Alexa, Homeschool the Children

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Since mid-March, journalists across the country have been announcing that we have suddenly become a nation of homeschoolers. “The coronavirus has turned caregivers around the world into homeschoolers,” declares CNN. Media outlets from USA Today to the Washington Post have been posting homeschooling tips for disoriented parents and even more disoriented kids: read aloud with your children, bake cookies together, make clay sculptures, disassemble a car engine.

But from the outset, these so-called homeschoolers have been a stressed-out mess. I’ll admit it. At first, I felt somewhat vindicated by all of the “mommy-needs-a-cocktail” memes circulating in the wake of the pandemic lockdown. As a homeschooling mother for nearly two decades, I thought: finally, the rest of America gets it. Finally, they will experience first-hand the challenges and frustrations (and, presumably, the joys) of teaching one’s children at home.

But are they really homeschooling? As I saw the memes and read the articles, I quickly saw that my long experience as a home educator and the new reality these parents were facing were not even remotely similar. I also realized that the overwhelmed mommy memes were not simply the humorous escape valve that all of us who teach our children at home enjoy once in a while. Instead, they expressed the deep and understandable frustration of parents who were suddenly thrust into an untenable situation. Most importantly, I recognized the incredible danger in mislabeling the public education project most Americans have been forced to undertake at home as “homeschooling”.

For the past two months, the vast majority of Americans have not been homeschooling. They are not serving as the primary educators of their children, but as rather unglamorous administrative assistants, trying to manage a dizzying array of google classroom assignments, zoom meetings, and online assignments for their even more frustrated and increasingly disengaged children—all while attempting to prove their ability to work from home under the threat of being laid off or furloughed.

 

“I wanted to get into a fetal position and hide out.”

This was the response of one mother—who holds a doctorate in wildlife biology—only a couple of days into supervising her boys’ classes and assignments at home. Another mother admitted, “I feel exhausted and frayed by this new expectation that I add homeschooling to the already overwhelming demands of parenting and working.” (Yes, you read that correctly: she admits that the demands of parenting and working are in themselves too overwhelming.) And Time magazine profiled one frazzled mother who confessed to being a failure: “I just can’t do this.”

But the reality is that the “this” she describes bears no resemblance to homeschooling as my children and the other 1.7 million homeschooled children experience it. Here’s how Time describes her situation:

Her fourth-grade son had six English assignments all due at the end of the day. Her second-grade daughter had to build a table that would support a dictionary using only printer paper, cardboard and duct tape. She could barely keep track of their assignments, four different school email accounts, 12 Google livestreams, and her own worries as she transitioned to a new job while working from home.

The relentless pageant of stressed-out parents—almost always mothers—the media has paraded in front of the public eye over the past several weeks reminds me of a piece written in the Onion over a decade ago. In this parody, the author reports on the number of moms and dads who are opting to “school-home” their children—that is, have the schools actually care for their children—because these parents suddenly realize that the schools will do a better job of raising them:

Deputy Education Secretary Anthony W. Miller said that many parents who school-home find U.S. households to be frightening, overwhelming environments for their children, and feel that they are just not conducive to producing well-rounded members of society. Thousands of mothers and fathers polled in the study also believe that those running American homes cannot be trusted to keep their kids safe.

What was viewed as obvious satire only a decade ago reads distressingly like today’s reality. Certainly, many educational bureaucrats and social engineers are seizing upon this crisis situation to advance their longstanding agenda of further removing children from any vestige of a home life. And parents, I fear, will be all too eager to accommodate them. Dozens of articles about the “summer slide”—in which children apparently get stultifyingly dumb if left for a few weeks to play at the beach, ride bikes with their friends, or stare at clouds—have appeared in recent days, along with hysterical predictions about how the current situation will radically deepen children’s stupidity. One doesn’t need to be a clairvoyant or rocket scientist to predict that all the postponed standardized tests which will greet returning schoolchildren in the fall will only confirm the “slide,” and intensify the demand for an extended school day and year for America’s children.

In fact, the proposals are already worse than that. In a recent article in the Washington Post, former Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman warns that the time “off” of school children are experiencing now “could erase a half a year of achievement.” The remedy for this, as Huffman proposes, could take the form of “opening schools in the middle of the summer, lengthening the school day and the school year, or potentially eliminating summer vacation for the next couple of years.”

The title of Huffman’s article? “Homeschooling during the coronavirus will set back a generation of children.”

All of this animus toward what is currently being misidentified as “homeschooling” comes precisely at a time when actual homeschooling—as John Grondelski chronicled in these pages just last week—is under very real assault. The organizer of Harvard’s now-infamous (and recently cancelled) anti-homeschooling summit declares (in an article which appeared in the most recent issue of Harvard Magazine, entitled “The Risks of Homeschooling”) that homeschooling is “dangerous” and parents who home-educate their children are “authoritarian.” She calls for an immediate “presumptive ban” on homeschooling.

After hearing about the anti-homeschooling summit, I worked with several folks at the small Catholic liberal arts college where I teach part-time to organize an alternate conference, one dedicated to combating the suspicion and misinformation about home education. This Wednesday, May 13th, we’ll have our own virtual “summit” with several well-known Catholic and Christian men and women, including Professor Robert George of Princeton and New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut (who has homeschooled all seven of his children).

While we fight the attacks on parental rights from opponents of homeschooling, and work to correct the perception that what everyone is doing right now is homeschooling, we need to acknowledge the real reasons why what is erroneously being described as “homeschooling” is doomed to failure, why all the overburdened mommy memes are not only understandable, but inevitable.

The answer is obvious, and therefore largely unspoken. We don’t need an arsenal of data and statistics (even though we have one) to tell us that for far too many American families, the home is a fractured mess. Nor do we need experts to tell us that the public education system in America—under the stranglehold of a so-called “Common Core” curriculum which neither addresses the “core” of what it means to be human nor draws upon our truly “common” intellectual inheritance—is broken.

Lacking both a healthy home life and a functional educational system, it’s no surprise that mothers are stressed, dads are checked out, and children are regressing. No number of upbeat, how-to blog posts encouraging working parents who are now stuck at home with their children 24/7 to read, bake, plant gardens or learn how to eviscerate chickens together is going to repair the near-collapse of family life and public education in our nation.

As I write this, our home education, like that of everyone else, has been altered by the pandemic, but not radically or even frustratingly so. I just finished reading aloud part of Ian Serrallier’s lyrical edition of Beowulf to my boys. They are now in a virtual session with their homeschooling cooperative Astronomy class (which would otherwise be meeting in person). The teacher has arranged a special visit from the Vatican Astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno, who is telling them what they need to do if they are interested in being astronomers. Read H.A. Rey’s The Stars: A Way to See Them, as he did when he was their age. “What you’re learning now,” he says, “is real, and true, and will stay with you the rest of your life. Being a child is great preparation for being an astronomer.”

This afternoon the 28 families of our homeschooling cooperative will assemble at the parish where we usually meet for class to have a May Crowning. We’ll stand by our cars (parked a safe two car lengths apart), sing hymns to Mary, watch as each family processes forward to lay home-picked bouquets of forsythia, hyacinth, daffodils, and tulips at the feet of the statue of the Blessed Mother, and petition her for assistance during this time of pestilence.

My youngest son is memorizing A. A. Milne’s “Spring Morning”. The poem expresses a child’s sheer delight at the very fact of existence:

Where am I going? The high rooks call:
“It’s awful fun to be born at all.”
Where am I going? The ring doves coo:
“We do have beautiful things to do.” 

Modern educators would be quick to tell us that Milne, like Robert Louis Stevenson in his Garden of Verses, presents an elitist, romanticized notion of childhood. But a child’s life at home not only can but should be “fun” and “beautiful.” Childhood should not be a time of compulsory enslavement—either to a screen or a destructive ideological agenda—but a privileged moment of ordered freedom to explore God’s marvelous creation.

We have our off days like everyone else, but this is what homeschooling looks like for us. Yet this is not, I am very sad to say, what most of America is doing right now. So call it compulsory governmental education in the home. Call it state-sponsored institutional education in the home. Call it, as Kevin Huffman does in his Washington Post piece, “a hastily-arranged mess.” But please, don’t call it homeschooling.

Image: Students meditate as a teaching virtual assistant mannequin fitted with Amazon’s “Alexa.” (AFP via Getty Images)

Amy Fahey

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Amy Fahey holds a doctorate in English and American Literature from Washington University in St. Louis and an M.Phil. in Mediaeval Literature from the University of St. Andrews. She has taught courses at Washington University and Christendom College, and over the past ten years has been a Visiting Fellow at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (Merrimack, New Hampshire).

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