiority of homeschooling is admitted by many—even those people who don’t especially like homeschooling. However, it only seems fair to present some arguments why this is so. Here are four arguments that seem significant. The first argument is from the unity of instruction. A homeschooled student essentially has only one teacher for his entirely education, and this allows for the one teacher to know the student better and to be intimately familiar with the details of the child’s previous curriculum. Concepts are not taught twice. The one teacher is a more effective educator because every year she does not need to learn the abilities of her student all over again. The student also does not need to become accustomed to a new teacher’s style and expectations each year. This system of a dedicated teacher for all education seems beneficial, but is it impossible to incorporate into our ideal Catholic school? It does seem impossible, for the one-room schoolhouse becomes increasingly inefficient the more children are added to the school. We must suppose our ideal school to have at least over 50 students, and hence unless a particular teacher advances through the different grades with her class, this argument only works in favor of homeschooling. The ideal school must be broken into classes, each with its own teacher. After all, there were good reasons that the one-room schoolhouse was abandoned in this country.

The second argument is from individual attention. The student/teacher ratio is necessarily much higher in a school environment than in the home. A typical classroom will have about 25-30 students per one teacher, whereas the average homeschooling family has perhaps five children per teacher. Also, with fewer children, less time is spent on disciplinary problems. The third argument is from the freedom to progress at one’s own pace. New material is introduced into a classroom only when nearly every student has grasped the previous topic. Many children, however, are capable of progressing at a much more expedient rate. Some students are slower with certain subjects, but find others much simpler. Homeschooling allows individual students to progress at the rate which they are capable of instead of being tied down by the less gifted students in the class. The forth and last argument is from curricular freedom. Having a tailor-made curriculum certainly works in favor of the homeschooled student. Provided that this freedom is supervised, it allows the student to permit his own interests to act as an impetus for learning. Children become accustomed to learning on their own and enjoying it.

There were indeed some good arguments in favor of school, but homeschooling has at least a partial answer to two of them. The first and second arguments were concerning a teacher’s expertise and experience. If a parent has lesson plans prepared by a home study school (such as Mother of Divine Grace, Kolbe, or Seton) the parents and students get the benefit of expertise from real teachers. They get the academic benefits listed for both school and homeschooling.

I wish I had the room to elaborate on more than just four reasons. Having been both homeschooled and enrolled in a Catholic school (each for about six years), I have a lot of personal examples and stories. Before I conclude talking about the academic benefits, let me just share one of those stories. I went to a community college before coming to Christendom (it acted as part of my high school education), and one of the courses I took was College Physics. We had a really great textbook, and the teacher wasn’t bad either. I was able to keep up just fine, but the other students seemed to always be quite a bit behind me. (Now, community college generally doesn’t attract the best and the brightest, this I know, but I was still more or less in the tenth grade). One day, a group of other students asked me over to lend assistance with the material. One guy in particular was quite frustrated that he wasn’t getting it (and that I was), and wanted to know where I went to school. Upon being told that I was a homeschooler, he promptly replied saying, “Well that explains it. I am so used to having the teacher explain each step, and this professor isn’t doing that. He is just expecting us to use the textbook and figure it out. As a homeschooler, you are just used to learning the stuff on your own.” I found the insight quite valuable, and it also solidified in my mind the value of a homeschool education. Independence and self-sufficiency in learning is a prized commodity, and if homeschooling encourages that more, all the better.

Every person is educated within a certain set of circumstances, and those circumstances, in some way, should have an impact on the type of education a person receives. In the modern day, we find that our circumstances resemble a spiritual frontier. Orthodox Catholics are such a small minority in the United States, yet we still have a strong sense of forward motion. This wilderness quality of our circumstances should in part determine the manner in which we educate our children. William Kilpatrick, one of the more influential American educators discussed the fact that a pioneer lifestyle requires certain traits such as strong individual self-direction, reliance on self, and small group cooperation. It is quite possible that the appropriateness of private school or homeschooling merely depends on the circumstances of the society we wish to enter. The qualities of self-direction and self-reliance are necessary for a Catholic living in today’s society. Catholics need to be able to disregard the enticements of the world and persist in belief in spite of the vast majority trying to pull us away from faith. In the same way, a farmer who is planting wheat chooses his seed based on the conditions of the ground, so that in very fertile and well cultivated ground, the farmer plants those seeds which will have the greatest yield. If the ground is barely cultivated and there are many weeds growing about, the farmer will plant his most resilient seeds so that the wheat can survive the harsher conditions. Harsh conditions are precisely what we face today, and our children need an education that will prepare them for that.

If we lived in a 99% orthodox Catholic country, our children would not need to be raised with traits of self-reliance and self-direction quite to the same degree. No, these are traits needed on the spiritual frontier, where the wheat is nearly surrounded by the weeds and needs to be resilient in order to survive. Thus, perhaps it is true that in any society in which Catholics are vastly outnumbered, homeschooling is objectively the better method because it tends to raise more self-reliant adults. Schools on the other hand, while they encourage some competition, are centered on community reliance and direction from others.

We have thus compared homeschooling to the ideal Catholic school and have found that homeschooling provides a morally superior and (with lesson plans) an academically superior formation. Homeschooling best prepares children for the world ahead, both for entrance into the society of men and for entrance into Heaven. On the spiritual frontier, it is a necessary training for the harsh conditions in the secular world.


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