How awful we were to substitute teachers when I was in grade school! These “substitutes” — the very term implied dread mixed with malicious opportunity — didn’t know our names, our lesson plans, the class culture, and had no pre-existing expectations for our behavior. We took full advantage, switching seats, hurling paper wads, goofing off, or otherwise just having a grand and very cruel time of it, knowing that if we all behaved badly as a class, in the aggregate, the punishment would be minimal. It was never worse than the day in band when we all switched instruments, and generated an hour worth of cacophony. To what end? It was just something we did because we could.
Justice dictates that everyone who participated in these evil acts should be a substitute teacher for day. And so I was, but not in the same setting I had growing up. Instead I enjoy what turned out to be a glorious morning for Dad and his well-trained and homeschooled children. There were no spitwads or wisecracks or seat switching (that I know of!); rather I was privileged to be of part of one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve witnessed in my adult life.
Sure, I teach them on nights and weekends, mostly “extracurricular” subjects like music and sports and yardwork. During the real school hours, I’m somewhere else. So the chance to sit down with them during a real school day and supervise the process of learning in a homeschool setting was a rare treat, and something I would wish on every homeschool dad, who often feels that professional responsibilities shut him out of the schooling process.
How to characterize the experience? I turn to a word from Catholic spirituality: sacramental. In Catholic theology, a sacrament like Baptism or Communion gives grace ex opere operato, that is, they operate of themselves. A sacramental such as a prayer or holy water, in contrast, gives grace ex opera operantis, that is, due to the good disposition of the person involved. The word is usually employed in reference to holy objects or actions or just events that provide a window to sanctity. The term applies here. Time spent in homeschool, in a world so barren of reflection on the need to develop from within, is a kind of sacramental.
Let me set the scene and you will see why. It began after breakfast with my passing and slightly nervous comment that we should start school now, but they knew precisely what that meant. They stopped talking, put away their breakfast plates, and got out their books and papers and sat down in front of me, awaiting instructions or to gain a sense of what I expected of them. Somewhat startled by this and feeling very much on the spot, I went around the table and asked each what subjects needed to be covered today and what was expected. Each dutifully reported in, and then I put them to work.
For the next hours, their young minds were hard at work in a setting of incredible peace. A few words from me, and one could only hear the sound of pencils on paper, interrupted periodically by questions about specific issues. The children sought direction but they understood that the job of learning was theirs alone. Once the reading or worksheet on a particular topic was done, the child then moved onto another subject, and another and another, guided only periodically by brief pointers and instructions. Onward through geography, math, spelling, history, and on and on — each child working on his or her particular level. When a child finishes a task particularly quickly and with a nearly perfect score, it is a sign to move onto a more advanced area, as happened with my daughter in Latin and my son with math. Each time, it involved short explanations and then assignments and reading. Meanwhile, the little one was busy at her school, copying letters.
Amid this peace and space, I taught each one something that day, made a personal contribution to their intellectual growth, and assisted as they piled new knowledge on top of old and sorted through the process of weaving it all together, a bit at a time. My role was only to give due attention to the particular needs and personalities of each child. We were all learning together. Here we had a visible sign of a kind of hierarchy: the younger children striving to know what the older ones know, bit by bit, feeling not frustrated but challenged. And at the top of the hierarchy, there is no dispute (at least not yet) about who held that spot: the teacher, who feels himself to be oddly flattered by being considered as such.
People who have never witnessed a homeschooling scene, but know only about school from large classrooms in public school, have a hard time even imagining what goes on or how it all works. This is so clear whenever you read a mainstream educator denounce homeschooling; their ignorance is palpable, and barely worth responding to. How could they know what I saw before me? The students are internally driven to learn. They sense no limits to learning. Once one topic is mastered, they are free to move on. They feel a powerful sense of personal responsibility. Time is used extraordinarily well, not standing in lines or frittering away hours obeying orders from above, but learning, and it was all over long before I expected.
In the middle of this, I was having flashbacks to elementary school, and I realized some things I hadn’t thought about before. Something internalized by all kids in public school is the rule that one must keep up with the class, be part of the group, contribute to the collective mind of those assembled. Particular talents and unusual interests just have no place in school. As for moving on in the book, what’s the point? It only means boredom later. And what’s the goal? To learn? Not really. The goal is get a final score that doesn’t alarm mom and dad, keep away from detention, and then to move on to the next grade.
Boredom is the main feeling I recall. You are strapped into a wooden chair from 8am until 3pm or later, with a break during which you can stand in a line for lunch, followed by a time for play during which you are harassed by bullies and otherwise subjected to every manner of uncivilized behavior from classmates before returning to the wooden chair to be bored again. What does one do with one’s time? You kill it in every way possible. You can daydream. You can practice going brain dead. You can conjure up every manner of thought, good and evil. What you cannot do is learn at your own pace. You cannot explore. Keep up with the class, and never go beyond it, is the rule. Whatever you do, don’t think things others are not thinking. Every student is profoundly aware of what thoughts are allowed and what is not allowed (and homeschooling is sometimes decried as too narrow and restrictive!).
A word about the effects of competition: it is often said that only the large group setting of peers encourages rivalry toward excellence. I never saw this in school. Instead I saw the opposite: a reversion to the mean. Competition implies rewards for excelling. But in the public school, it is the opposite. Extraordinary work calls down suspicion from peers and slight irritation from the teacher who, whatever his or her own merits, is, after all, part of a system that is designed to bring about conformity and discourage outlying behavior and thought.
I believe in competition as a principle but not as a universal rule of life. A child’s mind is already so expansive and nimble that the real danger is giving them examples of passable mediocrity. Without that to limit them, a child is naturally inquisitive and enraptured by opportunities to know more. The great merit of homeschooling is precisely that it provides an open-ended environment that permits the flowering of intellect that is as effortless in children as it is difficult in adults. Observing this at work, one is tempted to establish a first rule of education: set no limits (within moral bounds) to learning.
As I sat and looked at my children so hard at work, viewing learning an individualized process of discovery and challenge, it was clear to me that they have no idea just how good they have it. Fine. Better that they take learning for granted, just part of life that has no clear beginning or clear end. What grace comes to those who make it possible, who put in the time to become the private tutors of their own children, who benefit so much, intellectually and spiritually, from seeing the process at work and participating so closely in it.
The mystery of the mind: how magnificent to see the internal drama of intellectual development take place in children, in a setting of the home where they are safe and loved. How privileged are those who can take part. And how good the students are to those who teach them, even when they are substitutes. Holy water, prayers, icons, spiritual readings — these are sacramentals. They give grace because of the disposition we and others bring to them, and so too does showing love to one’s children by teaching them at home and having them show love back. In that little space, that small table the children sat around to develop their minds, hearts, and souls, here was an event taking place that is more important than anything in the world.
I would gladly be a substitute in this class at every opportunity.
Jeffrey Tucker is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org.