Review: A ‘Just War Theory’ of Homeschooling?

Regular reader Adam Burch (A regular reader! Brings a tear to me one good eye!) pointed me to this article by William Fahey, currently  President of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire. By odd coincidence, my two teenagers will be flying out to New Hampshire next month to visit Thomas More College, so my interest is in what Dr. Fahey has to say is piqued.  So, let’s dig in:

This essay is adapted from a speech presented at the New England Catholic Home School Conference on June 6, 2009.First off, I agree with much of what he says. Of course, any Catholic, homeschoolers or not, should concern themselves first with the training of their children’s souls for God, should recognize that the holy life is only fully lived as a part of society, and should attend Mass regularly with their kids. The chief contribution of this essay is to remind us that it is only as a part of a society that a human being can be fully human, and that tendencies to withdraw and hunker down and see society as unnecessary or even simply evil are wrong and against church teaching. We all need to remember this, and know that our duty to love even our unlovable neighbors necessarily includes an involvement in society, that we all might be perfected and holy.

Fahey describes what he calls a “just war” theory of homeschooling, where taking on the responsibility of educating one’s children in the home is, like war, a thing of last resort. He is concerned that Catholic homeschoolers might not be doing it right:

Stated more controversially: The common approach to homeschooling today is inherently dangerous, because it may go against what our entire Western tradition and the Catholic Church herself teach about the education of the young — that education should not be done in the home, at least not for long, except during a time and place of crisis.

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Why Johnny Can’t Read and His Haubregon is Dripping Gore

The first thing to note is the audience: people who already have a commitment or at least an interest in Catholic home schooling. Among devoted homeschoolers of all stripes a certain percentage tend to be people who view homeschooling as part of a larger rebellion against our current culture of stupidity, sex and death. In an odd way, Fehey’s suggestion that we consider homeschooling as the regrettable outcome of a sort of just war theory of education fits like a glove on this attitude: it’s a battle to the death – their culture, or ours – and the battlefield is the minds and souls of our kids. Even if this is not exactly what Fahey is saying, by framing it up this way he is certainly not rebutting or even discouraging this attitude. This isn’t going to help curb bunker mentality among homeschoolers.

There’s a fine line a Christian must walk: on the one hand, everything we do or don’t do is a matter of eternal life or death. Yet the first thing the angels, the messengers of God, always say to us is: be not afraid. Viewing the education of our children as being the front line of a war certainly does not reduce our fear.

Fehey quotes a number of Papal and Conciliar documents to support his view that homeschooling represents a last resort in an emergency situation. But it is good to remember that the teachings of the universal Church take a much broader perspective than the last couple centuries of American experience. I think Fehey is reading back what school has looked like in America into what the Church is teaching. Here’s an example:

The recognition that homeschooling is itself an emergency measure should offer much needed assistance to parents — especially mothers — who labor in the often exhausting task of being the principal, cafeteria staff, gym coach, bus driver, hall monitor, and (lest we forget) teacher of every subject. What’s more, the feelings of isolation and inadequacy so common to homeschooling parents should be recognized as the natural response to stress in the face of crisis. They point to something “unnatural” about the total education of the child at home: Homeschooling calls for a heroic life, but the Church has never held that it is necessary for parents to lead a heroic life in the pursuit of simple, natural things.

Time out: does Fehey really mean to suggest that the image of school that includes “principal, cafeteria staff, gym coach, bus driver, hall monitor, and (lest we forget) teacher of every subject” is what the Church has in mind? Is this not a highly distorted and historically recent image? Is not a huge part of the answer simply rejecting as fundamentally insane a model of school that makes such unreasonable and unnatural demands? Of course any mom who tries to replicate the factory model of graded classroom schooling in her home is going to be stressed out.

Then he makes a telling leap: these stresses “…point to something “unnatural” about the total education of the child at home: Homeschooling calls for a heroic life, but the Church has never held that it is necessary for parents to lead a heroic life in the pursuit of simple, natural things.” Hold on – the thing that is unnatural and calls for a heroic life is for a mom to attempt an insane model of education, one that fills every moment with age-prescribed activities and thresholds, that measures progress in a way the dismisses the talents and interests of the actual little people involved in favor of utterly contrived and unnatural ‘standards’.

His conclusion – that “simple, natural things” should not cause such stress is true. It’s just that he’s misidentified the source of the stress as being in the goal – a well educated Catholic child – rather than in the assumed model. Getting back to the Church documents he cites, nowhere in them does anything like K-12 education get mentioned, nor does rigorous academic training at an early age, nor anything that indicates the mind of the Church is contemplating anything like what passes for public education in 21st century America. Instead, in the Compendium, we have passages like:

245. The situation of a vast number of the world’s children is far from being satisfactory, due to the lack of favourable conditions for their integral development despite the existence of a specific international juridical instrument for protecting their rights[557], an instrument that is binding on practically all members of the international community. These are conditions connected with the lack of health care, or adequate food supply, little or no possibility of receiving a minimum of academic formation or inadequate shelter.

I would suggest, in light of such passages, that the Church’s view is simply much broader, that education doesn’t mean getting good Star or SAT scores or getting into a good college or making sure your kid performs at grade level. While the Church has always respected, encouraged and supported elite scholarship, I don’t think that’s what she has in mind here, either. Yet, see where Fehey goes next:

Biology and vocation do not always overlap. I have a vocation to marriage, which has borne fruit in children; and a vocation to teach, which has borne fruit in a life as a college professor. But the parenting of children does not secure the teaching vocation: My having participated in the creation of a son or daughter does not in itself authorize or prepare me for the teaching of geometry or history or Latin or any particular subject. By natural law and Church authority, I have a right to see to the proper moral education of my children — but that I have children does not endow us to be grammarians. My right to secure an education does not mean I have infused talents as an educator or rights to a teaching vocation.

All of the above may be true, but it also may be irrelevant. Let’s lay out one of many possible models of education which provoke much less stress and yet are at least defensible within the context of a Catholic education:

By age of 12 (or 13, or 14) I shall teach my child, or arrange for my child to be taught:

Academic Goals:

– to read easily

– to do enough math to balance a checkbook.

– to use good spoken English by using good English around them, and encourage them to do likewise

Cultural Goals: I shall make sure

– to read a bunch of good literature to the kids (Lord of the Rings, Watership Downs, Narnia – that sort of thing).

– with them, to listen to some good music, look at some good art, go some beautiful places, and talk about why these things are good and beautiful.

– to get together regularly with friends, extended family, and attend church events, so that the kids can learn proper behavior in social settings and learn what a society is.

– to eat the majority of meals as a family, at least dinner. Let them help cook and clean.

Religious Goals: I shal

– take them to Mass regularly, at least on Sundays and holy days of obligation,

– teach them the basic Catholic prayers.

– pray with them before bed and at meals.

– talk about God, what Jesus did for us, what the Church teaches (in a way they can understand), and how our lives are for God and not for ourselves.

Extra: many kids will develop interests that might require some expertise, such as music or sports. Try to encourage and accommodate them, but don’t kill yourself over it.

So: how much of this is outside the competence of a normal devote Catholic adult? How much of this requires more than an hour a day? Don’t Panic!

After Age 12 (or 13, 14, 15, 16…):

– Get them some more advanced education in areas you are not comfortable teaching and in which the kids are interested. There’s a million ways to do this: our kids used the local community college (13 year olds can take classes); Khan Academy, other web resources.

– work with the kids to help set goals in keeping with the ultimate goal of finding and embracing their calling with joy.

– show them how and encourage them to set and fulfill goals.

– serve the poor, visit the sick, love one another, etc.

And you’re done. Note that there’s no magic in a college degree, there’s no rule that everybody must be good at math or science or English, or learn Latin, or History or Philosophy. Those are all good things – but there are lots of good things, too many for any of us to learn all of them, by far. If you can’t teach these things, does that make YOU a failure? Why?

What ends up happening, in our experience: my kids all grew up in a house with thousands of books – and no cable TV. Mom and Dad talk philosophy, explain logic and logical fallacies, and do lots of crafty things. We gently correct poor English when it occurs. Not surprisingly, our kids do many similar things. The two college age ones were able to get into 4 year colleges without much trouble; the next two will probably do that too. One learned Latin. The only really obvious shortcoming is spelling – we live in Chaucer’s world of multiple orthographies, I suppose.

The stress level was low. The outcomes have been good so far. The kids go to Mass even when I’m not there to make them go. They volunteer for church projects. One of them is quite possibly a saint in heaven.

No one has ever been able to explain in rational terms what is wrong with this approach. It is a serious stretch to say that it is somehow not in keeping with Church teaching.

I see no end to the current crisis that calls for homeschooling, and I am glad that the principles of Catholic education allow it and encourage it as a vehicle for the good. Nevertheless, homeschoolers need to take steps to ensure that their education program preserves the goal of traditional teaching: the perfection of the person for God’s glorification and living a life of service and sanctification in human society.

Amen. But those steps don’t require large amounts of stress, intense academic expertise, or compliance with the current insane model of schooling.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

1 thought on “Review: A ‘Just War Theory’ of Homeschooling?”

  1. As a teacher myself, I confess myself a little disturbed at the extreme high-churchishness of his notion of a ‘teaching vocation’, which is the kind of notion that strikes me as perhaps being one part, however small, of the problem. Teaching is not a vocation like marriage is a vocation; it is a necessary human activity that no one — and especially not parents — can even avoid while living a rational human life. It’s true that some people will have more talent at some kinds of teaching; and it is true that some people will have more knowledge of what is to be taught. But the most this could mean is that rational people will sometimes delegate and share teaching responsibilities, not that some people just aren’t to teach or are only to teach within sharp boundaries. Parents can’t not teach their children; and it’s a pretty clear fact that they are usually first teachers, and the ones who last the longest, which makes them by default the primary educators already. So the only question is how they do the delegating and sharing; which, of course, leads right into the point you are making that it’s not necessarily the case that they have to do it the way they do it under a standard schoolhouse model.

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