Racism and Homeschooling
June 4, 2009 § 6 Comments
Usually I miss the hotly controversial postings about homeschooling until they are well past their expiration date, but this one I almost made it in time for. Apparently Jesse Scaccia, a teacher, has put his ‘well honed’ mind to the test and was able to come up with ten reasons that homeschooling is bad. His list boils down to: homeschool children are weird, homeschool parents are arrogant, selfish and isolationist, homes are not schools, Mr Scaccia has some sort of personal issue with homeschooling and apparently the Great Commission requires sending our impressionable offspring to schools that weren’t even in existence in the first century. I count five reasons there, but I don’t judge Mr Scaccia too harshly on his math problem; he is an English teacher not a math (or biology) teacher.
I am not overly interested in dissecting Mr Scaccia’s opinion except as it is related to the issue that homeschoolers are somehow more isolated culturally than schooled children and that this could in some way create citizens who are bigoted. To quote:
“4. Homeschooling could breed intolerance, and maybe even racism. Unless the student is being homeschooled at the MTV Real World house, there’s probably only one race/sexuality/background in the room. How can a young person learn to appreciate other cultures if he or she doesn’t live among them?
3. And don’t give me this “they still participate in activities with public school kids” garbage. Socialization in our grand multi-cultural experiment we call America is a process that takes more than an hour a day, a few times a week. Homeschooling, undoubtedly, leaves the child unprepared socially.”
Being socially isolated and culturally backwards I have no idea what MTV Real World house is, but considering it is MTV I am comfortable making a guess that more often than not it wouldn’t be a great environment in which to raise a child to be anything remotely resembling a cultured and liberal minded person. But let’s answer Mr Scaccia’s question: How can a young person learn to appreciate other cultures if he or she doesn’t live among them?
I have never lived among the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, but I do appreciate their culture. I could say the same about the Japanese or the Spartans of Ancient Greece. Other groups I have some first hand experience with: Members of the Modoc tribe of Southern Oregon and Northern California were family friends in my childhood. I have lived among African-Americans and Choctaw tribal members in the South and the next street over from Orthodox Jews in Boston and at the same time one apartment down from a family from Lebanon – the second wife was a particular friend. I have traveled in Mexico, Germany, France and Austria and brought home an appreciation of these countries’ art, music, culture and food. But none of these experiences were gained inside the walls of a traditional school — not a single one of them.
While I won’t deny that there may be some parents who homeschool their children with the hope of insulating them from other cultures and peoples 0r who, even worse, homeschool them in the hopes of indoctrinating them into a belief that their race is superior to others; such parents are the minority. They are a minuscule group defined by an ideology of fear, fear of blacks, fear of whites, fear of anyone who doesn’t agree with their world-view, but they do not represent homeschoolers at large. But, to quote Jefferson again: “It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of the father” Even if a very few wacky parents wish to teach their children thus it is not an argument against homeschooling. It is at most an argument against parents being wacko, but since that is rather impossible to avoid (public school or not) the point is moot.
But turning again to the question at hand I realize that my personal experience will most likely be met with “Yes, but that is just your personal experience, how are most parents going to manage that?” Let me answer that obvious objection by talking about my personal experience a little more in depth.
First I will admit to being very lucky in my family and by extension my education. My father is a hobbyist historian who wrote a book on the Modoc and US Calvary wars. My youth was spent camping around historic sites and listening to my father as he told us stories about the incredible bravery of the out-gunned native tribes (as well as offering us mini-lectures on the flora and fauna of the region, the geographical history of the area and even the occasional astronomy and orienteering lessons). As a natural part of growing up I learned about the diverse people who settled my Oregon home and our summer vacation destinations of Washington, California and Nevada. My mother read me stories of Russian fishermen, French fur trappers, and Spanish Missionaries. I learned the names of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, Lewis and Clark and their Native guide Sacagawea, plus I learned about the men and women of my family tree who helped build small the Southern Oregon town I called home.
Least you think I was just lucky to live in an area rich in diversity, let me put the illusion to rest. Growing up in the 70s in a small, sheltered, cattle/lumber town was about the worst place possible to absorb any significant “diversity” as we would think of it today. I well remember in third grade when the schools only Black boy and only practicing Jewish boy got in a playground scuffle — the terms nigger and kike were toss-out and everyone was shocked and crying and upset. The teacher’s lecture on tolerance was hardly needed at that point; we all knew how such words hurt and how hateful they were. I remember some hard stares and wondering at the Vietnamese refugees who were sponsored in our town by a couple of the local churches — but no overt racism. We brought sacks of donated groceries to their home, I marveled at their bird like language and the exotic smells of their cooking. There was the quiet racism, the off-color joke or the rumors of what would happen to a white person caught to out on the reservation back-roads after dark, but the jokes were always more likely to be about Irish or Poles than Blacks and the reservation stories all started with “back 20 years ago…”. It was a different world back then, one were no one had to apologize for their skin color: red, black or white. It was a place where the bigotries of the joke where shrugged off, neighbors could count on one another, kids could ride their bike all over town all summer long, and the stranger was more a potential friend then danger to be feared. At least that is how it all seemed to the little girl I was then.
My home was a surprisingly rich place to learn. Magazines, my mother “geisha girl” dolls, music, literature, art, all added to my desire to learn about other cultures and discover the special things about them. It was in National Geographic I first learned about the Maasai Tribe, when in college I was delighted to have a housemate who’s mother was Nubian adding another interesting tribe from Africa to my awareness. I had a roommate from Tunisia and another housemate from Kuwait. My family history includes Jewish lineage as well as Scottish and German. My father’s interest in our family’s heritage fueled my own and led me to study German and travel to Europe.
My mother’s interest in the US Civil War and the civil rights movement prepared me in ways for what I would experience when I lived in Mississippi and learned first hand what racism can be and what divides there still are in America — I also learned how to build bridges with my black co-workers and college classmates (it helps if you can point out your Jewish family members and abolitionist forebears — nothing quite stills the accusation of inherited bigotry better than pointing out that the only family you had in the US during slavery lost their oldest son fighting to free the slaves). For some of my black co-workers I was bit of a puzzle. It was as though I was the first person they had met who would neither apologize for racism I did not share nor look down on them for their own race.
When I was first married I lived in an apartment building on the campus of MIT with many foreign graduate students families. The openness I had to learning about their cultures was fueled the curiosity I acquired as a child in my parent’s home. I can’t remember a thing I had learned in school that gave me any insight into the cultures that were then surrounding me. In fact I had learned appallingly little in school about the cultures of Norway, Lebanon, Korea and Turkey — or any culture really.
That is not, of course, to blame the school. Teachers in public schools are, for the most part, wonderful people, but they lack two things homeschool parents have in abundance – time and community resources. With Mr Scaccia’s obvious bigotry against homeschooling parents and the name-calling he feels entitled to toss at us and our children I am finding it a wee bit difficult to be generous toward him at the moment, so let’s talk about my mom. My mom is a teacher in the PPS system. She has taught over 20 years in under-privileged minority schools and I do not exaggerate when I say that teaching consumes my mother. She IS a teacher, she defines herself by this role; it is her vocation. My mom was not the slightest bit happy with the idea that we were going to homeschool the children at first, but it took her one afternoon to change her mind. We started our first history lessons talking about ancient nomadic humans. To help my children get a real feel for these ancient peoples’ lives I took the kids to my parents’ home where my dad has a collection of Native artifacts, arrow heads, mill stones, a few beads. My mother came in while the children were looking at these things, asking questions, posing their hypotheses for what certain things might have been used for. “I wish I had time in the class to do things like this.” She told me. It was the last time she questioned the quality of education my children would receive by opting out of the public school system.
My mother wants her students to come away from her class more enriched, more informed and better prepared to live in the world than when they came in. But she has to contend with a class of 30 3rd and 4th graders, their parent’s expectations, the testing requirements and ever increasing pressure the school is under to meet these “benchmarks”. There is lunch money to collect, behavioral issues to address, and just the logistic issues of getting all these kids on task at the same time. My oldest son spent a day in her class last year on “take your kid to work day” and came away with the observation that “they have to wait around A LOT”. But in spite of the deck being stacked against her my mother still manages to bring some cultural enrichment activities into the school day. She just doesnt’ have the time and the school doesn’t have the resources to make cultural enrichment a high priority.
There is something about learning in school that just sucks the life out of anything exotic. Where are the smells of basil and curry? Where are the lilting tones of another language or music? Maybe you glimpse a foreign culture in a film-strip or an assembly? What unique cultural experience awaits the student within the walls of the classroom that can not be duplicated or improved in the home? Do not allow yourself to be fooled into thinking that just existing in a classroom with a child from Russia or Guatemala serves to immerse you in that culture. No, the child from the foreign land will likely not be slogging through 5th grade with you in 2009 like my Vietnamese “boat-person” classmate did back in the 70s. They are shuffled off to their ESL class most of the day and when they are in class with you everyone is sitting in the same desks, looking at the same book, eating the same school lunch, taking the same standardized test and swinging on the same swing set at recess. Talking and interaction, learning about each other are NOT what school is about. The classroom couldn’t withstand that kind of interaction on a regular basis — I know I sat in one for 13 years.
Now let me make a radical suggestion: I am purposing that the homeschool setting is actually more likely to expose the average child in the average community to different cultures, peoples and experiences than the school setting. I would suggest this even if it was not the parent’s intent to expose their children to different cultures, but if the parents value their children learning about different cultures in the least they can quickly and easily surpass even a good public school in this area.
Schools have one huge disadvantage when it comes to immersing a child in the diversity of real life: they remove the child from real life. Children are segregated in schools by age, by ability and often by language. On top of this children then commonly segregate themselves by neighborhood affiliation, race, creed, or special interest. One of the most surreal moments in my high school career was attending school with the daughter of one of my mother’s friends – she went to a large city school in Arkansas and when we walked into the lunch room the school’s student population (60% black) was divided. You couldn’t have divided them more if you had enforced it — whites on the left, blacks on the right… hardly any crossover at all. My understanding is that this is still common in schools with large minority populations. Even in my rather homogeneous high-school the band geeks and chess club sat at one table, the jocks at another, the cheerleaders never mixed with the glee-club and the poor students and rich students sat on opposite sides of uncrossable divides. If you want to learn about segregation between races, creeds and class go to a public high-school. I guess I would advise homeschool parents who wish to expose their children to this sort of thing to rent any John Hughes movie.
When schools do try to teach diversity it is frequently out of context or worse full of politically correct social agenda. I remember my daughter coming home from third grade heart broken one day, “mommy,” she asked sadly, “Why are white people so mean to black people?” I was floored. Where do you even start with that? Her class had been immersed in Black History month for about the last six weeks. Story after story about the horrible meanness of white people. She had learned what no child should ever learn, that something was wrong with people like her and by extension with herself because of her skin color. We were able to point out that while some people were bigots that bigotry was a product of education and environment not of her ethnicity and that our family had several friends and even relatives with a variety of racial backgrounds and skin tones. Do I trust the schools to do a great job teaching my children about the beauty and diversity of race, creed and culture? In short, the answer is no.
If you take the child out of the school and instead immerse them in real life a world of possibilities opens up. If you are a homeschooled child typical experiences allow you to interact with a variety of people. You could begin by taking violin from the Russian immigrant down the street or grocery shopping at the Asia market where the old shopkeeper has a smile for you while you put the bok choy in the shopping bag. You might go to mass at noon where you see the old woman from Mexico and her adult son who brings her every day. In the afternoon you might go to visit your great-grandmother at the nursing home and talk with the Romanian woman who runs it. Your lessons could include learning about ancient china in preparation for a big trip to the Chinese garden. After dinner you might go out and ride your bike and play with the little Vietnamese boy down the street, or maybe play with the family from Brazil who live in the big yellow house. Any or all of this could be part of my childrens’ day any day of the week. All these people exist in our community. My children see them and know them because they aren’t in a classroom sitting in the same desks, looking at the same book, eating the same school lunch, taking the same standardized test and swinging on the same swing set at recess as everyone else.
I admit that live in a very diverse neighborhood. Our local school reflects that. Last I checked there were nine discreet language groups in our neighborhood school. A great deal of the school’s resources are spent dealing with that level of diversity — at the expense of other things. You might have read the paragraph above and said “My area is not that diverse, there is no way we could get that type of exposure around here.” Which is true for a good many people, but if your neighborhood isn’t diverse your school won’t be either so any opportunity your child would have to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds is lost either way. If you are homeschooling and diversity is important to you there are still more opportunities to expose your children to different cultures than there will be in a school with a homogeneous student body. The list of enrichment activities is nearly endless and if you are homeschooling you have the freedom and time to do as much or as little of it as suits your family and your priorities.
So since my little rant was triggered by a list, let’s end with one:
How can a young person learn to appreciate other cultures if he or she doesn’t live among them?
- Read: Include the literature and poetry of different cultures and ethnic groups in your lessons. Be sure to include a selection of biographies from around the world.
- Study: Learn about political and social geography and talk about the people’s daily lives in the historical cultures you study.
- Have resources: At the very least have National Geographic or similar magazines around. Check out books about different cultures. Buy a globe.
- Get out: Go to museums, attend cultural festivals, watch parades, volunteer in community works (soup kitchen, Habitat for humanity, etc) go to ethnic markets, say hi to your neighbors, visit nursing homes.
- Eat: Cook recipes from foreign lands. Go to a variety of restaurants if you can. When you visit a different city check out the restaurants of that city’s ethnic minorities.
- Listen: to music from around the world.
- Speak: make sure your children learn a foreign language. If you can, find a tutor who is a native speaker that is even better.
- Dress up: If you can find (or if you are crafty make) costumes from different cultures.
- Create: Especially for younger children crafts connect. Make things. Paper cranes, beadwork, flags, pictures, etc. The internet is brimming with ideas.
- Respect: Respect yourself- learn about your own family history, where your forebears were from, what they did and what they valued. Respect the people who lived in your area before you came. Respect the differences in other cultures and those who make different choices.
I am sure there are more things that could be added, but I am also sure the point is made. Education will not, in and of itself, give a child a full understanding of different cultures, but it can spark and interest in the world and the diverse people we share this world with. Learning in the home is in no way an inferior setting when it comes to acquiring an appreciation for a variety of cultures, it is not more likely to result in children who are racist than your typical school. In fact homeschool children who are more connected to their communities are more likely to have a chance to learn about other cultures and interact with a variety of people from different backgrounds than children who are confined in age segregated classrooms where they interact with the same 30 children day in and day out.