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Redefining Home - Home-based Learners Decompartmentalize Communities 

Redefining Home
How Home-Based Learners Decompartmentalize Our Communities
By Lynn Marie Murphy

At the end of a home education course at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, my professor and long-time home education researcher, J. Gary Knowles, asked for our ideas on what the role of home educating families might be in the context of the wider community. What are the unique ways they enrich their communities and potentially enliven public schools? I did not have an answer at the time, but the question stayed with me, having particular dimension for my own situation as a public school teacher who wants to home educate my own children, and I felt compelled to explore the topic further.

Much has been written about how home educating families use community resources, including public schools in some instances. But I have yet to come across anything that details what I feel to be the unique contributions of these families to their communities. I understand from previous discussions with home educating acquaintances that many home educating families are particularly active in their communities, bringing to them alternative visions of being in the world that include a strong social and environmental consciousness. I wanted to bring this evidence together, to counter notions that home educating families are insular people who separate themselves from the wider community.

With this in mind, I searched through books and articles for examples of home educating families who volunteer, engage in social activism, and encourage community development. And while I have found examples to support all of this, particularly in the interviews I conducted, I remember feeling disappointed that more was not documented. But the more I spoke with people and the more I read, my understanding of what it means to contribute to one’s community broadened, becoming more encompassing, wholistic and complex than the tangible examples I originally sought.

I began my research informally in discussion with participants in an online Quaker homeschooling discussion group, initiated by author David Albert. I asked this online community of homeschoolers the following questions: What are your experiences in terms of how your family has incorporated community involvement with your home education practices? What are some unique ways in which home educating families can enrich their communities? Are there ways in which home educating families can enliven “mainstream” education/public schools?

Many parents found the first question easy to respond to, citing numerous examples of how their family has the time to participate in their communities through volunteer work, social activism, sports teams, frequent library use, and mentoring. A couple of the mothers are La Leche League leaders, an attachment parenting/breastfeeding support group for families. Not only do these women serve their communities in this way, but they also bring their children to the meetings to play with and entertain the younger ones, providing their children with a sense of community involvement as well exposing them to positive examples of early parenting skills.

Another parent cleans up the local playground once a week with her children and brings her family to monthly neighborhood improvement association meetings. This example led me to consider that perhaps homeschooling parents, because so many of them use community resources so frequently, have a vested interest in keeping the community facilities safe, clean, and accessible, and therefore are inclined to contribute to them in this way. It was very clear to me that these home educating parents value their communities, as well as community service, and actively cultivate these values in their children. And there were many examples that these values were being internalized. For example, one homeschooled youth organized and now runs a teen book discussion group at his local library.

Behind these specific examples of community involvement exists a belief shared by many home educators that they enrich their communities by being out in them. One parent articulated this particularly eloquently: “The first and important thing that comes to mind is that we all prevent communities from being child-less zones during nine to three. We demonstrate quietly (or not so quietly some days) that families can be together, that parents can nurture, play and teach or guide all at once. We decompartmentalize our communities.” Other parents stated that in bringing “well-behaved, curious, and intelligent children” out into the community during what have become known as school hours, they contribute to their communities by “[helping] others realize there are many ways to learn.”

Another parent’s response aptly illustrates this strategy of quiet deconstruction and consciousness shifting as a means of community contribution. She wrote, “Even a peripheral awareness that there are people in the community doing things a bit differently can be enormously empowering when someone is considering possibilities (of any kind) beyond the obvious. I don’t think we need to push that awareness, but to be there when it begins to dawn is a contribution not to be discounted.”

Shifting our collective consciousness about what it means both to be in the community and to be educated is something that came out of my interview with author and Life Learning Magazine's Editor Wendy Priesnitz as a significant community contribution. Wendy encouraged me to develop the “general idea” of how home educators contribute to the community by showing how they “broaden the definition of community, and make them better by being there.” She talked about how home educating families contribute to their communities on a “macro level” by being out in them. “Having families out in the community every day,” she says, “is a really important reminder alone that citizens are all ages and we are contributing to our local communities.” This is in contrast to kids who are “warehoused in schools” and “are forgotten about as part of the community.” She spoke of how “an important part of community life is to have communities populated during the day,” and recalled a pre-industrial, agrarian lifestyle, before the inception of “gutted communities” with people “compartmentalized at work, school, and daycare.”

David Guterson also talks about this in his book Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense when he laments the artificial environment in which children spend their formative years as being inimical to developing community:

“Today we think of schools in some of the same ways we think of hospitals or prisons, as buildings housing scores of people but with only a very limited connection to the world outside their walls. They are artifices, intentionally constructed models of adult economic life that cut children off from the social web of their communities. Having passed their formative years chiefly among their peers in a world devoid of the very old and the very young, a highly structured world best characterized as competitive and cliquish, they are ill prepared for membership in their own communities even if adequately prepared to function in our economy.”

And while there may be little published information on how home educators enrich communities, there is much to suggest that schools impoverish them. In The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning, authors Etta Kravolec and John Buell state:

“If parents were no longer held captive by the demands of their children’s schools, they could develop their own priorities for family life. If students were permitted more freedom to structure their own time and to explore their own interests, they would find it much easier to develop both an authentic self and a meaningful social life.

We believe that reform in homework practices is central to a politics of family and personal liberation. Taking back our home lives will allow us to begin the process of enriching our community lives.”

Moreover, David Albert, in a response on the Quaker Homeschool online discussion group to a home-educating parent who wanted to know how to make use of the resources in her community without “disturbing people,” suggests that one of the side-effects of schooling is our increasing isolation from each other and how we have come to accept and expect this isolation. He writes:

“What you have described is one of the myriad of ways schools have impoverished communities. Care for children has been thrown to the schools or back exclusively into the family. Informal clubs – stamp clubs, coin clubs, fishing lure making clubs, quilting bees, sewing circles – all of which used to nurture young, interested folks have withered. What is the age of the average member of your local Audubon? Perhaps it would be good if you begin to consider that ‘disturbing the community’ in this way is a public service.”

In the book Creating Learning Communities, author Robin Martin connects this isolation to schools’ focus on cultivating individualism. She shows how it is the inherent, if unarticulated, mission of schools to foster the individualism necessary for materialism to thrive, through its system of grading, overwhelming emphasis on an individual’s development, improvement and performance and non-communal focus. This fierce cultivation of individuality results in the objectification of everyone and everything else, and a learned practice of othering becomes almost innate to us, a practice that isolates us from each other.

Martin writes:

“Equipped with the tools of individuality, students and teachers are fully prepared to face an ‘objective’ world. Objectivity allows us to presume that reality is a fixed thing composed of separate objects . . . If the world is made up only of objects, then one of the necessary tasks of education must be to help us learn how to manipulate those objects. In such a world, we do not become more deeply connected to the earth, as it is not a living, breathing entity like we are. We learn to make distant, rational decisions based on cost/benefit analysis. As we do this, it is only another short step from disconnecting from our emotions altogether as we begin to treat people as objects also. Just as factory managers become more efficient at moving products through an assembly line, educators are trained in methods for moving students through the system so that they are prepared for functional roles in the future.”

Such isolation is intrinsic to school structure that systemically segregates children and youth according to age, with little opportunity for natural interaction with those older or younger. Another unique way, then, in which home educators contribute to their communities is by challenging the artificial barriers between people of different ages that have been constructed by schools. Many parents spoke of how they like the fact that their children are comfortable interacting with people of all ages, and respect those older and younger than themselves.

During an interview, Jacqui Burke, a home education support group volunteer and home educator, said that home education allows her the freedom to follow “natural rhythms” of both parenting and relating to people and how this helps to break down the barriers that separate us from each other. She told me that she believes home educators hold a unique position in their communities as they help dismantle arbitrary boundaries that keep people from connecting with each other. Jacqui stated that her daughter is able to interact with people of all ages. She feels that this makes her daughter a positive community member because she is someone who can “cross artificial boundaries and reestablish natural human relations so we can have a more humane look at the world.”

Wendy Priesnitz also spoke about the importance of dismantling these barriers and recalled taking her children to the library during the day where they had a chance to interact with adults. Her angle was unique in that she framed this as being a good and important opportunity for adults to interact on a meaningful level with children. Upon reflecting on her comment, it occurred to me that this chance for adults and children/youth to talk to each other in a non-hierarchical environment is very important in forging the bonds that hold communities together. These relationships help curb the tendency for mutual mistrust that often exists, a tendency that is cultivated in schools where the custodial paradigm results in adults and young people being pitted against each other.

Jacqui Burke spoke eloquently on this, saying that now more than ever, we are forced to identify with our age group, a process greatly facilitated by school structures, and how this, as well as the “pressures of modern society...force us to view society with blinders on, [so that] we don’t see what else is around us.”

I found this a very interesting point to contemplate, and like many norms foisted upon society, I understand this forced identification to be economically motivated. Identifying with our age group sets up a paradoxical, but effective, dynamic of empathy, belonging, comparison and, ultimately, competition – a dynamic that makes us easier to market to and therefore easier to predict and control. This understanding is relevant here as it relates to the idea discussed by authors David Guterson and Robin Martin that schools serve economic interests, not necessarily community-based or democratic ones and that home educating families are in a unique position to challenge this.

Guterson makes the point that schools prepare students “for economic life instead of life in a community.” His argument is that schools prepare kids to be consumers instead of active, thinking citizens:

“Schools are supposed to teach critical-thinking skills in order to nurture citizens fully able to enter into a democratic society. Business, however, prefers an uncritical consumer society guaranteed to purchase its products. In fact, as John Goodlad’s researchers found, less that two percent of instructional time in many public schools is reserved for discussions requiring reasoning skills. Goodlad concludes that for the most part schools teach passivity. Yet even if we were systematically to change this, replacing the entrenched curriculum of passivity with a new, more democratic curriculum of independence – one that emphasized critical thinking – we would still find that in the case of schools, as elsewhere, the medium is the real message. For all our talk in the classroom of freedom, for every in-class critical-thinking exercise, there will always be a countervailing bell, a strict schedule demanding movement in herds, a dark background of authority, discipline, and regimentation that in the end constitute the truest lesson of schools and the truest preparation for modern economic life.”

It is a convincing argument that schools teach the opposite of informed citizenship and that, instead, they merely reinforce the herd mentality that assures the stability of the status quo, one that centers on economic gain and the social stratification this paradigm necessitates as students learn to compete for economic and social rewards.

This connection between schools and consumerism is painfully obvious in late summer with the ubiquitous back to school marketing frenzy. It is a necessary evil, this back to school shopping, made “easier” by stores that now offer “Six Months to Pay!” on all their back to school items. This is not just about new shoes and lined paper. Now families are expected to spend money on cell phones, laptops, iPods and super-sized backbacks that children will use to cart all the homework that will colonize their evenings. For kids who resist school, who hate sitting still indoors for hours at a time or who are overwhelmed by expectations, homework or lack of sleep, there is also back to school medication, strategically advertised in my local newspaper last August. Lots of people stand to profit from the return to school, emphasizing one of the more obvious connections between school and business.

Kate MacLean, a home educating parent and La Leche League leader, shared insights similar to Guterson’s during our interview. She said that home-educated kids are in a unique position to resist the trends that fuel consumerism because they are not accustomed to being “passive receptors,” which arguably, schooled kids are taught to become. Kate feels that home educated kids are in a strong position to become informed citizens because many of them are accustomed to engaging actively in the world as a result of regular interaction with adults and “less television.”

The citizenship question arises from the premise that schools teach the skills necessary for kids to become active, knowledgeable citizens who are prepared to uphold the values of what we understand to be a democratic society, and that the potential for home educated children to become such citizens is compromised. The arguments to the contrary, however, are very compelling, suggesting that it is in fact the other way around.

Wendy Priesnitz acknowledges that while homeschooling does not guarantee responsible citizenship, public school education is almost inimical to it. “How can kids learn it if they don’t live it?” Wendy pointed out that public schools are not democracies; children and youth are forced to attend and have few choices around what or when they learn. Schools can teach theories of how to participate in a democracy, but without practicing it, the lessons are meaningless, “How can they go out in the community and make decisions if they don’t have experience doing that?”

Guterson, who is a teacher, believes that schools train children to become not informed citizens but workers willing to serve a capitalist economy by cultivating the competitive edge and work ethic required to uphold a culture of endless production and consumption. He challenges the widely accepted idea that schools teach kids to be responsible citizens who know how to participate in and uphold democracy: “Schools don’t prepare children to become even informed citizens, not to mention active ones. Besides . . . millions of children go to schools . . . where inequality is institutionalized by sorting students according to academic ability, which amounts to sorting them by social class. What’s so democratic about that?”

Bruce Arai, Associate Professor at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario, has found that home educators are in a position to become active citizens. He writes, “Homeschoolers are involved in combining a different mix of attributes to become good citizens. In particular, they emphasize participation and the importance of family as the basis of a different definition of citizenship.” He identifies the importance of family – a key concern of home schooling families – as being central to the development of a sense of responsibility to community. He says, “The strong bonds in homeschooling families are also thought to be the basis of deliberate and informed participation in the larger society, especially later in life.” Arai suggests that part of this informed participation means resisting the consumerism and materialism that seem to be at the core of mainstream society, values/pursuits that get in the way of meaningful community participation.

This very concern around rampant consumerism is one of the many reasons that home educating parent Tennyson Loeh has chosen to keep her two young daughters out of the school system. My interview with Tennyson focused around her desire for her children to be “free thinkers” who know and respect themselves, and respect the world around them. She is working to do this through modeling sustainable living, taking her children “everywhere” with her out in the community and by encouraging them to ask questions. She doesn’t want their minds to become clouded with the skewed values prominent in mainstream society, namely materialism, and believes that only in home educating her daughters does she have a good chance of teaching them to “listen to their hearts,” not the cacophonous messages of consumerism that invade schools via peer pressure or school-sponsored “KFC Days.”

In terms of citizenship, Tennyson feels that home educating her children gives her an advantage in raising “two conscious citizens.” She says, “I think I’m teaching them to respect others and the earth that they inhabit. I treat them with respect and kids do what they see, not so much what they are told, but what they see by example; it’s what they live and breathe. I teach them to care about people and the earth. We focus much more on what really matters instead of raising new consumers.”

My discussion with Tennyson was one of those that helped me develop my understanding of what it means to contribute to one’s community. By modeling and passing on her commitment to sustainable living, she contributes to her community in profound ways that will likely ripple out through her children.

In terms of whether home educating families can enliven public schools, I have no doubt that they could, should the relationship that would encourage such participation exist. But for now, such a relationship does not seem to be of interest. Most of the parents I spoke with, both in person and online, wanted little to do with the mainstream education system. The ideology that has informed much public school curriculum, including increased emphasis on standardized tests, homework, and academic streaming, is worlds away from that which is found among home educators, even as diverse as these parents are. This is a topic that I will explore further as I am optimistic that the twain shall meet. I believe that as more families become frustrated with the homework load, violence in schools and endless demands from their kids to keep up with increasingly expensive trends, they will be looking for alternatives. Not to homeschool, necessarily, but to be part of creating an education system that fosters relationships and the bonds that cultivate safe, sustainable communities. Can home educators offer some guidance in making this shift? I think the answer is a resounding yes.

Lynn Marie Murphy is a teacher who has worked with Aboriginal youth in the north and youth-at-risk in Toronto, Ontario. She is involved in social justice issues, particularly those that relate to Aboriginal education and youth who are psychiatric survivors. She lives in Toronto with her partner Shawn and their three children Sabine, Simone, and Shea.

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