The heart of the matter.

It’s the generic reasoning offered by even the most open-minded of my friends and acquaintances- School is very important because it “socializes” children. Without it, socialization of this particular sort just doesn’t occur. And while many express concern and dismay over current social norms and trends in bullying and violence, no one really looks hard enough to ask if this “socialization” is truly desirable and good for children or society over the long-term.

Are we creating the change we want to see in the world? Are we promoting tolerance, nonviolence, mutual respect, and intellectual curiosity? We use the school=socialization equation as a justification for our choices while doubting its status as an axiom. Or we get huffy over the superficial indicators without bothering to interpret and understand them.

What is this “socialization” and why does it matter? Is it exclusively a school-based good? I decided to take the ground rules from an anthropologist:

Human infants are born without any culture. They must be transformed by their parents, teachers, and others into cultural and socially adept animals. The general process of acquiring culture is referred to as socialization . During socialization, we learn the language of the culture we are born into as well as the roles we are to play in life. For instance, girls learn how to be daughters, sisters, friends, wives, and mothers. In addition, they learn about the occupational roles that their society has in store for them.

At this point, the socialization process seems to be ideal for homeschooling, where many social roles and norms are experienced (rather than merely taught) on a daily basis. Many homeschoolers have chosen to educate their kids “at home” (I use this loosely because so much education takes place outside the home, on field trips, co-ops, excursions, etc.) for precisely this reason- the rich texture of experience-based learning. I find myself in Eli’s “worldschooling” court quite often, especially when we take month-long international trips as a family.

Remember that there is not a single textbook, video, program, or worksheet that a school provides which cannot also be provided in the home. Granted, some parents (myself among them) prefer to teach American history using Howard Zinn as a guiding text rather than the standard textbook that includes George Washington as a “hero”.

But that doesn’t mean we lack access to other materials- it simply means we find them to be “behind the times”. Dare I say MacMillan has its own market-based and institutional reservations for producing history texts that question the value of war as an instrument of policy?

What is special about the school lies more in the social routine, structure, style, and classroom environment than the content of the academic materials. That’s what many of us accept as true without question. So let’s go back to the anthropologist:

We also learn and usually adopt our culture’s norms through the socialization process. Norms are the conceptions of appropriate and expected behavior that are held by most members of the society. While socialization refers to the general process of acquiring culture, anthropologists use the term “enculturation” for the process of being socialized to a particular culture. You were enculturated to your specific culture by your parents and the other people who raised you.

Socialization is important in the process of personality formation. While much of human personality is the result of our genes, the socialization process can mold it in particular directions by encouraging specific beliefs and attitudes as well as selectively providing experiences. This very likely accounts for much of the difference between the common personality types in one society in comparison to another.

Socialization varies in degree by personality. Even the most socialized child (whatever that means) will still exhibit characteristics of their personality in peer and group interactions. For example, shy kids will still be shy, introverted ones will be thoughtful and contemplative, and funny ones will be funny. Personality, regardless of socialization, still plays a role in how we navigate our world.

Some methods of schooling, including those utilized in Nazi Germany and communist Romania, certainly “punished” inquisitive and analytic thinking very effectively. Under such systems, the range of personalities becomes more narrow (those who don’t fall in the range go to a gulag or prison camp). But I don’t think the American public school system has any such goals in mind.

Our system, at its heart, has progressive and noble intentions which have been pushed down the list of priorities so academic performance can rule. We take integration and diversity as measures of tolerance, and take comfort at the thought that our children have a Sikh as well as a Muslim child in their classroom.

But token integration is as superficial as the conversations about eyeshadow colors at an Avon party. “Look at how diverse and multicultural we are…. And that green really brings out the blue in your eyes…” For a better perspective on why this view is offensive and crude, read the amazing, insightful content and materials from Teaching Tolerance (a magazine subscription every parent should have or gift).

In “Homeschooling and the Question of Socialization”, Richard G. Medlin explains how school education and socialization have “become closely linked in our cultural consciousness”. Over the past 50 years, as we’ve all gotten “busier”, schools have been made responsible for an expanding range of socializing activities that previously were handled by other social institutions, including the family.

Many people now assume that traditional schooling offers essential socialization experiences that home schooling cannot (Harris, 1995; Mayberry, Knowles, Ray, & Marlow, 1995). For example, the American Psychological Association, in an effort to bring professional psychology to bear on current issues, presented the opinions of educational psychologists about home schooling in the APA Monitor (Murray,1996). These psychologists warned that home-schooled children may be unable to get along with others and may experience difficulty entering “mainstream life.” Home-schooled children, they said, “only hear their parents’philosophies and have little chance to form their own views,” whereas conventional schools teach “what society as a whole values.” Home schooling shelters children from society, they suggested, but traditional schools ensure that children will grow up to be “complete people” by teaching key social skills such as cooperation, respect for others, and self-control.

These assumptions are not supported by relevant evidence. Specifically, homeschooled kids do not have trouble forming intimate friendships, enjoying group activities, or participating in mainstream cultural norms. At least, not according to any sound studies I’ve seen. (Homeschooled kids on the autism spectrum or with special education needs will find such things more difficult, but it is not due to their homeschooling experience.)

Essentially, we are given to understand that opinions about the “dangers” of homeschooling are so deeply entrenched that evidence is not even needed anymore. Discrimination against homeschoolers may be the last acceptable form of stereotyping and bias. Medlin writes:

The harshest critics charge that isolating children from larger societyand inhibiting their social development are the principal goals homeschooling parents have in mind. A survey of public school superintendents found that 92% believed home-schooled children do not receive adequate socialization experiences (Mayberry et al., 1995). When asked toexplain their views, some of these superintendents commented that homeschoolers “don’t want any influence other than parents” in their children’slives, believe “communities at large are evil,” and “want to ensure theirchildren’s ignorance” (pp. 92, 94). The parents “have real emotional problems themselves,” one superintendent asserted, and do not realize “the serious harm they are doing to their children in the long run, educationallyand socially” (p. 94).

I tend to disagree with the superintendent, but I also empathize with his/her position in defending their turf by demonizing those who question its landscaping. Here’s where it gets spooky:

Successful socialization can result in uniformity within a society. If all children receive the same socialization, it is likely that they will share the same beliefs and expectations. This fact has been a strong motivation for national governments around the world to standardize education and make it compulsory for all children. Deciding what things will be taught and how they are taught is a powerful political tool for controlling people. Those who internalize the norms of society are less likely to break the law or to want radical social changes.

And here’s where Michel Foucault laughs from his grave:

In all societies, however, there are individuals who do not conform to culturally defined standards of normalcy because they were “abnormally” socialized, which is to say that they have not internalized the norms of society. These people are usually labeled by their society as deviant or even mentally ill.

And here’s the closest thing I can find to a reason why the classroom is a critical component of socialization- also, suggestively, a reason for early daycare and nursery, where infants are given to understand that their emotional needs cannot be met by human beings or family members, not in this society, not when we’ve given up the corset for the silicone breast. From our anthropologist:

Early childhood is the period of the most intense and the most crucial socialization. It is then that we acquire language and learn the fundamentals of our culture. It is also when much of our personality takes shape. However, we continue to be socialized throughout our lives. As we age, we enter new statuses and need to learn the appropriate roles for them. We also have experiences that teach us lessons and potentially lead us to alter our expectations, beliefs, and personality. For instance, the experience of being raped is likely to cause a woman to be distrustful of others.

Looking around the world, we see that different cultures use different techniques to socialize their children. There are two broad types of teaching methods–formal and informal. Formal education is what primarily happens in a classroom. It usually is structured, controlled, and directed primarily by adult teachers who are professional “knowers.” In contrast, informal education can occur anywhere. It involves imitation of what others do and say as well as experimentation and repetitive practice of basic skills. This is what happens when children role-play adult interactions in their games.

Ball returns to Medlin’s court:

Home schooling parents, not surprisingly, disagree on every point. They describe conventional schools as rigid and authoritarian institutions where passive conformity is rewarded, where peer interactions are too often hostile or derisive or manipulative, and where children must contend with a dispiriting ideological and moral climate. Home schooling parents argue that this kind of environment can stifle children’s individuality and harm their self-esteem. They say it can make children dependent, insecure, or even antisocial. They believe it can undermine their efforts to teach their children positive values and appropriate behavior. Finally, they insist that it is unlikely to cultivate the kind of rewarding and supportive relationships that foster healthy personal and moral development (Allie-Carson, 1990; Gatto, 1992; Holt, 1981; Linden, 1983; Martin, 1997; Mayberry et al., 1995; Medlin, 1993b; Shirkey, 1987; Williams, Arnoldsen, & Reynolds, 1984). From this perspective, the “social environment of formal schools is actually a compelling argument for operating a home school” (Mayberry et al., 1995, p. 3). Nevertheless, when parents decide to home school, they are thinking more of the advantages of home schooling than the disadvantages of conventional schooling (Parker, 1992). Home schooling parents are strongly committed to providing positive socialization experiences for their children (Johnson, 1991; Mayberry et al., 1995; Montgomery, 1989), but they “believe that socialization is best achieved in an age-integrated setting under the auspices of the family” (Tillman, 1995, p. 5) rather than in an institution.

Rather than interact for 15 minutes in a truncated recess, my kids interact for hours on end in our weekly homeschool co-ops which are dedicated to nothing apart from the pursuit of play and extended imaginative social interaction. This special space for unstructured, unregulated play provides a space in which they can enjoy what was once known as “childhood”. Even a group as conservative as the American Academy of Pediatricians recently went on record saying that recess and play are as “important as math or reading” for childhood development.

Now I understand that going from home education straight to college with no group-based or classroom-type social experience can be daunting. But I also don’t know a single homeschooled child who has done just that. Some attend community college classes in high school, others are heavily involved in Envirothons or extracurriculars, and most have done their fair share of time in the old Sunday school classroom. What deep human truths and relation data are they missing? Are they less likely to model fake happiness? Good- then they are less likely to end up on the therapist’s couch addressing that midlife crisis that occurs when the accumulation of fake smiles turns malignant.

Professor Medlin concludes his paper by asserting that more research needs to be conducted on the relationship between homeschooling and socialization. But he also emphasizes that the existence of bias is not related to the actual psychological health and life satisfaction of homeschooled kids. Instead, the bias is related to the prevalence of a specific formula that says, “You have to go to school to learn to act like everyone else”. The credibility of this bias should be questioned by anyone who acknowledges that human development occurs along a continuum and that we are learning more about a more progressive means of education every day.

Although there are still far too many unanswered questions about homeschooling and socialization, some preliminary conclusions can be stated.Home-schooled children are taking part in the daily routines of their communities. They are certainly not isolated; in fact, they associate with—andfeel close to—all sorts of people. Home schooling parents can take much ofthe credit for this. For, with their children’s long-term social developmentin mind, they actively encourage their children to take advantage of socialopportunities outside the family. Home-schooled children are acquiringthe rules of behavior and systems of beliefs and attitudes they need. Theyhave good self-esteem and are likely to display fewer behavior problemsthan do other children. They may be more socially mature and have betterleadership skills than other children as well. And they appear to be functioning effectively as members of adult society.

Perhaps the most intriguing unanswered question is, “Why?” Why should home-schooled children seem, in the words of Smedley (1992), to be “better socialized” (p. 12) than children attending conventional schools? Smedley speculated that the family “more accurately mirrors the outside society” (p. 13) than does the traditional school environment, with its “unnatural” age segregation. Galloway (Galloway, 1998; Galloway & Sutton, 1997) agreed, stating that because they are not peer-grouped in school, home-schooled children learn to get along with a variety of people, making them socially mature and able to adjust to new and challenging situations. She added two further explanations: She argued that the highly individualized academic program afforded by home schooling creates an ideal learning environment, giving children an excellent chance to do well both in college and in a career. She also said that because home-schooled children learn and grow in the nurturing environment of secure family relationships, they develop a confidence and resiliency that helps them to succeed as adults.

Medlin ends with the following statement: “Research on the question of socialization suggests that children are thriving in the home school environment and that much can be learned from looking more closely at what home schooling families are doing.” I can’t take this as a compliment because a homeschooling parent has a MUCH easier job than a teacher of 30 children whose job and pay depends on how well those children pass certain standardized tests.

If I have learned anything absolutely during my days of educating the kids at home, it is that there are so many wonderful teachers who adore the children they teach. The current trend in American public education is not only sad for the kids but also for these creative, dedicated teachers who are given very little room to adapt their materials to suit their students’ needs and learning abilities. Ultimately, my intuitions insist on being deeply and actively involved in my children’s education. Our intuitions lead us to different places- whether to the PTA or the home school.

And then there is also that obvious fact which stares us in the face every time we see our children- the fact that each one is an individual born in a world where the legacy of our species has been less than glorious. The social Darwinism of the schoolyard, much as it prepares a young person for a conventional version of success, fails to reward the developing conscience while “teaching” the very truths we try to deny (i.e. the stronger wins, power is better than kindness, popularity determines worth, etc.). I’m uncomfortable with the longterm consequences of this.

Dana Goldstein may decide one day the Social Darwinism and excruciating competitiveness of school is good for society as a whole. She may be willing to overlook her own rigid construal of “progressive values” to include other ideas which don’t all lead to the same place- namely, hers. I prefer to stand with my conscience and confess that I think school can be awful and damaging for many small people- for their families, for their communities, and for the teachers whom we disrespect and straitjacket through current practices as well.

If schools were truly effective (and some private schools are) at providing the nurture, intimacy, and encouragement which helps young people learn and thrive on an emotional and spiritual (as opposed to religious) level as well as a competitive or academic one, I would willingly pass the buck. Remember that most of a child’s time is spent in school, not in the home, family, or community at large. Public education is truly a public good- but it’s a public “bad” when it engenders intolerance, hierarchical thinking, and overwhelming pressure.

In the words of Sonic Youth, perhaps it’s time to “kill your idols”. Be the change you want to see in the world. Refuse to outsource love and nurturing when you feel it could be an opportunity to learn and evolve. Do what you can, and love what you do. Love life. Don’t settle for a statistic. Here’s a little inspiration for the journey:

Just Enough
Progressive Homeschool
The Feminist Homeschool
Cocking A Snook
The Edgy Chronicles
Joyfully Rejoycing
The Natural Child Project
Cheeky Bums Blog
Quarks and Quirks
Role-playing activity (Teaching Tolerance)
“Won’t Get Schooled Again” by Rebecca Ellis (Briarpatch Magazine)
“Learning Curve” by Maya Schenwar (Bitch Magazine)
“Why Homeschooling Happened”, a historic review by Milton Gaither
“Homeschooling Goes Mainstream” by Milton Gaither (Education Next)
“Homeschool stereotype far off the mark” by Dana Rohr
“How homeschooling threatens monopoly education” by Glenn H. Reynolds (USA Today)