At a recent home-schooling convention in Massachusetts, Thomas More College’s new president, William Fahey, gave a talk that one blogger compared to a grenade. Home schooling puts an almost unmanageable strain on mothers, he said.
Home-schooling mothers are expected to be several things at once: mothers, homemakers, teachers, disciplinarians, wives and, for some, wage earners, too.
If home schooling seems like too much, he said, it’s because it is. We are political creatures, in the Socratic sense, and students learn best with other students. Schools are the best alternative for teaching children, he said.
Fahey also had some very positive things to say about home schooling. But if a keynote speaker at a home-schooling convention can call schools the best option, why is there a home-schooling boom? Why is an ever-increasing number of moms willing to shoulder that almost unbearable burden?
Here are two negative reasons and two positive ones.
Family finances leave no choice
It is a strange irony that the Catholic families most committed to their Catholic faith are precisely the families who are most unable to make use of Catholic education.
Not all Catholics who accept the teaching of Humanae Vitae (on birth control) have large families, and family size is not always an indicator of Catholic commitment. But, naturally, Catholics who embrace the Church’s teaching on contraception tend to have larger families.
It is often larger Catholic families who home school — and it isn’t always by choice. The math is simple. The more children a family has, the more expensive schooling is.
Catholic schools are expensive. Multi-child discounts are rare, and sometimes they are beside the point when a family has one income and children whose ages fall in the high school, grade school and toddler ages simultaneously.
The irony is not lost on them (nor, often, on the schools themselves): A Catholic education is often out of reach for precisely those families who are most likely to want it.
The moral climate has become poisonous
Sending children off to school has always been a challenge to parents’ natural protectiveness, and the world has always been a place of moral challenges.
But the moral climate has gotten far worse for children at a far younger age than it has been in memory.
The pop-culture marketing machine pushes atrocious role models on very young children, reaching into the schools through libraries, the Internet and through other students who have cable television and little supervision.
For parents, the line between being overprotective and exercising common sense is often difficult to discern.
On the one hand, hiding children away from life’s temptations does them no favors in the long run. This world, like it or not, is the one they have been given. Catholics need to engage it, not hide from it.
On the other hand, modern technology has made its seductions so cunning and attractive that children can be destroyed by them.
Many home-schooling parents have made the calculus that the best way to train their children to engage the world is to give them smaller, more controlled doses of it than schools do.
But apart from the expense and hazards of schools in the 21st century, there are positive reasons parents home school.
The predominance of home-schoolers in the finals of the Nationl Spelling Bee and National Geographic Bee shows that a certain level of academic excellence is often better facilitated at home than at school.
Home-schooled children explore areas of academics they rarely could at school.
For one thing, the student-teacher ratio in the largest Catholic family is better than nearly any schools’ ratio.
Parents can tailor their teaching to individual students much better, and, by getting involved in specialized home-schooling groups, they can allow their children to pursue a particular interest much more easily than they could were the child attending a traditional school.
Home schooling is thus the ultimate expression of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which says that the person best able to address a problem is the one most intimately related to it.
Religious and moral instruction.
Apart from fearing the climate at school, parents have a positive reason to school their children at home. They can teach their children the faith without qualification and without fear. They can tackle areas of the faith that are too thorny or too high level to be taught at school.
Of course, school children’s parents will point out that home-schooled children are also thus deprived of contact with the differing opinions and beliefs that they will face when they leave school behind. Also, they ask, if the families most committed to their faith take themselves out of the schools, how will the school environment ever improve?
Alongside the home-schooling movement are signs of renewal in Catholic schools. Parish schools are often the best in academics and discipline. Now, many dioceses are shoring up the faith content of their schools as well, using the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a standard for religious instruction texts.
Maybe the new interest in home schooling is part of a larger trend toward better schooling in general.
Maybe the rise in home schooling will cause schools to improve in order to compete. That would make home schooling a sign of hope for the future of education.