Homeschooling and the babysitting function of public education

One of the biggest effects of our response to the covid-19 virus is to turn us into a nation of involuntary homeschoolers.

There’s always been a suspect coincidence between the educational and the babysitting functions of compulsory public education. Kids need to get educated as basic preparation for life and citizenship in a democracy. And business-as-usual really needs those kids cooped up in schools for most of the day so the parents can go out and work.

I can remember what a single day of our son being unexpectedly home sick or on a snow day did to the parents’ work lives. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have that occasional difficult day turn into months on end. No wonder parents these days are often depicted as tearing their hair out.

Of course the virus has produced another convenient coincidence: kids can’t go to school, which would by itself throw family life and the nation’s economic life into chaos. But conveniently, the fight against the virus has many parents working from home, making them available—at least physically present– for looking after the kids.

Probably most parents stuck in this situation don’t think of themselves as homeschoolers but rather parents doing the babysitting and riding herd on those kids doing some hours of online learning provided by their schools.

But I wonder how many involuntary homeschoolers have been looking up voluntary homeschooling online. When our son was small, 25 to 30 years ago, we seriously checked out homeschooling and discovered that it was an impressive movement producing, from what we could tell, impressive results, as judged by how well the kids made out in higher education or in later life.

Home schooling advocates are often people whose work lives are flexible, providing hours to be with the kids. (Today’s two income families not so much.) Sometimes the parents’ work—farming, for instance—made the home a natural campus for homeschooling, learning- by-doing.

Most homeschooling parents see it as an advantage to provide for their kids more flexible scheduling and more one-on-one than is possible in the local school building.

Homeschoolers often make use of professionally prepared materials for part of the curriculum. But they tend to have more faith that young humans are natural learners and will naturally find a way to learn even without formal education. There is a certain school of thought that compulsory formal education may actually inhibit this natural learning. (There was of course learning before compulsory formal education was established 150 years ago or so. )

An obvious criticism of the homeschooling impulse has been that in some cases schools do an important job of providing at least a temporary escape from some troubled homes– from abuse, from hunger in some cases.

Another is simply that it removes the kids from the social life of their peers. (Homeschoolers answer this by arranging for social contact outside of school.)

Even if schools aren’t perfect, one interesting argument goes, even if there is bullying, discrimination, overcrowded classrooms, etc., public schools are what they are– and shouldn’t all kids have knowledge—a dose, if you will—of that reality, like a rite of passage?

The virus-enforced version of homeschooling is not of course what the idealistic homeschooling movement has in mind. The impression you get is that most parents are, not unreasonably, just waiting it out until it’s safe to hand their beloved children back to the pros and they can get back to their adult worklives, whether conducted at an office or at home.

It’s likely that some percentage of workers will continue working from home, saving commute time and expense, enabling less expensive, rural housing. Will some of those begin to think seriously about joining the 2.5 million homeschoolers already playing a more active role in their kids’ education?

At the very least we should all come out of this troubled period more aware of the coincidence of the educational and the babysitting functions of compulsory education and wondering whether this long established, sacrosanct arrangement is the best for all concerned.– for kids or for parents. Or for society.

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