The means by which a society educates its children is a question thinkers and intellectuals have raised to the forefront for thousands of years. A tremendous emphasis given to the question itself reflects the consequences of a well- and likewise poorly educated citizenry. Plato of Ancient Greece theorized that to create and to sustain the ideal state, levels of education fit to the roles of particular citizens is necessary. In America, the choice is in large part one an individual, or his or her parents, must make to serve the interests of the parties involved. The individualism in this response makes it clear that there is no one right answer to the question and that choice is a necessary component to any functional system of education. For instance, the standards applied to one student may clearly fail to apply to another student of significantly diminished abilities, and for the latter child, special attention may be required. However, there are many proposed answers to the question of the best means to educate in our society, and many of them require universalizing a single means touted as the most effective or most efficient in all cases. While not the best for all cases, home-based education does offer the best chance for the average student to succeed and thrive in a comfortable and beneficial learning environment. Other solutions to the problem of education, namely independent (or private) schools and traditional (or public) schools, do not offer the same kind of benefits as home-based education. Moreover, these alternative solutions are based on philosophically opposed assumptions and thereby forge a gulf through which home-based education passes through and asserts itself as the ideal solution.
Home-based education is superior with respect to two intellectually significant criteria. The first is educational performance, which, as identified in Henslin (2005), is demonstrably better in homeschooled children than in their peers educated in a public school system. In a testing scenario, targeting 21,000 home schooled children who had much higher proficiency on these tests than that of students in public schools, home schooled children outperformed their public school counterparts in every meaningful category of evaluation. In this study, the students highlighted scored in the 70th and 80th percentiles, which is 10 to 20 percentage points higher than when these tests were administered to public school students (Henslin, 2005, pp. 512-13). The second criterion is moral and ethical in nature: how does the education itself allow parents to instill value judgments in their children? This is particularly important for some religious parents wishing to pass along a specific belief system or value system in their children in addition to a standardized curriculum of academics. The opportunity for parents to pass along moral and ethical values is diminished when other individuals who do not share these same values are teaching the child. Religious teachings often provide lessons on behavioral changes and how to socialize appropriately, thus those devotees who would argue in favor of home schooling are justified by fewer instances of negative behavior in children that often occur in public schools (Henslin, 2005, pp. 512-13). Though this may be classified as an assumption based on the research information, in terms of linking behavioral changes with religious-minded at-home schooling, there does appear to be a solid link between ethics learning at home versus ethical programs sponsored by a public curriculum where behavior is an ever-present issue.
To the problem of education, we frequently hear of two alternatives that comprise a false dichotomy: the traditional, or public, option, and the independent, or private, option. Home-based education is quite frequently grouped in with the latter; however, this is mistaken. For one, there is no school in home-based education, as there is with a public school or a private school, even if home-based education is, by definition, independent and private. Second, home-based education is frequently seen as useful only to religious interests; nevertheless, practitioners of home-based education come from a variety of philosophies and experiences. Homeschooling represents any combination of the tools and methodologies that characterize classrooms under traditional or independent approaches.
Both of the alternate solutions to the problem of education represent a particular philosophy of education that is mutually opposed to one another. The traditional approach employs teacher-based instruction (educational perennialism) whereas its counterpart practice employs student-based instruction (educational progressivism). Accordingly, the traditional approach stresses direct instruction in a lecture format, whereas its counterpart practice stresses hands-on and group-led activities. The traditional approach sees the student as an individual growing toward his or her own self-development, whereas its counterpart practice sees the individual as socially integrated and has his or her self-development tied in with that of the group (Dewey, 1938). These different philosophies of education represent two approaches, or solutions, to the problem of education: to seek to understand the problem, and to seek to resolve the problem.
The first solution, of traditional methodologies, relies on a rigid structure of teacher and student, and is based very much on objective educational standards. The rise of alternative education came because, as (Dewey, 1938, p. 6) states, “Whatever value is possessed by the essay presented in this little volume resides in its attempt to call attention to the larger and deeper issues of Education so as to suggest their proper frame of reference.” In other words, he is commenting that the deficiencies of traditional methods are clear enough to warrant educational (and philosophical) reform. The consequences of instituting a traditional system of education on the broad scale, according to the criticisms of Dewey, are thus quite clear. For one, children in the traditional learning environment suffer from both a lack of freedom and a lack of experience. They lack the freedom to control themselves and therefore what they think. The teacher-student relationship does not resemble the democratic ideals of American society.
The consequences of a traditional education, according to Dewey, is a stifling learning environment where students are taught rote facts, are not expected to question the curriculum, and never learn the necessary skills for being active members of a democratic society. For the most part, Dewey is right on his criticisms: traditional methods, when carried out to their logical extreme, are equally devastating for society and for the individual. A philosophy of education that leads logically to traditional methodologies like those Dewey criticizes is understandable in the context of biases and assumptions that many in the Western world share, however: such as the thought that young people should learn to respect the status of older people, learn to look out for their own self-interests alone, and develop a knowledge of objectively existing facts. These are all very Western attitudes that are deeply engrained in American and European societies, but which contradict some of the democratic ideals the alternative approaches seem to emphasize.
The second solution, of alternative methodologies, proposes to fix the problems of traditional education by refocusing education on the student and active learning. However, it is not exactly clear how progressive, or alternative, education can produce a society better equipped to deal with reality. Diane Ravitch, a historian of education, recalled in an interview the example of progressive education where an educator said, “If it’s not useful, don’t teach it” (Ravitch, 2001). That dictum ties into the alternative approach’s emphasis upon relevant experience to the student, and selecting from curriculum based on a criterion of usefulness alone. The objection Ravitch correctly raises with such an attitude is no one knows what information will be important in the future, and the attitude itself reflects “a very static view of society and the economy” (Ravitch, 2001). Rather than limiting a student to only what is useful, it seems, the better approach is to employ more rigid standards than what the alternative approach allows.
Accordingly, the consequences of a purely alternative educational framework are the same as the consequences of a purely traditional one: a society of individuals who are unable to deal with the facts of reality. The difference lies in the reason why this is. An alternative educational solution emphasizes games, group activities, and socialization just as much as the traditional approach neglects it. And while it is certainly the case that communication skills are important, young people must have the ideas and the facts worth communicating; similarly, skills of cooperating with one’s peers are important, but only to the extent that the individual can identify whether cooperation is logical. A philosophy of education that leads to alternative methodologies may arise from biases and assumptions that many with particular political ideologies share. Opposition to traditional teaching methods may stem from a general opposition to authoritative figures, such as the teacher in the lecture-style classroom, or, more radically, philosophical opposition to the existence of objective facts that should be taught in lecture and learned by rote memorization.
To answer the problem of education, it seems one must look outside of dichotomies structured around incommensurable philosophies of education. Flexibility is necessary in any system of education to satisfy students’ need for choices. Home-based education, while not for everyone, offers parents, students, and teachers the ability to improve academic performance and pass down their own beliefs and values. Structuring education around schools with particular methodologies, instead of homes where students receive exclusive attention and can be taught through any combination of methodologies, can be devastating for the student and for society overall. Americans take up particular philosophies of education based on their own biases and assumptions that eventually condition how they answer the problem of education. This can potentially lead to mutually exclusive solutions to a single issue.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & Education. New York: Touchstone.
Henslin, J. M. (2005). Sociology: A Down to Earth Approach (6th Edition ed.). A&B Publishing.
Ravitch, D. (2001, April). Anti-Intellectualism Runs Rampant in U.S. Education. (G. A. Clowes, Interviewer)