The illusion of choice

Before I return to some personal accounts of home education, I feel that I must expand upon the idea that I set out yesterday; that unless heroic efforts are made, children are indoctrinated by their family life from birth in various ideas which will force them in certain directions, thus robbing them of a free choice in how they develop and which interests they pursue. Here is an extract from the blog of a very well known home educator who is vehement in advocating the right of children to choose their own topics for home education:

‘Pottery again today, it is my weekly therapy and we both love it’

The mother goes on in detail about the wonders of creative artwork. The word ‘we’ constantly recurs. One seeks in vain for similar enthusiasm for physics or mathematics! Already, at the age of twelve, this child has been guided into ‘creative’ rather than scientific channels. The mother is determined that the child will not take GCSEs, which means that if she goes to college it will probably be a course which can be accessed by a portfolio; almost certainly not an A level course. I would put money on its being something in the art line. How much choice has this young person really had?

Or consider the case of a child raised in a very devout Muslim home or one belonging to some protestant, fundamentalist Christian sects. If you have been taught that the world was created only six thousand years ago, you are unlikely to end up studying biology or astronomy at university. After all, you will probably not accept evolution or standard cosmology. Here again, the family belief system is imposing a curriculum which precludes various lines of study.

Of course one does not need to look at devoutly religious families to find ideology being imposed upon children which will push them in a particular direction! Here is a presumably modern, enlightened and progressive parent speaking here yesterday of the way in which she raised a home educated child:

‘'I'm not sure why I'd want my child to develop vastly different life values to the rest of their family. I wouldn't want them to be racist, being rather an obvious example.'

‘We started out with anti-racist beliefs’

This is a pretty general type of dogma which is so common that we may not even recognise it as being a prejudice in which we are indoctrinating our children. Assuming that this parent was using the expression ‘racism’ in the usual meaning, that of believing that different races have different innate qualities and characteristics, some of which make them superior or inferior to those of other races; then why on earth was she conveying opposition to this belief system to her child as being axiomatic? Why was it her default setting? True, she says that she discussed the question, but clearly from a particular and slanted perspective.

I am myself open minded about the idea of racism and have always promoted this to my daughter. The evidence is far from conclusive and is actually pretty finely balanced on either side. Let us look at just one example which militates against the holding of ‘anti-racist beliefs’. ( How this can be a matter of ‘belief’, rather than evidence is, I confess, quite beyond me. The very expression, 'anti-racist beliefs' tells us at once that to the writer, this is a matter of ideology or faith and not objective science.)

It is a matter of common observation, in this country, America, Africa, China and everywhere else that data are collected, that black babies reach their motor milestones earlier than white babies. Babies of Chinese origin, by comparison, lag behind both black and white children. Any Health Visitor in this country will know about this and it has been the subject of many studies. Black babies crawl earlier, stand earlier and walk earlier. This is regardless of where they are born and no convincing cultural explanation has been offered for this advantage. They just seem to be stronger and quicker to develop. The physical superiority of black neonates has also shown up in premature babies. Black babies born prematurely have higher survival rates than white babies. It has been suggested that this early advantage in physical development goes some way to towards explaining why there are so many black athletes and footballers.

Now here is evidence which strongly supports a central tenet of racism; a racial group with apparently innate characteristics and traits which give it a superiority over others from different races. To make opposition to such evidence a matter of ideological belief and not science means that many parents who view themselves as being liberal and progressive are in fact in the grip of dogma just as much as the family who believe in the existence of Adam and Eve! The child of such a family who notices that while there are an awful lot of Asian doctors and dentists, it is vanishingly rare to encounter one of Caribbean origin, will be fobbed off with an explanation founded upon ‘anti-racist beliefs’; perhaps that the disparity is due to white racism or is the legacy of colonialism.

We all have irrational family belief systems. Our children are raised in this context and often we are not even aware that we are handing down our own prejudices to them. The only way to counter this is to devise a broad and balanced curriculum which is designed to replace our own prejudices with the best modern thinking about anything that we believe or have faith in. Without an objective education, there is little chance for children to become individuals. In the average family, to pretend that we are allowing children a free choice is a complete nonsense. We are in fact playing a version of the three card trick with them; forcing their choice in line with our own unconscious bigotry and preconceptions.

Hidden Curricula

For many home educators, the word ‘curriculum’ has a faintly disreputable air. The idea is that some families use a curriculum, while others do not. For those who believe that they are rejecting a curriculum for their children’s education, curricula are represented as being a little like straitjackets which limit and restrict education to a pre-determined course. Schools have a curriculum, but enlightened home educators work in a more open and organic way, allowing children to follow and explore their own interests. This is so utterly absurd, that one wonders how any grown person could express such nonsense while keeping a straight face!

All families are possessed of mythoi. These can be as elaborate as the Arthurian legends or so simple that they may be summed up in one or two words. What sort of mythos might an ordinary family have, whether schooling or home educating? A typical one might be, ‘We are musical’. The parents are keen on music, listen to it a lot and perhaps play instruments and go to concerts. Children raised in such a family often learn to play the piano. Although it is seldom stated explicitly, music is assumed to be a good thing, which is a big part of life. Other families might be ‘rational’ or ‘spiritual’. Perhaps they are the ‘scientific’ type, or maybe ‘plain, straightforward folk’. Because these sets of myths pervade the family, they are often unnoticed by the individual members. Children raised in a ‘rational and scientific’ family are being instructed and indoctrinated in a belief system and set of myths just as thoroughly as the child brought up in a strictly observant Muslim or Jewish household. The same goes for the child brought up by those who value creativity, homosexuality, socialism or a host of other ideologies, prejudices and beliefs. There is no such thing as a neutral upbringing. We all of us shape our children from birth in various ways and point them in the directions we wish them to go.

Even when an effort is made not to pass on their own beliefs, the very life that their parents lead, tells their children what is valued, what regarded as good and acceptable. This can be done in simple ways by being scrupulous about recycling, by running a vegetarian kitchen, attending church or tutting disapprovingly when racism is mentioned on the television news.

This then is the hidden curriculum to which every child in the country is taught, whether she attends school or is educated at home. The family’s own mythos permeates every aspect of the developing child’s life and without anybody being aware of the fact, pushes and pulls her in some directions, while propagating powerful taboos which prevent her from exploring other possible identities which she might wish to assume. The great misconception under which many parents labour is that they are able to provide a neutral background for their child, one in which the child is free to be herself and develop according to her own inner dynamic. This is a falsehood. We can certainly tinker with the prejudices to which the child is exposed and attempt to conceal our own likes and dislikes, but unless this is done very skilfully, the child will spot the pretence and the parents will be revealed as liars and hypocrites.

Of course, there are those happy parents whose belief system and values are so perfect and enlightened, that none of this matters. They are pleased and satisfied with the subliminal messages that they are sending to their children and have an idea that nothing could be more liberal and reasonable than the ideas which their own children are acquiring as a consequence of their upbringing. For the rest of us, it is a problem. We realise that we are teaching our children according to a curriculum every bit as detailed and inflexible as the National Curriculum. How we can work against this will be the subject of my next post, which will look at the vital need to produce a broad and balanced curriculum for children and to apply it methodically in every part of our children’s lives.

While we are on the subject of mythoi, I should perhaps mention that every child in a family also acquires her own personal mythology and that this can be every bit as damaging as the overall family mythos. Mary is a ‘loving child’, Joshua is ‘practical’, Emily is ‘brainy’, James is ‘creative’ and so on. Even when not explicitly stated in the child’s presence, these individual mythic characters affect how children are treated, the experiences which their parents arrange for them, the hopes and aspirations which others have for them.

No parent is free of all the things which I have described above. There are really only two choices. We can pretend that this is not happening and act as though there is no hidden curriculum for our children or we can acknowledge that this is the reality and work to devise a curriculum which is specifically aimed at countering our own influences. A curriculum which will be balanced and ensure that our children have an opportunity to take directions which we would never have dreamed of and which might run counter to our own values and way of life. It is at this, the need for a detailed curriculum at which I shall next be looking.

More about the teaching of higher mathematics

I managed to irritate one or two people here yesterday; not for the first and almost certainly not for the last time. I wonder if those commenting really thought that I was advocating the securing to stakes and pelting with filth of those who failed effectively to motivate their children in the study of mathematics? If so, it is time now to reveal that this was meant humorously!

In the coming week I want to look at home education in the secondary years, with particular reference to subjects which parents themselves found hard or disliked at school. All too often, we as parents transmit these prejudices and neuroses to our children, so that you will have families with a tradition of art and music, while others tend towards science. This certainly happens in schooling families and I strongly suspect that it is even more common in home educating families.

Today though, I want briefly to mention one or two personal things about my own daughter’s education and the peculiar man who supervised it. By the age of sixteen she had passed eight International GCSEs, all at A*. These were English language, English literature, mathematics, history, physics, biology, chemistry and religious studies. She had also gained Grade 6 (bronze medal) at acting with LAMDA, as well as Grade 5 classical guitar and Grade 2 piano with the ABRSM. She had no lessons or tutoring in any of those subjects, except by me.

Now I wonder if readers think that all this was because I am some sort of Renaissance Man or Victorian polymath? Do they perhaps think that I am a musician in the morning, who acts at weekends and has a passionate interest in science and mathematics? Not a bit of it. I literally cannot play a single note on the guitar, nor have I ever acted, even at school. As for mathematics, I know hardly anything about the subject and was a complete failure at school. It was my worst subject. Readers are now perhaps scratching their heads, saying to themselves, ’Hang on a minute, wasn’t he talking about the joys of higher mathematics yesterday and rabbiting on about calculus? Somethings’s not right here!’

I shall be expanding upon this idea in the next week or so, but for now I will say that all I know about calculus is that it is concerned with changing motion and figuring out the area under curves. That is it; the sum total of my knowledge. My daughter needed calculus for her maths IGCSE and did it so well that she went on to get an A* in the subject at A level. How can this be, if I was such a duffer at maths and disliked the subject? What about physics? Surely I must be a specialist at that? Nothing of the sort.

This is only a short post, but I want to leave you with this thought. If I did not think that I could have provided my daughter with an education at least as rich and varied, as well as academically sound, as that which she would have received at the best of schools; I should never have embarked upon the enterprise in the first place. True, I had other motives, but this would have been an irreducible minimum, whatever other reasons I might have had for wanting to home educate.

Educating children at home has nothing to do with knowing about subjects. Nor does it, or perhaps I should say that it should not, have any connection with which things one enjoyed at school or found difficult there. Anybody can teach their child literally anything at all; from calculus to piano, from acting to chemistry. It requires no prior knowledge and will not produce misery in any child. Before I finish, I must leave readers with a simple question. I have a reputation as being a highly structured, school-at-home type of home educator; one who taught, rather than allowed his child to learn naturally. Here is the question. Does anybody believe for a moment that it would be possible to get a child to work hard enough at the guitar to pass grade 5, unless the child was a willing partner in the process? Can anybody imagine forcing, against her wishes, a child of twelve to study calculus? Or biology, acting or anything else? If they can visualise such a neurotic and driven child, forced on by an unforgiving and fanatically pushy parent to over-achieve in all areas, simply to obey his wishes; well then, all I can say is that such people must have a vastly more vivid imagination that my own! It is quite literally impossible to get a two year-old to eat a carrot. How less likely is it that one would be able to persuade, against her will, an adolescent to study mathematics. As I say, I shall be looking at secondary education in the next few weeks and exploring this whole idea in more detail.
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