Three Book Reviews

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto
Child’s Work: Taking Children’s Choices Seriously by Nancy Wallace
The Unprocessed Child by Valerie Fitzenreiter

All of these books pertain to homeschooling, and I ordered them all because we’ve become convinced that we can do Robin a lot of good by delaying his entry into the school system.

It’s well known in educational circles that children held back from entering kindergarten do better, when they do start school, than their younger classmates. They’re more ready for the work, it comes easier to them, and so they learn to think of themselves as smart and “good at school.” This early confidence seems to give them a boost throughout their academic careers:

After crunching the math and science test scores for nearly a quarter-million students across 19 countries, [Kelly] Bedard [a labor economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara] found that relatively younger students perform 4 to 12 percentiles less well in third and fourth grade and 2 to 9 percentiles worse in seventh and eighth; and, as she notes, ‘by eighth grade it’s fairly safe to say we’re looking at long-term effects.’ In British Columbia, she found that the relatively oldest students are about 10 percent more likely to be ‘university bound’ than the relatively youngest ones. In the United States, she found that the relatively oldest students are 7.7 percent more likely to take the SAT or ACT, and are 11.6 percent more likely to enroll in four-year colleges or universities.

The practice is known as “academic redshirting,” and it focuses on the benefits of relative age—it’s about trying to rig things so that your kid is older than his classmates. But absolute age (the number of days a child has been alive before entering school) has a beneficial effect as well, so long as the home environment is stable and nurturing. This is why Finnish children don’t even start school until age 7, and even then the first few years are mostly set aside for play.

Once I started thinking about keeping Robin home for a few years, I began reading up on homeschooling, and quickly ran across the intriguing concept of “unschooling.” It was unschooling that I really wanted to read more about, but I kept finding references to Gatto’s books on unschooling sites, so I ordered that one too.

John Taylor Gatto was a schoolteacher who was on three occasions named New York City Teacher of the Year. He became, however, deeply disillusioned with what he calls “the factory school system.” Dumbing Us Down is a collection of his essays blasting the compulsory schooling system—including the withering indictment of school that he delivered as one of his acceptance speeches for the Teacher of the Year award. The book is basically a polemic, light on statistics or developmental research, but worth reading for the insider’s perspective it offers into the educational system.

There are a few points he makes that seem very basic in hindsight, but that I had never really thought about before. One is that the structure of the school day, with its bells and its inflexible routine, is essentially teaching children that their studies do not matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of a sentence in a story you’re reading: if the bell rings, then it’s time to put away your English book and open your math book. The real, unspoken lesson is that following the schedule is more important than satisfying any genuine curiosity or thirst for knowledge.

The other great lesson of schooling is submission to authority. Children have no say in determining their own curricula. They must raise their hand and be called on before they are permitted to speak, or to go to the toilet. They cannot announce that they are ready for a change in their environment, that today they would like to learn about dinosaurs, or to go to the zoo. They are forced to be passive receivers of information rather than active scholars seeking out knowledge. They are taught every moment of every school day that their lives are absolutely controlled by a higher authority. They are denied all autonomy.

And this is crazy, because there is nothing children want to do more than to learn, and to seek out experiences for themselves. You have to really, really get in a kid’s way before you can stifle that thirst for knowledge. “Why? Why? Why? Why?” is the constant refrain of childhood.

And this leads us to unschooling. Unschooling is basically homeschooling without a set curriculum. It’s about letting the kids follow their own interests. The idea is that they want to learn to read, they want to learn about the world, they want the math skills to handle money and so forth: all you have to do as a teacher is show them how to teach themselves, and they will.

I’ll say up front that I think unschooling is really interesting but I’m not totally sold on the concept. Since both my parents are professors, I have too much respect for the academic endeavor to believe that formal frameworks of knowledge are wholly unnecessary. But I wanted to read more about the experiences of parents who had done unschooling.

Child’s Work is a deeply personal account of a mom who was basically forced into homeschooling by the unique needs of her son, a musical prodigy. Ishmael was “a smart kid” but one with decidedly lopsided aptitudes, and such an idiosyncratic way of learning that he simply could not adapt to the classroom and the workbooks. Nancy Wallace decided that the school’s inflexible approach was doing her son great harm. For instance, Ishmael could read when he entered school, but the teachers wanted to force him to learn all over again using the “right” (a phonetic) method. Wallace quotes from a school report suggesting that Ishmael be held back:

Ishmael seems more comfortable at a third grade reading level; he still makes some mistakes in phonics and vocabulary skills. Testing should be continued before considering a higher level. The testing should be only for reading skills, as I already know that he can read adult materials.

This is clearly insane. A child who can read adult materials should spend his time reading, reading whatever he wants to read, not working with phonemes and flashcards and endless tests and watered-down Dick-and-Jane-type books just so the adults in his life can be satisfied that he is reading in the authority-approved way.

Taking Ishmael out of school was obviously the right thing to do, and he thrived at home, as did his little sister Vita—the Wallaces had such a traumatic experience attempting to put Ishmael in school that they never even tried it with Vita. I suspect Vita would have had much less difficulty than Ishmael, but then she never would have developed her “doll work”—and it is extremely touching to read about how seriously her older brother Ishmael regarded Vita’s dolls, helping her to develop the intricate social customs and succession struggles and even the wars that apparently plagued the doll kingdoms. It’s Wallace’s argument that none of this constitutes “mere play.” It was their work, and she took it as seriously as she took their music lessons and their essays.

Nancy Wallace is very honest about the challenges of unschooling. She fretted about how her children would learn algebra without being forced to study it. She fretted about socialization.

Vita and Ishmael did eventually develop an interest in mathematics on their own, but skeptics would find some ammunition in Wallace’s frank answer to the socialization question. Vita and Ishmael were so different from their agemates that they did not, by and large, enjoy playing with the neighborhood kids. They developed strong friendships with other adults, and with a few other homeschooled children, but they probably came off as weird, precocious kids. Nancy Wallace’s assertion is simply that that’s not so bad. They weren’t perfectly “normal,” but they were happy, confident, smart, talented kids and they were quite comfortable in adult society, if not very comfortable in kid society. So they were badly socialized from one perspective, but very well socialized from another. I would be curious to know if Vita or Ishmael themselves, now that they are grown, perceive this as a loss.

One of the things I like about Child’s Work, in retrospect, is that it is not really a book about unschooling. It is a book about raising Vita and Ishmael. Their needs and aptitudes were so specific that very few of the Wallace family’s experiences are likely to be replicated in any other homeschooled family. The only “lesson” Nancy Wallace really has to impart is the basic one about giving children freedom to pursue their own interests.

The same, sadly, is not true of Valerie Fitzenreiter’s The Unprocessed Child. One good thing about this book is that Valerie’s daughter Laurie is grown now, with her own blog, so it’s possible to see “how she turned out.” She turned out, by all indications, really well. Valerie Fiztenreiter did a good job raising Laurie. What Valerie doesn’t seem to realize, though, is that what worked for Laurie might not work for all kids.

Valerie is a pretty radical even for an unschooler. Where Nancy Wallace talks about the active role she played in her children’s education, despite the absence of lesson plans—”I cannot simply back away from Vita and Ishmael,” she writes, “I have to let them know that I am still with them, ready to respond in any capacity that might be useful”—Valerie Fitzenreiter advocates more disengagement:

It’s so difficult at times to remain silent when you see her doing something that she will have to redo later but if you remain steadfast and allow her to make the ‘mistake’ she will learn from it and try something different next time…I found that when Laurie was trying to figure out the answer to a question but did not specifically ask me, then it was best to keep quiet.

Valerie, furthermore, does not believe that children should have bedtimes (“the dreaded forced bedtime was another reminder that I was not in charge of my own life”), be expected to do chores (“Why should the child have any of the responsibility of taking care of the mundane chores required? The child will become an adult soon enough and be taking care of her own place”), be disciplined for sassing back (“Sometimes Laurie ‘talked back’ to me in anger. I took this as a sign that I was not listening and would make an effort to tune in to what she was saying”), or in fact be disciplined at all (“Discipline is scarcely disguised control…There were no threats, no spankings, no withholding of favors if she did not do something she had been asked to do.”)

All of this seems to have worked fine for Valerie and Laurie. I found the book’s tone, however, to be gratingly arrogant and presumptive. It honestly seems never to have occurred to Valerie Fitzereiter that different children may require different levels of structure and discipline. Her book is filled with anecdotes about other parents, which she oddly refers to as her “friends,” although the point of the anecdote is always to criticize the other parent’s skills while bragging about the success of her own methods. She never hesitates to make sweeping pronouncements about The One Right Way to Raise a Child, and she is very quick to condemn all other parenting techniques as abusive.

It is, for example, abusive to potty train a young child. It is abusive to refer to a child’s behavior as “bad.” It is “outrageous” to ask children to remove their shoes before entering the house, and in fact on this issue Valerie is as didactic as she is on every other one:

Maybe having a clean floor is of the utmost importance to you? You have to ask yourself if it is more significant than the emotional well being of your children and the overall harmony of your household. Constant nagging about the floor creates tension in you and in everyone else. If you cannot let go of your aversion to a less than perfectly clean floor then it would be better for you to be ever ready with a mop as opposed to making everyone else miserable with perpetual carping.

There are many more passages in The Unprocessed Child that equal the one above for condescension and judgmentalism. For someone who so stridently defended her own right to raise her child the way she saw fit, Valerie Fitzenreiter is awfully unwilling to extend the same courtesy to others.

For myself, I am still reading and thinking about educational strategies. Right now, I expect we’ll keep Robin at home for at least the first few years of grade school, and I’d like to try and capture some of the benefits of unschooling, but I also want to provide some kind of overarching intellectual framework in which his own interests and discoveries can be contextualized. So I imagine conducting formal lessons for a couple of hours a day, and allowing him to set the agenda for the rest of the day (with me present and engaged to provide help and guidance). My evolving thoughts on pedagogy, socialization, and homeschooling will definitely require another post.

5 Responses to “Three Book Reviews”

  • Nina Says:

    Oh wow. Thank you, that was super interesting.

    I’ll send you Summerhill tomorrow. *ties string around finger to remember*

    It looks to me like Vita and Ishmael turned out <a href=”” very nicely. Their relationship with each other is certainly to be envied.

    also, they grew up in Ithaca!

  • Nina Says:

    Ooops, messed up the HTML. Sorry.

  • shannon Says:

    Oh thank you! I knew I should have googled them, I just forgot about it before writing this post.

  • Dawn Says:

    This is really interesting. There’s loads I want to say about all this, but as I’m about to start work I’ll try and keep it brief now (and maybe come back later).

    There are a few points he makes that seem very basic in hindsight … teaching children that their studies do not matter.

    I think this is a little simplistic. Were it really teaching them that, then they’d spend one lesson learning things and the next being told that the previous lesson was rubbish. I don’t have a simple answer to what I think this teaches, but I think some of the lesson must be that there are conflicting priorities and different people prize different things.

    Incidentally, it didn’t work like that in my school (I only went to the one secondary school so I don’t know if this was an English thing). In my school the teacher did get to finish off and had more authority than the bell and we were sometimes late to other classes.

    The other great lesson of schooling is submission to authority.

    Indeed. However this is a really important lesson (as is, learning that sometimes authority is abstract and self-interested and wrong). Because when they leave school, they’re going to have to deal with authorities who are not particularly interested in them and it’s a good idea for this to not be a complete shocker. (Although there are also many lessons they need about when to challenge authority and so on).

    The different books all seem to be about ensuring that the kids have good, interesting childhoods and enjoy study. However (sticking this in quick before I vanish), this does have its problems. My sister-in-law greatly enjoyed some aspects of her academic training; specifically art and music. Now, she’s got a fairly complex life and I’m simplifying horribly, but by sticking to the academic bits she enjoyed and not having to knuckle down to dull stuff (and possibly authority) has somewhat affected her adult life. Why? Because she simply can’t find a job she’s interested in and wants to do (she’s currently in her late 20s). This is a big issue for her. I, on the other hand, went through all of the dull academic stuff (plus all the lessons about needing to be self-sufficient) and I think it was a factor in gladly accepting a working-in-the-office job at the end. Now, admittedly, my current job is more interesting than most, but that is because I followed the civil service fast stream path which involved having a good sense of normal authority stuff / routine stuff and making it work for me.

    (Must go).

  • shannon Says:

    “Because when they leave
    school, they’re going to have to deal with authorities who are not particularly
    interested in them and it’s a good idea for this to not be a complete shocker.”

    That’s a reasonable point and one that most homeschoolers address by having their children attend various “extracurricular” classes, like music lessons and swimming and sports and so forth, so that they can get used to interacting with authority figures who aren’t their parents (and so that they can spend time in the company of other children).

    I do think, though, that an office worker has vastly more personal autonomy than a child in school. I’ve never worked in an office where I had to raise my hand and be called on before I could speak, or where I needed somebody’s permission before I could go to the bathroom. I think those measures have to do with keeping large numbers of children “in line”–that is, classroom management–but they become unnecessary with smaller classroom sizes, and certainly unnecessary when the child is being directly tutored.

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