As a parish priest, I often hear stories about homeschooling families who have been put through the ringer when it comes to preparing for the sacraments. Their priests indicate that they must pay for and join the required, officially sanctioned religious classes offered by the parish because they suspect the parents haven’t properly prepared the children. A priest would never demand that a parochial school child do the same. This lack of trust displays a fundamental misunderstanding of Catholic homeschoolers and denies that they are actually engaged in Catholic, religious education. Questioning the ability of parents to provide a religious education not only goes against the Church’s teaching on the primacy of parents as educators, but also displays a lack of knowledge about how well-educated homeschoolers truly are, particularly in the faith. The proof is in the statistics, a huge number of homeschoolers go on to religious vocations.
In spite of the tremendous, proven success of homeschooling, The National Catholic Register reports that one of the working groups of bishops at the Youth Synod has concerns. The note from the group mentions that, “homeschooling can have an ideological basis,” and goes on to ask, “Are parents qualified to homeschool them?”
The problem, it seems, may not be ignorance of the community in question but the fact that homeschoolers show a reluctance to deconstruct the tradition, seem to know some Latin, and may, in fact, be willing to use it during real-life actual prayers. They love Catholicism, thus they are ideologues. Ironically, those ideologues love their bishops and priests and are great sources of strength in their parishes. This reminds me of the time I was accused of brainwashing the parish schoolchildren during the normal process of teaching the faith because I was wearing a cassock. If simply being Catholic and doing normal Catholic things is considered extreme and ideological, well, we’re just going to have to disagree.
It’s the question that really bothers me, though – Are parents qualified to teach their children?
First of all, just how successful do they have to be until that question forever disappears?
Second, we should really have some sort of shared understanding of what education is meant to achieve. Is it to become a particularly well-paid cog in a globalist-capitalist economy? Are schools simply training grounds for the next generation of compliant wage-earners? If so, sure, let’s go ahead and pack the classrooms with ipads and standardized tests and get an expert in educational theory to load those precious little minds up with the tools they need to grab a coveted spot in a nice cubicle near the water cooler for fifty years of middle-management bliss. No offense to anybody intended, we all do what we have to do to earn a living, but is this how we want to define success in life? Is it the best possible reason to why we read books and learn and explore?
Education is not and cannot be primarily concerned with merely functional activity, it is about developing a capacity for happiness. It is about learning to recognize the beautiful and the good and then to form young souls to be receptive to that beauty, to achieve inner harmony and virtue. Education is poetry. Education seeks sainthood.
My children are homeschooled. They read novels all day long. The boys play with Legos. The girls do extravagant macrame crafting projects. They bake cupcakes and make pancakes. My daughter recently created an entire unicorn costume with nothing more than scrap fabric and a sewing machine. My son plays the piano in fits and spurts all day long and when he can’t sit still and focus he gets a quick break to dig a hole in the backyard. Perhaps more important is what they don’t do. They don’t get bullied. They don’t stare vacantly into space while waiting for the rest of the class to catch up on the lesson. They don’t feel marginalized and stupid when they’re the ones who have fallen behind. They don’t wake up in the dark and wait for a bus in freezing cold and then fall asleep at night exhausted while trying to complete unnecessary homework.
Through homeschooling, our children have been given their childhood back. The simple fact of allowing them to be human beings gives them space to learn far more than they would in any other context. When education is in harmony with the soul, learning and education becomes a passion, not a chore, and our children learn with very little effort. Most important, while they skip around the house memorizing multiplication tables, they are happy.
This may seem overly romantic, to claim that this is how education can work and for an average child no expert educators are necessary, but there is great wisdom in the Church’s perennial teaching that parents are the primary educators of their children. This is because children are master imitators, and who better to imitate than their very own parents? Education is based primarily on watching and mimicking parents. They pray with us. Cook with us. Read with us. Play music with us. They learn to socialize with a diverse range of people by listening in during dinner parties. They learn to love virtue by first being loved by us.
I’m not making this stuff up. It’s all there in John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, Plato’s Republic, and any number of explications of classical education. Plato talks at length about how children are naturally influenced and shaped by those around them. It makes sense that I, as their father, would want those influences to be me and their mother. No one loves them more than us, so no one should influence them more than us. No one can prepare their souls to be more receptive to all that which is beautiful, noble, and true than us.
The world can be an ugly place. It can be harsh and prosaic, dominated by power and politics, and overwhelmed by a functional view of existence. Education isn’t meant to suit us to win in such an environment, education is meant to open us up to possibilities beyond such limited thinking. It’s time to honor those parents who are able and willing to do so, by whatever educational means they choose. Particularly in our parochial schools, how can we invite more involvement from parents?
Parents are uniquely well equipped to teach their children. They are the experts. The question really should be: How can we support homeschooling, and how can we learn lessons from them for our parochial schools to imitate?