7 Jan 2015

This article is late to the editor and somewhat cobbled together (therefore, truly a kluge). Originally I was just going to write about the history of schooling, how changes in technology helped place new emphasis on socialization as a responsibility of schools. However, recent news has caused me to shift my focus slightly. Our children are impacted by the events of our society, and they are watching to see how we respond and looking to us for guidance. How we respond to the events shapes how our children will orient themselves to future events and to others. Some might refer to this as socialization: the process of learning how to engage others, how to listen and learn from others. Teaching how to interact with others is a crucial part of education, and it is the power and responsibility of parents to do this well. But of course, like all learning, learning how to engage and interact with others is life-long. So we adults need to continue to grow in this area, also.

Learning as Experiential and Relational

Let me back up first and tie in some history and technology. My original source of inspiration for this article is an image over a hundred years old. I found the image in my morning media feeds. Every morning I review various blogs and online resources and educational resources. Recently I came across an article about French postcards from the turn of the century. They were originally prepared for the 1900 World’s Fair. These postcards represented artists’ visions of the technologically advanced society of the year 2000.

Some of the ideas are fantastical. They include flying taxi cabs and underwater croquet. Some are whimsical, like a whale-bus! Some portray a society in which the mundane is made easy, like automatic cleaning machines and even high-speed rail. Some are even prophetic, like the video projected phone (Google Hangout anyone?).

One of those images, however, struck me as especially significant. It shows students in a classroom, wearing helmets that are attached to a series of wires. The teacher places books into a machine while a child is turning a lever, like a grinder. It seems that the machine is funneling the information found in the books into the mind of the students. The artist sees a future where knowledge will be more efficiently communicated to the next generation by way of technology. The teacher looks satisfied while not all the students look happy.

I believe this image portends a major debate about knowledge and education that has been going on for the last 150 years. About the same time images such as these were being produced, philosophers and epistemologists, those who theorize about the nature of knowledge, became increasingly aware that scientific advancement and modernization was challenging long-held ideas about how knowledge and learning take place. Those long-held notions placed great emphasis on experience and the perspective of the student. While many uncritically celebrated the advancements science was bringing to society, these philosophers and educators were increasingly aware that a narrower view of knowledge was beginning to dominate. Some apprehended that knowledge was increasingly seen as something which was merely informational, logical and purely objective. This type of knowledge might easily be controlled and directed, much like electrical pulses. In the French postcard, the students are receiving an education through technology that bypasses the senses! In some sense, this image is so fantastical, it seems laughable. But it is also foreboding. Today we live in an information-saturated society, and we have direct evidence that technologies, like television, computers and now, especially now, social media can powerfully be used to reinforce messages. Additional evidence shows that a person can be radically influenced, even trained (or brainwashed?), by the kind of information he repeatedly receives. Therefore, the idea that an education could be reduced to something that is merely transmitted is not so far-fetched.

What was fought against 150 years ago, and in some sense today, is the loss of learning as first and foremost experiential. Probably the most well-known advocate of experiential learning was the philosopher John Dewey. In his book Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey writes:

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”

Charlotte M. Mason, a British educator, was another advocate of experiential learning. In her work Home Education (1935), she writes:

“But give the child work that Nature intended for him, and the quantity he can get through with ease is practically unlimited. Whoever saw a child tired of seeing, of examining in his own way, unfamiliar things? This is the sort of mental nourishment for which he has an unbounded appetite, because it is that food of the mind on which, for the present, he is meant to grow.”

At the root of the epistemologies of these and other educational philosophers is an awareness that knowledge is relational. A person must be in relationship if he wants to develop and grow wise. He cannot be passive and expect to grow. While relationships with the entities of nature are valuable, relationships with people are the greatest. Philosophers who emphasized experience also placed great emphasis on relationships with people and a person’s capacity to learn from others. There were varying degrees of confidence in the experience of others and in socialization, but each saw real value in being with others and gaining from others’ experiences. Also in Home Education, Mason writes:

“None of us can be proof against the influences that proceed from the persons he associates with. Wherefore, in books and men, let us look out for the best society, that which yields a bracing and wholesome influence. We all know the person for whose company we are the better, though the talk is only about fishing or embroidery.”

While Dewey writes in Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920) that relationship with others is characterized by participation and responsibility:

“Personality must be educated, and personality cannot be educated by confining its operations to technical and specialized things, or to the less important relationships of life. Full education comes only when there is a responsible share on the part of each person, in proportion to capacity, in shaping the aims and policies of the social groups to which he belongs.”

These philosophers and educators ultimately made the case that being a part of and influencing groups around them was crucial in a person’s education. Socialization was, in some sense, the very essence of education. They argued that one must be in active relationship with others in order to truly learn. They advocated that learning must be more experiential, not less. We should not simply read words on pages; rather, we should engage nature and others in order to engage our minds. Home educators need no convincing of this stance.

Hope for the Future: Home or School?

Sadly some, like Dewey, also theorized that in a society in which there are people from different backgrounds and with different experiences and values, that the hope for society was the school, and the professional educator was best equipped to facilitate healthy interactions and to guide the development of the habits of the next generation. In an article entitled My Pedagogical Creed, published in 1897, he writes:

“I believe that the school is primarily a social institution. Education being a social process, the school is simply that form of community life in which all those agencies are concentrated that will be most effective in bringing the child to share in the inherited resources of the race, and to use his own powers for social ends. I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. … I believe that the teacher’s place and work in the school is to be interpreted from this same basis. The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

This is in contrast to Mason, who advocated that teachers have a lesser role. While some, like Dewey, placed great hope in the school and sought to elevate the professional educator as the arbiter of human society, others, like Mason, criticized the growing hubris of the teacher in the modern school and instead recognized the value of parent educators:

“Teachers mediate too much.—Everything is directed, expected, suggested. No other personality out of book, picture, or song, no, not even that of Nature herself, can get at the children without the mediation of the teacher. No room is left for spontaneity or personal initiation on their part.”

“Mothers seldom talk down to their children; they are too intimate with the little people, and have, therefore, too much respect for them: but professional teachers, whether the writers of books or the givers of lessons are too apt to present a single grain of pure knowledge in a whole gallon of talk, imposing upon the child the labour of discerning the grain and of extracting it from the worthless flood.”

In these two educators, we can see similar appreciations for education characterized by experiential learning and by relationships with nature and society. Although in Dewey, we discover an overestimation of the quality of social interactions found in the relationships of teacher and students. In Mason, we detect a willingness to critically assess teachers and an appreciation for the power of the parent-child relationship. Both, however, have a view that says a student develops by way of experiences and in relationships.

It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of educational history that the characteristic of being anti-social has been associated with home educators. This is a persistent myth and is often the main issue raised by those who question the wisdom of home education. I am glad that research is being increasingly published that indicates that homeschooled children are socially active and are more involved in their communities than their peers from traditional classrooms. We should be striving to develop the next generation of true citizens, those who take responsibility for the character of their communities and who consider public service (benefiting their neighbors) as one of many valid vocations. I think the research linking home educators to positive interaction with their community is easily attributed to the emphasis placed by these families on a more experiential learning. There is real value in active participation, getting children outside, interacting with their environment and with the members of their community.

Modeling Socialization in a Diverse World

It is also ironic that in an age of multitude of social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc., we risk becoming less and less socially conscious. I want to turn my attention to current events, events of social and political significance, with the goal of encouraging you, the home educator, to become involved with others in a manner becoming of a responsible member of pluralistic community. If you confess Christ as Lord, as I do, you have all the more reason to engage your neighbors and learn from their experiences.

It seems that not a week goes by without an event of national significance that draws attention to our social institutions and practices. For example, President Obama’s executive action concerning immigration and the events centered in Ferguson, Missouri, have sparked considerable debate. We see just how differently people of different circumstances view the significance of these events. This difference of perspective tempts me to despair, and to hide, or to rationalize and to wipe my hands of the whole thing.

It is increasing clear in our media-saturated society that our media is very partisan. There are media outlets advancing a liberal view of the events, and there are media outlets advancing a conservative view of the events. I do not think that this partisan character of media is abnormal. Even at the beginning of our country, clearly identified partisan papers existed. Different people have different views. What I think is different today is the high degree by which I can segregate myself physically from others, especially from others who have views with which I am not comfortable. I can focus my social media feeds to hear only what I want to hear and hide everybody else. In some sense, I have the ability to put on a helmet (or just earbuds) attached (wirelessly) to a larger system and become a passive recipient of information that reinforces what I think. I feel myself wanting that. It would be so much easier. But that is not what I think our humanity requires of us. Nor do I think that would be honoring to Christ. Instead, I think I must be open to an ongoing growth and participation in society. I must practice what I preach to my children about lifelong learning.

This is not to say that all responses to events at Ferguson, or elsewhere, are valid. Violence, like rioting and looting, should not be rationalized or excused. Rather, I should want to listen to others as they attempt to describe the experiences that so often tempt them to lose hope. I do believe that seeking to be in relationship with others who are different will serve to deepen my understanding of others, of myself and of God.

The picture that Christ gives of his kingdom is a place of rich diversity, a table at which sit those from every tribe and every nation. The call of the Christian life is to make manifest in this life the power of Christ to restore brokenness. We are, in the words of the poet Wendell Berry, to practice resurrection. I think part of that is giving heed to our neighbor’s cry for justice, in order to show him or her mercy. Our children will not learn from us something we are not modeling.

In closing, I want to encourage you in your role as the primary agents of formation of the next generation. I want you to understand the importance of this task. Our children are listening as we respond to the news, watching as we like posts on our Facebook wall and reading our comments. They are looking to us for guidance in how to respond. How we respond is part of their education; it is part of their inheritance. Let our response to the broken world be one characterized by acts of mutual support and of hope. Let us seek to be in relationship with others so that we might better learn to serve.

Kevin McClain and his wife, Brea, started homeschooling in 2002. Kevin has a master’s in education, instructional technology, from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in educational studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he works as an educational technologist. In 2010, he joined NCHE's board as education vice president. He served as NCHE president from 2012-2016.