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Common Objections to Homeschooling

6. If children are taught at home, won't they miss the valuable social life of the school?

If there were no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school, the social life would be reason enough. In all but a very few of the schools I have taught in, visited, or know anything about, the social life of the children is mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, snobbish, full of talk about who went to whose birthday party and who got-what Christmas presents and who got how many Valentine cards and who is talking to so-and-so and who is not. Even in the first grade, classes soon divide into leaders (energetic and - often deservedly - popular kids), their bands of followers, and other outsiders who are pointedly excluded from these groups.

I remember my sister saying of one of her children, then five, that she never knew her to do anything really mean or silly until she went away to school - a nice school, by the way, in a nice small town.

Jud Jerome, writer, poet, former professor at Antioch, wrote about his son, Topher, meeting this so-called "social life" in a free school run by a commune:

... Though we were glad he was happy and enjoying himself (in school), we were also sad as we watched him deteriorate from a person into a kid under peer influence in school. It was much like what we saw happening when he was in kindergarten. There are certain kinds of childishness which it seems most people accept as being natural, something children have to go through, something which it is, indeed, a shame to deny them. Silliness, self-indulgence, random rebelliousness, secretiveness, cruelty to other children, clubbishness, addiction to toys, possessions, junk, spending money, purchased entertainment, exploitation of adults to pay attention, take them places, amuse them, do things with them - all these things seem to me quite unnecessary, not "normal" at all (note: except in the sense of being common), and just as disgusting in children as they are in adults. And while they develop as a result of peer influence, I believe this is only, and specifically, because children are thrown together in school and develop these means, as prisoners develop the means of passing dull time and tormenting authorities to cope with an oppressive situation. The richer the families the children come from, the worse these traits seem to be. Two years of school and Topher would probably have regressed two years in emotional development. I am not sure of that, of course, and it was not because of that fear that we pulled him out, but we saw enough of what happened to him in a school situation not to regret pulling him out...

One of our readers gave us a vivid description of what must be a very typical school experience:

My mother tells me that after the first day in kindergarten I told her that I didn't need to go to school anymore because I knew everything already. Great arrogance? Not really. I knew how to be quiet, how to listen to children's stories, and how to sing. I wanted to learn about the adult world, but was restricted to a world which adults believed children wanted. My great pre-school enthusiasm died an early death....

Shame was one of the first lessons that I learned. In the first grade I was told to color a picture of a mother and daughter working in a kitchen. It struck me that if I were to color the entire picture yellow, then it would be different from all the other pictures. When I handed it in to the teacher I expected her to be pleased, if not genuinely excited. She, instead, glared at me for what seemed to be a long time and caused me to feel the deepest shame and self-contempt. . . I was six years old.

Since spontaneity was dangerous - it conflicted with the teacher's view of how children should act - lying was a valuable survival technique. . . In first grade, the class was sent to the kindergarten room to do some work without supervision. I used this opportunity to take a plastic doll and stick the head into a plastic toilet in one of the furnished doll houses in the room. No one was sure who did it, but everyone thought it was amusing - except the teacher. She was red with anger (she was a nun, and working-class Catholic schools in the early 1960s were not the most humane institutions) and I feared a severe beating. Suspicion was eventually focused on me and I lied with complete success, at least for me; another boy was blamed for the incident. I wish that I had said, "Yes, I did it, so what." But I was afraid. . .

Other incidents occurred to other people and were much more serious. I saw a boy of thirteen, seventh grade, try to explain why he did not have an assignment. His crime was that he spoke with indignation. Before he said three words, the teacher stopped him and with a "who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are" tone of voice called him to the desk and slapped him across the face with a rubber strap, which was about 6 to 8 inches long and 1/4 inch thick. He cried; they always did when it was in the face. He never did get the chance to explain why he did not have the assignment. I'm not so sure that he didn't have it. It may have been that he could not find it quickly enough... This teacher, the principal, was a "textbook" authoritarian. Every violation of her largely unwritten rules would lead her to deliver the same angry statement: "Don't challenge me." She saw challenges in virtually everything - even though we would never have challenged her. I'll just give two of her biggest challenges.

Challenge number one involved misbehavior which the teacher present did not see, but the principal looking into the room did. The fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades (it was a small school) were in this room to practice singing. She was furious, talked about challenges, and scolded the student vehemently. Then she proceeded to slap him halfway across the room. She gave him about eight or ten real haymaker slaps. I was standing only a few feet away at the time... One fact about this event showed how much in awe of authority we were: the victim of this violence did not raise his hands to protect his face. When it was over, all I could hear was the boy crying and my own heart beating.

Challenge number two involved the same boy. This time he urinated, or defecated, or both, in his pants. Perhaps he was ill or maybe he had a mental problem. [Author's note: Or perhaps he had merely been denied permission to go to the bathroom, which happens quite often in school.] He didn't do this regularly. He was about twelve years old. Naturally this called for punishment. He was forced to stand in front of each class in the school while the teacher explained to the class his crime. When he came to our classroom the principal named him the school's stinker and told us why. But what I remember most clearly is the pained smile on his face.

There were many incidents of fear and humiliation. Even though there were not many savage beatings, the point is that we lived in an environment where this could happen anytime. And we knew that. I had no clear idea that there was anything wrong with the school; I only had a vague feeling that things didn't have to be the way they were. I wasn't a noble child resisting tyrannical teachers. No, I loved the game of fear and humiliation and played like the masters.

"We can hardly wait to make someone pay for our humiliation, yield to us as we were once made to yield." (Freedom and Beyond, p. 114)

I'm not sure when it started, but in the eighth grade a number of us would terrorize one of the timid boys in the school. We would push the victim around, ridicule him, pull his shirt out, spin him around, dust the chalk erasers on his clothes, mess up his hair, and chase him on the playground. It was easy to be friends with these boys when I was alone with them. But when there was a group of us, the teasing would begin. Since we were always in groups [author's emphasis], the teasing of these boys, two in particular, was nearly unending. On the playground they had to avoid being seen. One of the boys would go home for lunch and not return until the last minute of recess. We did it without thought and it seemed to be only boyish pranks. It was sadism and I found it to be almost irresistible.

We then started to turn on the group members and practice our arts on the selected victim. I remember coming home with sore sides from laughing so hard at another's humiliation, but I felt empty and actually unhappy. The next day I would do it again. This only stopped when I became the victim. It was pure hell. Everyone you knew devoted all his time to your being humiliated. Any one act was insignificant: slapping an unaware student in the back of the head was popular. But it happened all day long in a multitude of ways. Christmas vacation came and one of my prime torturers transferred to another school. Things cooled off for me, but not for the timid boys or the younger children in the school. We almost had serious violence with the male students several years younger than us.

I don't remember the beginning or the end of this sadistic behavior. I know that I didn't act this way before my last two years in grade school or since then.

This reader's experience is surely not unusual. When I was nine, I was in a public elementary school, in a class in which almost all the boys were bigger and older than I was, most of them from working-class Italian or Polish families. One by one, the toughest ones first, then the others, more or less in order of toughness, beat me up at recess, punched me until they knocked me down and/or made me cry. Once a boy had beaten me up, he rarely bothered to do it again. There didn't seem to me to be much malice in it; it was as if this had to be done in order to find my proper place in the class. Finally everyone had beaten me except a boy named Henry. One day the bigger boys hemmed us in and told us that we had to fight to find who was the biggest sissy in the sixth grade. Henry and I said we didn't want to fight. They said if we didn't, they would beat up both of us. So for a while Henry and I circled around, swinging wildly at each other, the bigger boys laughing and urging us on. Nothing happened for some time, until one of my wild swings hit Henry's nose. It began to bleed, Henry began to cry, and so did I. But the bigger boys were satisfied; they declared that Henry was now the official biggest sissy in the class.

A teacher writes:

On Friday I was reading GWS and intrigued with it as usual. I'm especially interested in the "social life" aspect of schools and the damage it causes. This morning I asked my third graders, "Do you feel that in our school kids are nice, kind to each other?"

Out of 22 kids, only two felt that they saw kindness, and the rest felt most kids are mean, call names, hurt feelings, etc. Frankly I was amazed. I have always felt our school is a uniquely friendly place....

When I point out to people that the social life of most schools and classrooms is mean-spirited, status-oriented, competitive, and snobbish, I am always astonished by their response. Not one person of the hundreds with whom I've discussed this has yet said to me that the social life at school is kindly, generous, supporting, democratic, friendly, loving, or good for children. No, without exception, when I condemn the social life of school, people say, "But that's what the children are going to meet in Real Life."

The "peer groups" into which we force children have many other powerful and harmful effects. Every now and then, in the subway or some public place, I see young people, perhaps twelve or thirteen years old, sometimes even as young as ten, smoking cigarettes. It is a comic and pitiful sight. It is also an ordeal. The smoke tastes awful. Children have sensitive taste buds, and that smoke must taste even worse to them than to most nonsmoking adults, which is saying a lot. They have to struggle not to choke, not to cough, maybe even not to get sick. Why do they do it? Because "all the other kids" are doing it, or soon will be, and they have to stay ahead of them, or at least not fall behind. In short, wanting to smoke, or feeling one has to smoke whether one wants to or not, is one of the many fringe benefits of that great "social life" at school that people talk about.

I feel sorry for all the children who think they have to smoke, and even sorrier for any nonsmoking parents who may desperately wish they could persuade them not to. If the children have lived in the peer group long enough to become enslaved to it, addicted to it - we might call them "peer group junkies" - then they are going to smoke, and do anything and everything else the peer group does. If Mom and Pop make a fuss, then they will lie about it and do it behind their backs. The evidence on this is clear. In some age groups, fewer people are smoking. But more children are smoking every year, especially girls, and they start earlier.

The same is true of drinking. We hear more and more about drinking, drunkenness, and alcoholism among the young. Some states have tried in recent years to deal with the problem by raising the minimum drinking age. It doesn't seem to have helped; if anything, the problem only gets worse. One news story sticks in my mind. One night last summer, in a town near Boston, four high school girls, all about sixteen or seventeen, were killed and another seriously injured in an auto accident. Earlier in the evening, they had loaded up their small car with beer and several kinds of liquor and had gone out for an evening of driving and drinking. By the time of the accident, all were drunk. The one survivor was later quoted by the papers as saying, from her bed in the hospital, "I didn't think there was anything wrong with what we were doing; all the kids around here do it."

Of course, children who spend almost all their time in groups of other people their own age, shut out of society's serious work and concerns, with almost no contact with any adults except child-watchers, are going to feel that what "all the other kids" are doing is the right, the best, the only thing to do.

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