This post is the first in a series reviewing the recent articles published in the November 2009 issue of Theory and Research in Education. The article under review is Michael S. Merry and Charles Howell, “Can Intimacy Justify Home Education?”
Merry, professor of philosophy of education at the University of Amsterdam and author of an important recent book on Islamic schooling, and Charles Howell, a philosopher of education at Northern Illinois University who has published many articles on homeschooling (most of them in Brian Ray’s Home School Researcher), here team up for a vigorous argument for intimacy as a guiding value in homeschooling that can justify the practice. Here’s the argument in a nutshell:
Intimacy is a very important aspect of healthy human relationships, especially parent-child relationships. Intimate relationships are relationships characterized by affection, mutual knowledge, shared experiences, open communication, and trust. People who don’t have relationships like this tend toward “loneliness, increased stress and accelerated physical deterioration.” (p.366). But people who do have intimate relationships flourish, especially children, who feel secure and enjoy healthy social development.
Now this sort of parent-child relationship assumes knowledge of what is good for the child. Intimate relationships will be motivated by concern for the child’s well being, not by “unrestrained parental prerogatives or authoritarian parental control.” (367)
The main thesis of this paper, then, is that homeschooling tends to be a tool that will help foster just this sort of intimacy if the proper conditions are met. One condition is that the parent is the right sort of parent. Merry and Howell draw here on the work of family psychologists who have found over time five characteristics that make for successful parenting, or what they call attentive parenting. Here they are:
1. Sensitivity to a child’s abilities, knowledge, beliefs, moods, etc., and a willingness to adapt parental expectations to these things.
2. Warmth, affection, and humor.
3. Clear articulation of parental expectations and justification of them so kids understand the rules and can apply them to novel situations.
4. Sincerity (by which they mean that parents don’t make kids do stuff they won’t do themselves–they’re not hypocrites).
5. Talent for helping kids think through their actions so they can learn how to make decisions and reason through the likely consequences of their actions.
Parents who are good at these 5 things are attentive parents. Drawing on the work of Gary Wyatt (which I review here and here) they argue that attentive parents tend to be the most successful homeschoolers. But “harsh, unyielding, insensitive, unexplained, ill-humored, unloving and over-controlling” parents tend to fare poorly at homeschooling and often quit out of frustration.
So assuming that a homeschooler is an attentive parent, the authors go on to assert that the intimacy they enjoy with their children is likely to be enhanced by homeschooling. Why? Two reasons. First of all, given what was said above, homeschoolers have more opportunity for mutual knowledge and shared communication. Secondly, public schools can actually decrease intimacy. How?
Three ways: Failure, bullying, and risk-taking behaviors. In school a student may suffer a psychically damaging failure, be it academic, athletic, social, or whatever. While this could become a positive growing experience, often it leads to a child withdrawing inward in a downward spiral that isolates him or her from the parents who aren’t privy to what has gone on in school. So with bullying. Merry and Howell cite empirical literature that “clearly indicates that bullying and harassment are widespread in public schools.” (371) Again, such experiences can lead to withdrawal in children and a downward spiral that decreases familial intimacy. Finally, the peer setting of public schools can often tempt children into unhealthy behaviors like drug and alcohol use, early sexual activity, and so on that again drive a wedge between parent and child and lead to a downward “cycle of depression, failure, and hopelessness.” (372)
But wait! Aren’t there good things about schools that may trump this good of parent-child intimacy? There are. The authors mention three. At least in theory, public education may foster 1. critical thinking and autonomy in kids, 2. equality of educational opportunity, and 3. public goods such as tolerance and mutual respect of people who are different.
The authors say that in some situations these goods may trump intimacy. If it is the case, for example, that parents are not very attentive and the local public school is a model of integration, critical thinking, and tolerance, then their intimacy argument fails. They are especially critical of the sort of restrictive parent who homeschools out of a desire to limit a student’s exposure to rival worldviews.
But are public schools really models of all of these social goods? Some may be, but most public schools are not. Many public schools restrict student expression and exposure to alternate ideas at least as profoundly as do some homeschoolers. And as for equality of educational opportunity, it has been shown over and over that public schools have long been and continue to be “stratified by culture, social class or race and hence are not as heterogeneous as one may like to think.” (376) Finally as to public goods, it is not at all clear that public education is good at producing graduates who are models of tolerance and civic high-mindedness.
In closing, the authors are clear that they are not making a generic argument that homeschooling is better than public schooling. What they are saying is that their intimacy argument shows that homeschooling by attentive parents is better at securing the positive value of intimacy than public education, and that so long as the local public school is not really a model at fostering autonomy, facilitating bully-free relationships, or encouraging exposure to and tolerance of diversity, this intimacy argument beats arguments that would seek to curtail homeschooling liberties by appealing to autonomy, equality, or civility.
I found this a bracing and compelling argument. Unlike most of what I review on this blog, this article is not really a piece of research. It’s just a thought experiment. As such things go, it’s quite good. Some homeschooling parents will not like the authors’ contention that authoritarianism makes for bad homeschooling, even though this is one of their only claims that actually does have solid empirical backing. The irony here for authoritarian types is that their outlook is usually unsuccessful at doing what they most want to do–to make their kids in their own image. As Merry and Howell explain, if you really want your kids to end up like you, attentive parenting is the best way to make it happen. Doctrinaire authoritarianism breeds resentment and destroys intimacy.
The other place where this article actually had a solid empirical base was in its critique of public schooling. I’ve found in my own encounters with colleagues at academic conferences that an initial skepticism toward homeschooling is softened considerably when I note that some of their fears about socialization or racial isolation apply at least as much to the typical public school. Most of my colleagues (many of whom write articles and books about the history of racism, sexism, and classism in public education) quickly acknowledge this.
Merry and Howell do acknowledge that homeschooling, like private education, does have the potential negative social consequence of withdrawing the children of the best parents from the public school, which means that those children who remain will be even more likely to fall into the downward spiral of failure, bullying, and risky behaviors. This was one of the arguments made so long ago by the architects of the 19th century common school, especially Horace Mann. But as I point out in my book, though Mann made many pretty speeches trying to convince rich and well-adjusted Americans that it was their civic duty to put their kids in public school to help leaven the lump for everyone else, Mann himself had his wife teach their kids at home! Today’s parents are the same way. It may be the inescapable truth that most of us can’t help but love our own kids more than those of other people, and we’re not willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of ours for the possible benefit of those of our neighbors. Said more simply, we don’t love our neighbors as ourselves, at least when it comes to our children.
Let me say in conclusion that Merry and Howell are NOT arguing that parents who don’t do things according to their preferred “attentive parenting” approach should not be allowed to homeschool. All they’re saying is that such parents would not be able to justify what they’re doing by appealing to this intimacy argument they’ve concocted. I can hear some homeschoolers retort, “well, why do we have to justify what we do anyway?” With justification, some might see this article as a clever solution to a nonexistent problem. But if you’re the sort that enjoys a rigiorous argument, there aren’t many pieces on homeschooling that you’ll find that are better constructed than this one.