This post reviews Robert Kunzman, “Life as Education and the Irony of School Reform” in Other Education: The Journal of Educational Alternatives 1, no. 1 (2012): 121-129. [Available here]
Kunzman, whose work is well known to readers of this blog as we have had many occasions to comment on it, here hints at some possible relationships between home education and public school reform in the United States. He does this in the inaugural issue of the new journal Other Education, whose goal is to explore all sorts of alternatives to the conventional public school.
Kunzman begins by critiquing the trend in education reform toward faddish new programs or curricula, often sponsored by private foundations with vested interests in the next big thing. Veteran public school teachers are understandably weary of this constant reform-churn, recognizing as they do that much of it is simply repurposed old ideas that are not likely to change the status quo of dramatic achievement differences among races and classes. As Kunzman puts it, these teachers realize that “many of the most complex, persistent dilemmas of schooling are not going to be solved by the next program or technique; instead, the best schools cultivate a consistent, long-term vision for improvement based on relationships, consistency, and persistence.” (p. 122)
While most reforms being bandied about these days are not likely to change the underlying grammar of schooling very much, Kunzman thinks that there is one trend that is powerful enough to potentially transform education in a fundamental way. That trend is “the way that boundaries of space, time, and subject area are beginning to blur.” (p. 125) Homeschooling exemplifies this blurring of boundaries quite well. While the homeschooling of the 1970s might have been constrained for the most part to the physical home, today’s homeschooling incorporates all sorts of hybrid arrangements: “co-ops, college and community classes, part-time public school enrollment, extracurriculars, and online learning,” so much so that the “home” in homeschooling is “increasingly a misnomer.” (p. 125)
How might the experience of homeschoolers be adapted advantageously by public school reformers? Kunzman envisions a gradual shift away from the notion that the school building is the “locus of learning” to the conception of school as “an anchor for advising, support, and coordination.” (p. 126) Prior to his work studying homeschooling, most of Kunzman’s scholarship pertained to civic or citizenship education. He picks up that theme here, arguing that historically the public school’s most important role was to prepare citizens for American public life. Schools often did not perform that task well, and today’s schools, segregated by class and race and narrowly focused on a few academic subjects, often perform it very poorly indeed. But Kunzman’s hope is that somehow the move toward individualized, hybridized, boundary-crossing education pioneered by homeschoolers will merge with this historic commitment to civic education to produce a public education that both meets the needs of individual children and serves the public well by preparing good citizens.
And that’s the end. I was disappointed, almost shocked that the paper ended when it did. It seems to me that Kunzman has left two very important topics hanging:
1. Kunzman got me really excited when he laid out the thesis that schools should and could move from a building serving as the locus of schooling to something more like a community service center to advise and coordinate learning. I thought he was going to articulate this model more completely, but he just tossed it out and walked away. What might this new understanding of school actually look like, and how would we get from here to there? The model sounds rather like what Ivan Illich proposedso many years ago. Would Kunzman like to see public education function as a giant educational bazaar, where citizens barter and swap educational services? I’m intrigued by the possibility, but I’d like to see it developed a lot more.
2. I’m wondering how in the world we can bring together both the boundary-crossing individualistic approach of homeschooling and the civic-mindedness of public education at its best as Kunzman wants to do. It sounds wonderful, but what would it possibly look like? Many homeschoolers it seems to me have very little interest in the public good as Kunzman defines it. They’re much more interested in their private family life and their sectarian moral vision. Francis Fukuyama’s remarkable recent tome The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, explains in powerful detail how over and over, in society after society, for political statehood to emerge the governing authority must come up with some way to create a class of managers who are more devoted to the state than to their families. Time and again a society’s downfall came at the hands of people who placed loyalty to their biological kin over loyalty to the state, or to what Kunzman here is calling the “common good.” I’m not sure that it’s possible to take a movement whose primary sociological meaning is that of privileging family bonds over those of the larger community and use it to enhance the public good. Kunzman has now produced great scholarship both on civic education and on homeschooling. In this brief piece he seems to be making a first stab at synthesizing the two. I’ll eagerly await any further development of his thinking in this regard, for as of right now I see homeschooling’s “focus on the family” as fundamentally incompatible with historic conceptions of the common good.