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 my essay 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.

On an academic level, homeschooling was a huge success.  I was reading at a very young age and by the time I went to school with the Department of Defense, I'd gotten so far ahead that I was getting high on all kinds of things and still doing better than everyone else.  The funny thing to me was that, all the time I was homeschooled, I always had the feeling that I was behind because I got B's.  What nobody had the decency to tell me was (first of all) that my courses were lots harder than everyone else's, and that a B is supposed to be in the 80's and not in the 90's.  It turns out I was always a good student.  I was only graded on a difficult curriculum by a difficult teacher.  As it should be.

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 just academics.  Some people expect me to say at this point that socialization is a key factor in a child's development.  These people are wrong.  Not because socialization isn't important, but because I think people learn many more important lessons from their parents than from other 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 weirdos was much higher. So family traits had their effect, and bad reputations die hard.

But I say that academics and "socialization" aren't everything, because I have turned out to be a pretty good talker despite the isolation.  My own personal problem was that I had bad character.  Neither of my parents have bad character, and both of them are morally solid despite their wild siblings and parents.  But by the end of tenth grade my parents could tell something was wrong with me; something that developed into something much worse when I left home.  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 forget is that gluttony is in its own 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 teaching myself to be lazy.  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.  

My parents were worried for me by the end of tenth grade, mostly 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 really excited, which is women.  When I lost the weight very quickly due to a sudden taste for ecstasy and cocaine, I doubled the pace I lost it with my first act of willpower: to develop a couple of very handy eating disorders.  Beating gluttony might have been a good sign if it hadn't 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 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 Seneca 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 unnecessary, and 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 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'll 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. 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.


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