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One of the items at the top of nearly every homeschooling parent’s list of hand wringers is a concern that their children will “miss something,” presumably something important. This understandable worry pushes many parents into a packaged or at least a traditional style curriculum. Often it drives them to cover every page of every text, sometimes spilling into the next school year, compounding the frenzy to “catch up” and “cover everything.” Sadly, in pushing so hard, we can cause our children to miss the most important lessons of all. Children are born with boundless curiosity and an insatiable drive to learn about their surroundings. All that is needed for them to learn is an attentive adult who will answer their questions and later, show them how to find their own answers. School books usually go at the process backwards by providing the child with pre-digested questions, depriving him of the opportunity to think of his own. A diet of too many school books will finally extinguish his ability to inquire independently at all. Their canned answers, subtly tell him that his own questions and answers are not important or relevant. Great intellects are not developed by answering inane questions at the end of the chapter. They are nurtured by the opportunity to explore unorthodox paths, to search out answers to odd questions, to get off the track and even to wander aimlessly at times. It is said that John Harrison could never have invented the chronometer, one of the most important inventions of the last millennium, if he had been a trained watchmaker or clockmaker. School books can hone specific skills if they are well written, but seldom can they nurture the intellect.
This is a hard lesson for the nearly 100% of us who were raised on a steady diet of school books. We were fed an endless diet of multiple choice tests, essay questions and selected abridged versions all with their official correct answers and interpretations. After 12 to 20 years of this, is it any wonder that we can hardly trust ourselves to think our way through Charlotte’s Web, let alone allow our children the freedom to do it? “But how do I know she understood what she read?” is the inevitable question. Can she tell you about it? Can she discuss it? What more should you want? Perhaps a list from memory of the words Charlotte found? Or, an analysis of Wilbur’s fears vs. Charlotte’s resolve? Why must a young child be subjected to someone else’s questions? In order to learn to think deeply, a child must be permitted to form his own questions. Thinking takes time, time that is not invaded by too much TV, radio, or questions at the end of the chapter or in the dreaded “study guide.” Study guides, though not evil in themselves, often do more harm than good, especially in the realm of literature. They tell you which questions and opinions are proper. They discourage thinking by telling you what to think. They can sometimes be helpful by explaining archaic terms and unfamiliar customs or by pointing out an obscure use of symbolism or long forgotten historical analogy or political commentary. If your study guide doesn’t provide these things, reevaluate its usefulness.
Yes, your child will miss something if you don’t use text books for everything. He will miss a surface education—a mile wide and an inch deep. He will miss learning a great deal that will be forgotten by the next week or next month. He will miss being bored to tears by a committee written tome that is probably riddled with factual errors. Most of all, he will miss learning that education is painful, dreary, tedious and largely irrelevant to the real world of flesh and blood. However, if your child can read, write well, calculate, think clearly and logically, and discern the difference between right and wrong, between objective truth and propaganda, what can he not learn quickly and relatively easily? There is no way for him to master the entire body of man’s knowledge before he is 100, let alone 18, so relax. Take care of the basics and the details will fall into place.
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