College has been on my mind lately. We’re knee-deep in the application process for my third child, who hopes to attend a school of her choice in the fall. Of my four children, she’s the only one who unequivocally wanted or wants to attend college. My oldest didn’t go, my second quit after two years, and number four is on the fence. Does that make you pause? In a world where the conventional wisdom seems to be that college is a necessity, I wouldn’t be surprised. Just last week, the New York Times published a piece called Is Your First Grader College Ready. It was meant to be provocative, but only fuels the entrenched notion that eschewing college means no chance for a successful life.
Neither of my parents had much formal education. My mother, who came to the United States in the 1950’s at the age of 27, left school when she was 11 because she was needed at home. There were zero books in her house, and precious few in her tiny village in the mountains of Italy. Like most people of her generation and her background, she sees education as the ticket to opportunity, economic success, and ultimately, happiness. Statistics about the earning power of those with and without college degrees seem to prove her right. And yet, the promise of college has turned into a broken dream for so many young people shouldering massive debt from student loans, and seeking difficult-to-land jobs in our rapidly-changing economy.
Despite this, most teenagers assume college is a requirement. “Where are you applying?” is a standard question for young people, most of whom are given the message by their families, schools, and the larger culture that college is expected. Somehow, I didn’t get that memo. Although I loved school, including college, in raising my own kids I chose to embrace a completely different educational paradigm.
What about college?
When it comes to the most common questions directed at homeschoolers, it’s second only to What about socialization?
Last year when I was conducting a workshop for new homeschoolers, someone in the audience asked whether my kids got into college. Not whether my kids chose college, not what my kids were doing with their lives, but whether they were able to get in. I replied that my eldest didn’t go to college and my second quit after two years, but my third was about to apply. Maybe I imagined the deflated look on the woman’s face, but I don’t think so. Homeschooling parents and others can take admission to college as evidence of success, and a job well done. A child who doesn’t get into the college of their choice, or who doesn’t choose college at all, can hit current or prospective homeschooling parents in an emotional weak spot. I get that. I found myself pulling my hair out when my son decided to quit college to pursue a career as a full-time folk musician. But what did I expect? He was raised unconventionally, to see possibilities beyond the beaten path.
Years ago, Peter Kowalke made a movie called Grown Without Schooling. It profiled several young adults who’d been homeschooled in the 1970s and 80s. You’d be hard pressed to find commonalities among them. The one I noticed was that they were all open, self-aware, and thoughtful about their lives and choices. For some, that didn’t include college, or entrepreneurship, or traditional employment.
I attended a showing of the movie for homeschooling parents. At the post-screening discussion, it was fascinating to see how unsettled many of them were. They found it difficult to accept that each and every one of the grown homeschoolers couldn’t be held up as “successes” in the eyes of society. I understand the reaction. We all want what’s best for our kids. Our culture puts so much responsibility on parents for how kids “turn out,” and homeschooling only magnifies that burden. But our kids are individuals, like us. There’s a certain amount of irony in play when homeschooling parents expect their kids to take a traditional path. Our homeschooled children know better than we that learning doesn’t have to happen in a school. They’ve lived it. Ultimately, they’ll take the paths they choose, and if we can take a deep breath and relax, watching those paths unfold can be a learning opportunity for us.
Almost daily, my daughter receives glossy flyers from universities all over the country, decorated with color photos of satisfied students engaged in studious conversation, working in state-of-the-art labs, using impressive facilities. These schools are trying to sell their product, and they want to make it look as attractive as possible. The value of knowledge for its own sake, and the profound effect that deep learning experiences have in making us who we are, don’t appear to be paramount. Mark Edmundson talks about this in his book Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education. He says about formal schooling, “We are educated to fill roles, not to expand our minds and deepen our hearts. We are tooled to slide into a social machine and function smoothly with a little application from time to time of the right pleasing grease. Education now prepares us for a life of conformity and and workplace tedium, in exchange for which we can have our iPhones, our flat screens, our favorite tunes, Facebook and Twitter.” One of the reasons I chose homeschooling was to keep my kids from sliding into the emptiness of the social machine. As a result of homeschooling, our adult children often have a broader sense of options and possibilities. They aren’t machines that need to be well-oiled by social constructs. They can create, and nurture, themselves.
There’s much to be gained from the resources available at a university (and Edmundson has much to say about this in his book), especially when the student enters with an intact love of learning. But is attendance necessary for “success” or even to become educated? I think not, and the sooner we parents get that, the better. Of course college degrees can open doors for their recipients, but it’s possible to get jobs, start businesses, learn trades, and live fulfilling lives without a college degree. What’s more important than any piece of paper is the process of becoming an educated person. As homeschooling parents, this is what we’ve offered our children. We plant the seeds and guide them when they’re young, but by the time they reach college age, however they extend the process is up to them. Whether they choose college or not is immaterial to whether their education will continue. As Edmundson puts it, “…what we want is real learning—learning that will help us see the world anew and show us that there could be more to our lives than we had thought.” That kind of priceless education can happen anywhere.