Friday, August 12, 2005

An Actual Post on Homeschooling

Yahmdallah is a friend whom I once hung out with on Delphi's religions discussion forums, and who was kind enough some months back to invite me to opine at length regarding the election of Josef Cardinal Ratzinger.

My. Three hyperlinks in one sentence. I'm starting to get the hang of this.

Anyway, he has many informed opinions on books and movies, and a post up right now on Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Which put me in mind of the only Stephenson book I ever read, on the recommendation of my dear husband (whom we shall call on this blog by his internet username, Eudoxus): The Diamond Age, Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. It's not the greatest work of literature, and in fact becomes simply unreadable about two-thirds of the way through (besides containing an off-putting amount of plot-irrelevant pornographic content). But I read it near the beginning of my life as a Homeschooling Mom, and found Stephenson to be amazingly on-target about the personal and cultural reasons Eudoxus and I had for teaching our child ourselves. The Christian homeschooling movement seemed to have no points of recognizability for us; and John Holt always leaves me thinking this is all the stuff that messed up the schools in the first place, isn't it? But Stephenson comes scarily close to getting it right.

The Diamond Age is set in a near-future Shanghai in which society is divided into multiple strata called "claves." One of these is a group called the Neo-Victorians, the leader of which has created a sort of e-book which acts as a complete library and tutorial, guided by a hidden instructor who, together with the book's adaptable AI, provides a personalized classical/liberal arts education to the young reader. This book falls into the hands of a young girl with the Dickensian name of Nell living in the chaotic underclass dominated by easy consumerism (a Startrekky replicator acts as a sort of in-home WalMart), horrifically invasive advertising, a completely broken-down social order and family structure (her home hosts a parade of abusive "fathers"), and proves to be the salvation of the young girl. Eventually she discovers the Neo-Victorians, and learns that rather than being the enclave of elitist, nostalgic reactionaries their name and reputation might suggest, they have withdrawn instead in an attempt to recreate a new society in which self-control, education, and resistance to high-tech materialism allow genuine freedom.

This freedom is the "liberal" in liberal arts, the education once reserved only for the wealthy but which it was Thomas Jefferson's dream that it be made available to all citizens. Jefferson's educational vision never came into full bloom, in great part because of the dominance of progressivist educational theories in the early decades of the twentieth century (see Diane Ravitch's painstakingly researched Left Back for a detailed history of American educational theories). This progressivism played into the regrettable anti-intellectual currents of American culture that spurned book-larnin' and venerated 'practical knowledge' and native know-how. Stephenson shows a society in which practical technical knowledge has eradicated privacy and critical thought, and young people's native know-how enculturates them into casually criminal lives and early death (Nell's older brother being the exemplar).

Just how truly Gen-X Stephenson's thoughts are can be seen by the change going on in homeschooling theory. Ten years ago, when Offspring #1 was born and I first started thinking seriously about matters of education, the homeschooling cultural landscape was bifurcated. There were the Christian homeschoolers, the evangelicals and fundamentalists who were already culturally committed to some degree of separatism, and who had been running their own schools for years. And there were the unschoolers, the disciples of John Holt, who believed a hundred years of progressivist reform had failed, that schools were structurally incapable of true progressivism, and that the only solution was withdrawal from an unreformable system. Other groups (such as Catholic homeschoolers) were too small and lacking in a unifying educational ideology to have a cultural presence.

Today there is a rapidly increasing group calling themselves "classical homeschoolers," of which (full disclosure) I consider myself to be part. Our vision for education and culture, while often regrettably foggy, greatly resembles Stephenson's Neo-Victorianism, which in turn resembles not so much Victorian England but rather Jefferson's vision for an educated populace. The popularity of The Well-Trained Mind arose from its tapping into this often-incoherent longing for some other way of living with and educating one's children; and despite the myriad shortcomings of that book (that's a post for another day), it offered something beyond retreaded progressivism and religious separatism and has struck a chord with the Gen-X generation of young parents who desperately want something better for their children than the feral consumerist techno-dystopia they see becoming American child-culture.

Are we Neo-Victorians? We'd sure like to be. Stephenson offers a tantalizing reflection of our fears and aspirations. Whether something will come of this new movement, or whether it, like the post-Boomer generation, will simply be a demographic blip, remains to be seen.


Blogger Sophia said...

Dystopia - An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.
Wow! That's a pretty powerful word. What do you mean by a blip like the post boomers?

I was having a discussion with a man today who is Greek and grew up in Ethiopia. He only speaks to their 3 year old son in Greek and his Hispanic wife only speaks to him in Spanish. I was commenting on how impressed I am that their son is tri-lingual at the age of 3. I was lamenting the fact that since my husband and I don't speak another lanuguage, it's hard to truly have our kids become bilingual. The dad said that here in America, we are a rich country and have everything at our disposal so we don't have a need to learn other languages. Too bad for us because I am convinced it helps the mind! I was thinking about how now with the computer, we have all info at our disposal, and we might have a false impression that we don't need to "know" info because we can just look it up. Too bad for us again!

My daughter started her first week of classical education last week studying the Ancients. It is truly expanding my worldview and making me feel less like I'm "inside a little bubble in the foam on the top of a cappucino." I haven't done a lot of research into the different types of educations, so it seems we have just kind of fallen into Classical education, but I am very happy for my children that they are hopefully going to have a much bigger and more accurate idea of the world than I did growing up in my own little dystopia. :)

1:43 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

Good points. I am sad, and agree with you that the best way to get a "classical education" right now is home schooling. (And also I agree that Diamond Age was, as you said, 2/3 of a great book, with a very frustrating ending.)

1:24 PM  

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