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On lessons learned outside the classroom

‘What’s the color of freedom?” It’s a doozy of a question, and it was posed by my eldest son, a fresh new fourth-grader, a few weeks after the beginning of school.

“Wow,” I replied, “the color of freedom?” Impressed, I whirled through an assembly line of potential answers. It was a new school year, dewy and full of promise: Was he thinking about the founding of America? The Velvet Revo­lution? Maybe we could even discuss that favorite of wildly enthusiastic Texans everywhere, the black-and-white “Come and Take It” cannon flag famously flown high at the Battle of Gonzales in 1835.

“Yes,” he nodded. “The color of freedom. I need to know which color watchband I should wear on the weekends, when there’s no school.”

Ah. Right. Well, with that in mind, one might as well ask Google. After a haphazard search of a few random “art therapy” blogs, we found a winner in the great “color of freedom” sweepstakes: green. Green, the color of life! Green, the color of camouflage pants! Green, the color of a watchband that my son already owned, so that we did not have to buy another one! Take note, freedom lovers: Every Friday, when the clock strikes three and hordes of children stream out of school doors across the country, I invite you to join my son in raising your green Garmin Jr. wristband triumphantly to the sky!

Here’s the weird thing about all of this: My kids really do like school. But the long, lazy days of summer vacation, apparently, can be very hard to quit.

Oh, the things that kids can learn over summer break! For my children, the lessons ranged from how to eat conveyor-belt sushi — the answer, in case you’re curious, is to do it only once, as the quirky charm of the conveyor-belt experience nosedives on the second go-round, when you actually notice the sushi — to what to do when you come across a mother bear with two cubs on a forest hike deep in Tennessee. The answer to the latter question, of course, is to watch your mom as she valiantly pretends not to panic. (Spoiler alert, to be read in your best David Attenborough BBC nature-documentary voice: Every­one panicked.)

But now, the freewheeling summer is over, blown away on a coconut wind, and school, with its new shoes and crisp shirts and still-fresh lunchboxes, has arrived — yet another mark, my fellow old people, of the years heedlessly wheeling by.

When my kids were younger, an empty-nester friend told me that the toddler years go by in a flash. “It just doesn’t seem like it,” he added wryly, “at the time.” This snippet of wisdom was probably given to me on one of those long, freezing winter-snowstorm Saturdays spent locked inside with three extremely busy people under the age of five. Physicists should study these days, as they defy time and space. These are the days when it seems scientifically impossible that it cannot yet be early- evening cocktail hour when it is actually only a few minutes before 10:15 a.m. Also, I think there’s a soggy Cheerio stuck in your hair.

But once kids hit kindergarten, and even preschool, hang on to your hats: The calendar pages start flipping, rapid-fire, in a rather unsettling blur. When one celebrates a birthday in one’s forties, as Walker Percy wrote in Love in the Ruins, “It is strange how little one changes. . . . Nothing changes but accidentals: Your toes rotate, showing more skin. Every molecule in your body has been replaced but you are exactly the same.” But for children, the change is mind-boggling. It is beautiful and terrifying and awe-inspiring all at the same time.

So, here I am, with three children in elementary school, and the hands of the clock spin relentlessly on, and I have yet to find anyone who knows how to slow things down.

It is estimated that American children, on average, spend almost 900 hours a year in the classroom, which is kind of weird when you dwell on it. Depending on the chattiness level of your child at pickup time, after all, school can be alarmingly similar to Las Vegas: What happens there can stay there. Think of the mysteries! Think of the secrets! Think of the occasional crackpot ideas your kid could digest from that one wacky friend!

(Bortonia/Getty Images)

It is here, of course, that another daunting realization rolls in, or at least it should: When it comes to the big picture, it is the primary responsibility of a parent — a parent, not just a school — to fully educate a child.

This can be an intimidating thought, especially if you’re someone who sometimes still forgets to floss. (To my dentist, if you’re reading this: I know. I’m sorry.) In our overscheduled society, it is also a wildly countercultural idea. After all, school, school, school, and more school — together with an overload of extracurricular activities, perhaps with some Mandarin lessons on the side — is widely touted as the only route to worldly success. In a column at The Week, one writer recently called for the end of summer vacation altogether, arguing that those carefree glory days weren’t “serving America’s educational interests.”

That depends, of course, on what you think those educational interests might be. In her famous 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers showed little patience for most modern methods of education. The crucial skills of logic and critical thinking, she argued, were fading away. “I am not here to consider the feelings of academic bodies,” she wrote. “I am concerned only with the proper training of the mind to encounter and deal with the formidable mass of undigested problems presented to it by the modern world.”

Many of today’s “educated” young people, Sayers noted, go out completely “unarmed” into the world: They can read, but “they do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.”

Sound familiar? If you’ve witnessed any of the can’t-make-it-up dysfunction boiling over at today’s elite colleges, feel free to join me in a collective sigh. Or take this recent article over at The Atlantic, please: “Teens Are Protesting In-Class Presentations.” The piece quotes students such as Ula, an eighth-grader who is part of the new anti-life-skills crusade. (Much of this crusade, unsurprisingly, takes place in the trenches of social media.) “Nobody should be forced,” Ula declares, “to do something that makes them uncomfortable.”

If trends continue, the next Profiles in Courage might be very thin indeed.

Thankfully, classical and other private schools across the country are revitalizing Sayers’s back-to-basics approach. “The sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves,” she wrote. “Whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”

I’d like to humbly suggest that shoving more iPads into public-school classrooms — and this is happening all over the country, with alarming frequency — will not lead anyone closer to this goal. Spreading access to school choice — so that parents can choose an educational approach that fits their family, not just their zip code — would.

While we wait for commonsense policy on that front — and despite many improvements across the country, wait, I fear, we will — parents can take heart, batten down the hatches, and recognize that the most valuable lessons are learned at home. For instance, just now, my youngest son burst into my office asking how to spell No Squid Attacks. He’s making a sign for his door. He’s getting ready for anything, I guess. It’s a jungle out there! He’s getting ready for the world.