This post reviews Mary Griffith, Viral Learning: Reflections on the Homeschooling Life (LULU, 2007).
Griffith, known by many in the homeschooling community for her Homeschooling Handbook: From Preschool to High School, A Parent’s Guide(1997, revised in 1999) and The Unschooling Handbook : How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom (1998), here offers her musings on a number of topics after years of homeschooling her own children and being, as she puts it with self-deprecating irony, a “famous homeschool author.”
Most of Griffith’s book is a memoir of her own life as a homeschooling mom. The writing is elegant and thoughtful but wouldn’t really merit mention as homeschooling research. But some of her chapters do touch upon broader themes within the movement, and Griffith’s keen observation and intelligence make her recollections valuable for historians or sociologists interested in homeschooling. Here I will not summarize her individual chapters but provide instead a sampling of some of her insights likely to be of interest to homeschooling researchers and observers of the movement.
1. In my review of Gary Wyatt’s Family Ties, I noted Wyatt’s claim, based largely on impressionistic evidence, that many homeschooling parents seem to be motivated at least in part by the negative experiences they themselves had in school as children. Griffith reinforces this insight. Like Wyatt, she has noticed that so many homeschoolers seem to be “making decisions for our children based on our own experience.” For Griffith school was mostly the place where she figured out how to get good grades, not the locus of real learning. So when it came time to teach her own children, she rejected formal schooling.
2. In a chapter called “Duh” Griffith reports on several recent research findings that affirm things “homeschoolers have known for years.” She describes Carol Dweck‘s study of fifth graders which found that giving false praise to students (“you’re really smart at this”) actually makes them perform worse, while encouraging their hard work yields benefits. She describes a study on IQ by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman that found self-discipline to be a better predictor of academic performance than IQ. She cites a 2006 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics that stresses the significance of play for childhood development and counsels parents against overstructuring their children’s lives. Finally, she notes Steven Johnson’s argument in Everything Bad is Good for You that today’s television and video games are actually making us smarter. All of these studies reinforce the central insight of homeschooling–that children learn best when they are in charge of their own learning rather than being force-fed disconnected bits of information in classrooms.
3. In a chapter titled “moving beyond the movement” Griffith offers her thoughts on the conflicts between different types of homeschoolers. Her own pedigree is strongly in the John Holt/left-liberal wing, and the part of the chapter where she recounts the early days and struggles of the HomeSchool Association of California offers a bit of valuable insider information about this organization. Griffith goes on to describe the familiar tensions between conservative Christians and what she calls the secular homeschooling community, but much more interesting are her comments about doctrinaire “unschoolers.” Griffith has little patience with unschoolers who criticize others for their failure “to conform to some external standard of unschooliness.” Finally, Griffith recounts the conflict over whether or not parents taking advantage of government cybercharters and other programs are really homeschooling. As with unschooling, she is frustrated by those who draw lines in the sand. Instead, she encourages all parties to work together as allies to increase options for all parents.
4. Drawing on Daniel Pink’s Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself, Griffith understands homeschoolers as one example of a larger trend in the United States toward free agency. She notes that many homeschooling moms continue paths of independence after their children have left the home, piecing together “an ever-changing patchwork of part-time work, volunteerism, and self-employment” rather than getting a standard day job. Homeschooling, like the blogosphere, wikipedia, and other internet-based forms of human interaction, is an “emerging system.” Homeschoolers are on the cusp of a renewed effort in the United States for citizens to reclaim their autonomy and individuallity from the 20th century’s crushing bureaucracies. As she puts it:
We’ve been lost for a hundred years or so, as we grew so large and so quickly that we lost our means of talking with each other and let big business and corporations and one-way media do the talking for us. But we’re finding our way back again, finally, bit by bit learning for ourselves, learning to do for ourselves. We’re learning to believe in ourselves again, learning to be optimistic about our power and our future.
Let me reiterate that much of the book is of a more personal nature, full of stories about Griffith’s children. But what I have summarized above suggests I hope that this book is more than a personal memoir or nostalgia piece. Griffith is a thoughtful and insightful commentator fully capable of fitting her own experiences into a broader context. For her, that context is the growing interdependence and erasure of boundaries signified by the world wide web. Homeschooling as she reads it is no throwback to a pre-industrial past but on the cutting edge of postmodernity.