This summer, a group of Catholic homeschooling moms in my mid-sized middle-America town are getting together to read Beauty in World: Rethinking the Foundations of Education, by Stratford Caldecott, a book that explores the history and ongoing relevance of a liberal education to not only educate, but humanize. I know many of these moms from my monthly Well-Read Mom book club, which is a national group that encourages re-encountering (or encountering for the first time) classic literature. This year, we read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Death of Ivan Illych, Screwtape Letters, and Wuthering Heights, among others.
When it was time for my oldest daughter to start school, we chose homeschooling. We chose this because both my husband and I are highly educated and wanted a culture of learning to be central in our home. We wanted to make sure our children encountered subjects like Latin, art appreciation, and music that often are not central in a public or private school education. We wanted great literature to take precedent over worksheets. We wanted to give our children an opportunity in the early years to take their time learning beautiful things like the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson and the music of Handel.
It doesn’t surprise me that I love homeschooling and it has brought a lot of fulfillment to current vocation to stay home with my children. I consider myself an educator at heart and watching my daughter fall in love with learning in a profound way has been extraordinary. Seeing my younger children collaborate in her learning adventure has also been beautiful to watch. But I knew I would love homeschooling.
What does surprise me is how many like-minded Catholic families I have found since our decision to homeschool. When I was growing up (and my parents toyed with homeschooling), it was a fringe movement composed of mostly ultra-conservative Protestants who despised evolution and thought women should wear skirts and never leave the home. The few Catholics I encountered tended to be deeply suspicious of the post-Vatican II reforms and the institutional church. In short, it was a sectarian movement.
As neither a sectarian nor an ultra-conservative, I worried about socialization. What would my daughter and other children find among homeschooling families? Would these homeschoolers undermine our own efforts to provide a liberal education? Would I find kindred spirits of parents concerned with classic literature, rigorous academic study, emphasis on the arts, and a study of theology and philosophy that did more than just confirm sectarian expectations?
What I have found has been parents just like me who want to provide an excellent education for their children, often classical, usually inspired at least vaguely by the educational theories of Charlotte Mason, in a completely non-sectarian way. These parents and I have conversations about the best way to do nature study, the best “living books” for a given age group and interest, whether to teach ecclesial or classical pronunciation of Latin, and which educational theories can enhance our own ability to best teach our children. We discuss the merits of John Holt’s “unschooling” or whether classical education ought to be thought of in terms of the trivium. We strategize about how to get struggling readers to fall in love with books, how to inspire bored teenagers, how to teach the faith in a way that is comprehensive and compelling.
The proliferation of like-minded people online confirms that my experience is not an isolated one. The podcast Schole Sisters provides a forum for “Classically homeschooling mamas who want to grow while their children learn and grow.” The hosts have in-depth discussions of Aristotelian virtue, Platonic pedagogy, and always, what Pieper means my “schole.” Pam Barnhill’s “Your Morning Basket” is a weekly interview which homeschoolers who use “morning time” to center their homeschool around truth, goodness, and beauty, ensuring that the so-called “riches,” (art, music appreciation, poetry, classical read-alouds) get their due attention. Sarah MacKenzie’s incredibly popular Read-Aloud Revival provides a plethora of resources for families who want to build their family culture around books.
What is going on here is significant. A generation ago, homeschooling was sectarian. To use Niebuhr’s typology, homeschoolers were very much in the “Christ against culture” camp. They were deeply suspicious of mainstream culture and desperate to escape it.
Not so anymore. Using the same typology, most homeschoolers tend to be more “Christ transforming culture.” They want to engage the larger society, but with some different tools, many recovered from the classical world, some more contemporary, that have perhaps been lost in light of the rise of utilitarian pedagogical methods. They want to revive education, not by doing more, but by going deeper (they throw around phrases like “multum non multa” and “festina lente.” They want to think about long-term flourishing, not just checking boxes.
Perhaps this explains why the homeschool phenomenon is growing. From 1999 to 2012, the number of homeschoolers doubled, and continues to rise each year. Around 4% of all school age students are currently homeschooled. The primary reason listed among parents who make this choice is a desire to provide an alternative learning environment. Also high on the list is a concern over academics. Only 17% of homeschooling parents currently list “religion” as their primary motive to home-educate.
There is evidence that homeschooling is working, if the goal is to provide an excellent educational alternative. Homeschooling children consistently out-perform their public-school peers both in academics and social skills. Even low-income homeschooling students (which are increasing), are out-performing the average public-school student.
Does this mean that everyone should homeschool? Of course not! But it does mean that homeschooling should be looked on favorably by the broader public and the church, and there should be efforts to engage this population, especially through dual-enrollment opportunities that allow homeschooling children to participate in select classes and extra-curricular activities. Parochial schools especially, which have suffered from declining enrollment, should make a particular effort to collaborate rather than compete with homeschoolers. Many homeschooling parents who balk at the price of annual tuition may be very happy to a fee for the privilege to participate in some school activities, and schools would benefit from the diligence and talent of homeschooling students. Hybrid learning opportunities for both homeschool and public school students may be just the ticket to revive some Catholic schools. Parishes should encourage homeschoolers to use parish facilities for co-op meetings, if nothing else to ensure that by engaging this population, they discourage the tendency towards sectarianism that existed in the past. And since homeschoolers feel they have something positive to offer, schools and parishes should be open to whether they might actually be right.