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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
12.3 (Summer 2012)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Liberating Education: How Home-Instruction Can Elevate Income, Competence, and Social Harmony
John R. Harris
Late in his life, Cicero penned the grand words, Non esse cupidum pecunia est, non esse emacem vectigal est; contentum vero suis rebus esse maximae sunt certissimaeque divitiae (Paradoxa Stoicorum, 6.3.51). Somewhat free translation: “The absence of craving is money in the bank; not to be a spendthrift is as good as getting a raise. Satisfaction with what one has is the greatest and surest kind of wealth.”
It is one of our time’s most telling—and perhaps most tragic—ironies that conservatism has come to be identified with unbridled capitalism more than with personal morality, a faith in a supremely good being, a dedication to humane customs, a live-and-let-live foreign policy, or any of the other more logical choices. Cicero’s reflection above is quintessentially conservative, and it also lies at the heart of all post-Socratic philosophy (not to mention certain pre-Socratics like Diogenes, or certain non-classical teachers of antiquity like Jesus and the Buddha). The idea is just this: that a healthy spirit has succeeded in minimizing its dependency upon this world. That spirit’s owner echoes the sentiments expressed in the legend about Socrates on a tour of the Athenian agora (the equivalent of a modern shopping mall): “How many things there are of which I have no need!” He cares not a fig for fashion, this independent soul; he needs no iPad or iPhone to keep himself from lapsing into comatose boredom; he prefers simple food grown in the garden to sugar- and caffeine-laced morsels dispensed by a vending machine; he understands the folly of chasing after the new and the bright.
One can imagine a wizened Franciscan monk uttering similar words these days in some forgotten, semi-rural monastery along the East Coast—but not a Baptist minister drawing a six-figure annual salary in a bustling Southern metropolis. The most luminous heroes of the Right—Rush, Mitt, Sarah, and the Donald—may or may not have stable family lives, but they all agree upon the worthiness of acquiring wealth and the moral imperative of encouraging a boomtown laissez-fairism. To speak of being content with what one has in such company is to hint at an endorsement of socialism. Even though Mr. Limbaugh extols his i-Gadgetry over the air without hesitation, and even though Glenn Beck (justifiably) turns the appellation “flat-earther” right back on the authors of the Global Warming terror, the man who wants to keep his old neighborhood intact and doesn’t mind walking to work ends up being the one branded “progressive”.
If anything good is to come out of our imminent economic collapse (and it is actually ongoing at the gas pump and the grocery store—more of a rock slide than a cave-in), I believe it may be the resurgence of a genuinely Socratic (or dare I say Christian?) conservatism. People will at last discover the distinction between the words “necessity” and “luxury”. And to the neo-conservative advocates of “compulsory progress” who warn us that to want less, to buy less, to manufacture less, and so to invent less is to return to the Stone Age, we will hear sensible Middle Americans responding, “On the contrary, I am richer materially as well as spiritually. I make far less but I need far less—and, in fact, I save more than I lose. When I give myself a raise by no longer ordering pizza, I not only lengthen my life and enhance my family time: I create jobs for my kids in the garden, paid for with healthy food instead of volatile dollars.”
Not convinced? The most immediate and compelling instance of such “conservatory progress” (as opposed to the mandatory variety) would be education. Let us imagine the utter collapse of the public school system. What a calamity! Only the very wealthy would send their children to schools—to ritzy private schools where they would take courses in Controlling the Masses as well as in Algebra and Biology. The ninety-nine percent would be grazing from dumpsters, sleeping in abandoned cars, and swinging from trees… or so runs the canard.
Of course, this is absurd. Only a neo-pagan, crypto-Nietzschean misanthrope like Ayn Rand could believe that the common man would instantly revert to a helpless ape without an elite body of Supermen to give him employment and instruction. Obviously, what would ensue upon the collapse of public schooling would be a return to the frontier stratagem of teaching the children their letters and numbers at home: obviously, because it is already happening. As I remarked last week, college professors (if speaking off the record) will readily admit that their best readers and writers were home-schooled, so we have every reason to suppose that a vast “regression” to learning at home would in fact stimulate the educational renaissance we have been vainly seeking through higher and higher taxes. Children receive more attention at home and more discipline at home. Even the parent who can scarcely fill out a job application would foster a better learning environment (if merely given a few books) than we find in the overcrowded public-school classroom, where teachers have been replaced by computer terminals and where discipline has been bound hand and foot in legalistic red tape.
To develop a point, I wish to carry our imagined disaster now to the –nth degree: universal home-education. Let us concede that not every parent enjoys a home-schooling option in the strictest sense. Single parents must work however much they may wish to stay at home, and parents who can scarcely fill out a job application really aren’t very well suited for teaching. Such parents have a disproportionately high representation among minority groups. (This does not imply, by the way, that some minorities aren’t very bright: it implies, rather, that single-parenthood—whose effects upon both income- and education-level are devastating—has been encouraged among certain racial minorities by a paternalistic government.) What are these minority parents to do as the children of Caucasians and Asians learn their A-B-C’s properly on the other side of town?
A “racialized” Ayn Rand (which requires no great adjustment of Ayn Rand as we have her now) would conclude, I suppose, that such shiftless masses must subside to those lower rungs of the socio-cultural ladder to which evolution has destined them. A reactionary-racist Louis Ferrakhan (i.e., Ferrakhan as we see him every day) would have the same masses mobilize, invade the neighborhoods of the privileged, loot, murder, and enjoy the harvest of the wealthy until the iPhone’s battery goes dead and the wine cellar runs dry. I don’t believe for an instant that decent people would allow either scenario to play out. They would open their home-educating doors, rather, to people on the other side of the track or the highway. They always have. My great-grandfather actually died in a Christmas Eve snowstorm trying to get food to the poor sections of Clemson, South Carolina. He was literally crossing a railroad track in his Model T, and he never saw the train coming, apparently. When we are not convinced by race-baiting demagogues, at any rate, that black must kill white and white must kill black, we recognize in each other fellow human beings in need. We help out. One can observe the phenomenon in the humblest of plebeian gatherings: at the ballpark or in the check-out line at Wal-Mart. People stand aside to let the pregnant woman or the old guy with the cane pass, and they smile at the wide-eyed baby pointing to a bright light. As long as we remain human beings, those who have the resources to educate a few kids in the neighborhood will cheerfully add one or two from outside the neighborhood.
Imagine the frustration, if that were to happen, on the part of a Ferrakhan or an Al Sharpton. If members of the broader community pooled their private resources to put kids in houses with stay-at-home moms, imagine how quickly the walls of racial and class division would come toppling down. During the late sixties, liberal politicians were obsessed with the not-so-bright idea that placing black kids physically within the facilities of white kids would produce better educational outcomes—and that punishing white families by transporting their kids daily to black schools would force a general upgrade of campus hardware, staff, and maintenance. The whole grand design was called Bussing (or Forced Bussing by those who knew it from close up), and it became the accelerant behind urban flight, inner-city degeneration, and a brand new racial antagonism. The home-school movement, in contrast, as an entirely voluntary opening of doors, could bond communities once again, build lasting friendships across racial lines from childhood up, and—most importantly of all—unite us all as Americans in something like a common culture; for children, in the overwhelming number of cases, would be reading the same Hawthorne and Stevenson, studying the same math, and peering at the same planets after dark.
I do not mean to understate the extreme variety always implicit in a radically decentralized, frontier-like educational experience. To be sure, some parents would attempt to teach their children science from the Book of Genesis—and some would probably devote a great deal of time to the piano. A few would probably teach a racist ideology. Do we really need to have a Wise and Omnipotent Censor holding the variety in check, however—do you really think, for instance, that the Skinhead home-schooler (if any such truly exists) would hear frequent requests from around the town to have other children enrolled in his program of indoctrination? I find that people who suffer from such apprehensions consider themselves to be a wholly superior kind of human being. They are elitist snobs. Their fears are grounded not in any practical experience, but in the invincible conviction that a vast segment of society is routinely animated by the worst possible motives roiling their wildest fantasies. The same people would not be at all uncomfortable to see your children and mine confiscated at birth and redistributed to government-certified parents.
On the whole, variety would be a splendid thing. If only the rare parent who knew some Latin were imparting it to his or her half-dozen charges, then the net result twenty years later would be six young people well versed in Latin, as opposed to the null set produced by public schools. If another six grew up proficient in electronics or botany or the violin but dismally ignorant of European History or Earth Science… well, would it not be better to have six experts in something rather than six thousand pot-heads who had barely passed every subject across the board? A mind excited by prying into circuitry is quite capable of picking up a book about the Thirty Years’ War in its leisure; a mind that has never brought discipline to its address of any endeavor is wholly incapable of doing by itself what others could not do for it.
Yet the overall consequence of innumerable coast-to-coast home schools, I repeat, would be blessedly homogeneous. Mainstream English would not be the stilted parlance of a textbook, but the language of the entire school day—at lunch and in the back yard as well as at the desk; for children would no longer break up into black, white, and Latino every time the bell rang. The moral substrate of sharing and civility would not be Big Brother’s edict pinned to the bulletin board in colorful drafting paper, but the lifeblood of families bonded together by conjugal and filial love and duty. The psychological assumptions made in the teaching of literature or history would not flow from the current trend of nihilist cynicism poisoning the corridors of graduate schools, but from the practical successes of self-sustaining, harmoniously collaborating families and communities. Instead of uniform surfaces concealing cores in various stages of decay, the home-school network would offer children a varied surface spread over the same bedrock values.
Yet before we subscribe to this Arcadian vision that would have us expecting daisies to pop up from the manure heap, should we not acknowledge that the collapse of the public school system must take place in the context of a broader national collapse? The unemployment rate will already be very high by the time millions upon millions of teachers across the country are added to that number. A few budding cellists and Greek scholars seems poor recompense for a national calamity. What fool would extol a forced return to the frontier, where hardships were far more intimidating than those of forced bussing? When people don’t have jobs and virtually all public services have collapsed, who will have time to teach piano or play with a telescope? Everyone will be combing the streets for a dropped quarter or the shrubs for a robin’s egg.
I have learned that I can never adequately allow for the fertility of the paranoid imagination in the matter of conjuring up doomsday scenarios attendant upon any downscaling of government. One will always be judged naïve by this crowd; and indeed, the chokehold of teachers’ unions upon public sector funding can probably not be loosened by anything less than major nuclear war or Earth’s collision with a massive meteor. Now there is a prospect to depress even the most sanguine: the educational mafia’s cradle-to-grave dominion over our lives!
I will quickly conclude, however—with a deep bow to Cicero—by noting some of the ways that the finances of the typical American family would actually be much improved by universal home-schooling. Obviously, no more taxes wasted on lavishly decked public schools and their contumacious faculties; also no more gas wasted on transport to and from said schools; the possibility of surviving with a single car per family due to the vanished need of said transport; the greatly diminished costs of insuring fewer cars for less driving; less expenditure on day care for pre-schoolers and toddlers whose classes end well before the work day; the related savings associated with having adolescents confined to the neighborhood all day—e.g., less crime, smaller police forces, less congested courts and jails; reduced health costs sure to follow the diminution in driving, in juvenile delinquency, in poorly supervised diets, and in the vastly decreased spread of communicable diseases; less spending on gaudy clothes and entertainment hardware that adolescents “must have” thanks to constant competition with peers on campus; less loss of material and of life (admittedly not an economic calculation) due to the consumption of alcohol and dangerous drugs on campus (including at after-hour campus events): and a consequent reduction—probably a radical one—in the cost of waging war against illegal drug importers and distributors.
That’s quite a list of benefits—and it results from only five minutes of reflection on the subject.
Of course, the stay-at-home mom or dad has not only given up a paycheck in this scenario: her or his rules and regulations will also keep teenagers from squandering money on Nikes and iPods—which will drive other businesses under, or at least force lay-offs. Yet the revival of neighborhood life will foster an explosion of humbler enterprises: corner grocery stores and cafés, places like bowling alleys where teenagers may congregate in relative safety, repair shops run out of garages… and, lest we forget, the home-educators themselves, who will no doubt often take on children not their own for a modest fee. Though the income secured by all such enterprises is very meager compared to occupying the 34th floor downtown, the expenses involved in the latter lifestyle tend to balance its assets with liabilities. Furthermore, every time a publicly funded function disappears, the opportunity for a private enterprise emerges. Consider high school athletics, so important to the culture of many small American communities. Pull the rug of tax support out from under these ventures… and you clear a wide space for the municipal teams that used to thrive at the turn of the last century. Wouldn’t it be far more appropriate and wholesome to have young men playing baseball or football for a wage than to have them doing it for Podunk High? Wouldn’t they come closer to receiving a real education when not on the field if their teachers were not constantly being warned against giving the superstars a D or an F?
As I say, none of this is likely to happen on a massive scale any time soon; but it gives me no little satisfaction to know that a sane, entirely feasible way out of our social and cultural rot does exist, and that a few people are already availing themselves of it here and there.
The foregoing essay is a slightly altered draft of a posting on The Intellectual Conservative website (http://www.intellectualconservative.com) in early May of this year.