With the pandemic lock-down in effect, everyone with school aged children is getting a taste of what home schooling could be like and according to at least one survey I saw, a significant number of parents have an increased appreciation for home school and many have said that they intend to keep doing it after the lock-down is over. [i]
So as someone who went to public schools when I was growing up but has chosen home schooling for my kids, I thought I’d be ideally positioned to share what I think is the most important advantage or each.
I need to add one quick qualifier in this because not all home school experiences are created equal. Families will take a wide array of approaches to their home school style and curriculum, so in order to have a meaningful comparison, I want to focus on one type of home schooling, which is Classical home schooling with an emphasis on the liberal arts and you’ll see why as I get into my explanation.
I also want to say that if it sounds like I’m criticizing public schooling in this video, it’s not that I’m criticizing the people who work in public schools and do their best to provide a worthwhile educational experience for their students. I know plenty of teachers and administrators in public schools who are very deliberately and intentionally doing heroic work in that field.
Any criticism I might make is directed more towards the system that they’ve inherited and the constraints that they are expected to work within.
So, like I said earlier, I was raised in a public school setting and I think my own experience is a revealing use case for what makes these two approaches distinct and where the advantages lie in each, so I’ll start by sharing a bit about my own story.
Believe it or not, I have been accused by a few people of being intelligent and since a surprising number of people are willing to listen to me mumble my way through these commentaries, that seems to further advance that premise.
But, according to my public school record, I was incredibly mediocre in my academic performance. None of my peers would have suspected me of being exceptionally clever and if they had any doubts, a quick report card comparison would have dissuaded them.
But I scraped by and went to college in the hopes of becoming a graphic and web designer, which I did. And then I landed my first job and it was the only job I was qualified to do and probably the only one I would ever be qualified to do, but something strange happened around that time too.
I became Catholic and this led to an immersion in reading philosophy and theology which exposed me, for the first time in my life, to studying what was known in the liberal arts as dialectic and rhetoric. Dialectic was the study of logic and rhetoric was the study of persuasive communication.
Now, I wasn’t formally studying these things as a student would have, but I was getting exposed to them and they were wearing off on me and they had a dramatic effect on me. I started to grow in my ability to think critically and logically as well in my ability to articulate my thoughts accurately and persuasively.
And it was this unique skillset that, seemingly more than anything else, seemed to propel me and open doors that were previously closed to me. I had bosses take notice of me and compliment me on my intelligence and take notice of the kinds of things that I was reading on my lunch break.
Others would express how impressed they were with the way I communicated something in a sales or strategy meeting. And I also found myself drifting into other areas of expertise through exposure and experience in my career including strategic communication and branding which dramatically increased my career prospects.
And this was all because of the fact that I had grown in my ability to think logically and communicate persuasively.
And this seemed extremely counterintuitive to me because my entire education experience had hammered into me that I needed to focus as much as possible on STEM disciplines like math and science and since I wasn’t particularly good at those subjects, I assumed I was dumb and had to settle for whatever I could get.
And the fact is, I’m not exceptionally intelligent, but being well spoken is something that will convince those who hold the keys to opportunities you want to access that you are capable and intelligent, so much so that they’ll be willing to give you a lot of flexibility where you might not have otherwise found it.
If all I had ever done was go to school and specialize in a skill then I’d still be working at a desk for someone else cranking out graphics and code for 40 hrs a week. But I’m fully convinced that learning to think critically, creatively and growing in an appreciation for rhetoric is what gave me the confidence to think outside of that box or cubicle.
So I hope that gives a quick sketch of what I think are the fundamental differences and even advantages of both approaches.
The classical liberal arts focused on grammar, logic, and rhetoric as well as math, geometry, astronomy, and music. But it’s those first three, what were known as the trivium that are so distinct from my public school education. We didn’t seriously study and of those disciplines.
They taught us how to write well enough in so far as it would be needed to write essays in the future, but that’s it. We read popular modern literature, but never really unpacked the fundamentals of our or any language. And we never even came close to studying something like rhetoric which was held by the ancient Greeks to be the highest discipline you could master.
Now, it’s important to understand that they were called the liberal arts because they were expected to liberate or free a person from the bondage of ignorance. They most contributed to the flourishing of an individual.
And if you think about it, it’s not hard to see why. A person who has mastered a language, logical thinking, and the ability to persuade someone of something, is someone who will be able to clearly articulate his her or mind without struggling but to do so confidently.
It’s someone who will rarely be taken in by someone who wants to exploit them with fallacious polemics. The most obvious example of this I can think of is politics. We have what we call debates where the candidates get on stage and make their case to the voting public, but calling these debates is way too generous.
A debate is something that is supposed to abide by the laws of logic, but almost every single thing that they say in these debates is a textbook fallacy. In other words, it’s illogical and nobody calls them out for it. Why, because we don’t know any better. We don’t know how to critically examine the things they say which gives them enough maneuverability to dodge any meaningful accountability.
And for a democracy to be successful, the electorate needs to be able to think critically about who they elect and why. But without that formation in critical thinking, that really is too much to ask of the average person.
So a classical liberal arts education is the kind thing that produces an individual who is able to know how to think rather than what to think. They can examine a claim, run it through a critical examination, and judge it for it’s validity far better than someone who has no exposure to that intellectual tradition.
But there’s also an apparent drawback with this kind of formation. It means they have to be well versed in a wide spectrum which is great for the individual student. It will promote their flourishing, but I’d argue that it can’t produce the kind of material prosperity we’ve come to enjoy in the modern world.
And that’s a tough thing to admit and something I had a difficult time reconciling because you have to admit that as modern education became the norm, humanity, more and more, began to access levels of technological advancement and material prosperity that had previously alluded us.
And the reason for that, I think, is because modern education is designed to turn a human into a specialized worker. It first builds our stamina to withstand a near full time work schedule, even though there’s nowhere near that amount of time needed to cover the lessons.
It teaches us to be compliant with authority both through social experience but also in the process of telling us what to think and then rewarding us with grades depending on how accurately we recite that knowledge back.
It’s also a one size fits all model. There is very little room for individuality or creativity. The vast majority of tests I took were multiple choice. There’s only one right answer there. There’s no room for ingenuity there.
And it’s all designed to propel us forward into post secondary where we learn to specialize in some field and we become so narrowly specialized in it, that we barely have any room in our minds or our lives for exposure to anything else. And this is what produces such a technologically advanced and materially prosperous society.
A society in which each person performs one role to a degree that could not be achieved if they had a more well rounded education is one that will wield more powers than a society in which everyone is given broad exposure to available academic disciplines.
Think about a society in which their engineers had their education refined to the point where engineering was all they knew. They didn’t study poetry, or philosophy, or psychology, just engineering. Well, they’re going to be able to do far more as engineers than they would have if they had studied all those other disciplines. Now multiply that principle by every available trade and you have a hive of people who are able to reach new heights in every discipline.
But the individual suffers for it. The individual becomes trapped in that one vocation and not just as a career but as a thinking person. I’ve met so many people that are incredibly exceptional at their jobs but if you try to talk to them about something else like art, music, literature, politics, or philosophy, they might as well still be in grade school.
I remember once talking to a medical doctor who admitted she thought eugenics was a good thing because she had no exposure to ethics or logic. She was utterly unequipped to think critically about why sterilizing people who you think are unworthy of breeding is a bad thing. And for a point of reference, that’s of the many horrific policies that Nazi Germany perfected in their short rule.
The liberal arts, represented today by home schoolers can offer, can produce a society of free people who flourish in their humanity - who are most likely to achieve what Aristotle called eudaimonia or true happiness.
Modern education, represented by public school curriculum, produces economically sophisticated workers. It creates an incredibly honed means to an end, the end being greater material prosperity for the 80 or so years we’re alive, if we’re lucky.
That’s the trade off. And as a closing remark, while I do concede that we have achieved greater material welfare than our ancestors ever could have imagined, I think they’d also be shocked by how relentlessly depressed and anxious we are in spite of it and I think a big part of that is because of the ways we’ve neglected our focus on the ways that the mind can grow in its understanding of what makes a human a human and what contributes most to the purpose, freedom, and enduring happiness of that human.