Home Schooling – From Fringe to Inevitable?

| June 4, 2010

The supreme irony would be if the real shift in education is not from public to charter schools, but that both could be eclipsed by what appears to be a drop in the bucket, the smallest possible unit of education: home-schooling. Representing, by its nature a fringe move in education, its marginal status hinges less on ideological differences of content, than on a radical structural stance. That this is characterized as reactionary, a removal from the system, should not distract us from its potentially productive power.

In fact, what charter and public school evangelists share in common is a structural belief in the institutional structure of education. (And not without a long historic precendent that I will not go into here.) Schooling, the logic goes, should take place in schools. In this sense, the critique of the charter movement—that it is an assault on the public sphere by privatized capitalists—is not so much wrong, as over-stated. The infra-structure may be changing hands, but the underlying workings are remarkably familiar.

The deeper threat to this sphere may come from elsewhere. And we would be rash to judge it too quickly. Take this provocative video suggesting that health care is operating on the computer network model of circa 1959, in which everything was tethered to giant mainframes. Hospitals, by centralizing and institutionalizing health care, wind up operating at huge costs and with poor real world metrics. Despite our fascination with hospitals as the sites for TV melodrama, in which the great questions of life are sorted out, the overriding sense one gets in actual hospitals is of being ignored by the apparatus, removed from our lives and made to wear gowns that show our butts.

The growing push to put laptops (and now tablets!) into the hands of every school student, while Universities manage to replicate all of the superstructure of their brick and mortar existence online, seems to miss the most obvious inference of all of this. Which is that we are still trying to maintain a legacy system while the functionality lies elsewhere.

The greatest force at work challenging the educational infrastructure is not those that have chosen not to play, and to “home school” instead, but the paradoxical endeavors within schools themselves that increasingly show their own redundancy. This is often masked by importing the structure of education into the technological domain, creating a firewall to the full range of options, for example by creating “instructional software.”  Much the same way the textbook did not replace but re-affirm the instructor, even if all they do is monitor its usage.

But if the minimal difference that separates student from teacher is that one gets the supplemental Teacher’s Edition of a textbook—or now, monitors the laptop use—is this not an indication that the home schoolers are simply carrying through the logic of schools themselves? But not hampered, perhaps, by the firewall, or the terrible inefficiency of mainframe education.

When we tell our grandkids we used to walk to school, barefoot through the snow, uphill both ways, will they ask us not “how did you manage before teleporting buses” but “what’s a school?”