September 13th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY / EDITORIAL: How America's choice will affect Australia

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Rudd's threat to close non-performing schools

FOREIGN INVESTMENT: Stronger rules needed on foreign investment

AGRICULTURE: High stakes in federal quarantine inquiry

EDUCATION: Reflections on home-schooling

UNITED NATIONS: Australia should not sign UN women's rights protocol

VICTORIA: Victoria battles over so-called 'right to kill'

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: Bid to tax churches out of existence?

ADVERTISING: Protests force removal of offensive billboards

CHINA: How China topped the Olympic gold medal tally

UNITED STATES: Michelle Obama's separationist view of race

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Migration debate revisited / Migrating on the SS Urea (1970) / 2008 postscript

Mandated medical malpractice (letter)

BOOKS: ON BURCHETT, by Tibor Méray, Tibor Meray

BOOKS: THE ISRAEL LOBBY and US Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

Books promotion page

Reflections on home-schooling

by Mark Freer

News Weekly, September 13, 2008
As school standards decline, more parents are choosing to home-school their children. One such parent, Mark Freer, discusses how he and his wife have gone about educating their seven children.

Having educated our seven children largely ourselves over 20-odd years, my wife Gabriela and I cheerfully regard home-schooling (to paraphrase Winston Churchill's description of democracy) as the worst form of schooling, apart from everything else on offer.

Often we have had to go back to square one and ask ourselves: What are we hoping to achieve? What can we achieve? And, with trepidation, what are we achieving? Now that our youngest is 11 and the eldest four have grown up and left home - three of them via the Catholic liberal arts institution, the Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California - we begin to imagine we are finally "getting it".

How can we summarise this? Simplify, simplify, and simplify again. Don't recreate school at home. Home is already the locus of education, without add-ons.

Think in one-hour blocks; don't be fiddly. Find materials that suit, and stick to them.

Culture of reading

Establish a family culture of reading as early as possible. Especially when the children are young, Dad should read the timeless favourites aloud in the evenings - Narnia, Tolkien, Wind in the Willows, Little House on the Prairie (see Books Children Love by Elizabeth Wilson and Susan Schaeffer Macaulay for ideas).

Use expressive voices, and the children will clamour for repetition of their favourite bits. Putting the television into the wheelie bin and lobbing in a brick is great family fun. One ancient one of ours with a thick glass screen memorably showered shards into the neighbours' carport and all over their four-wheel drive.

Turning children into avid readers of quality books makes for a very natural progression into the serious stuff. G.K. Chesterton's wonderful Father Brown mysteries open into Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man; whilst C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia lead into Lewis's science fiction, and thence to his collected essays and concentrated writings such as The Abolition of Man, which Walter Hooper considered "the most perfectly reasoned defence of Natural Law... I have ever seen".

Indeed, The Abolition of Man elucidates precisely our educational crisis. Lewis wrote: "In the older systems, both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao [the Natural Law] - a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart." Lewis refers to the concretum - the pre-existing, objective, non-material given of existence, without which Truth, Beauty and Goodness have no soil in which to take root and flourish. "They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received.... It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly."

Kevin Donnelly echoed this recently: "Since the cultural revolution of the '60s, and the Left's long march through the education system, the grand narrative associated with the Western tradition and our Judaeo-Christian heritage has been condemned as Euro-centric, patriarchal and bourgeois." (News Weekly, August 16, 2008).

That grand narrative, far from negating our freedom, is in fact the very basis of liberty. Chesterton says somewhere that only because the ground is solid are we able to jump for joy. That concretum - Lewis's Tao - is the ground on which we dance, the air we breathe and in which we spread our wings.

Old birds teaching young ones to fly - a simple concept, and simple to put into practice. What are you good at and love doing? Your children will pick it up and excel if you take the trouble to do it with them until they love it too.

I happen to love playing the piano, and now so does one of my sons. Another son loves the cello, and his little sister is learning to love the violin... Do you love reading? Like broccoli, it's a good thing to learn to love - and pass on.

The grand narrative has been lost so comprehensively, from so much of public and private life, that families need consciously to become counter-cultural. Like the monasteries in the Dark Ages, we must at all costs preserve - in our children and for their children - that grand narrative, that concretum, that blessed soil in which alone Truth, Beauty and Goodness can flower and bear fruit.

Fighting against the tide

A witty saying goes: "Everything is back to front - hospitals make you sick, banks make you poor, schools make you stupid, and lawyers rip you off." As far as schools go, of course there are wonderful teachers who are genuinely improving the lives of their students; but they are fighting against the tide.

That wonderful Grade 1 teacher, shorter than some of her students, who was made to reapply for her job before retiring early; the Swiss music teacher, loved by parents and students, whose ample qualifications and experience will never satisfy the Teachers' Registration Board, so that she needs 40 supervised contact hours to make a living. Teachers suffer under a status quo where politically correct bureaucratism thrives in the vacuum left by the loss of the concretum.

In the Catholic school system, make that religio-politically correct, which is even worse. Surreally, one prelate privately told concerned friends of ours in his archdiocese a couple of years ago point blank, you can't send your children to a Catholic school!

In both cases a cult of secularism reigns, a world where ideology trumps truth, where things like global warming become sacred writ. The Saxon maths curriculum - used successfully by many home-schoolers including ourselves, and demonstrated by reliable tests to double the mathematical ability of school students - will never be adopted in schools because its strategy of frequent repetition of fundamental principles offends against the canon of spontaneous, child-centred, "outcomes-based" (whatever that means) education.

Practice makes perfect

In fact, as John Saxon's preface correctly asserts, repetition "has an element of drudgery to it, but it has been demonstrated that people who are not willing to practise fundamentals often find success elusive. Ask any athlete, musician or artist about the necessity of practising fundamental skills." The legendary pianist Sviatoslav Richter once remarked: "However difficult it may be, there isn't a passage that doesn't become easy if practised a hundred times."

This does rather get to the root of things. It's after we acquire a skill (which needs work) that we start to enjoy using it - and are thus motivated to expend the next bit of effort to acquire the next bit of skill, and so on. This applies to multiplication tables, Latin grammar and just about everything else, and represents a viewpoint radically at odds with the mindless assertion that "education needs to be fun".

The interplay between inferential and deductive reasoning methods plays a substantial role here. One inferentially learns a language, for instance, by spending time in a country, paying attention to what is spoken, and in time picking it up. One learns it deductively using a textbook with grammar rules and vocabulary lists, progressively applying rules to facts to construct sentences.

It's obvious that good education will apply both to some extent, but equally obvious that a strategy of pure inferential reasoning - "picking it up" - within a structured learning situation is a pathway to disaster. You need to present the decoding rules and have them memorised.

My wife and I taught our first child to read inferentially ("whole-word") by our sitting, reading and pointing for hours until she got it. But our youngest we taught almost entirely deductively, using a phonics method (see The Writing Road to Reading: The Spalding Method of Phonics). We had less time by that stage, and maybe also marginally more wisdom.

Here, it is the job of parents to steer a judicious course between the sterile optimism of the modernists ("dump the rules") and the no less sterile pessimism of the neo-Jansenists ("the rules constitute your life"). A narrow path, but what a glorious view!

Education - for ourselves as for our children - entails above all the inculcation into, and the practice of, the life of grace, that life in which all good things come together, to which nothing is alien bar sin and the error arising therefrom.

Only when I discover a school that really believes and does these things will I happily entrust my children's hearts and minds to it. But for now I await a happier occasion.

Chesterton wrote in 1910 that "a teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching". In 1914 he declared that "our coercive popular education has been uncommonly near a complete failure", and, in the same year, added, "Because the elementary school doesn't teach theology, it must be excused when it doesn't teach anything."

Things had not improved by 1933, when he wrote: "There is something to be said for teaching everything to somebody, as compared with the modern notion of teaching nothing, and the same sort of nothing, to everybody."

What might Chesterton say in 2008?

I think he would appreciate Fr James V. Schall's book, Another Sort of Learning, with its long subtitle: "Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found" (published by Ignatius Press, and available through News Weekly books. See page 21).

- The author Mark Freer is an internationally-renowned South Australian concert pianist and church organist and choirmaster.

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