As a result of being schooled at home, a good number of homeschoolers
are ready for college at an earlier age than their peers. These
homeschoolers know more, have achieved more, and are better at studying.
Yet, the social decay parents avoid by homeschooling is as advanced in
the colleges as in the public schools, perhaps more so. This means that
homeschooled children don’t have many places to go to continue
Of course, there are some good colleges, and the National Review Guide
is one good place to start looking. However, college is probably not the
right place for the homeschooler who is, say, 16 years old. College is
not only a thing of intellect. The science whizzes who show up from time
to time in the news, who go to MIT at age 13, don’t usually live
in the dorm. They live at home in the Boston area, or their parents move
there from Nebraska.
There are probably quite a few good homeschoolers who, like such whizzes
(but not only in science and math), are ready for college but not ready
to go away to college. What might be done for them?
To answer, I’m going to talk about what studying is like in
several foreign lands. After Harvard I spent a year at Oxford and later,
after I had begun teaching, I spent two years in Germany mostly
studying, but during a Humboldt Fellowship year, also teaching at
Heidelberg. Most of what I say is based on personal experience, but
first I must tell you some general facts about the European method of
Achievement (We Know You Did)
Versus Aptitude (We Think You Can)
A number of the countries that educate their youth better than we
do—Japan, France, England, and Germany—share one thing: they
never went off the achievement standard. Admission to colleges and
universities in these countries is still through achievement, not
aptitude. Moreover, achievement is indicated by performance in exams
that are difficult, comprehensive, and impersonal. They are given at set
times, to all students, throughout the nation, and they are judged by
judges the students never meet.
And there are consequences. The A and 0 level exams in England, the
Abitur in Germany, and the Baccalaureate in France are both final exit
exams from “high school” and entrance exams to university. A
good word from your “high school” teacher might have some
part in admission, if you are border-line, but it is decidedly
secondary. There are no guidance counselors in this system, just
teachers and students, and both are focused on the student gaining the
knowledge that alone will win admission. Young people in these countries
take these exams very seriously. Our children face no comparable
The consequences of insisting that prior achievement is the best
forecast of future achievement are immense. Students arrive at
university better educated, better informed, more knowledgeable, and,
above all, more capable of independent study than in America. Having
achieved some things, they are ready to achieve more.
Disciplining Yourself for a Week
What is it like when the student gets to University in England and
Germany? It is very different from America. Students who enter Oxford
know that ahead of them, three years off in the future, is a mammoth
exam—a week-long exam, all-day each day exams, a week of them, and
with the possibility of being called back for a “viva,” a
face-to-face examination that goes over their work and places them more
exactly. Placed they will be: a First, a Second, or a Third. Of course,
many a scholar over the last seven centuries who has done well has
wondered whether there was not more to education than these exams, and
many a man who has done poorly has gone on to do well in life.
What are the three years like prior to that week of examinations? The
student must organize his time accordingly, over a three-year stretch.
And so must the university. Thus each term, three of them, each lasting
eight weeks, must be subordinated to their culmination and proof three
years away. Many an American, many a Rhodes scholar even, though having
already completed four college years in America, has not been able to
manage that long haul, has beguiled the time, frolicked about, and
failed the exams, or simply elected not to take them. It is not uncommon
for an American arriving to spend the days talking with English
students, believing them when they say, “I never study,” and
not noticing that each one only spent a half-hour with him talking, not
the whole day. A maturity of purpose and discipline almost unimaginable
in America is required of the student, but of course the English
students, though younger than the visiting Rhodes scholars, got to
college through such discipline.
Term Time in Oxford and Heidelberg
What are the eight-week terms like? They are both more intense and more
leisured than in America. Intense, because students must write an essay
each week for their tutor. There in his quarters, in his study lined
with books, two or three students meet to read their papers aloud and
receive his comments. Intense, focused, and concentrated is the primal
scene of education at Oxford. Once, when a student read his paper on
irony, the tutor commented, “For next week write a paper on
irony,” and the student didn’t know whether the tutor had
been dozing or was just being tersely devastating.
Confrontational as tutorial is, the terms are nevertheless more leisured
than in America. There are lectures to attend, but they do not
constitute courses. Students may go to whatever series they wish. No
exams are directly attached to them. As a consequence, the lectures are
largely driven by the intellectual desires of the tutors, not the
imputed needs of sluggish students. In them the tutor gets to present
something he is highly interested in to the university community. The
message is “lift yourself up to the conversation of your
superiors” not “we’re here to make sure everything is
agreeably undemanding.” No hand-holding from the lectern here, no
repeating what is already in a textbook with jokes added, no giving
information that the student could perfectly well look up himself. In
other words, no “living Cliff Notes.”
Otherwise, students apportion their time as they choose. Punting on the
river, intramural sports, theatricals, dining with friends, and long
walks together fill the terms.
Since the exams in one subject are usually about as wide as one of our
majors, a very important part of Oxford education occurs in the common
room. There, after dinner, students repair. Amidst the books and the
best general journals, conversation carries forward education quietly,
Leisure is also the note in the long, six-week periods between the short
Oxford terms. During these vacations students study uninterruptedly,
often together, often according to a shared plan, sometimes going to
some country place, to read, take long walks, and talk together at
dinner and into the night. For a fuller look at what the experience of
learning is like at Oxford you might read one of the biographies of C.
The story is much the same in Germany. There, for the first time, I met
young people who had the elementary habits of civility. They could not
only do their own laundry but prepare three-course dinners for each
other, with salad, vegetables, and good coffee. As every parent in
America (and many girl-friends) know, young American males are not
mature enough to do their own laundry, let alone prepare a decent meal.
Don’t maturity in studies and maturity in life go together?
Just as the question facing us at the end of life—“Will I be
saved?”—tends to bring out the best in human nature, so the
question facing us at the end of our university studies—“How
well was I educated?”—tends to bring out the best in student
nature. The American answer: “Well, I’ll have 118 credits by
next spring.” This is a confession, which the person saying it
does not know is a confession, that the real question has never been
asked. Yet the student who confesses he takes courses only to receive
the college credits is far less culpable than the adults who have built
such a system.
New Media for Traditional Education
What’s the point of my report on education in other countries? Is
it to suggest that homeschoolers go abroad for their college? No. Few
have the resources. Is it to suggest that we in America start some real
colleges rather than the pseudo colleges that most have faded into
today? Well, that wouldn’t be a bad idea. Any reader with forty
million dollars to devote to this worthy end, please contact me!
The real point of my report is to ask whether some of the benefits of
these mature universities might be provided to the mature homeschoolers
who, for whatever reason—too young, not enough money,
etc.—are unable to go off to one of our better colleges. My answer
is a qualified yes.
The obvious means of reaching the intellectually mature homeschooler
would be through new mediating technology, such as e-mail, Internet,
teleconferencing phones, and compressed video. Some of this I discussed
in a previous essay. But, let’s not kid ourselves, a campus
provides something precious and irreplaceable: the chance to talk with
your teacher and the chance to find students like yourself. Such
friendships may last through life and are a mighty encouragement to good
However, colleges are less places of friendship than they used to be.
Many students never get to know a teacher. Then again, friendship does
not always start face to face. Look at C. S. Lewis. The friendship of
his life, a life filled with many friendships, began as a correspondence
with Joy Davidman, whom he later married.
Also, consider how, when you read a great book, you are carrying on
study at a distance, just as distant as if it were over the phone or
e-mail. When you read War and Peace, you do not need beetle-browed
Tolstoy staring down at you from a lectern. There he is in his book.
Some then of the good of mature education might be encouraged by study
using these media. Thus, a portion of the good of preparing for
difficult, comprehensive, and impersonal exams a few years away might be
had. This would require equivalent exams, and equivalent degrees
attached to them. Along the way, some even of the good of weekly
tutorials at Oxford might be had, too.
Of course, the hardest part to provide would be the opportunities for
good friendship provided by living in college, dining together,
repairing to the common room, and arranging study together, on campus
Still, since mature students desire the best sorts of friendship, in
which studies have a great part, perhaps the reduced opportunities would
matter less. Students with the same tutor might communicate with each
other. Students “attending” the same lecture series online
might be made aware of each other. They might form an e-mail group, on
which the lecturer might sometimes look in. Students looking forward to
exams might well study together, read the same books, and gather for
People of all ages are already enjoying the benefits of new media.
Homeschoolers can do so, as well, with no impediment. The important
thing to remember is that mature students, such as homeschoolers, like
difficult exams. Mature students are used to working hard. They will
seek opportunities for wisdom, and they will look for fellow students as
friends. No wonder humans who cultivate intellect have always praised
friendship; remember, Christ sent His disciples out in twos.
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: My two oldest children were in 1995 “beta
testing” an online academy which provided just the kind of
tutorials and disciplined study that Dr. Platt recommends. Since we were
devoting PHS solely to the “non-computer” side of
homeschooling, our reports on what was happening in online academies
and “new media” colleges could be found in our at-the-time new magazine,
HOMESCHOOL PC. We printed the above article in PHS because we wanted our
PHS readers to be aware that new media might, ironically, be the only
affordable way for many of us to eventually afford a traditional
European-style college education!