Letter to the Editor
Latin Mass Magazine
We Need Schools
When I shared Suzan Lloydís article "How Does She Do It?" with some home schooling friends of mine, there was a dispute among us as to whether or not it was intended as a spoof. I took the position that it was serious and would like to respond to it as such.
Mrs. Lloyd describes the home schooling mother as a "jack-of-all-trades, master of none," who has "amassed a wide array of skills while failing to achieve true expertise at any one of them." This, she says, is because "mothers need to be all things in all situations." Even assuming the picture she creates of the average mother is a realistic one, a jack-of-all-trades who fails to achieve true expertise in any given field is arguably not the ideal teacher. Good, traditional pedagogic treatises and manuals are pretty universally agreed that the ideal teacher is one who has mastered his or her subject and brings to it not only a thorough knowledge but a passionate enthusiasm with which she is able to infect her students. To take one manual at random, Fr. Felix Kirschís The Catholic Teacherís Companion puts the vocation of teacher after that of the priest. The teacher is the mid-wife of the childís emerging soul. He or she must be to the student not only a model of Christian behavior, but the students "must see the skills the teacher would develop in them, possessed by the teacher himself." To this end, the book continues, the proper training of teachers is a work to which we ought to attach great importance. "Though some by reason of certain natural gifts may excel others in the work of teaching, there is no such thing as a native endowment which, apart from all training, would fit one for the work of the classroom. A good teacher is one who has added to whatever natural personality he may have, the culture and skill that is born of serious professional preparation."
This is the ideal, and, it goes without saying that we do not live in ideal times, but rather in a culture of luxurious barbarism. The public schools are wonderfully equipped, but morally and intellectually bankrupt. The Catholic schools are factories of apostasy and drivel which are staffed by non-Catholic, lapsed-Catholic or ignorant-Catholic lay people, and operated either by covens of malicious liberal nuns or brownie troops of insipid "conservative" nuns who sing silly songs while they unwittingly peddle material heresy. So we educate our children at home and we struggle to learn how as we go along.
I love home schooling. I hate cleaning. I canít sew. Shopping depresses me. My husband was already a superb cook when we married, but if he hadnít been, he would have become one by now out of self-defense and compassion for the little ones. So I am grateful for the opportunity to fulfill my vocation as a mother in this way--a way that allows me to accompany my children in their development instead of being left behind at the nose-blowing stage. I also have it pretty easy: I have a bright third-grader, a bright kindergartner, a (so-far) extremely accommodating 6 month-old, and I have already reached the age where I am unlikely to add 5 or 6 more students to my little school. I live in New York City where supplies are easy to get, where there are more superb educational and cultural opportunities than we could ever exhaust, where my family has the regular companionship of other great home schooling families and a quick subway ride to St. Agnes, a flagship church of the traditional liturgical movement.
I have reasons to be satisfied with my curriculum. I am doing a competent job at covering the "three Rís", religion, basic science and Latin. I leave history to the expert hands of my husband. The older two children both play the violin and take French on Saturdays. They believe in God and the Church and my son is learning to serve low mass. We even have the benefit many home schooling families lack of being able to round out our weekly schedule with swimming and gymnastics at the local YMCA.
Then, too, I believe that home schooling benefits my family is ways that transcend academics. My children love each other and their new baby brother and I feel confident that they have laid the foundations of a lifetime friendship, which, together with their relationship with God, means more to me than all the rest combined.
But the fact is that even though our curriculum and "extra-curriculum" look pretty good on the quarterly reports that I have to send to the school board; even though I know I am doing to best I can, and itís better than the children would be getting at the local public school; even though I constantly remind myself that the only thing that matters in the last analysis is that I send them out into the world loyal to each other and to the Faith; even given all that, I still know that I am making the best of a lamentable situation.
My fear is that articles like Mrs. Lloydís will blunt the sense of urgency we ought to feel for the project of founding real schools, staffed by intelligence, trained, professional Catholic teachers and with a spiritual life based upon the traditional Latin liturgy. Mrs. Lloydís article and scores of others like it perpetuate a myth that giving the children a thorough, classical education is something that the little woman can absorb into her schedule, along with multiple pregnancies, child-birth, nursing infants, cooking, cleaning the house, keeping the family in clothing, caring for the sick, and sometimes even the disabled, providing for the childrenís social lives and attending to her own personal grooming. (The photograph which accompanied Mrs. Lloydís article of the trim, attractive mother with perfect hair and meticulously plucked eyebrows cleaning her oven in a chenille bathrobe was the straw that broke the camelís back for me.) This is a myth that does a disservice to the vocations of motherhood and teaching, both of which are full-time jobs in themselves.
Most of the home schooling women I speak to are enthusiastic about motherhood and even domestic work, enthusiastic about child-rearing, teaching and academics; they would love to look "put together" in the company of other adults and be able to carry on an interesting conversation--perhaps even about something other than the children, something theyíve read in a book or a newspaper. But they simply canít juggle all these balls at once and go to bed at night feeling guilty because they know theyíve failed to achieve one or several of the unrealistic goals they have set for themselves.
A friend of mine who has five children put the dilemma well recently when she explained that if she tries to implement a really complete academic program for her children, she has to do so at the expense of her own intellectual life and/or time alone with her husband. She wonders how she can expect her children to develop a love for learning if she is not reading and learning herself, which requires quiet contemplative leisure time. If she allocates time for her own intellectual life (and how many mothers of five can, even if they are not home schooling?), or conversations with her husband after the children go to bed, it is only by taking time away from preparing lessons or correcting school work. She knows she has to short change something, and the sense of constantly falling short of her own ideals takes its toll on her morale and her temper. "I am afraid," she said, "that I often present a model for the children that I would not want them to copy."
My interlocutor in the above conversation is a well-educated, urbane woman dedicated to academics and the arts, given to introspection and open to correction and advice; but the fact is that not all home schooling women are. I once spoke to a mother who said that her family doesnít "do science" because science is antithetical to Catholicism. If this is true, I hope my pediatrician is an atheist. This woman needs help in the project of educating her children.
Not of least importance is the fact that the physical plant Mrs. Lloyd describes, and the resources she evidences, are beyond the reach of many home schooling families. She suggests that we "keep a couple of rooms in the house consistently neat and uncluttered," so that "if people drop in, they think you are Wonder Woman." I have four rooms in my whole apartment, not counting the bathroom, which is usually neat and uncluttered but not adapted for entertaining. The kitchen and living room are our library, schoolroom, play area and nursery. Among the families I know with larger living spaces, there are those who simply have too many children and too much to do to keep anything consistently neat. This is not to speak of the time and the money needed to keep things in good repair. I can almost hear the guilt-ridden groans of those women as they scan the cluttered landscapes before them.
She suggests that we "hire help." I am blessed with a great practice coach for violin (the daughter of home schooling friends), but know people for whom even an occasional baby-sitter is a luxury (and after the babysitter has been paid, who can afford to go out?). Many home schooling families live in quite straightened circumstances economically; some are frankly impoverished. While most of this readership rightly deplores the idea of a household in which both mother and father work, it cannot be denied that making the counter-cultural decision to have a large family with mother at home involves at least short-term sacrifices for everyone. Mrs. Lloyd says that hers is "the story of all home schooling mothers," but the truth is that her advice applies to a very particular demographic within the home schooling population. When I was first preparing to home school, I purchased a copy of Mary Kay Clarkís Catholic Home Schooling and got a good chuckle when I read her advice to mothers to "get Dad involved" by having him build an extension on the house. My husband is a man of many talents, but building is not one of them. Even if it were, I donít think my landlady would take kindly to our constructing a school room on the fire escape.
The home schooling movement is a truly astounding counter-cultural revolution and I am grateful to be a part of it. I have a very happy life. I am filled with admiration for (and humbled by) the hundreds of home schooling parents that I know, read about, speak with or whose conversations I overhear when I attend curriculum fairs. All of these people have been forced to educate themselves about education because they know that they canít leave the job to the experts. Nevertheless, I donít think we should stop there. We need to take all this earnestness and knowledge and devote it to starting schools. This is particularly important for those of us "attached" to the traditional liturgy, who should be teaching our children the whole, authentic Catholic heritage and reciting to them the prayers of the mass like the characters in Fahrenheit 451 taught their children to memorize books--so they can pass these treasures on to future generations. The job of educating children ought not to be left entirely to the unpredictable circumstances of varying domestic situations and to the uneven capabilities and resources of even the most well-intentioned parents. Parents need support and we need options. We need schools.
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New York, New York 10014
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