But aren’t you worried they won’t be properly socialized?
This was a question a good friend of mine posed to me during a recent conversation when I admitted that I would want my (yet hypothetical) children to be homeschooled. This isn’t some unreasonable person. This is somebody who recognizes that public schooling is subpar at best, recognizes that families should have the right to educate their children how they see fit, and recognizes that I am more than competent at providing an excellent educational environment.
And this is an all-too-common response to advocates of home education.
“How will they be socialized?”
“Aren’t you worried they won’t know how to interact with other kids?”
“Why wouldn’t you want them to be around other people?”
These are usually intended as “got you!” questions and as jabs at the idea of home education. I guess in the questioners’ minds, homeschoolers just sit in their house for twelve years, memorize sections of the King James Verse Bible, and learn how to weave baskets and make soap from animal fat.
I try to be charitable when usually asked this question and explain that, no, homeschooled children are usually just as, if not more, “properly socialized” (more on whatever that means below) than their counterparts in public schools. I try to explain that there are homeschooling groups where they can play with other children, that they interact with adults quite often, and that they can actually go do things (around other people! Scandalous!) while their peers are stuck in cinderblock cells for 8 hours of the day.
But when I lose my patience, it goes more like this…
Socialized Compared to What? Schooled Kids?
What do you mean, “are you worried they won’t be properly socialized?” You mean compared to kids who go to school? Kids who go to local public schools?*
You’re joking, right? You have to be either joking or deluding yourself.
Do you really think that sitting in a cinderblock room, being forced to learn things you don’t want to learn with people you don’t really know, is the best way to socialize anybody?
Have you ever met a schoolkid? Have you ever watched how young people interact with adults outside of the school environment? They’re usually awkward, kind of cold, and can’t actually hold a conversation.
Kids and Adults
The few you can think of actually being able to do this are extraordinary. Literally. They are extra-ordinary — beyond and above ordinary schoolkids and are only memorable because they are so rare and hard to come by. “They seem so mature!” you think when you can actually hold a conversation with them. Yes, they do, compared to their peers who are more busy picking their noses and being riddled with Ritalin to keep them from being children and actually going outside and playing.
“You can’t hold the bar for socialization for children to how they interact with adults! The reason they can’t interact with adults is just because they’re kids.”
No. It isn’t.
It’s because they view adults as figures not to bond with and hold conversations with like normal human beings, but because they view them as somebody detached and separate from themselves. They view them as authority figures, but not in the way that legitimate authority ought to be viewed (legitimate authority is earned).
At school, they come to view adults as people who read off of worksheets and State Standards for Mathematics or out of textbooks describing what John Quincy Adams did during his first term. These adults then give them work to do, none of which they have a choice in — failure to do the work is met with punishment that ranges from shaming and low grades to complete removal and exiling from the only social environment (expulsion). The adults really aren’t figures with whom you socialize as a child, and if you do, then you’re “teacher’s pet,” and promptly shamed by the other schoolchildren.
At home, the family dynamic is spoiled by the school day. The few hours left for family time are devoted to eating, getting ready for bed (to get children up at the crack of dawn to do the whole miserable day all over again), and homework, leaving little time for organic family bonding. Add into this mix that children rarely are enthusiastic about homework and going to school and parents are forced to be enforcers for the school at home.
(This — inversion of the family dynamic so that the family is playing enforcer for the school, not the other way around — is one of the particularly nefarious effects of letting school dominate our lives. School administrators like to bloviate about how they act in loco parentis, but with how much pressure is placed on parents to make sure their kids are following the schools edicts, perhaps parents are working in loco scholis during those few precious hours at home.)
So the children come to view their parents as an extension of the drudgery of school. Somebody has to crack the whip to do worksheets at home if the person who cracks the whip at school can’t follow them home, after all. Even in the most healthy schooled families, where children don’t have to be coerced by parents to do homework, the time that could be spent building a relationship between the parents and the children is eaten up by homework, after school activities, and dreading the next day of school.
It’s no surprise school children are terrible at socializing with adults, then. They spent 15,000 hours of their young lives learning that adults are people to impose drudgery on them. The little time they could be spending building relationships with adults is devoted to doing this drudgery, lest they be left behind.
Homeschooled children, on the other hand, have more opportunities to interact with adults. They can build real, organic relationships with their parents, can view stranger-adults as normal people, rather than imposers-of-drudgery, and have more time in their lives to build real, organic relationships.
Kids and Kids
“That’s an unfair picture to paint of schoolchildren and too positive for homeschooled kids. I mean, how are they going to socialize with other kids? Isn’t school at least good for that?”
Again, are you kidding?
Do you remember your time in public school?
I went to a relatively good public school with few issues in way of the social scene around me, and I still view it as a pretty awful experience.
Schools are rife with bullying, drug abuse, gossip, and cliques. Schools are breeding grounds for the very worst of socialization.
First off, schoolchildren only primarily interact with people in their immediate age range from day one. Only in extracurricular activities and advanced classes do they have the oh-so-exotic opportunity to interact with kids who are, get this, one-to-two years older or younger than them.
Second, school is an entire world unto itself, allowing for hieararchies and social groups to develop apart from the rest of the world. There are cliques and expectations of kids imposed by other kids. There’s an intense distrust of adults (see above), so kids are left trying to navigate this social space by themselves. There is rampant drug and alcohol abuse among the older schoolchildren (if you don’t think there is, you’re kidding yourself, again) and this gets carried over to college, where it only gets worse.
Third, think about the kids in public schools who are the best socialized. This means that they are most ingrained in the social scene with other kids. They can navigate it well and get satisfaction out of navigating it. What happens when they graduate and are forced to interact with people older and younger than themselves? What happens when they have to move to a new area? What happens when they lose that artificial institution to navigate so keenly?
The bottom falls out.
There’s a diaspora. These kids are left scrounging for connections, for meaning, and for an identity. Some can do it all over again in college and put off the diaspora for another four years, but some can’t. They have to re-learn what it is like to get to know other people and form bonds and relationships. They have to do what children who aren’t immersed in school for thirteen years learn to do early on.
Even for kids who are good at avoiding petty drama, bullying, and drugs, school has the negative side-effect of making them ultra-competitive to the point of myopia. You view your peers as people to constantly undercut, outdo, and are caught in a frenzy of comparing yourself to them. You view them with suspicion and distrust. High-achieving schoolchildren constantly compare GPAs, where they applied to school, and their lists of clubs in which they are officers, all while neglecting their own personal development and building meaningful friendships. And for what? To start the process all over again.
Schooling is at best a really bad way to get children to socialize properly with other children and is, at worst, cruel. Almost every case of teenage suicide is related back to problems socializing with other kids at school. Would you really want that for your children?
WTF is Socialization, ANyway?
This all assumes that socialization is a desirable end. It assumes socialization is simply the process by which somebody can easily form organic, meaningful bonds with other people and navigate the drama and reality of the rest of their lives.
Is this the kind of socialization that schools are really designed to create, though?
The point of this open rant so far has been to ask whether or not schools are very good at socializing — and the answer is a strong no, if socializing is a desirable end.
But what if they are really good at socializing and we’ve just been mis-defining socialization this whole time?
What if that processes of fearing arbitrary authority, viewing your family as agents of these authorities, and of seeing your peers as threats aren’t negative side-effects of schooling, but the point of it?
The modern school system developed out of the need for a standardized work-and-war-force in 18th and 19th century Prussia (Germany) and was brought to the United States by reformers like Horace Mann, who were impressed by the German ability to apply scientific standardization to young human beings.
Thinkers like Johann Gottlieb Fichte viewed universal state-coerced (public) education as the answer to the German problem of modernity. As the church fell out under industrialization and the growth of empire, the Prussians needed something to keep their subjects working towards the goals of the state. The modern school was their answer.
Alexander James Inglis, an American education expert and contemporary of Fichte’s, mirrored his concerns about creating fixed reactions to authority. In his Principles of Secondary Education, Inglis noted six functions of schooling, two of which, the integrating and adjustive functions, are designed to create a sense of conformity and standardization among the students and to create a fixed reaction to arbitrary authority, respectively. By placing children among their age-selected peers and by appointing teachers and administrators to look over them at all times, these ends were largely achieved in the modern school.
The socializing aspect of school, then, was designed to mimic socialization among industrial-era workers and soldiers.
Remnants of this system remain today. Think of how schoolchildren are taught to walk in single-file lines, do a military salute in the morning, and are managed by bells on strict schedules.
If this sound conspiratorial to you, it doesn’t have to. Just think of the timeline of American history, the centralization of state roles between the Civil War and World War II, and the rise of scientific management. Public schooling came to age during a time when social science was really coming into its own, too. Planners thought they could measure and standardize anything — and schoolchildren weren’t exempt from that.
And our workforce wasn’t, either. If the entire time you’ve been reading this you’ve thought to yourself, “tough cookies, gossip, fearing your peers, and people wielding arbitrary authority over you is just a fact of life. Look at so many workplaces!” then you’d be right. The management ideas that infected school also infected our views of work. But just because they are that way, doesn’t mean they have to be that way. You can go work somewhere with a better culture or start your own company. The workforce, being less centralized and controlled than schools, has more freedom to evolve and adopt. Schools — and those stuck in them — aren’t so lucky.
So maybe schools are actually very good at socializing young people. Maybe the entire process of coming to view adults as authorities to be feared and peers as problems to deal with is intentional. Or maybe not — maybe the writings of Fichte, Mann, Inglis and others are just the theorizings of madmen that coincidentally were written while the modern school was coming into its own.
Regardless, the idea that home education is bad at socializing young people when compared to its most likely alternative is laughable.
* I get that playing counterfactuals isn’t ever really productive, but you have to be comparing realistic options, otherwise you fall into a Nirvana Fallacy.
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