Captain Fantastic’s kids don’t need school, and neither do yours

Not to beat a dead horse, but last week I went to see the movie “Captain Fantastic” again. Readers of this blog know how I felt about it the first time. So why would I see it again? The movie was being shown in my community as part of a film and discussion series on issues of faith, diversity, and tolerance. A post-screening discussion was advertised, and I was curious to see what others felt about the film.

Credit: Cathy Kanavy

I actually liked the film better this time around. I knew what was going to happen, so I didn’t respond with disappointment and disbelief over the homeschooling stereotypes, the inconsistent characterization of the dad, and the implausible feats the family pulls off undetected.

The post-film discussion was fruitful and interesting (unlike Captain Fantastic, I don’t have a problem with the word). At first I just listened, keen to hear what others thought. People really enjoyed the movie, which I get. There is a lot to like about it, despite its flaws. Commenters on my blog post and elsewhere on the internet have debated the ending. Do they go to school or don’t they? In last week’s sample size of about a dozen, 15-20 percent thought the ending was ambiguous. The interpretation of the vast majority was that the kids do indeed go to school.

The majority also thought the kids should go to school. Most acknowledged this opinion had little to do with academics, because clearly the kids would be well beyond their peers in that regard. They needed school in order to become socialized, to learn to “function” and be prepared to live among others in the world.

One of my biggest disappointments with the movie was the choice of ending, which didn’t even attempt to show that there could be a middle ground when it comes to school. Lifestyle, yes–the family could have chickens, run barefoot in the grass, and embrace nature without isolating from the rest of the world, but continue to homeschool? Nope.

At the end of the discussion, the leader left us with a question. How can people of differing backgrounds, with differing views and opinions, learn to coexist peacefully with each other? Which got me thinking, what if Ben Cash brought his kids to mainstream culture and no one laughed at the clothes they wore, or their lack of knowledge about popular culture, or their openness? What if, instead of thinking they’re weirdos because they know how to hunt and are experts when it comes to Marxism and the Bill of Rights, people admired their abilities and knowledge without caveats about what they “should” or “shouldn’t” know?  What if, instead of feeling like we have the right to pass judgment on Ben Cash’s choices, we just acknowledged that his path is different from ours?

Instead, we feel we have the right to judge his choices. We have the right to judge what the kids are lacking, and what they need. While we may think it comes from caring about what’s “best” for them, it’s an inherently adversarial posture that makes it harder to extend a hand, because when you judge you get to say what constitutes a legitimate offer of assistance, and when you’re the one being judged you’re less likely to accept what amounts to conditional help.

It’s been twenty six years since I first started homeschooling, and though the practice has grown exponentially and there’s enough evidence to know that homeschooled kids grow up just fine, too many people still think kids need school. That isn’t a harmless misconception. It burdens every homeschooled kid who’s made to feel like the way they live is weird and different from other people, when the fact is that the majority of kids who attend school are having vastly different experiences themselves. Why can’t homeschooling just be another way for kids to get educated?

Maybe then when a homeschooled kid struggles people wouldn’t automatically blame homeschooling, just as when a schooled kid struggles people rarely blame school. Maybe then people wouldn’t feel free to scrutinize and evaluate the way homeschooled kids read, write, talk, dress, or interact so they can form an opinion about whether they’re doing okay.  Maybe then people could stop saying things like, “Homeschooling can work sometimes but I’ve seen it fail miserably,” because they don’t say that about school despite the dire statistics regarding literacy, suicide, and more. Maybe then people could stop believing that homeschooling parents think they’re better than real teachers, just want to isolate their kids from the rest of the world, are only doing it to get their kids into the Ivy League, are helicopter parents, blah, blah, blah. Then they might also see that homeschooling parents are a lot like most parents, and just doing what they think is best for their children.

People who choose alternative lifestyles have to practice tolerance, too. Ben Cash’s family could have been less judgy about fat people and Christians, that’s for sure. I’ve known plenty of homeschooling families that judge others for sending their kids to school, not unschooling properly, being overprotective, whatever. Most of us, including myself, have fallen prey to this entirely human tendency because let’s face it, in order to decide how to live our lives we have to make judgments. When you’re doing something that most of your society thinks is weird, sometimes digging into your views helps fend off the negative opinions of others and the doubts that naturally come with forging an unorthodox path. While that may mean we have to go deeper within ourselves to maintain the fortitude to be ourselves, it doesn’t make practicing tolerance any less important. In these times, it seems more important than ever.


4 thoughts on “Captain Fantastic’s kids don’t need school, and neither do yours

  1. I love this Milva! I’ve been thinking I should watch the movie again for the exact same reasons you did. It certainly has sparked a lot of debate regarding homeschooling and the associated stereotypes. Your take away is insightful, especially your thoughts on creating a middle ground and fostering tolerance. We need it more than ever. By the way, my kids take on the ending is that they do go back to school in order to comply, but that the scene around the breakfast table shows that they continue to be unschoolers in practice and at heart. The school thing is just a front. Spoken like true unschoolers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The people I’ve talked with and encountered who feel that the kids don’t go back to school are often homeschoolers themselves. The fact that they are living the homeschooling path may help them to have a broader interpretation of the ending.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Milva McDonald, one of my favorite homeschool veterans to follow online, recently shared reflections on the movie Captain Fantastic. For those who doesn’t know the film, it follows the story of a man (Ben Cash) and his family living off-grid, unschooling in very unconventional ways. McDonald asks, […]


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