Just before Labor Day weekend, on vacation at family camp, Mark and I found ourselves sharing a table with a couple, their own kids younger than most of ours, who inquired whether our kids hadn't started school yet. Here in Minnesota most schools do start after Labor Day by statute, though many districts have waivers to start earlier, so 'not yet' would have explained us; "we homeschool" is more accurate, and that's what we said.
"Must be nice to get to vacation whenever you want."
I have a few canned small-talk responses for strangers who comment about homeschooling. It's better than it used to be, now that almost everyone knows someone who does it or who gave it a shot; we are no longer (necessarily) weirdos on the fringes of society. You really never know what people are carrying around with them, though, and I have learned to take a light approach.
Yes, it is nice. It's why we do it. We can start when we want, we can finish the school year when we want, we can take vacations when we want. We can get up when we want, go to bed when we want. We can ski during the off season, when tickets and lodging are less, and travel for a whole month during the school year. We can send the kids to stay for two weeks with Grandma and Grandpa any time of the year. I get up in the morning, the kids are all still in bed, and I stand on the porch with my coffee and watch the school buses rumble by, and I am still glad every year. I never have to sit in my car waiting in a pickup line for anyone. We aren't beholden to anyone else's schedule, and I love that.
He was young, bearded, with a natural and affable laugh that carried across the room. His hat and flannel shirt and jeans could have belonged unironically to the Minnesota north-woods surroundings, or it could have been the urban hipster's autumn uniform. The communal meal had begun with two camp songs: I had noticed him singing cheerfully with his kids to "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" but when the "Johnny Appleseed Grace" began -- Oh, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord -- he'd sat down and attended to pouring juice for one of his kids.
Now he looked straight at me and grinned. "Now that's a reason for homeschooling I can respect," he said, "a selfish reason!"
I described the parent support group that I belong to, a Catholic group, and he expressed surprise that Catholics were into such a thing. In return, I was surprised that he was surprised by the existence of Catholic homeschoolers. It came out that he had experienced a fundamentalist religious background as a child, and he strongly associated homeschooling with that particular tradition. "Most of the time you run into people who are doing it for religious reasons, but I like your reason better."
"Well, we do it because it's what's best for our family. It's basically the only reason we homeschool -- I don't really have any religious reasons."
That's me speaking off the cuff, probably wanting to seem like Normal People to this friendly and likeable person who carried a certain prejudice -- other comments he made throughout the conversation made that clear -- towards religious families in general. In retrospect I thought of how I phrased that. I find that when I answer questions off the cuff I don't make the responses I would make if I had time to think and to write out what I believe I ought to have said. The question I often ask myself is, which is the honest answer? The one that comes out of my mouth without thinking, or the edited version, the one produced on the staircase steps afterward, with the benefit of careful thinking?
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In some ways I have been asking myself this question ever since my late teens.
It is widely assumed that honesty is rapidly blurted out without thinking, that the careful presentation is usually a falsehood. I think there is a bit in C. S. Lewis about that, that the true nature of a man is revealed in the instant after you accidentally step hard on his foot.
But I am not sure this applies to everybody in every context. I have, or had, a sort of self-preservation instinct, or habit, that I have noticed for a long time -- in company I don't know well, I will hear myself blathering all manner of lies about my own opinions and history. Mostly they are about completely inconsequential matters -- one real example that I remember from years ago, whether I prefer crunchy peanut butter to creamy peanut butter. I almost can't stop myself and will not notice the lie until it's out of my mouth. I was aware of the habit by the time I was in high school, but I didn't realize how often I did it until I had been dating Mark for a while -- he was the first person outside my own family who both knew me intimately and frequently accompanied me to places crowded with strangers, and he would call me out on it (later, in private).
I think I do it less now than I used to, but I am not sure. It's unconscious, and I suspect that I don't always notice myself doing it.
I am absolutely sure that it doesn't stem from a deliberate desire to mislead anyone. Sometimes I think it comes from not really having a firm conviction or opinion, and wanting to say something; afterwards I sometimes find myself unsure (crunchy or creamy?) of my own opinion, and wonder if false opinions, like false memories, can be generated by describing them. Other times I wonder if I am ashamed of my own thoughts and have to hide them.
I think it's a sort of misfiring of the mirror neurons: I am trying at a basic social-instinct level to play well with others, which doesn't come naturally to me, and my brain guesses what people will be happy to hear from me and tries to produce it. Sometimes I think it is a result of growing up moving between two households which were in many ways deeply suspicious of each other, and not feeling safe in one home to express an opinion or attitude that might be imputed to the influence of the other.
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So which is true: that I don't have any religious reasons to homeschool and it's just a lifestyle choice, or that I do homeschool "for religious reasons?" I have thought about this many times since that conversation ended, and I am on the fence -- it seems both true and not true, depending on how you look at it. The cognitive dissonance comes entirely from wondering how it looked to my interlocutor. Was I denying my faith so I would look reasonable to someone inclined to think it unreasonable? (I know I said it reflexively, so I'm not consumed by guilt here, but such a reflex isn't exactly something to be proud of.) Or is this actually a true statement, if awkwardly worded, so that I was being honest?
In retrospect, the truth is subtler than that. Reasons rooted in the existential philosophy and moral system called Catholicism lie far back in the background, and permeate my daily routine at the level of structure while not always being explicitly called upon. I think this is probably true for a great many people with diverse philosophies.
We homeschool as a lifestyle choice. And why do we choose this lifestyle? Well, we want our family's daily rhythm to be decided by us and not by institutions around us. And is that just because we prefer one to the other, or do Mark and I actually think we can do a better job if we set our own rhythm than if we teach our children to accommodate to the rhythms of the majorities around us? Well, when you get right down to it I think our rhythm is really better, at least for us -- maybe a different rhythm is best for different families, but for our family the rhythms of institutional school would be okay but this is better. And why do I think that this rhythm is better? Well, for one thing this particular rhythm keeps us all on the same schedule, keeps us together as a family, keeps the siblings together. We aren't all on different schedules of the different schools we'd be in and of Mark's workplace, but we are on the same schedule. It keeps us together more. And why is togetherness better than separateness, than individually? Well, because the family is the unit of society. We are meant to learn to be fully human as part of the family, not as individuals.
And bam, there's the existential part.
Take everything we do (at least the things we're sure and confident of, not the things that we wonder about, that maybe we aren't doing right), keep asking "why?" and you get down to the bottom of it all, the structure, and that is where "religious reasons" usually reside. In that sense, we homeschool for religious reasons. I could have said so and that would be true, coming out of my mouth. Would it have gone into the young father's brain and still been true? I don't think so. He was primed to think of "religious reasons for homeschooling" as something more plain on the surface: people protecting their children from learning about evolution or from reading the wrong books or making the wrong friends. Or maybe something additive instead of subtractive: school time spent in memorizing scripture, opening and closing the day with prayer. And he might have imagined, knowing at least that religious convictions are often strong and absolute convictions, that a religious choice to homeschool implies a condemnation of the opposite choice.
But of course, if the conviction is structural rather than superficial, it can be strong and even absolute while the superficies differ tremendously. Mark and I, in our particular environment and with our particular strengths, may begin with the notion that the family is the unit of human society -- in the company of all the other notions that together make up our understanding of the proper ends of the human person -- and derive "we should homeschool." Another Catholic couple, in their particular environment and with their particular strengths, may begin with the same fundamental understanding but derive an entirely different "should."
What good reason do I have for anything that is not at bottom shaped by my understanding of the human person, of the nature and purpose of the human person in general and of my own powers as an individual person? And what is religion but that, those understandings?
And yet, can you imagine if I were to say to the young father, for example, that I stay home and Mark works because of "religious reasons?" Would it be true for me to say that, if I knew for sure (instead of just thinking it probable) that he would immediately form a network of inaccurate assumptions about us? It isn't false, and yet it is so incomplete as to leave the listener room to fill in the blanks -- predictably -- with a very, very wrong picture of me -- and possibly a very, very wrong picture of Catholicism as a whole.
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I have gone off on a tangent here, but this post was inspired by Amy Welborn's second "quick take" from this post. I'll quote most of the relevant part below.
I finally arrived at the insight, such as it is, that a fundamental appeal of homeschooling today is as a lifestyle. This is something that people who don’t do it, and especially people who are antagonistic to homeschooling don’t understand: its great appeal as a lifestyle.
I hope readers of my blog over the last few years have picked this up from what I have written. Much of what moved me to homeschool in the first place was a dissatisfaction with the lifestyle school forces on a family. We have so little freedom in the way we lead our daily lives anyway: work limits our families, as do economic concerns. School – with its daily, weekly and yearly schedules, with its homework and projects, with its fundraisers – slams one more constraint on. As I have written over and over again, the reason we accept this is that we accept that what school gives is worth what we must give over to it. The tipping point for many of us comes when we realize that what the school gives is not worth it and what it demands is counterproductive to our children’s flourishing and our family lives and that the resources available to us, our own schools, and our childrens’ not-yet-deadened curiosity means that we can do the same thing at home just as well or even better, and have a lot more fun doing it.
So yes. I miss that lifestyle right now. I’m consciously and intentionally trying to help us be as efficient as we can in schoolwork so that outside school hours are still ours as much as possible. And the younger son and I have settled on a vision of the future which, given the assumption that he stays in school for middle school (which he doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to) which takes traditional high school completely out of the picture.
The thing about the "lifestyle" reason is that it resonates with people whose foundations are built on a wide variety of philosophies, many different from mine, but who recognize instinctively or naturally some things that I hold to be true with great conviction. If "religion" is about the nature of the human person, then many "religious" truths are accessible, observationally, to all humans -- via scientific investigation, or via introspection. I think the lifestyle argument comes from a place of truths that are accessible to everyone, including people who think of "religious" truth as something pinched and narrow, and for whom the word is an instant turnoff.
What's the conclusion? I don't know; it's fair to say that I am motivated to believe myself reasonable, to believe myself honest, and to believe that I am not so eager to appear reasonable that I will deny what I know to be true.
Flannery O'Connor famously described one of her characters in this way: "She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick." It'd have to be very quick, in my case, like before I could open my mouth.