In Praise of Noisy Villages: Homeschooling and the Common Good

A simple premise: nothing short of the complete family being engaged in learning will secure a proper education.

Behind this premise is a simple principle: Education is communal.

It is communal because that which deals with the formation and perfection of a child, that which draws him to adulthood, is drawing him to the greater perfection of his humanity. And since man is, as Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Thomas Aquinas tell us, a political or social animal, we must never neglect the communal dimension of education.

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Independent work, individual talent, and personal responsibility must remain central, but these things are only possible within the context of a communal environment.  At the very least, in education there is a standard set by another, the evaluation given by another, the works done by others; we are always aware of others when we learn, even when we learn or work quietly alone.

To the matter of homeschooling, there are two concerns that require careful (and frequent) examination.

First, I am concerned with the rising individualism one finds wormed into our literature on homeschooling.  By individualism, I do not mean fruitful individual initiative or due responsibility; I do not mean a strong and firm character.  Rather I mean something negative: the spirit that says “I shall not serve.”  It is a spirit that grows from the Protestant dominance of homeschooling and the anti-cultural Sixties radicalism that can be said to be its other parent.

Second, I believe that it is dangerously common to find a destructive isolation, especially for the mother in homeschooling families, and therefore, a spirit that will be corrosive of good family life. This is not recognized honestly and addressed nearly enough.

In any age of crisis, when the most fundamental components of a culture, country, and faith are being redefined, some willingly, some by force, little is more important and worthy of deep and honest reflection as to how best to equip our children for whatever the coming new age will be. And so, with regard to homeschooling, we must ask a question which may be emotionally difficult for many: is homeschooling the only (or best) Catholic approach to a child’s education?  Some argue that is it. But not out of necessity, but as an ideal.  I do not believe either history or the teaching of the Church support this exclusivity.  I am concerned that through the virtuous and needed path homeschooling offers to so many of us who have poor or non-existent alternatives, families are being drawn into an ideology, a shadow image of Catholic culture, Catholic education, and the family itself.

Catholic Education as a Social Activity

By the expression “education as a social activity” I do not mean the facile argument about the “socialization” of students that suggests that if John and Mary do not have an opportunity to eat baloney sandwiches with 300 of their dearest friends and talk about “Hannah Montana” they will grow up to be deviants. Even the occasionally more sophisticated version on “the value of socialization” can be quickly deconstructed and seen for what it is, code for the regimented ethic of pop culture.  That is of no importance to this discussion.

I mean something much more radical and initially more difficult, perhaps, for homeschoolers to accept.

Stated positively: education is for the perfection of the child, and the child is perfected for a life in society. Thus, education should look beyond the family.

Stated more controversially: I mean that the common approach to homeschooling is inherently dangerous, because it in many ways goes against what ancient western tradition and the Catholic Church herself teach about the education of the young. What they teach is that it really should not be done in the home, at least not for long, except during a time and place of crisis.  For many, perhaps the majority of Catholics, they are in a time and place of crisis.  But we need to establish the norms of education before we can evaluate the forms of education.  Let us consider three Church pronouncements.

First, Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical on education, Divini Illius Magistri:

“Education is essentially a social and not a mere individual activity… The family is an imperfect society, since it has not in itself all the means for its own complete development; whereas civil society is a perfect society, having in itself all the means for its particular end.”

Second, the Second Vatican Council’s document on Education, Gravissimam Educationis affirms this social goal of education:

Education, the fathers wrote “is directed toward the formation of the human persona in view of his final end and the good of that society to which he belongs and in the duties which he will, as an adult, have a share.”

Most recently, the Church’s Compendium of Social Doctrine states:

“Parents are the first educators, not the only educators, of their children.  It belongs to them, therefore, to exercise with responsibility their educational activity in close and vigilant cooperation with civil and ecclesial agencies.” The Compendium goes on to describe the “primary importance” of parents working with “scholastic institutions” in the education of their children.”

These documents set forth the principles by which we do educate our children and clearly allow, and in some instances, may encourage homeschooling. Significantly, the documents are critical of any form of education that jeopardizes the child’s moral and spiritual development.

That being said, I firmly believe that is essential to keep in mind a simple truth:  homeschooling also can become a destructive ideology.  Homeschooling in this nation was spear-headed by hippies in the 1960s and has largely been embraced by Protestants; some 95% of homeschoolers are Protestants.  The literature and materials have a tone that rest well with American Protestants.  More alarming, homeschooling has risen side-by-side with Home churching.  Homeschooling is not rooted in the western tradition nor—as the above mentioned documents illustrate—in the Catholic tradition.  It is still a proper response to a crisis within society and, sadly, within some quarters of the Church. But there are caveats.

By analogy, war—justly pursued—is a legitimate response to a threat to a community’s life. Yet war is not a norm, even if it is regularly present or must be sustained for generations.  Again, by analogy, what I’m calling for is a sort of “just war theory” of homeschooling.  After all, we are engaged in the defense of hearth, home, and the families entrusted to us.  We should then carefully assess if we are following the principles rooted in Natural Law, Scripture, and the Catholic educational tradition. Central to these principles is whether or not our home education includes social activity (properly understood). If not, we tread on dangerous ground.

I see no end to the crisis that calls for homeschooling; and I am glad that the principles of Catholic education allow it and allow it to be a vehicle for the good.

Nevertheless, homeschoolers need to take steps to ensure homeschooling preserves the goal of traditional teaching: the perfection of the person for God’s glorification and for his living a life of service and sanctification in human society.

A Little House in the Big Woods: Did Ma Keep Bourbon Behind the China Doll?

Biology and vocation do not always overlap. This essential point is forgotten or avoided in much of our homeschooling literature.  That we have children does not endow us to be grammarians. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy which creates stress, which can set a tone in the home that works indeed against the perfection of the person.

Mothers especially labor in the relentless, exhausting task of being the principal, cafeteria staff, gym coach, bus driver, hall-monitor, and (lest we forget) teacher of every subject. In large families, and added to other household chores, these tasks are consuming, sometimes overwhelming. To be a mother is a noble vocation. To be a teacher is a noble vocation. For some it may be that being a homeschooling mother is requiring a heroic effort. One might fairly ask if this is obscuring a true vocational calling. Here too, making homeschool a social activity is as important for the mother as for the children.

It is also important to recognize that the “burn-out” and “isolation” and perception of inadequacy so common to homeschooling parents is understood for what it is: the natural response to stress in the face of crisis.  This stress points to something “unnatural” about the total education of the child at home.  Homeschooling calls for a heroic life, but the Church has never held that it is necessary for parents to lead a heroic life in the pursuit of simple natural things. This point is not to be taken lightly.

I make three recommendations to support or reanimate our commitment to the communal nature of education:

1. Frequent Mass attendance.  Daily is wonderful, but in many diocese it is not an option, and in our car-dominated society often (ironically) impossible.

2. The formation of family educational cells (shared teaching, shared projects, swapping of class, regular art shows and contests between families; and pageants for the high holy days.)  As in most stressful endeavors, when the burden is shared it grows light.

3. A commitment to seeking stable co-operative meetings and classes within parishes when possible.

The key here is to maintain a positive desire to unite with other kindred families in the educational act.  Education must remain communal in intent, if it is to remain healthy and true to natural law and Catholic teaching.

For the record, let me state that my wife and I homeschool five children, and that I believe that homeschooling can be filled with many joyful moments and many graces (in addition to being a good way to form the child intellectually and spiritually).  My own experience of teaching my children Latin, History, Catechism, and Natural History has been very jolly and rewarding.  What is more, it has deepened my love for my children and my own appreciation and gratitude for my vocation as a father.

I believe that a good part of the success from our homeschooling adventure has come from our persistence in at least trying always to seek a communal dimension to education and never allowing ourselves to turn homeschooling into ideology.

My analogy of “just war theory,” may strike some as imperfect, but such a shocking analogy may be necessary to make us think again about our actions in this foundational area.  Good parenting, even with intact and wholesome schools present, will always involve the parents in the education of their children.

This talk is taken from an address given to the New England Catholic Homeschool Conference (June, 2009).


  • William Edmund Fahey

    Dr. Fahey is president and fellow of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hamphsire.

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