(Originally published in the Summer, 2008 issue of Homeschool Horizons)
Many years ago, the "icebreaker" question at our small homeschool meeting was, "How do you relax?" When we had all answered the question, it was apparent that if you wanted to meet a typical homeschooling mom, you'd find her in a bubble bath, reading a mystery. Many years later, a group conversation at a homeschooling activity revealed that we had all pounced upon the new service offered by the Ottawa Public Library: we could order library books from our computers at home, and have them sent to our branch from all over the region. The new typical image of a homeschooling mom became that of someone hunched over her computer late into the night, ordering books, possibly even cackling.
When I think "typical homeschooler", the most familiar image is of barely-controlled chaos, as mom tries to juggle lessons, house, diapers, meals, phone calls, activities and sanity. This scene is often depicted in this magazine's "A Day at Our House" feature. Because of this image, I am intrigued by "the lists", which are always making their way around the homeschooling community by email, magazines and newsletters. These are the lists of the famous homeschooled. They are fun to examine, but I have often noted that some of the names do not match my typical.
For instance, Agatha Christie and C. S. Lewis had governesses. This particular type of home-teacher never got distracted from teaching sums by wondering what to cook for dinner. Alexander Graham Bell, Pierre Curie, Mozart, Florence Nightingale and George Washington were all taught by their fathers. This practice seems to have been quite common in the past. Again, in these cases, I doubt that lessons were ever interrupted by a badly-needed diaper change. Moses also appears on the lists. Perhaps we don't know everything about life in an ancient Egyptian palace, but I'm reasonably certain that Moses' adopted royal mother never had to stay up late finishing the housework.
Thinking about these historical figures makes me examine just what homeschooling is in our modern society. For many of the people on the lists, receiving an education at home was usual for their times. Homeschooling in our times is not usual. Anyone who does it has made a choice, for their own reasons, to raise their children differently from the rest of society. The decision is often made because of dissatisfaction with available educational choices, or because these are not considered to be of vital importance. It is often the parent that does the teaching; and she has many other things occupying her, which the children see and are involved in. That, actually, is what is typical of the homeschooled these days.
Therefore, things start to look a little more familiar when Thomas Edison appears on the lists. He didn't do well in school (or, as we prefer to express it, "wasn't appreciated at school"), and his education was supervised by his mother. Susan B. Anthony was taken out of school because she was getting a "weak education"; her teacher wouldn't show her how to do long division because she was a girl. Her education was then supervised by her father.
Also familiar are the Wright brothers. Formal schooling does not seem to have been taken very seriously by them or their family. They moved frequently, dabbled with various mechanics, read a lot (their father encouraged them to stay home from school once in awhile to pursue personal interests, which apparently didn't make him very popular with the school), took advantage of some formal education when it suited them, and eagerly pursued what unfolded before them. You'll meet more kids like that when you read the teen stories in the launch pad section of this magazine.
It's comforting, as we manage our typical modern chaos, to think that others have gone before us, and that their children have succeeded. However, we live in times that are very different from many of the previously "homeschooled". Most of us have chosen to homeschool because we realize that the usual ways of education are not going to be acceptable or relevant. That, I think, is what we can certainly call "typical".