A Priceless Opportunity

By Carolyn Forte


Take a close look at our school system.  All students are required to take the same course of study with only minor variations allowed.  Little time is provided for exploration outside the defined curriculum and conformity to the prescribed diet of texts and reading lists is rigidly mandated.  Does this look like a system organized to produce a vast variety of trades and professions?    Where can the overscheduled student find time to explore and discover his passion in life?

There was a time in our history when schools offered little more than the three R’s.  It was generally understood that once one acquired the ability to read, write and cipher, there was little one could not learn on one’s own or with a mentor.  Those who sought more formal education entered college as young as fourteen.  Everyone else started a business or found employment, often as an apprentice, in order to learn a trade.  The goal was financial independence and self-sufficiency.  Enter the industrial revolution.  Workers were needed to man the factories and independent, free-thinking, self-sufficient people turned out to be terrible factory workers.  The captains of industry soon realized that in order to have a reliable workforce, children must be trained from an early age to do “boring repetitive tasks for long periods of time” (Toeffler: The Third Wave).  Thus was born the modern factory school, soon to be followed by the invention of high school.  School attendance was made mandatory and the age range of forced attendance eventually expanded to the twelve years mandated today.

Gradually, largely through the efforts of the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, the curriculum was standardized across America.  Someone decided that all students, regardless of interest or aptitude must study algebra, geometry, chemistry, biology, world literature, etc.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these, but why do we insist on forcing all children through exactly the same “education” process?  There are many very worthy areas of study that could comprise the curriculum instead of these.  If you stop to think about it, the standard high school course of study contains very little that is of practical use in life.  When in the chemistry class, do students learn to apply that discipline to household tasks like cleaning and cooking?  Every year, hundreds of former chemistry students accidentally injure, poison and even kill themselves with household chemicals because they can’t apply the chemistry they learned.  We insist that students learn advanced algebra, which face it, has very little application in most of our lives but when do they learn how to avoid getting ripped off by a consumer, car or home loan?  Isn’t money management of far greater importance to the average person than valences and molecular bonding?

In the early years of the modern homeschool movement, a family that had been homeschooling for 22 years came to speak in Los Angeles.  They were true pioneers, having begun homeschooling in the 1960’s!  After their first two sons obtained advanced degrees they realized that college was a great waste of time and money and decided instead to help their third son start a business.  These people taught their children using little more than used books and common sense.  They didn’t have the benefit of homeschool groups and classes, conventions and curriculum fairs or the World Wide Web.  They rejected a system that had failed their first son by the time he was in second grade and they knew better than to copy it.

Too many parents today are still locked in the box of “school.”  Instead of studying what has worked for thousands of successful homeschool families, the first thing they do is buy a curriculum.  Then they worry, wring their hands and generally react with shock and horror when the children balk, resist, avoid or just plain “fail.”  I put failure in quotes because all too often, failure is in the eye of the beholder.  Both Einstein and Edison “failed” in school and proceeded to succeed spectacularly in life.  Research the lives of successful people and you will find that very often they had less formal schooling, not more.  School as we know it prepares people for a very narrow band of professions.  Everything else must be learned on the job because it isn’t taught in school.

Ah, but doesn’t the prescribed school curriculum teach discipline, perseverance and goal setting?  Yes, and so does any worthwhile endeavor from learning a musical instrument to building a tree fort.  Don’t ever confuse the skill set with the character trait.  Parents have insisted that memorizing certain facts or finishing a workbook is important for character development and learning to do unpleasant but necessary tasks.  Actually, sweeping the floor and doing the dishes will develop those same traits.  Building character is not a good enough reason to crank through 1000 pages of busy work.  Without practical meaning there is little learning and less retention.  Parents and children are merely running on a treadmill designed by some ivory tower bound utopian and going nowhere.

Most of us acknowledge that God made everyone different, but we have been deluded into thinking that every child should learn the same thing at the same age in roughly the same way.  Why?  Would those of you who enjoy gardening like some bureaucrat who hasn’t seen a dirt patch in 30 years telling you which vegetables you can grow and dictating a rigid planting schedule for all areas of the U.S.?  The result would be a disaster just as the result of “standardized” schooling has been a disaster.

Don’t assume that the people who write textbooks know what they are doing.  If you really think so, explain how students in 1850 knew more after four to eight years than their descendants know today after 12-16 years!   Just check out Ray’s Arithmetic or McGuffey’s Fourth Reader.  “But,” you say, “I use a highly rated Christian curriculum which is very advanced academically.”  Really?  Where do you suppose the Christian publisher got the scope and sequence it uses to decide what to teach your children and when to present it.  If you said, “state and federal standards,” you just made my point.  No matter how many biblical references and character stories they sprinkled in, you are still plowing through a “one-size-fits-all” program, which may not fit your child’s learning style and developmental schedule.  Modern curriculum materials were not created to educate and develop whole human beings.  They were designed to force everyone into the same dull, compliant mold, composed of a minimum of thinking skills, very limited literacy; and stunted reasoning abilities.  Moreover, as in the public school curriculum they model, the Christian publisher has taken four to six years-worth of skills and stretched them to cover 13 years!

“Why,” you ask, “would a good Christian publisher follow a flawed secular format?”  The answer lies with the standardized tests that most schools use.  It is not necessary to mandate a uniform national curriculum when a universally used test format is in place.  That test drives all curriculum programs.  The Christian curriculum writers are not willing to stand up and say that the national standards are wrong, even if, after so many generations, they realize it.

“If I don’t use a curriculum, how will I know that my child is learning what he needs to know?” is a common question.  Think about it.  How much of the trivia you memorized in school can you remember today?  Was memorizing that set of trivia useful or a waste of time?  Your child needs skills such as reading, writing and calculating.  It takes only a fraction of a “school day” to learn these things at home.  These skills take up so much more time at school because there is only one teacher and many students on different levels of development and understanding.  Publishers put lots of “busy work” into the texts to take up the time of those who got it quickly and would be able to go on if the teacher had time to help them.  Once your child has mastered the basic skills of reading, writing and math, the next step consists of using them in more and more complex applications.  There is relatively little to memorize if you focus on understanding.

Another element that causes school to take so many years is that it is started way too early.  As clearly exhibited by Raymond and Dorothy Moore in School Can Wait (and the more parent friendly Better Late Than Early), all replicable research in early childhood development clearly shows that children are not developmentally ready for formal academics before the age of eight or ten.  More recently in Endangered Minds, Dr. Jane Healy exposed the intellectual damage that is done by forcing children into tasks for which they are not developmentally ready.

It is important to distinguish skills like reading, penmanship, math and grammar from memorized bits of historical, literary or scientific trivia.  There are trillions (at least) of separate facts that a student could be required to learn.  Who decides which facts are important at age seven or at fourteen?  These decisions are entirely arbitrary and of little relative import.  Does it really matter when you learn about your state’s history or how atmospheric pressure works?  Most people who are honest, will admit that most of the bits they shoved into their memory banks in school have long been deleted.  At best those bits provided an introduction to the subject, which could later be studied in depth if one had the time or inclination.  However, very little is ever studied in depth in school.  History and geography are rushed over at breakneck speed.  Eternal principles and truths are rarely taught let alone applied to the study of history, economics, science and literature.  There is no time (and seldom interest) for intense study after answering predigested questions and writing prescribed five paragraph essays.  The relentless treadmill of the modern curriculum insures that thorough understanding and careful reflection is next to impossible.

Allowing time to read, listen, discuss, investigate, question and reflect in a relaxed manner can yield unexpected results.  We were somewhat apprehensive when, at seventeen, our unschooled older daughter entered college.  She had never experienced a classroom except at Sunday School.  Like so many “not burned out” homeschoolers, she entered the college classroom with excitement and enthusiasm.  She was puzzled and dismayed by some of the students around her who disrupted the classes or failed to do their homework.  In her sophomore year, I asked her what advantage she felt she had as a homeschooler.  She replied, “I have the ability to teach myself.”  Her background of independent learning was a great asset.  This skill is eminently required in college, but many of her schooled classmates lacked it.  When confronted with a less talented teacher, my daughter simply taught herself (and occasionally some of her classmates).  She went on to take a bachelor’s degree in Aviation Technology/Missionary Aviation and became a flight instructor after graduation.

Students who get A’s may be bright, but they are also those who have learned the game of schooling well.  We know, as illustrated by luminaries like Einstein and Edison, that very often the C, D or F student is even smarter.  A mother once asked me to help develop curriculum for her son who had failed every subject in 7th grade.  It turned out that he had mastered Calculus and was just too intellectually advanced to tolerate the school program.  Education as we know it does not always foster understanding, let alone wisdom.  We tend to be in awe of those who can retain and regurgitate vast amounts of trivia on command – the skill most valued in school today.  That ability does not, however, guarantee any degree of useful applicability, let alone the capacity to use the information wisely and appropriately.  Real complete learning implies fluency – an understanding so deep that one could explain and teach it to someone else.  No standardized test can assess fluency, so no one should be overly impressed with test scores.

It has been said that A students teach and B students work for C students.  The more I look at the world, the more truth I see in that statement.  How many MBA’s do you suppose that high school dropouts Ray Kroc and Carl Karcher have employed?  So, what should we do if we don’t follow state standards or use graded textbooks? The answer depends on your unique child.  What God-given talents and interests need to be encouraged and cultivated?  How does he or she learn best?  What lights a fire of interest outside the quicksand of computer games?

All children need to learn certain skills including reading, writing and arithmetic, but those skills take relatively little time to develop – certainly not four to six hours a day for twelve years!  Dr. Raymond Moore, educator and education researcher, once stated that two and one half years of concerted study was sufficient to prepare a student for college.  I know this is true from the experience of our younger daughter.

So, what do you do instead of all those workbooks and texts?  You read real books:  biographies, historical novels, science books, books about numbers, classic literature from ancient to modern, and adventure books both fiction and non-fiction.  Forget answering the questions at the end of the chapter or in the dreaded “study guide.”  They only tell you what to think.  Allow your child to ask his own questions.  Discuss the ideas presented in these books.  Give him room to think, ponder and absorb.  Allow him to pursue his passion.  This sometimes means getting out of the way and letting him learn what he wants/needs to learn for as long as it takes to satisfy his interest.  Sometimes, lots of patience and perceptiveness is required on the part of parents.  Our younger daughter hated “school work” but loved sports.  At thirteen, she took up karate and it quickly became her passion.  For two years she spent five to six hours a day, five days a week at the dojo.  She read very little outside of karate magazines and, except for algebra, did almost nothing that looked like standard high school work.  She filled the remainder of her time with art, music, drama, church group, AWANA and her own home businesses.  She earned a black belt in two and a half years and then insisted that she wanted to go to high school for 11th and 12th grades!  Ultimately, she earned a bachelor’s degree with a major in Theology.

Encourage real, hands-on skills and talents:  music, dance, woodworking, building, art, sewing, cooking, pets, horsemanship, gardening, lapidary, surfing, hiking, etc.  Take field trips, explore the world, ask questions and find answers.  Slow down, play games, do puzzles, allow time to ponder.  Learn a musical instrument – or several.  Create businesses and learn to manage money.  Enter contests and fairs, join clubs and choirs, volunteer, watch concerts and air shows and sports events.  Much of the above is available free or for a cost much lower than that curriculum of boring, mind numbing textbooks.  You can often volunteer or trade services for lessons or mentoring.

If you start to think about the skills and knowledge needed to do many of the above activities well, you will realize how much math, English, science, history, geography and fine arts is included.  Nothing (with the possible exception of school work) is disconnected from the rest of life.  You can’t have a home business without math.  Gardening includes botany, astronomy, geometry, earth science, health, entomology and more.

Homeschooling is a priceless opportunity; make the most of it!

©Excellence In Education 2017