Until the 1820s American schooling was almost exclusively a private effort, and the efforts were haphazard. Communities would often band together to teach their children to read, write, and figure, but beyond that formal schooling was largely restricted to the elite. Neither was formal schooling expected to part of a citizen’s upbringing; Benjamin Franklin tried a couple of months of it at age 11, discovered that it wasn’t to his taste, and found better ways to spend his time.
It’s no secret that the proponents of commons schools, or universal public education, had something other in mind than equipping children to make their way in the world. Many critics, John Taylor Gatto foremost among them, have argued that the true purpose of common schools was to transform an agrarian people into an industrial workforce, molding them so that they would be willing to show up regularly and on time to perform arbitrary, mind-deadening tasks in exchange for a paycheck.
Horace Mann, father of American common schooling. made clear that the goal was the molding of Proper Citizens when he wrote
Could there, in your opinion, be any police so vigilant and effective, for the protections of all the rights of person, property and character, as such a sound and comprehensive education and training, as our system of Common Schools could be made to impart; and would not the payment of a sufficient tax to make such education and training universal, be the cheapest means of self-protection and insurance?
There’s no question that the characters of boys and girls must be molded, and that someone or something will do it, whether it be traditions or schoolteachers or peers or advertisers or films or youth ministers. But God has made it clear (Deuteronomy 6) whose responsibility it is to do the shaping—their parents. The rise of homeschooling and the successes that the movement has achieved are good reason to hope that thoughtful and deliberate people can actually defy modern cultural trends and successfully reclaim the traditions we foolishly discarded.
The best (perhaps only) book on this topic is John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education. Gatto is not an advocate of homeschooling or even of returning to earlier patterns of life, but his examination of the true purpose of public schools can provide the agrarian with an understanding of why it was wrong for parents to turn their children over to be raised by others.
Over the years our family has arrived at deeper and more principled reasons for teaching our children at home, but our original decision to begin homeschooling was a response to the moment. In our early years we had almost by accident become a close-knit family. We lived 45 minutes away from town, I worked at home, and as a result we spent a lot of time in one another’s company. Soon enough we came to prefer it that way, and rarely involved ourselves in activities that split up the family.
So it was a surprisingly unpleasant change for us when we sent our oldest son Chris off to school; suddenly we had seven fewer hours of his company during the day. We didn’t like it, but figured it was just a burden we had to bear.
Luckily for us, Chris didn’t thrive in school. Even in the better private schools in Austin, Texas, managing a group of twenty children had become such a chore that the teachers naturally spent most of their time controlling the troublesome ones, with not much left over for the dreamy ones who could be counted on to sit at their desks quietly. We were increasingly unhappy with what Chris was getting from school, until the penny finally dropped—it was foolish to think that some underpaid wage laborer, no matter how well intentioned, would be able to love our child (and nineteen others!) enough to train him up anywhere near as well as we would ourselves. So we brought him home.
Later we came to a deeper understanding of what education was about, summed up in this quote from G.K. Chesterton:
What is education? Properly speaking, there is no such thing as education. Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. Whatever the soul is like, it will have to be passed on somehow, consciously or unconsciously, and that transition may be called education. … What we need is to have a culture before we hand it down. In other words, it is a truth, however sad and strange, that we cannot give what we have not got, and cannot teach to other people what we do not know ourselves.
Chesterton’s two points restated: we educate our children by passing our culture on to them; and, to properly educate our children, we must have a culture worth passing on. Not having been given such a culture by our forebears, much of our family work over the past years has been to discover and recreate one, a culture within which we think our descendants will be able to grow and thrive, a culture we often refer to as “the good life.” For us, that culture has turned out to be an agrarian one. Our homeschooling is more and more a matter of equipping our children to
I think homeschooling led us to agrarianism because our decision to homeschool was unknowingly a decision to supply one of our own needs directly, rather than allowing others to supply it for us in exchange for money. The blessings that flowed from that decision led us to search out other ways in which we might be better off doing things for ourselves. Such a path naturally runs in the direction of the agrarian life, where doing for yourself is a key virtue.
But I do want to point out that homeschooling alone is not likely to create an agrarian culture. The genius of the common school movement was to divorce education from the rest of family life. The schools not only gained the ability to shape the characters of children, but parents got used to being relieved of that difficult and time-consuming work, eventually forgetting how to do it at all.
And so even as parents bring their children home to learn, many have not yet come to see homeschooling as the task of molding a very specific kind of person, one who is immersed in the family’s tradition and both able and eager to build upon that foundation. Modern society sees such a life as bondage. Instead, it places a premium on individuality, on following one’s dream, on fulfilling one’s potential, on not denying our children the opportunity to live any sort of life that might strike their fancy. Wendell Berry’s wonderful novel Hannah Coulter speaks to the dangers lurking in this, describing how her well-intentioned efforts to provide an education for her children ended up leading each of them them into a life that could only be lived away from home.
Until we come to see this attitude as a cruel lie from which our children need to be shielded, homeschooling is just as likely as institutional schooling to drive our children away from the community in which they were raised. Agrarians must not simply equip their children to follow their own lights, to become whatever they want to become; we must have the courage to teach them to love a certain way of life, to find their satisfaction in it, and to shoulder the responsibility of continuing and perpetuating an honorable tradition.
Viewed in this way, homeschooling becomes an inextricable part of the family economy, the non-monetary aspect of family life. Schooling is not preparation for a life that begins sometime after graduation, but the cultivation of skills and knowledge that are needed for a life that is being lived here and now. The skills that are learned and the subjects that are studied are not chosen for their future earning potential or for the expression of individuality; they are chosen because they are what the family needs to do, what the family needs to know, in order to carry on its traditions. And just as important, a child learns what a family must be in order to m
ake a proper contribution to the community it is part of, equipping him for the job of establishing such a family of his own.