As American parents have learned in the last two months, it doesn’t matter what we think of home-schooling, we’re all doing it, especially for those in my home, Fairfax County, Virginia, where our nationally renowned public school system delayed and then egregiously fumbled its move to virtual classes. Thankfully, there are libraries-worth of free information on the internet on home-schooling, as well as annals of advice articles from home-schooling pros. My wife and I, who have a first-grader at our parish Catholic school, are grateful for resources that complement her virtual schoolwork. The experience also reminds me of what is discomforting about Catholic parenting perspectives on grade school education—it’s excessive dogmatism.
My K-12 education experience was all public. My evangelical parents had attended Catholic elementary schools and then public high schools in the South. As far as I knew, public schools could be good or bad, but one couldn’t expect much sympathy there for Christianity or conservativism. Catholic schools, as far as I knew, were similar in quality to public schools, except there was that explicitly “Catholic” part of the pedagogy. It wasn’t until I was out of college, and working jobs as a public school teacher and a tennis instructor, that I discovered how controversial education could be, even among like-minded conservative Christians.
As a tennis instructor, I met kids receiving all manner of education: public school, Catholic school, private evangelical school, Montessori school, and home-school. My fellow instructors and I made various generalizations about these differing educational experiences, which, of course, were generalizations and could not be applied universally. Nevertheless, public school kids were typically the most cynical and rude, home-schooled kids were the most mature, Montessori kids were the most independent, and private school kids seemed the most snooty. Kids from religious backgrounds, regardless of where they were educated, were the best behaved.
In meeting so many home-schooling families, I became a big home-schooling advocate. Then I got married and had kids. By the time our eldest daughter was three, both my wife and I concluded that home-schooling would be a bad fit. She was far too independent, resistant to my wife’s instruction, and very, very eager for social interaction with kids her own age. And, indeed, that first day I dropped her off for kindergarten at Catholic school, with tears welling up in my eyes, my daughter jumped out of her car seat and didn’t even bother to say “goodbye, Dad!”
Private Catholic school has been great for my daughter—she loves all the activities, she loves the socializing, and she loves the Christian faith. But I also recognize it may not be a great fit for every Catholic kid, and perhaps not even a great fit for every kid in our family. We’ll see. Unfortunately, I have read enough Catholic education literature, and have been exposed to enough education-fanatic parents, to recognize such an opinion is itself controversial. Some parents believe that home-schooling is not just the best option, but the only option. Other parents feel the same way about Montessori education. Why do parents, especially Christian and Catholic parents, feel the need to be so rigid and doctrinaire regarding the teaching of children?
I think part of the answer has to do with the nature of Christianity itself, which exhorts us to be fanatical in our devotion to Christ, who put it bluntly when He said: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 24: 24-25). In Revelation, moreover, John cites the angel of the church of Laodicea, who warns: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” Christians, in their desire to be fully committed to Christ, then take this militant approach to everything in their life: marriage, work, leisure, and educating children.
And certainly there’s nothing wrong with being zealous about education. Yet in the same way that we zealously guard the truths of the Christian faith, and attack those heresies that threaten the Church, many approach education with a comparable aggressive dogmatism. This is especially problematic when we associate one educational methodology with what is “true,” “orthodox” Christian education. Thus home-schooling, Montessori, or parochial Catholic schools can become the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic form of education. And all other methods, whatever their merits, become evil heresies to be condemned. My wife and I have been on the receiving end of attacks by such educational purists, and it is most unpleasant.
Another part of the answer is the fact that the majority of the people making day-to-day decisions about children’s education are women raised in an assertively feminist age. These women have been encouraged to aggressively pursue professional careers. For a variety of reasons, however, they have deferred or rejected those careers in favor of a more traditional stay-at-home mom lifestyle. Yet they retain a professionalist urge that exhorts them to make everything, including their kids’ education, into a clearly-defined, highly-structured profession—with lots of career “benchmarks” to be achieved. And in the amorphous, complex realm of child pedagogy and psychology, applying such professionalism to kids can be suffocating.
Every form of education has its good and bad side. Many public schools are full of aggressive anti-Catholic ideology, but present kids with an opportunity to speak for themselves, as it did for me. Catholic schools, even when orthodox and professional, can be, in practice, public schools with some Jesus on the side. Home-schooling can alienate children from the wider world—which limits exposure to sin and lies, but can inhibit socialization and limit athletic or other extra-curricular options. Montessori classrooms, with their emphasis on cognitive development at the expense of sensorimotor development, can result in children who have serious delays in their functional fine-motor development, a problem some of them never fully overcome.
My family’s own “home-schooling” experience thus far has had its challenges, though my wife and I are grateful for the more immediate impact we get to have on our daughter’s development. For those parents facing a similar situation and wondering if covid-19 necessitates a change for the 2020–2021 school year, consider what’s most important. It’s not finding the “perfect” educational methodology. It’s helping kids to be saints. It’s helping them to love learning and reading, to develop social skills, and to mature. Our many varied saints remind us that these qualities can be inculcated in any environment. Loving each child as an individual, and determining what works best for him or her is the best way to get them to that holy finish line.
Image: Boat Race by Anders Zorn