The Reluctant Rebel: Gemma’s Story, Part Five

Homeschoolers U

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Gemma” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.

< Part Four

Part Five: Fall of Senior Year

My senior year was a year of crisis for the school.

So much has been written about the academic freedom scandal of 2006 that it doesn’t seem necessary to rehash the whole story. The only points I want to make are 1) that the scandal didn’t come out of thin air—it had been building for years as the tension between the academic and cultural/religious sides of the campus became increasingly untenable—and 2) that it took a severe toll, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical, on the students as well.

The troubles started during freshman orientation. Farris gave a speech during the orientation in which he claimed that Patrick Henry students only studied materials other than the Bible for purposes of “opposition research.” According to his interpretation of the doctrine of sola scripture, all necessary truth comes from the Bible. Everything else was just “learning the enemy’s playbook.” Even Plato and Aristotle could not teach us anything worthwhile. We were only to study them to become knowledgeable about “the world.” This was and still is a laughably simplistic viewpoint for any Christian, much less the president of an institution of higher learning, to hold. The faculty, including the feared and respected Academic Dean, publicly disagreed with this position, which embarrassed and enraged Farris.

A few weeks later came the first of what is now an annual event at PHC: the Faith & Reason lecture.

It was given by Todd Bates, our unassuming theology professor. He used some writings by St. Augustine to form the basis of his argument for why Christians should study the liberal arts. On the day of the lectures, Farris invited himself to the post-lecture discussion panels, where he asked obnoxious and uncharitable questions and famously accused St. Augustine of heresy. According to his simplistic way of thinking, if St. Augustine was a heretic, then nothing he said could possibly be worthwhile.  He claimed he was only using his “academic freedom” to join in the campus debate.

I don’t think it ever occurred to him that academic freedom is for people who don’t have power, not for those who do.

Furthermore, his ignorant assertions were, again, publicly corrected by both students and professors. Embarrassed once more, he threatened Dr. Bates’ job and demanded the faculty put an end to the Faith and Reasons lectures (they refused).

Shortly after this, the Academic Dean resigned to take a position in the Bush administration. I forwarded the email announcement to my dad and told him to watch and see if more faculty didn’t resign soon after.

With the departure of this Academic Dean, the faculty suddenly felt exposed and unprotected. The events at the beginning of the semester had really drawn Farris’ ire, but in addition to this, they were increasingly targeted by Paul Wilson. In accordance with his trenchant anti-intellectual streak, Wilson had decided that the faculty were the ones responsible for fomenting “rebellion” in the student body, and he was determined to do something about it.

As usual, the rulebook had been overhauled over the summer. The major change this year was that students who witnessed any offense, no matter how minor, by any other member of the campus community, including professors, were required to turn the offender in to Student Life. Otherwise, the witnesses would be punished as if they had committed the violation themselves. This change obliterated whatever miniscule level of trust still existed amongst the student body, although as usual, some students couldn’t be happier:

An email, sent Aug. 30, 2005

From: some freshman guy

To: all students

I have a great respect for Dean Wilson and the RA’s who uphold morality and dignity even when others think it is extreme.
The rules put in place have greatly increased my respect for the school as a whole and I’m proud to be called a student here.

Let’s be careful in our mockery of the rules or just plain complaining and rebellion. Rightness trumps reasonability. Do what is right whether you think it is reasonable or not. How much do you love God? Enough to obey authority?

In addition, Dean Wilson enlisted his RA’s and favorite students to help him target and punish students on his “bad” list, and to keep an eye on the faculty as well. They started monitoring the discussions in the classes of certain professors, and would go immediately to Dean Wilson’s office after class to report what they had heard. As the student body became aware of these practices, students became more and more hesitant to speak up in class, lest something they said be used against them.

The professors were more audacious, and started mocking Wilson publicly. This was encouraging to students, but only increased the tension between the faculty and administration, and each side’s favorite students. One professor, Dr. Erik Root, was especially outspoken. He was personally offended that Dean Wilson would so overstep the bounds of his authority and intrude, even via proxy, into the classroom.

The situation was bad enough by about the midpoint of the semester that a group of students, encouraged by some senior administration officials and a couple of Trustees, decided to do something about it. Many of these students were younger and still optimistic about what could be accomplished, especially now that we apparently had the ear of the Board of Trustees.

I helped organize the little movement, but I saw it as essentially a last-ditch effort.

We decided to write a letter to Dr. Farris, outlining our concerns with the campus culture and the office of student life, and emphasizing how these concerns were impacting our ability to learn in the classroom. I can say, even with many years of maturity and distance in between, the letter was legitimately fair, measured, and respectful. We did not name-call or use inflammatory or exaggerated language. We repeatedly emphasized that our overriding concern was for the future success of the college we loved so much. The letter made four points:

First, we pointed out that the school lacked any official system of due process with regard to alleged rule violations. Students were accused, convicted, and punished without any kind of transparent process, without any chance to defend themselves, and without knowing the evidence against them. Furthermore, students were routinely punished for violating “rules” not actually enumerated in the handbook, and lived in fear of arbitrary enforcement.

Secondly, we described what we saw as a culture of suspicion on campus, reinforced by the new rule requiring students to report each other or face equal punishment. Again, we emphasized that this culture of suspicion was exacerbated by the fact that students were maligned or punished for behavior that broke no specific rule at all—things like perceived attitudes, offhand comments, or unorthodox opinions.

Thirdly, we pointed out that free thought and free speech on campus with regard to student rules or administration policy, no matter how innocent or well-intentioned, was treated as thought crime. Students who submitted without question were held up as moral exemplars, while students who asked questions or voiced opinions—even if they still obeyed!—were denigrated as rebels and troublemakers.

Finally, we argued that these three factors combined to have a chilling effect on the classroom. Students were afraid to speak up in class, lest they share an opinion, or even just raise an uncomfortable point, that might land them on the “black list.” Professors worried about their ability to teach the liberal arts to students who were indoctrinated into an illiberal, submissive-to-authority mindset. We concluded that the college was engaging in self-defeating behavior. The Office of Student Life believed its mission was to create a culture of submissive conformists, while the faculty believed their mission was to create free thinkers who could lead the nation and shape the culture.

The college was at war with itself.

Even with the tacit approval and encouragement of higher-ups, we had a hard time gathering student signatures for the letter. Many students, especially those employed by the college, privately professed their support, but were too scared to actually sign the letter. Others promised to sign, but backed out at the last minute.

Email to co-author, Nov. 26, 2005

[Name redacted] called me this morning and backed out of the whole thing.  Not just the delegation – she doesn’t want any part in the whole project.  Because I had put her name on the delegation email to Dr. Farris, she felt the need to email him and Dean Wilson and tell them she was backing out.  I had already told her by email that it was okay if she didn’t want to be on the delegation, we could replace her with someone else, but apparently she got really scared while she was home and wants to make it extremely clear to everyone that she is no longer a part of this.  I know this is probably bad, but she called me right after I woke up and I couldn’t think of a reason to tell her not to do this.  I did talk her out of copying her email to all-students.

We ended up with about 75 signatures, or one-third of the student body. A smaller delegation of students took the letter to Farris. The meeting was somewhat productive. Farris promised to create a committee to review student life rules and processes, and wrote an op-ed in the student paper reiterating his commitment to freedom of speech. The younger signatories were encouraged. I was not convinced, but I was glad we had done something.

As we found out the following semester, our letter was nothing more than a doomed last-ditch effort. Once again, Farris’ “commitment to free speech” was only for appearance’s sake.

He just couldn’t refrain from taking action against speech he disagreed with.

Part Six >

Can’t You Say Anything Good About Homeschooling?: Libby Anne

positives

Can’t You Say Anything Good About Homeschooling?: Libby Anne

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on March 31, 2013.

I’ve been fairly critical of homeschooling in a good number of blog posts over the past two years.

One thing I’ve been asked a number of times is whether, looking back, there was anything about my homeschooling experience that was positive. It’s true that Sierra of the Phoenix and the Olive Branch and Lana of Wide Open Ground, while generally critical of many things about homeschooling and their own homeschool background, have both written posts outlining the things they found positive about their homeshooling experience. Can’t I do the same? So here it is, my attempt to write about the positives side of my homeschool experience.

But I’m going to warn you up front that I don’t think this is going to go all that smoothly.

1. Self motivation.

I’ve always been a very self-motivated person. There were some years I worked ahead in my subjects and finished all of my schoolwork for the entire year by the end of March. I was always extremely hard working and driven, and this followed me into college as well. No one had to make me study. My parents have always chalked my self motivation up to the fact that I was homeschooled—and I used to do the same. Indeed, self-motivation is one thing I always see listed as a benefit of having been homeschooled. But I’m afraid I no longer buy this—at the very least, it’s not this simple.

Even as I was self-motivated, many of my siblings weren’t. I watched many of my siblings procrastinate and drag their feet and sometimes flat out lie about whether or not they were doing their work. I watched them work all summer trying to catch up for everything they’d fallen behind on during the school year. There were several years when my siblings literally finished their math textbooks for the previous year a week or two before the next school year started. Even today, I see this same thing happening with some of my siblings who are still at home, being homeschooled. Some of them seem to lack self motivation entirely, and will only do their work when there is the threat of losing some privilege over their head.

Now after high school I attended a state university on scholarship. Because of my grades, I was enrolled in the university’s honor college and lived in the honors dorms. I suddenly found myself surrounded by a cohort of extremely self-motivated public school graduates. This confused me. I honestly had not expected to see that level of self motivation in the products of public schools. I had thought they all just did the bare minimum to pass standardized tests, because of the way public schools were set up, and that they weren’t self motivated like us homeschoolers. I was wrong. Yes, I know that these kids were honors kids, and thus not representative of the public school population as a whole, but still, they proved to me that you absolutely didn’t have to be homeschooled to be self-motivated.

So did homeschooling make me self-motivated? After thinking about it, I doubt it. Some homeschoolers are self-motivated. Some aren’t. Some public schoolers are self-motivated. Some aren’t. I have no idea what makes people self motivated, or what part is simply innate, a chance of birth. But I can say with confidence that, if the family and homeschool community I grew up in is any indicator, being homeschooled does not automatically make someone self-motivated. So yes, I was homeschooled and I ended up being self-motivated. But does that really mean anything? Probably not.

2. Love of Learning

As a child, I loved learning. I checked out books from the library, explored the fields beckoning from my back door, and taught myself to knit. The world was my textbook, and I loved it. At the time, I was taught to chalk my love of learning up to being homeschooled. And for a long time, I thought there was a connection. But I don’t anymore, and for—I think—good reason.

For one thing, being homeschooled does not guarantee that you will end up with a love of learning. I know a guy who was homeschooled K-12, and his experience actually stunted his love of learning. For him, homeschooling consisted of sitting at the kitchen table, or at a desk in his room, filling out workbooks. And that’s it. Every day for twelve years—thirteen if you count kindergarten. Nothing interactive, nothing collaborative, just workbooks. To this day, thinking of school or any sort of formal learning gives him mild PTSD symptoms. So this idea that being homeschooled automatically makes one love learning? Yeah, that’s absolutely false.

Further, the friends I made in my honors college dorm in college all shared the same passion and love for learning that I had—even though almost every one of them had attended public school. They didn’t just study what they had to for their classes, or just do their homework because they were required to. They went above and beyond and loved learning for its own sake, whether it was required or not. And they didn’t limit learning to their academic coursework, either. For them, learning was a part of life, as natural as breathing. Once again, this confused me. I had been taught that public schools stunt children’s love of learning, and also that attending public school causes a person to divide their life into learning—i.e. formal school—and not learning—i.e. everything else. But I found that, for these honors kids at least, this was absolutely not the case.

So did homeschooling give me a love of learning? In the end, I don’t think so. I think my love of learning came from my parents, not from being homeschooled.

They made it obvious that they loved learning, and they sought to make every moment a teachable moment—and in a fun way.

We were always learning things, whether it be gardening or carpentry or zoology or the culinary arts, and my parents encouraged us to love learning, and worked to make learning fun. If I’d attended public school, my parents still would have taught me to love learning. They wouldn’t have suddenly stopped making every moment of life interesting and teachable. They wouldn’t have stopped encouraging us to learn, and teaching us to see learning as enjoyable and just a part of life.

In the end, I honestly don’t think gaining a love of learning is determined by the method of education.

3. Freedom

One thing both Sierra and Lana hammered on in their discussion of the positive aspects of homeschooling was the sense of freedom it gave them—freedom to follow their own interests and study at their own paces, and freedom from the constriction of a public school schedule.

When I look back on being homeschooled, this is indeed what I look on most fondly.

In elementary school, my mom set my schedule, including what I studied and when I studied it. However, homeschooling did allow the flexibility for spontaneous trips to the zoo, or spur of the moment park dates. In middle and high school my mom still set the subjects I studied each year—always asking me for input first—but I was free to determine when to study and for how long. I wasn’t required to have fixed hours, I was merely required to complete the textbooks I’d been given by the end of the year.

I loved this—like I said above, I sometimes rushed through and finished some or all of the subjects early.

I loved the flexibility of choosing when to study, and in what order to study. I frequently got up early in the morning and would set myself the challenge of finishing all of my seatwork—meaning things like math and science and vocab, but not things like free reading or debate research or music—by breakfast time. I wasn’t usually able to fit quite everything into that time, but I was always finished by lunch time, leaving me the afternoon free for reading or sewing projects or digging for medicinal herbs or baking a pie.

But—and this but is important—this freedom was limited to choosing when and at what speed and in what order to do my academic work. I wasn’t free to go to the mall with friends, or free to have a part time job, or free to randomly go over to a friend’s house. I wasn’t free to go anywhere at all. Because I was homeschooled I didn’t have an outlet away from my family. Instead, I was home all of the time, both home to have my comings and goings and friendships micromanaged and home to be on call as a junior mom 24/7. As I’ve mentioned before, my parents didn’t believe in teenagers. They expected me to go straight from child to adult, and I wasn’t allowed to do the sort of things normal teenagers do.

In some sense, was given the freedom of a two year old and the responsibility of a thirty year old.

I grew up as the oldest of twelve children. There was always a baby in the house, and there were always toddlers and preschoolers who needed constant attention and help. When I think back on my time spent doing school work, the image I get is of sitting at the desk in my room doing math problems while also supervising two or three toddler and preschool age siblings playing nearby, because mom needed them out of her way so that she could teach the middle ones. For several years I was also in charge of all of the laundry for the family, and for a while I was in charge of all—yes, all—of the cooking. I was also expected to teach some subjects to my younger siblings, as a sort of tutor. My mom figured that teaching the subjects would help cement them in my mind, and also that helping with the children and housework was good practice for my future, when I would be a homemaker and stay at home homeschool mom.

All of this responsibility also meant that I rarely got to actually spend time alone with friends, or out of the house—in fact, when I think back on hanging out with friends, the image I get is of chatting with a friend while making mountains of peanut butter sandwiches and watching our 15+ collective younger siblings, our mothers having gone out for lunch together. I don’t want to give the impression that I begrudge my mother these lunches out—she needed them for her sanity! And besides, by that time watching kids came as second nature, and I savored what time I did have with friends, so the memories I have of chatting over mountains of sandwiches and quick roll counts of children to make sure we hadn’t lost any are actually pleasant ones.

So did homeschooling give me more freedom? In the end, I think it was a wash.

Yes, I had more freedom to set my academic schedule—when to study and what to study and how to study—and I thoroughly enjoyed that. But at the same time, because I was always at home under my mother’s watchful eye and able to be on call to help with whatever needed doing, be it children or food or housework, I had much less personal freedom than I would have had I attended public school. And when I compare my thoughts here to those of Sierra and Lana, I am reminded that Sierra was an only child and Lana was one of only four. So it’s not surprising that my experience here might be a bit different.

Conclusion

So, are there positive things I can say about my homeschooling experience? Sure. But every time I locate one, I end up finding a negative flip side. And maybe that’s why I haven’t spend a lot of time trying to draw out the positives.

I simply don’t feel that I can discuss them outside of the more nuanced context.

Homeschooling can help students develop self-motivation and a love of learning—or it can limit both of these. Some kids simply work best with formal teachers for each subjects, and with the firm academic deadlines formal schools provide. I’ve also seen cases where homeschool kids end up well educated in the subjects their parents find interesting, and not well educated at all in other subject—and this is something having the variety of teachers formal schools offer serves to counteract.

Homeschooling frees kids from the formal schedule of the public school—but it also places them 24/7 under the complete control of their parents, who may give them personal freedom or may, well, not. And besides that, some homeschool parents—like the parents of the young man I mentioned—simply reconstruct the formal schedule of the public school at home, just without the same level of peer interaction.

In the end, it’s complicated.