home education series: in which it all falls to pieces

Continued from

“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.” –Albert Einstein


I’m learning to knit.

A few years ago, I started following the blogs of some avid knitters. Inspired, I asked one of my girlfriends to teach me. At her house, she showed me how to cast on and do the basic stitches. Over the next few months, I practiced at home and saw my friend whenever I needed help (which was often).

After taking a break from knitting for a couple years, I started back up this winter. Another girlfriend took on the role of instructor this time, helping me select the right yarn and needles, and patiently sitting beside me while I wrestled with sticks and dropped stitches. On my own I watched Youtube videos to learn terminology and form. When stuck (which is often), I take my knitting to church in hopes of cornering my friend (or any of the expert knitters in the congregation, for that matter) and begging a little help. Learning to knit has been painstakingly slow and tedious. It has also been immensely satisfying.

Learning to knit involves the same process—inspiration, getting help, trial and error, and diligence—I use to tackle other endeavors, such as blogging, parenting, sourdough bread making, money management, photography, and gardening. Sometimes I learn as much as I need to be functional and then I quit. Sometimes I lose interest and slack off. Sometimes I push myself with something all together different like belly dancing, up and moving to another country, or cheese making. But the key components to my learning always remain the same.

Am I learning to knit so I can be a professional knitter? To manage our money to become an economist? To garden so I can open a stand at the Farmers Market? No, of course not. I’m learning all these things because I have chosen to, either out of necessity or desire.

Learning is all about acquiring new skills and information. We learn because we are curious, because we need to, because we enjoy it. The neat thing is, when learning is self-motivated, the lines blur between need and want. I need to learn how to raise my children because I want them to thrive. I want to learn to knit because I need to do something creative. I need to learn how to manage my finances because I want to be in charge of my money.

Children are naturally self-motivated. They are boldly curious and exhaustingly tireless. Their dogged determination is unnerving. Just ask their parents.

Which leads me to wonder: why do we allow adults to be the masters of their learning but not children?

And here, my friends, is where it all breaks down. Are all the lectures, worksheets and tests that revolve around information—the prepositions, parts of a cell, state capitals, etc.—truly necessary? What must children learn in order to be well-adjusted and productive adults? Is it the particulars that are important, and if so, which ones and why? Or is it curiosity, self-awareness, and the ability to know how to learn that will get our children where they want to go?


  • Trish

    This post may possibly have changed my life and the lives of my parochial-schooled children. I've been pondering homeschool for a few years, but haven't taken the leap because of practical things and because they are both thriving in school. But those lasts line of your entry…. ("Is it the particulars that are important….") were an epiphany. Never thought of it that way!

  • Patrick

    "I want to make it clear that I don’t see homeschooling as some kind of answer to badness of schools. I think that the home is the proper base for the exploration of the world which we call learning or education. Home would be the best base no matter how good the schools were." – John Holt

    I spent most of my life in one sort of schooling system or another. Public and private, Anabaptist and non-religious, grade school next to a cornfield and Harvard (downtown Boston)…..I've experienced about every sort of schooling that exists. And I've really really liked every one. (Didn't I?) But the element of coercion, even the very subtle benign appearing coercion of an Anabaptist college, was a common element of them all. Initially staunchly opposed to "homeschooling", I became a quick convert after an all-nighter with John Taylor Gatto and "Dumbing Us Down." I'm very grateful for my wife's wise instincts and gentle coaxing (putting Gatto into my hands) that has resulted in neither of our kids (one almost 16) ever seeing the inside of a school.

    What has been most striking in comparing my children's learning and mine is illustrated in Eistein's quotation above. The efficiency, passion, and freedom with which they learn is entirely foreign to me. Don't get me wrong. I absolutely loved high school, college, medical school, and beyond. Spent 14+ hr. days in libraries for decades. And I loved it. But my kids have a passion for learning some things and a freedom to admit their disinterest in other topics in a way that is entirely foreign to me. When an individual is genuinely interested in a topic, takes complete ownership for the topic, and has been entrusted with a freedom and responsibility for their education that cannot exist in an institutionalized setting, the result is mind boggling.

    The tragedy of schooling systems is that they are ultimately a type of enslavement. This is not a rejection of teachers (mother and mother-in-law are both public school teachers) and I do not mean to discount the gift of teaching. But when a child is told for 12 years that not even their thoughts are their own and and that learning is a commodity that can only be purchased within the institution, we have enacted an enslavement of their minds. This is an enslavement that eventually results in apathy….an apathy that has many parallels to that seen in Jefferson's freed slaves. I don't know if the creativity can ever really be recouped.

    My only beef with Einstein's quotation is that perhaps he is too optimistic in believing in this "miracle." Our society seems brimming with those for whom the holy curiosity of inquiry has been entirely strangled right out of them. It is a joy and a wonder for me to witness the learning and working of a mind that has never been enslaved.

  • Mountaineer

    "…where they want to go?" And, why? Much of formal education (up through college sophomore level) is dabbling. Perhaps a remote topic—gene splicing, Baroque music, prime numbers clusters,…—piques a student's interest. The vast majority of dabbling is unproductive in terms of "where to go," yet provides enlightenment. Is not the notion of grading dabbling the evil here? Is not the discipline required of students valuable in itself, provided that subsequently they may choose what to take and what to leave?

    Also, the economic demands of our society pose limitations. Vocational decisions must be made and licensures obtained.

    All the while, we should be enjoying and making sense of life.

    • You Can Call Me Jane

      Yes, I like this. I like exposing my kids to lots of things so no matter what they chose to do (and in whatever field) they'll be prepared. If much of it gets forgotten, so be it (I forgot a whole lot of my education and I'm okay with that). I'd rather cover the bases, see where their interest is piqued, then support that interest and nurture it. I just don't quite trust my 7-year-old to decide that yet. So, while I encourage her interests, I keep her going in other areas in case she changes her mind. We're fairly structured homeschoolers, if you couldn't tell. 🙂

      Bringing up the grading topic…very interesting. Jennifer, your thoughts? 😉

    • Jennifer Jo

      "Is not the notion of grading dabbling the evil here?"

      Mountaineer, can you please say more about this? I'm not sure I understand.

    • Mountaineer

      Is there such a thing as dabbling at a C level? an A level? an F level? It's difficult to dabble when a grade opens/closes doors.

      I think one issue here is that of age (maturity). For this reason I often think of formal elementary education as being unnecessary, and the crude shaping of children's intellectual development with graded, superficial activities as harmful (evil?). Maybe elementary schools essentially have "babysitting" roles in most situations.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Jane, Yes, I agree with Mountaineer. I never thought of grades as "evil" before, but now that I'm pondering it, I think he might be right.

  • KTdid

    That Einstein quote blew me away! We all have our strengths and interests, varying degrees of curiosity. One can't "make" a person learn any more than one can be forced to fall in love. There's got to be passion. I think it's a very honorable thing that the state provides an education free to all. However, to insist that everyone spend twelve years sitting in desks to learn "Readin' 'Rritin' and 'Rithmetic," and to promote advanced degrees as the holy grail… Well, I think it's admirable that you're studying this practice!

  • Michelle @ Give a Girl a Fig

    I really like the Einstein quote… I didn't home school. I flirted with it on several occasions but my husband was never completely on board, and I felt that was important. One of my sons did fine in school..jumped through the hoops, memorized the right stuff…etc. He's now in college. My youngest son is now a sophomore and doesn't like school…at all. He never really has. But he does like to build and explore and figure things out mechanically. He's the reason I considered home school…I felt it would have been good for him, a n education tailored to his strengths and interests. But now, here we are in 10th grade and struggling to jump through the hoops. I wish I would have listened to my instincts where he was concerned. I could have home-schooled him and not his older brother (who loved school and everything about it). It didn't have to be all or nothing. (Although hubby wasn't big on that, either.) Hindsight…

  • Rebecca

    …not, mind you, that I'm above grammatical errors. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there is some collective/cultural knowledge that I can't justify as absolutely critical, but I try to pass on to the kids anyway as a marker of who we are and where we come from.

  • Rebecca

    I vote for "curiosity, self-awareness, and the ability to know how to learn" every time. With, I tell the kids, just a wee smattering of the difference between you're and your so you don't look like a dummy. My girl, who is knitting a pair of mittens as we speak, says your knitting illustration is the perfect one.

  • Suburban Correspondent

    Wow, now I feel perfectly justified in declaring this cold Friday morning a day off from grammar workbooks and history readings, so that the kids can immerse themselves in learning about the physics involved in sled trajectories and the diminished coefficient of friction produced by iced-over snow. Thanks for the reminder!

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