Straight Talk to Moms and Dads
According to acclaimed American schoolteacher John Taylor Gatto, school harms boys far more than it helps them because it takes from boys the tools they need for critical thinking in the real world.
Says Gatto in his book Dumbing Us Down (1992; reprinted, New Society Publishers, 2005):
Around the year 1850 all the free-form, casual schooling that made our nation of farmers far and away the best-educated the world had ever seen was done away with in a series of strokes of the legislative pen.
In the 1860s, Herbert Spencer . . . pronounced government schooling a preposterous endeavour doomed to failure. He said that this would happen because it deprived children of raw experience and responsibility precisely at the moment their natural development demanded it, and that this experience and responsibility could not be made up for later.
“I feel ashamed,” states Gatto, “that so many of us cannot imagine a better way to do things than locking children up all day in cells instead of letting them grow up knowing their families, mingling with the world, assuming real obligations, striving to be independent and self-reliant and free.”
My purpose here is to help us imagine and pursue a better way.
A Message for Mothers
One of the inherent weaknesses in the modern home-education movement is maternal dominance in the raising of sons. Mom does the hard work because Dad is not around. Sons spend more time with Mom than they do with Dad. In most cases, this is because Dad must leave home to be the breadwinner. In other cases, the father is relatively disinterested in the training process or too exhausted from work to take a deep interest in what’s going on in a son’s development. Where does this leave a boy when he is no longer young? He will be disadvantaged unless you, Mom, are especially sensitive to three things.
• Your son’s need for freedom
• Your son’s need for male mentoring
• Your son’s need for a multigenerational vision
Please note that “disadvantaged” is a relative term. Many young men who suffer the disadvantages of maternal dominance are still much better off than young men who suffer real dangers in state-dominated education environments.
One of the inherent strengths in the home-education process is the freedom parents give boys to learn at their own pace outside the stunting confines of an anti-masculine institution. American mothers feel pressure to put an end to this freedom when their sons reach thirteen or fourteen years old. Moms may feel inadequate to teach further. They may feel that their sons need a credential the school promises to provide, or they may feel that the son needs worldly companionship. None of these are valid reasons to abandon the education alternative for which you have sacrificed much. The issue in real education is discipleship. Parents will do a better job of discipling their sons, especially in the teen years.
Regardless of the content schools teach, the very structure of the classroom frustrates, demoralizes, and goes against the way God wired boys. The “bell,” the bullying, the pressure to be politically correct, the enforced emphasis on non-academic conformity, the twisted emphasis on subject material that has no real-life relevance, the forced age segregation—all these conditions compromise the natural masculine traits that can turn boys into responsible protectors, providers, and nurturers.
A boy’s teen years are the most vital in determining his interests, his bearings in life, his relationship to responsibility, and his ideas of manhood. Freedom from an artificial, institutionalized world is essential for healthy development. Some observers would go so far as to say the modern school environment ruins a boy’s chances of becoming a good father by teaching the wrong worldview about family life. Home education can continue to provide freedom, protection, and an uncompromising road to manhood.
Four decades ago, when NASA began recruiting confident leaders for a manned space program, they discovered that boys who worked on farms with their fathers had the best advantages in coming of age, the best traits for adventurous leadership, and the strongest character traits.
Boys learn about manhood daily from doing hard work and facing challenging problems with their fathers. If such an arrangement is impossible, moms can help boys look for work or study situations that provide mentoring opportunities. Apprentice-like relationships between boys and businessmen can positively change lives. Boys learn much by watching, and their bosses can teach much by coaching. If a boy cannot work with his father, find a man your husband trusts who can take your boy under his wing for periodic or part-time labor, preferably in a field in which your son shows an interest. Age thirteen may not be too early. Manual labor is especially valuable, but a disciplined office environment can be just as valuable if your son’s supervisors are sufficiently strict and attentive.
In a mentoring environment, it is not the work that necessarily improves the boy’s character and knowledge but the direct interaction with his mentor. Good mentors should have character, integrity, and a plan to impart a certain body of knowledge to your son. Consult with the mentor to know what that knowledge is and how you can assess your boy’s progress in learning it.
In the right environment, your son will learn the proper professional conduct, which will serve him in continuing down the path of self-learning on which you have pointed him.
An Intergenerational Vision
Even boys who have every advantage in life may reach age twenty without a vision of who they are, where they’re headed, or what they should do. It is not essential that they know precisely what they will be doing at age thirty and age forty, but it is essential that every young man is productive in the meantime. His labor in productive pursuits will help direct him into his calling.
One of the most vital things you will ever give your boy in his education is the intellectual framework from which to make his most important life decisions about his vocation, his estate, his marriage, and his fields of study. This intellectual framework is not the academic stuff; the worldview stuff is what encompasses the past, the present, and a long-term future.
Because the big decisions bear down on him in his teens, he needs more direction in his teen years than at any other time of life. Without a long-term vision that includes his own children and grandchildren, he will not make good plans or decisions.
It is most appropriate for this framework to come from his father, so perhaps you should respectfully ask your husband to read the rest of this article with you.
A Message for Dads
If a father is the product of a forced government education, he can admit to himself that he has a disadvantage because of the ideas forced upon him. This attitude takes introspection and humility. He must then work all the harder to protect his sons from the same misleading life views that are rife in our culture.
The most compromising ideas picked up in school twist the concepts of family, education, and work. According to the approved statist view, families provide children for the state, which schools them according to an approved curriculum until the state declares them “educated” and fit for lifetime employment in state-approved positions.
Because many fathers apply this flawed concept to homeschool situations, it is not surprising that they view mom as the party who teaches the approved curriculum and their son as the state asset who sits at a desk until he is approved to be another state asset’s employee. In this scenario, why does the family need Dad at home? Isn’t his first obligation to be an employed state asset himself?
Indeed, dads who apply this worldview logically will come to view home education as detrimental to a son’s success, because the new definition of success, according to Maxim Institute researcher Paul Henderson, “is to be the state’s sycophant.” How can a young man become a success if he doesn’t become as familiar as possible with the state’s wishes, the state’s agents, and the state’s most faithful followers? Thus, it is not surprising that many fathers are eager for sons to bail out of home education as soon as possible and get into a government school environment. As many moms are nervously aware, this is a road to disaster.
Before Dad gets properly involved in the home-education process, he needs to reject this corrupted worldview and embrace a better one.
Dad should have learned some things from Great-granddad, but he didn’t. The main causes of dysfunction in modern society are the disappearance of patriarchal influence and lack of teaching the sons how to protect their fathers’ multigenerational vision. Before the advent of forced, collectivist schooling in the mid-nineteenth century, fathers and mothers had a healthy understanding of what comprised an educated man. The academic framework of the three Rs was only a small part of a boy’s education. The bigger part was a real-life intellectual and moral framework. The priorities that guided a father’s nurturing were business and law. One populist saying summed up this worldview. “If you do not teach your son the law and a trade, you train him to be a thief and a fool.”
Fathers were the dominant and guiding influence in a boy’s education. “Business” education was primarily character related: professionalism, contracts, and ethics instruction. The law simply meant biblical law as represented in the case laws of the Old Testament, without which we cannot maintain a civil society. The three Rs were the tools required to maintain one’s estate and one’s society. These were essential but minor elements in the overall educational picture. Parents and operators of charity schools knew they could teach academics to a sophisticated level (considered a university level today) by age fourteen with only part-time schooling, which was often done only during winter.
Families understood that all fathers were teachers of one sort or another. Either they were conscientious, devoted mentors, or by their neglect, they trained their sons to be similarly careless and neglectful of duty.
Bringing up Teenage Men
Before statist governments seized complete control of education and family life, men passed on a healthy educational worldview to their sons. Two important and powerful concepts were that a boy has duties that span several generations and that a boy becomes a man at age thirteen. Western civilization probably absorbed this idea from the Jewish practice of recognizing well-trained boys as “sons of the law” at age thirteen. Orthodox Jewish families still practice this custom, which requires, among other accomplishments, that boys memorize the first five books of the Bible before age thirteen.
Thus, during a boy’s earliest years, Western men were once strongly motivated to be intimately involved in the spiritual and mental training of their boys. If society saw a boy as a child at age thirteen, that boy was a public manifestation of his father’s shortcomings. The acceptance of this idea was universal in Western culture. Families held to the concept with life-and-death seriousness—and for good reason.
Society regarded thirteen-year-olds as men and expected them to be prepared to act like men. Maritime law, for example, reinforced this custom during life-threatening calamities. When the Titanic’s captain gave the order, “Abandon ship! Women and children first!” people expected thirteen-year-old men to be grown-ups. Western society viewed these youths as men who could bravely sacrifice their lives for those who were weaker. Boys responded accordingly and acted like men of mature faith, who manfully assisted women into lifeboats then calmly went down with the ship as Christian gentlemen. Many learned what a Christian gentleman is from watching their fathers.
Until the 1940s, many thirteen-year-olds carried these ideas of duty with them into fatherhood, preparing young sons then providing manly guidance to thirteen-year-old young men of their own. However, since the 1950s, an accepted culture of childishness, perpetuated by artificial schooling, has created a societal misfit called a “teenager” and has separated him from his father’s mentoring.
What Fathers Teach Best
For teen sons, fathers are in the best position to provide the link between the best lessons of the past, an understanding of the present, and a framework to plan for the future—a multigenerational vision. Elements of this framework must include character training (biblical obedience), theology (biblical literacy), history (biblical perspective), worldview (biblical relevance), statesmanship (biblical dominion), and the facts of life (long-term estate planning).
Armed with these rudiments, a young man can face adolescence and a complex world with confidence. He will know how to act and how to lead others. He will know the following:
• what to look for in a fiancée
• how to court her honorably
• how and why to develop his entrepreneurial instincts
• how to avoid dead-end employment
• how to plan a business and run it successfully
• how to save and invest his earnings
• how to respect the benefits of Christendom
• how to honor his parents and his heritage
• how to contribute to the health of the community
• how to disciple others
• how to provide emotionally and materially for his wife and children
• how to observe the legitimate demands of the state
• how to handle the illegitimate demands of the state
• how to understand and overcome the corruptions of the church
• how to serve God without falling into religious game playing
• how to leave a substantial estate to his descendants
Government schools do not teach these rudiments, and they regard them with contempt. Home classrooms do not lend themselves to ease of teaching these rudiments. Nevertheless, sons can learn these things as fathers mentor them in a real-life environment. For sons aged ten to fifteen, fathers should consider every sacrifice necessary to create the right father-son learning environment. Wise fathers sacrifice things important in a materialistic culture. This is the cost to become their sons’ primary teachers. Some sacrifices involve pay cuts, resignations from careers, or other economic risk taking, but this alone is a valuable lesson for a son. It says, “You are important. Our family relationship is important. Your education is significant, and we should be willing to sacrifice for that education. I admit that the risks are expensive and scary, but maybe we can overcome each obstacle by working together. Let’s prove to the world just how valuable and powerful families can be. Let’s see how our faith can grow and be the prized asset it is meant to be.”
The home-education movement is a phenomenon that could rescue what is left of Western culture. It yields superior results academically. It makes dysfunctional families functional again. It demolishes the so-called “generation gap.” It rediscovers the true meaning of education and academic freedom. It challenges the more dangerous claims of statism, including the claim that only the state can train a person to fit into society.
However, home education will never be all it can be without fathers becoming more involved, especially with their sons. It has been through sacrifice that home education has progressed this far. It will take more sacrifice to develop the next phase. Today, too many home-educated boys display symptoms of timidity or disorientation as they enter manhood. Their mothers have helped them excel academically, but that’s not enough to help them conquer the challenges of the times. It’s time for their fathers to help them excel, spiritually and materially, as men.