Homeschooling: Creating alternatives to Education
presented at Penn. State University's Conference,
"Education and Technology: Asking the Right Questions," Oct. 1997
In a letter to Ivan Illich written in 1972, John Holt wrote:
... In working for the kind of changes we want, for a convivial society and a
nonsuicidal technology, you and I may have slightly different functions. You
may be somewhat more of a prophet and I somewhat more of a tactician ... (1)
The remaining years of Holt's life were spent figuring out ways to create these
changes. Illich wrote that to disestablish schools we must prevent government
funds from supporting them and amend the constitution to prohibit the
establishment of education;(2) while believing Illich was correct, Holt felt the
majority of people would never agree to stop funding government schools and he sought other ways to move towards the goal of empowering people to grow without schooling.
In 1977 Holt founded Growing Without Schooling magazine, thereby
cementing his position as the primary tactician for showing people how to get
from school to unschooling, a neologism Holt created in place of the word
deschooling, which he felt creates more confusion than understanding.(3)
Unschooling is an attempt to describe the sort of learning and teaching Holt
encouraged: learning which does not in any way resemble learning in school and teaching which does not necessarily have to take place in one's home. By the early 1980s the term homeschooling had taken root and even Holt started using it interchangeably with the word unschooling;(4) so will I, though with the
understanding that schooling at home is not what I am referring to, nor that I
represent the voice of all homeschoolers. Most homeschoolers, like the general
public, feel that children won't learn anything unless it is specially taught to
them. They have no qualms about the need for education; it is educational
methods and content, private or public funding, that concern them instead. I am
describing a subset of homeschoolers.
By education, I mean it as defined by Holt:
... something that some people do to others for their own good, molding and
shaping them, and trying to make them learn what they think they ought to
By describing how families live and learn without education I am not trying to
demonstrate that schools should be eradicated: neither was Illich when he wrote
Deschooling Society . Homeschoolers can use classes, traditional teaching
methods, even textbooks and canned curricula - in some states homeschoolers are even able to take public school classes - to learn what they desire to know, but they do so on their own terms. They have determined what, when, why, how, and from whom they want to learn, and are therefore in an entirely different
relationship with their schooling than students who are in class simply because
of their age. Many things can make schoolish arrangements for learning
desirable, and certainly interesting teachers will attract willing students no
matter where or how they teach. It is the idea of the need for education to be
applied to everyone in mandated doses that I challenge and demonstrate
alternatives to. This challenge is especially important today since we are
creating laws and policies that expand the years of compulsory schooling, that
determine future employment based directly on school credentials, and that
standardize our culture with lists of learning.
Jacques Ellul placed education in the category he called, Human Techniques in
The Technological Society. I want to explore educational techniques used on
children in school and contrast it with children learning without schooling. By
looking at people who grow and learn without schooling, we can see how it is
possible to create meaningful learning arrangements that are vastly different
from those we have.
TEACHING AND LEARNING
Parents who wish to teach their own children are not required to have a teaching
credential in any state, though in some states homeschoolers are required to
have certain qualifications or yearly evaluations performed by state certified
teachers.(6) If educational technique is applicable to all children, one would
expect that parents not using or not trained in such techniques, and who operate
under a wide variety of regulation, would have large numbers of students who
turn out to be ignorant, unsocialized, and unemployable burdens to the state.
Such poor results would drive parents away from homeschooling. This is obviously not the case, or else homeschooling would not be growing as fast as it has in the past 20 years.(7) Indeed, there are studies that demonstrate, using
standardized tests and evaluations, that homeschoolers consistently test as well
as school children at their grade level regardless of the methods and structures
parents use for homeschooling.(8)
However, to me and many people, the effectiveness of homeschooling is not
measured by school test scores. Among the many reasons for this is the simple
one that these tests do not cover areas outside the narrow school curriculum in
which homeschooled children may be learning; schools often do not count what
children can do with their days besides jump through curricular hoops.
My oldest daughter, Lauren, who is now 11, spent large blocks of time over the
past year learning American sign language, archaeology, and dance, none of which are part of most school curricula, though they may be extra-curricular offerings in some schools. Lauren learned math, science, history, reading, writing, social skills, and more, but she learned them in the course of her pursuit of these other subjects. These skills and tools were learned and used to achieve her larger goals, rather than merely being ends in themselves. We helped by
providing materials, reading to her, arranging meetings or classes with other
homeschoolers, exploring museums and historical sites, as well as through a
variety of private and public programs. My wife even discovered an opportunity
for Lauren to spend a day at a real dig and converse freely with an
This is how we speak of our lives to school officials, and to
most people, because this is how they seem to understand homeschooling, as a program that we are administering to our children. We often don't mention to
people, especially school people, that the vast majority of time our children
spend during school hours is playing with their sisters and friends or alone.
Dolls, dress-ups, made-up plays; music and movies; spontaneous invented play and games; reading and conversing with us and others; solitary reflection; arguing and resolving differences; helping around the house; talking on the phone with friends. These are some of the vital parts of our childrens lives that we see makes their mental, physical, and spiritual competence grow yet we can not speak openly about them. Instead we learn to report their young lives as curricula and then get on with our lives. However, my wife and I aren't managing child development; we are simply nurturing our children.
Neil Postman notes how the concept of school-managed child development came to be:
... by writing sequenced textbooks and by organizing school classes according
to calendar age, schoolmasters invented, as it were, the stages of childhood.
Our notions of what a child can learn or ought to learn, and at what ages,
were largely derived from the concept of sequenced curriculum; that is to say,
from the concept of the prerequisite. ... the point is that the mastery of the
alphabet and the mastery of all the skills and knowledge that were arranged to
follow constituted not merely a curriculum but a definition of child
development. By creating a concept of a hierarchy of knowledge and skills,
adults invented the structure of child development.(9)
Homeschoolers who do not use this structure of child development discover that
children learn at widely varying rates; for instance, some homeschooled children
do not learn to read until they are ten or twelve, others learn at much younger
ages. Some children who are labeled learning disabled in school lose that
behavior when they learn outside of conventional school, indicating that, for
some, the learning environment may be more toxic to learning than the childs
Rather than follow a teacher-proof or developmentally correct curriculum (some
are marketed that way to homeschoolers) my wife and I follow our children's
interests. We think of ourselves as general contractors, subcontracting what we
don't know how to do to others, be they people, books, or other resources. If we could, we might use public school facilities, but my school district does not
encourage homeschoolers to participate in local school activities. However, many states do have cooperative school districts.(11)
John Holt noted:
[The homeschooling movement is] a laboratory for the intensive and long-range
study of children's learning and of the ways in which friendly and concerned
adults can help them learn. It is a research project, done at no cost, of a
kind for which neither the public schools nor the government could afford to
The effectiveness of eclectic curricula, or indeed of no fixed curriculum at
all, is documented in education.(13) However this informal approach to teaching
and learning is neglected, if not denigrated, by nearly all schools. There are a
few colleges that offer life experience credits, places that grant people
college credit and diplomas for the skills and knowledge they acquire during the
course of their lives; there is rarely an attendance requirement at these
colleges, usually just documentation requirements. There is no such equivalent
at the high school and elementary levels; children this age are seen by
educators as being in complete need of professionally administered education.(14)
Teaching and learning outside of school does not have to resemble teaching and learning in school. Life experience can be the basis for learning at home and in one's community throughout one's elementary and high school years. People can successfully do things differently than schools. For example, it has been widely publicized that adolescent girls' self-esteem fades in high school, but in a
book about homeschooled adolescent girls the opposite was found:
If one has thought seriously about the structure and assumptions of compulsory
schooling, it is hard to read the psychological literature that asks, How can
we get girls to identify with their own goals? or even How can we help girls
to discover their real interests? without thinking about the fact that school
is in direct opposition to these concerns... ... People in school do not say
to students, What can we do for you? How would you like to make use of this
institution? On the contrary, going to school is about getting an education
having something given or done to you.
The homeschooled girls I have described are outside this framework. They are
not waiting to get something; rather, they are getting it or, more aptly,
making it for themselves. When they say, Everything I do counts now, or, I
feel so much freer, or, I mainly teach myself, these are not just feelings
they happen to have. These statements actually correspond with the external
structure of these girls' lives. Everything they do does count; it's not as if
they will only get credit for some books or activities or learning and not for
others. The girls in this book who have left school and are now homeschooling
are much freer, in that they have greater liberty to choose what to learn and
to learn it in ways that work for them. The girls who say, I mainly teach
myself, are saying something true; the structure of their homeschooling does
allow them to be primarily their own teachers. Thus, the relationship between
the external factors and these internal feelings is reciprocal and not
Allowing people to pick and choose their own learning is criticized by
educationists as creating a citizenry that is not well-rounded, disciplined, or
culturally literate. This is where we must face the legal purpose of universal,
The purpose of compulsory education for our children is, according to the laws
of the State of MA, and the language is similar in every state, is for the
purpose of... fitting the pupils, morally and intellectually, for the duties of
citizenship. To achieve this end, our schools implement a curriculum that is
designed to turn all the children into good citizens. (16) Of course, the
treatment is dubious and the results are haphazard, as the never-ending parade
of school reforms throughout the past 150 years testify. While the state has the
goal of making sure that all its children are educated, the state is
constitutionally prohibited from dictating any particular way of educating
children, thus allowing for alternatives to school ranging from private
parochial schools to home schools. However, it appears that education is
changing the definition of citizenship with very little debate.
John Holt, in an unpublished talk to students in 1971, observed:
Thomas Jefferson felt that education was needed to help become and be what he called citizens. By citizens he did not mean what most of us mean when we call ourselves taxpayers or consumers. A citizen was not someone who worried about how to fit into society. He was a maker and shaper of society. He held the
highest office in the Republic; public servants were his servants, not his
bosses and rulers.(17)
Ellul uses a speech to the United Nations by Maria Montessori to note how
educational techniques turn citizens away from being makers and shapers of
The education of the child, however, is not directed toward some merely
abstract social end. Concretely, the child must develop a social conscience,
understand that the meaning of life is the good of humanity, and grasp the
need for an entente among all nations. These ideas are much less vague than
one might think. The good of humanity, for example, is not the obscure notion
the philosophers pretend it to be. At most, it varies somewhat with the
political regime; and even this variability is becoming less and less
pronounced. Compare Life magazine with the Soviet News and you will see that
the good of humanity is conceived in almost identical terms in the United
States and in the Soviet Union; the difference lies mainly in the persons
charged with securing it. In both cases, the social good can be reduced to a
few concrete and precise factors. The corresponding educational technique, as
a consequence, takes a completely determinate direction. Social conformism
must be impressed upon the child; he must be adapted to his society; he must
not impair its development. His integration into the body social must be
assured with the least possible friction.(18)
There are multiple other social tasks and functions that schools carry out under
the banner of creating citizens, most notably to shut young people out of adult
Everyone talks these days about quality education for all. But quality
education for every child, is an absurdity, a contradiction in terms. Most
parents, when they say to S-chools(20), Give my kid a quality education, mean,
Do something to him that will get him ahead of all the other kids. In short,
make him a winner. Not, a winner along with all the rest; that won't do him
any good. They mean, make him a winner in a race where most kids lose...
The S-chools say that they want all children to be winners, and with even
greater fervor, that they want all poor children to be winners. But the people
who run society want their own children and the children of their friends to
be the ones who win in S-chool, and later in society. They make sure this
happens. When children of different social classes go to the same S-chool,
they are almost always divided into tracks, such as college, business, and
vocational. Wherever such tracks exist, studies show that they correlate
almost perfectly with family income, the richest kids in the top tracks, the
poorest in the bottom.(21)
Another task of schools is to make mediocre and poor students learn to accept
their lives as losers. The curricula, language, and texts of school are much
closer to the lives and experiences of rich kids than poor, thereby favoring the
child who looks and sounds most middle-class.(22) This creates alienation
between the school and learners who don't fit into the social profile of what
the school expects a good learner to be. Ellul writes how this contradiction
between technique and reality creates a disequilibration in the citizenry,
resulting in greater dependency upon human technique to help people adjust to a society made increasingly technological by man.(23)
Illich summed this up in 1971 when he wrote:
School has become the planned process which tools man for a planned world, the principal tool to trap man in man's trap. It is supposed to shape each man to
an adequate level for playing a part in this world game. Inexorably we
cultivate, treat, produce and school the world out of existence.(24)
We are consuming education at a more rapid rate than at any time since we
started counting degrees,(25) and families are going further and further into
debt to fund education for children. The psychic effect of this phenomena on
parenting is not studied much, but I venture to say that it certainly makes
people doubt that children can live and learn without the ministrations of
No matter what type of education one consumes, there is no guarantee that one
has actually learned it, despite tests passed and degrees earned. Adults demand that children learn facts and information that they themselves do not use or know. In an experiment, the Bill of Rights is displayed on street corners but
with no identifying headings, simply the body of the text. Passerbys are asked
to put their signatures on the document, but the vast majority of adults scoff
at this document as something dangerous and refuse to sign. A recent film shows an interviewer asking graduates from Harvard if they could explain why the seasons change on earth; no one could do so satisfactorily. A 1993 Gallup poll noted that 1 in 7 adults couldn't identify the USA on an unmarked map; 1 in 4
couldn't find the Pacific Ocean. In 1996 it was reported that only 6 percent of
Americans know the name of the chief Justice of the United States; forty-six
percent didn't know the name of Speaker Newt Gingrich.(26) The assumption that
people become good citizens, or well rounded individuals, simply by passing
through a professionalized school system is a false assumption.
Ellul, forty-three years ago, had it right: education no longer has a humanist
end or any value in itself; it has only one goal, to create technicians.(27) We
are in the midst of this change in the relationship between society and school,
one in which the idea of good citizen now merely means an employed person who has been certified by the schools as competent. Now, students will not be
promoted nor will they find employment upon graduation until their educational
outcomes have been state certified. Education is attempting to dominate job
training through such government programs as the School-to-Work Opportunities
Act and America 2000 despite our experience that schools always seem to miss the boat when it comes to job training. They typically create gluts of
professionals; English, philosophy, and architecture students learned this the
hard way in the sixties and seventies; doctors and lawyers are learning it now.
Most important, there is no evidence at all that shows even a modest connection
between school performance and later job performance, yet we act as if there
were. Many adults hold higher education degrees yet perform jobs that are
completely unrelated to those degrees. In 1971 various studies of the links
between employment and school credentials, plus original research on the
subject, were analyzed by Prof. Ivar Berg, and he found no rational reason for
employers to demand advanced degrees of their employees.(28) A more recent study concluded that the vast majority of skills taught in school are not transferable to the real world. "Growing evidence... points to the possibility that very little can be transported directly from school to out-of-school use."(29)
Nonetheless, educators, government, and business are making it more difficult
for non-credentialed people to get jobs despite evidence that alternatives to
credentials not only work, but are more cost-effective than additional years of
schooling. People now need college degrees for work, such as air traffic
controllers, sales clerks, and secretaries that until recently were done just as
well by good citizens without such credentials.(30)
Homeschooling demonstrates an alternative to the acceleration of education
requirements necessary for work. Homeschoolers who do not possess traditional school degrees are able to document their learning experiences in order to get into college or find work. They bring resumes, recommendations, and portfolios to their interviews as their qualifications.(31) They often learn what they need to learn on the job, and if they don't, they lose their jobs. The same is true, for now at least, for those with school credentials; unless educationist
thinking prevails and school credentials are given more weight than demonstrable competence.(32) A citizen who fears being disqualified by anything in his career in school is learning many lessons indeed, but, as many teachers have written, they are lessons that make most people become disengaged from learning.(33)
Homeschoolers who live and learn in the manner I am describing and, again, I am not describing the majority of homeschoolers may find themselves on par with the drop-out in the eyes of many educators, but there is one essential difference:
their parents don't view them as failures and actually aid and encourage them to
find, as Holt put it, A life worth living and work worth doing... not just, or
not even, something called a better education.(34) This is clearly a different
conception and approach to living and learning than that presented recently by
two professors in an article entitled, Trends in American Education:
The fact is that there is no real substitute for organised learning outside
our formally constituted schools... (35)
They end the article by noting:
... Despite our best efforts, there is ample evidence that success in school
is not a reliable predictor of high attainment in later life...
... Somehow we are going to have to learn how to tie learning activities to
both student characteristics and concerns and the broader tasks of life which
they face outside and beyond the classroom.(36)
I can only hope that the broader tasks of life will never rest in the hands of a
educators, but instead in the hands of each learner throughout their lives; I
also hope that the educators who wrote the above will one day look outside their
closed system for the answers.
EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY AND HOMESCHOOLING
Techniques shape the people that use them, and in modern society educational
techniques are brought to bear on most people throughout their lives, not just
in schools. In some ways, homeschooling can be seen as the logical destination for the convergence of education and technology: customizable curricula, seminars in new educational techniques, educational TV, video-taped classes and lectures, Internet, CD ROMs, are all touted by some educators and homeschoolers alike as being more efficient education delivery systems than schools. These products are often cited as the evidence of a new era of schooling, one where the individualization of instruction is accomplished through technology. It would be ironic to see homeschooling become the chief means for educational technologies to monopolize childrens time, but it is a possibility.
Though some homeschoolers live and learn without schooling, it is far more
difficult to live and learn outside the notion of a grand educational scheme
needed to create learning in the citizenry. Here is how a team of educational
researchers write about home education:
We define the term home school as the site where home education occurs,
whereas home education is the process of parents teaching their children at
This definition of home education represents the mindset that usurps learning
from living, making it a separate commodity: education. However, our children
are not material at a site to be processed. As I wrote earlier, I make the
compromise of describing my children's learning in educationese to satisfy state
requirements, but I cannot separate our living, learning, and growing together
as a family into components that form a duplicable technical process. It could
be said that I am relying on a natural process for learning instead of a
technical process, but the natural process, as noted, does not meet educational
muster, unless dressed up in technical language.
I offer another perspective. Homeschooling shows us how we can view teaching and learning as a shared endeavor between families and communities, rather than as top-down managed, universal, compulsory schooling. Homeschooling shows that institutions can offer support for a variety of learning situations, and that the public school system can exist with people who use it in varying amounts, or not all. Homeschooling shows us other ways to prove qualification for work besides increasing credentials.
Finally, homeschooling shows that parents don't need educational techniques to work on their children to make them learn; instead, parents can seek to work with their children to help them become citizens who want to participate in the shaping and molding of their society.
1 A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters of John Holt, ed. Susannah Sheffer
(Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1990) p. 110.
2 Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).
3 A Life Worth Living, p. 110.
4 In the index to Holt's book Teach your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education (New
York: Delacorte Press, 1981) under the entry for Unschooling it says, See Home
5 Instead Of Education: Ways To Help People Do Things Better, (Holt Associates,
6 For instance, in Massachusetts you need a high school diploma to teach your
own children and yearly evaluations; in West Virginia you need to have two or
more years of education than the oldest child you plan to teach and yearly
evaluations. In other states, such as Wisconsin and Texas, there are few
requirements other than registering your children as homeschoolers for the year
and no evaluations.
7 Patricia Lines, "Estimating The Home Schooled Population," (working paper
OR91-537). Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S.
Dept. of Education.
8 Brian Ray and Jon Wartes, Academic Task and Socialization in Homeschooling:
Political, Pedagogical, and Historical Perspectives, edited by Jane Van Galen
and Mary Ann Pittman (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1991).
9 Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Delacorte, 1982) pp.
45 - 46.
10 Thomas Armstrong, The Myth of the A.D.D. Child (New York: Dutton, 1995) pp.
11 David Guterson, Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, (New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992) pp. 183 - 204.
12 "Schools And Home Schoolers: A Fruitful Partnership," Phi Delta Kappan, 64
(1983), p. 393.
13 Earlene Mitchell, The Eight Year Study: A Study Not To Be Forgotten, The
Educational Forum, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1985), Pp. 12 - 14; A.S. Neill, Summerhill
(London: Penguin, 1968); Free At Last: The Sudbury Valley School (Framingham,
MA: Sudbury Valley School Press, 1987); George Dennison, The Lives Of Children
(Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1990).
14 There are no listings for life experience credits for elementary or high
school years in these respected resources; each has chapters on obtaining high
school degrees. John Bear, Bears Guide To Non-Traditional College Degrees,
(Benicia, CA: C & B Publishing, 1997); The Independent Study Catalog,
(Princeton, NJ: Peterson, 1995).
15 Susannah Sheffer, A Sense of Self: Listening To Homeschooled Adolescent Girls
(Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995), p. 178.
16 The academic standards for the elementary years of schooling are spelled out
by the state of MA in General Laws ch. 71 Sect. 1, 2 and 3 (1984 ed.): Such
schools shall be taught by teachers of competent ability and good morals, and
shall give instruction and training in orthography, reading, writing, the
English language and grammar, geography, drawing, music, the history and
constitution of the United State, the duties of citizenship, health education,
physical education and good behavior. Sect 2: In all public elementary and high
schools American history and civics, including the constitution of the United
States, the declaration of independence, and the bill of rights, and in all
public schools the constitution of the Commonwealth and local history and
government, shall be taught as required subjects for the purpose of promoting
civic service and a greater knowledge thereof, and of fitting the pupils,
morally and intellectually, for the duties of citizenship. Sect. 3 requires
physical education for all public school students.
17 John Holt, Unpublished Manuscript, "Notes From Talks To Students," 11/23/71.
18 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964) p. 347.
19 Instead Of Education, p. 157.
20 In Instead of Education, p. 19, Holt used the spelling S-chool to denote: The
schools for educators, which get and hold their students by the threat of jail
or uselessness or poverty, and s-chools to denote: The schools for do-ers, which
help people explore the world as they choose.
21 Instead of Education, p. 161-162.
22 Instead of Education, p. 162-165
23 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964) pp. 332 - 340.
24 Deschooling Society, p. 111.