Record: Helen E. Lees, Education Without Schools: Discovering Alternatives (Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2014). [Abstract Here]
Summary: Lees, a Visiting Research Fellow in Education and Theology at York St. John University in England and founding editor of the online journal Other Education, here draws on her doctoral research to make an impassioned plea for expanding the public understanding of education to include more than formal institutional schooling. In this post I will summarize the first five chapters of her book.
The evidentiary basis for Lees’ claims comes from two studies she conducted between 2007 and 2010. The first was a series of 29 semi-structured interviews lasting from 30 minutes to three hours each with British parents who either were home educating their children or were strongly considering it for their pre-school age children. In each case Lees asked the parent to explain how she or he had come to consider Elective Home Education (EHE) as an option for her or his children. Lees is especially interested in the moment of transformation, when an individual becomes aware of the option of home education and decides to embrace it.
The second study was a street survey. Lees went up to 90 total strangers and asked them the question “Did you know that children don’t have to go to school?” She then recorded their reactions and continued the conversation for no more than 10 minutes.
From these two studies Lees builds a nine chapter argument for expanding the public perception of education to include non-school methods. Here I will briefly summarize each chapter’s contents. Chapter one introduces the two studies and the main themes of the book, as I have just done myself.
In chapter two Lees makes clear that she is no dispassionate observer of the scene. She is a dedicated reformer whose goal with the book is to convince her country that EHE is normal and a viable alternative to formal schooling. She documents with her street survey just how ignorant the British public is of home education, but she states that once they hear about it they tend to think it’s just fine. Most wouldn’t choose it for themselves, but being aware of its existence turns their own support of government schooling from being a compulsory given to a democratic choice.
In chapter three Lees describes for a general audience what EHE is. She notes the diversity of practice, ranging from unschooling and other child-centered methods emphasizing autonomy to methods that seek to imitate the traditional school in the home. Many of the values schools claim to honor, like emotional development, self-actualization, self-efficacy, and of course social development are often unfortunately stunted by the formal school’s hierarchical organization and oppressive rules. EHE provides an escape from deadening formalism. It liberates children, at least in principle, to develop into mature, competent, well-rounded adults. Lees also briefly recounts in this chapter the legal history that has made it possible for parents to educate children at home in the UK, and analyzes the infamous 2009 Badman Review that home educators successfully repudiated but that, she believes, nevertheless has played a role in tainting the public and media perception of home education in the UK.
In chapter four Lees sets out to construct a philosophy of elective home education. She thinks that the most promising approach is the Continental tradition rather than the Analytic tradition of Anglo-American thought. Specifically, she is drawn to Lyotard’s famous definition of postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” for Lees thinks of institutional schooling as a totalizing metanarrative. Just as postmodern discourse delights in the instabilities and play of language, so EHE breaks down the rationalized institutional school, opening up a riotous diversity of new forms. As Lees puts it, “Home education is not a set practice. It is emergent, made up, spontaneous, free.” (p. 62) Two other theoretical constructs that are often yoked to postmodernism strike Lees as useful. First, Thomas Kuhn’s famous account of how scientific revolutions happen seems to her to be a very accurate description of how many adults come to embrace home education: an epistemic crisis leads to a “gestalt switch” as people are forced by the contradiction between experience and belief to cast away old belief and embrace the new. Second, Michel Foucault’s ethical art of the self, where the individual seeks for ways to transcend the confines of mainstream identity, seems also to capture the spirit of many who embrace home education for the sake of their children’s freedom.
In chapter five Lees turns to her interview data to probe the factors that have led some adults to embrace home education for their children. Again drawing on Kuhn, she finds that for most of her respondents a crisis moment with a child led to a collapse of faith in institutional schooling. EHE came along as a way out, a powerful alternative that changed their lives. Many of her respondents speak of home education in quasi-religious terms, growing emotional as they recall the moment of conversion. As one mother puts it, the recognition that she could pull her children out of school “was like a, you know, an eureka moment…it was part of a jigsaw that fell into place. It was the first time that I thought…’I see, I see…it doesn’t have to be like this. There is an alternative…'” (p. 93)
In part two of this review I will summarize chapters 6-9 and offer some comments about the overall project.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College