Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Thursday, July 23, 2015

How to ruin your homeschooled child

Dear Hannah,

Something that's given me an almost endless source of amusement is the public's response to an essay I wrote about homeschoolers, mostly because they said I have no idea what I'm talking about.  Of course, anyone who knows me knows I do know what I'm talking about, and I know what I'm talking about because I was schooled at home -- all the way through tenth grade, when my parents realized that homeschooling wasn't good for me anymore.

Academically, homeschooling was a huge success: I was reading at a very young age and by the time I went to a school with the Department of Defense, I'd gotten so far ahead of the other students that I was getting high on all kinds of things and still doing better than they were.  The funny thing to me was that, all the time I was homeschooled, I always had the feeling that I was behind everyone else because I was always getting B's.  What nobody had the decency to tell me was (first of all) that my courses were far more difficult than what everyone else was doing, and that a B is supposed to be 80-90%, and not 90-95%.  It turns out I was always a good student; I was only graded on a difficult curriculum by a difficult taskmaster.

I realize not every homeschooler is graded this way because I've met a few homeschoolers who are idiots.  And I also (in retrospect) realize that schooling should never be graded on academics alone.  Some people might expect me to say at this point that socialization is a key factor in a child's development, but they would be mistaken.  Not because socialization isn't important, but because I think people learn many more important lessons from their parents than from children.  If a man has two weird parents he's likely to turn out a little weird, which is why so many people who attend public schools are so poorly adjusted despite their being around popular kids.  And I think most of us can agree that during the 90's, when homeschooling was still largely pursued by religious fanatics, the chances of being homeschooled by two unusual parents was much higher. So comparative isolation had its effect, and bad reputations die hard.

But I say that academics and "socialization" aren't everything, because I have turned out to be a very good conversationalist despite my isolation: my own personal problem was that I had bad character.  The interesting thing about my situation is that neither of my parents have really bad character, and both of them are morally irreproachable despite their having wild siblings and parents.  But by the end of tenth grade my parents could tell something was wrong; something that developed into something much worse when I left the house.  And this is that, while everyone focused on having me read moral lessons in textbooks -- the kind that every self-respecting and God-fearing American ought to feed their kids -- they had focused on manners and ignored the other side of it altogether, which is moral practice. 

Nobody these days really considers gluttony to be a capital crime; but what they never realize is that gluttony is in a strange way behind all the other vices.  And I was a glutton.  Nearly 300 pounds by the end of tenth grade, I was eating everything in sight whenever I got the chance and I was absolutely impossible to get off the couch.  So on the one hand, I was feeding an insatiable lust for pleasure, and on the other, I was crippling an already languid will.  This made it far more difficult, on the negative side, to keep me from saying no; and on the positive side, it never really forced me to say yes.  This is a perfect recipe for disaster -- lots of brains, no character.  It's the kind of thing that would make an evil mastermind, if only the spineless genius was capable of drafting a serious plan and sticking with it (which may be why I'm writing essays instead of books).

My parents were worried for me by the end of tenth grade -- worried because I stopped smiling despite being comfortable and well-fed.  What they didn't know was that I stopped smiling because I was kept from the one thing that makes me excited, which is women.  When I lost the weight very quickly due to a sudden and very serious taste for ecstasy and cocaine, I doubled the pace at which I lost it by my first act of willpower: to develop a couple of very handy eating disorders.  A sudden overcoming of one of life's greatest pleasures might have been a good sign had it not been for the reason I did it.  I found that I was ready to forego even food itself if losing food meant I could land a lover.  I was capable of saying no, not due to any sense of moderation or concern for my health, but out of total disregard for anything but romance.  And this is before I was sent off to California to go to college.  And although this might be another story worth telling, I'll simply say that things did not turn out well.

The central point of all of this is that now, after years of having gotten help from religion and serious philosophy and suffering itself (which is the most thorough of all teachers), I've finally gotten to the point where I feel I can control myself around anything but women.  The moral lessons I was given as a child did pay off -- by making me painfully aware that everything resulting from my stupidity was my own fault, and giving me directions to the path I could have followed but left behind.  But they were only moral lessons.  And now as I'm getting ready to homeschool my own child, I realize that the primary duty of any parent, homeschooled or otherwise, isn't to make his kid an academic genius.  It is to help a kid overcome himself.

And I'm reminded of those passages of Seneca's -- that wise, failed old man of a philosopher -- where he talked about all the things he wanted to do to make himself a free man, but never really could.  His student Nero knew he couldn't do it; and Nero mocked him relentlessly for being a "textbook teacher" right before forcing him to commit suicide.  But Seneca always dreamed about being a free man -- not free in the worldly sense, but in the spiritual one.  The kind of man who can do what he knows he ought to and not necessarily what's easier.

Seneca was a failure in a certain sense because he was a Stoic living a life of prestige and luxury, a hypocrisy which haunted him until the day he died.  And I think about the stoic lifestyle, of sleeping on hard beds and eating nasty food and going jacketless in the cold, and how everyone mocked it for being unnecessarily miserable and boring.  But what good is pleasure if you're incapable of managing it?  Who wants to live in the fear of pain and poverty and loss, when he can train himself to be ready for anything -- that he can endure anything?  These are the questions that men should not only be asking themselves, but the questions parents should be asking their children.

To develop a good will should be the purpose of education -- just as important as knowing American history or how to write.  And so we'll learn our Seneca and Montaigne and Samuel Johnson -- the men who teach us how we ought to live; and we'll learn to love the men like Benjamin Franklin who actually lived it.  But then we will learn that we're capable of actually living it too; even if it means fighting against an onslaught of comfort. We'll train our children to overcome themselves physically, so that they can learn to possess themselves soulfully.

Your father,

1 comment:

  1. When we decided to homeschool our daughter, the guiding principal we turned to was the biblical passage "train up a child in he way he should go"; however it was not because the verse was a prescription for getting kids to "obey" but upon close study of the verse we learned that the phrase "in the way he should go" is to be understood as "according to his bent" or his strengths and weaknesses. And some kids are a bit more bent than others. It requires much deeper and more personal approach with each kid, rather than touting a list of dos and don'ts and trying to get kids to be academic superstars when they are artists, or, well whatever goals will make us feel like good parents.