On the Purposes of Schooling

I accidentally insulted a teacher friend of mine (she teaches Grade 9 somewhere in the Niagara Peninsula), so she accidentally insulted me back. I mentioned to her, in connection with the transmission of the fine arts to the next generation, that it’s a little easier for us, since we school our children at home. Immediately, she responded, “I have a friend who’s Catholic who has a large family, and when their kids went to high school, they were unable to function socially.”

It’s the kind of response that makes my left eye twitch. I disciplined myself, reaching for a glass of scotch instead of my revolver, and I said, “We make extra sure our kids are integrated socially amongst their peers.” She would have none of it. She was on offense: “When they got to high school age, the administration had to split them into different schools because the only social interaction they had was family.” It was too late to change the premise because I had gone on defense. It seems that everyone who has an opinion against home schooling knows personally a family whose children do not integrate well socially. I think there is one such family in every region that everyone knows.

She didn’t mention their math scores, nor their language arts scores, neither how they performed in the sciences, or even what the socializing issues were in specific, just that the school administration deemed they were poor performers in social interaction.

The truth is my wife and I don’t work hard in the very least to socially integrate our kids. We throw them out of the house for hours at a time.

The contention is that it is not the purpose of school to learn social skills. In my biased mind, the problem which that school’s administration had was that this Catholic family was filled with children who were introverted learners, and they were overwhelmed by the meat grinder of life as bells, desks, timed tests, and things due. Whereas their previous learning environment was one of nurture and care under mother and father, an environment designed to foster growth and encourage the person, the public school system is an environment of ganglia, clocks, and improving standardized test scores. Besides which, I can’t conceive of a high school social network that is actually healthy.

high school

Isn’t there a body of literature, both scholarly and juvenile fiction, which treats the social difficulties many children encounter when they switch public schools?

There is no doubt that the parents of this Catholic family acceded to the wishes of the administration because they decided, in their parental wisdom, that the advantages of institutionalized schooling outweighed the disadvantages, probably on the understanding that college preparatory work is difficult to administer at home. There are advantages to pooling resources for certain kinds of education.

Nevertheless, in my mind, the problem is the other way around: why couldn’t the high school kids integrate these outsiders?

Battling Anxiety Through Free Range Parenting

A further response to Samantha, who does not like the term free-range parenting, as she says, “Free range just means kids are allowed to be kids.”

This resonates. I have several distinct memories as a kindergartener. Two of them are: 1) I wept uncontrollably when Mommy left me with the stranger in the building with the cold floors and the big windows to let you see outside. 2) Later in the year, I struggled with the math, undecided whether I should count kindergarten as one year toward the completion of 12th Grade. I could not cope with the idea that THIRTEEN YEARS OF THIS PRISON HELL?!?

Institutionalized school is a place, first and foremost, to develop the several kinds of social anxiety. My favorite was performance anxiety, namely that I had to make good grades or I could not possibly succeed in life. On the face of it, this is an entirely contentious statement, but I don’t care: I hated school from day one; during the school year I hated every day of my life, knowing that if I misbehaved, Teacher was going to pin a note to my shirt, sending me home to tell Mommy that she needed yet another conference in order to strategize behavior modification. I wasn’t doing a damn thing wrong: I just wouldn’t sit still. Nevertheless, the first thing I learned in school, about school, at age five, which has never been unlearned, is that the institution is always watching me. From those moments forward, life has been about coping with this intrusion into my personal emotional space.

Roger Waters captured this intrusion perfectly in his little ditty, having the children sing so sweetly, “We don’t need no education.” That record has been played about a billion times over the past thirty years, and not just because it has a good rhythm and a beat you can dance to. The song embodies musically a visceral response to all kinds of anxiety, even the same anxiety you feel when the IRS or CRA demands to know your every wage, tip, and other compensation.


This anxiety is the primary reason my wife and I practice a free-range parenting, as it were. It’s not that there is no anxiety out there, no magical escape from anxiety, no anxiety-free monastery (as one of my friends has remarked about certain quarters of the home schooling world: “the denim jumper brigade”), but that learning the ciphers necessary for groping through this mortal coil can be done in a lower-anxiety environment.

The home, in other words, can be relatively free from institutional intrusion into the emotional world of a child.

Readers who have successfully emerged from the gauntlet of institutional education can attest that success in “real life” (whatever that is) didn’t require so much behavior modification, such competition to achieve, such confrontation with the institution. Again, I’m advocating a via media here: behavior modification is necessary, competing to achieve must be instilled, the confrontation with the institution is inevitable. Too much of these things threatens to create a person who struggles to experience pleasure in the challenges of everyday, ordinary experiences, whether they are climbing their way to the top, or are satisfied in a low-ceiling career, or find their way to the end somewhere in the middle.

Therefore, I submit to Samantha another term: low-anxiety parenting. Failure is always an option, and failure is probably good for you. Every once in a while.

This post is the second post following up “Let’s Go Do Something Dangerous,” a companion to “The Structure of Free-Range Parenting.”

The Structure of Free Range Parenting

A commenter on my defense of free-range parenting mentioned that she doesn’t like the term “free-range.” I take it as an implication that the burden is on those who dislike unstructured, unsupervised free-time for children. Unfortunately, the social context has changed so that the burden is on those of us who are risking our children being kidnapped by the zealots of the state, complete with badges and everything.

It should come as no surprise to you, dear reader, that we also practice something called “home schooling,” where my wife and I inculcate ciphering skills unto our children at home, without any help or compulsion from the state whatsoever, meaning, that in a state of total anarchy, without government schools, private schools, parochial schools, or even community one-room schoolhouses, our kids would still be able to cipher.

New York state, being interested as it is in the ability of her citizens to cipher, tests us, and our children have not been found lacking. The implications of this are rather clear, with respect to so-called free-range parenting: there is a some sort of structure in our household.

In fact, on reflecting upon our home life, I am convinced that we are very structured; it’s just that I wouldn’t know how to describe it: our daily life must resemble, to an outsider, one of those outlandish perpetual motion machines of the Medieval Era. And then the door opens, two boys stumble out, the door slams behind them, and they do not return inside for a very long time.

Nathanael D. Snow makes the point elsewhere that children have been referred to in ancient times as arrows in a quiver. He further remarks that arrows, however, are not made for the quiver; they are made for the bow, to be nocked and fired into the world. Children, in other words, have potency. They are, now, in the neighborhood, within a literal arrow’s shot, carrying our life into other people’s lives, and there our philosophies and beliefs are being tested. Later, they will be fired into the world at large, to lodge into it, hopefully wounding it with justice, morality, virtue, and every other sort of good (to stretch the metaphor). I mean, we hope we’re moral and virtuous in our household, and we measure it against what we consider moral institutions, and we further hope that what we are trying to teach sticks to our arrows, like a healing elixir to act as an antidote against all the poison out there.

Who knows? We’re only one family. And who knows if we are actually moral and virtuous? Not knowing, nevertheless, we’re willing to be tested.

This post is the first of two as follow-ups to “Let’s Go Do Something Dangerous,” a companion to “Battling Anxiety Through Free-Range Parenting.