Zachary, my oldest son, started college at Oregon State University this
week. He expects to complete his chemistry major in two years. On the
basis of College Board Advanced Placement Tests, he was allowed to skip
the first two years of courses.
When I looked over his schedule of junior level chemistry and
mathematics courses, I began to think I should help. After all, I had
taught the same sorts of chemistry courses when I was a university
faculty member. So, I said, “If you wish, I will help you with this
There was then a long silence.
Both of us were thinking the same thing. How would I help? Would I
lecture to him? Show him how to work the problems? Check his homework
assignments for errors? Provide workbooks or other study aids? Give
practice examinations? In 12 years of homeschooling, I have never done
those things. His brain has no experience in the use of such crutches.
Actually, although his university instructors may not realize it, most
of their job was over when they selected the textbooks and required that
Zachary learn the material in them. Their periodic examinations will
reflect that he has learned the material, but the professors will
probably never realize that he learned it without further help.
Learning to Learn
For those people who think for themselves, most of life is a
self-teaching experience. Otherwise, what would they do when they needed
to learn new information or academic skills? Should they re-enroll in
the university and ask to be taught? Perhaps they should not learn those
things for which no teacher is available?
Unfortunately, for a great many Americans, learning only the things they
are actively taught is the usual way. After school, television and the
people in their immediate peer group become their primary sources of
information and, all too often, misinformation. They lack the ability to
learn on their own. Most importantly, they lack the ability to think
From the very first day that a child begins formal academic instruction
(at ages five to seven), the ultimate adult mind that will be formed by
that child’s education should be uppermost in the parents’ thoughts.
Their goal should be to mold an adult who can learn without help, since
there will be no formal schools and teachers for most of the information
that he needs in life.
Moreover, each person should have the self-confidence that arises from
independent leaning. That self-confidence is an essential part of the
process of independent thought—a requirement of individual freedom. And,
your child will require individual freedom for the best possible life
before man and God.
What Should We Teach?
Elementary education is a race between the biological development of a
child’s mind and the learning of skills and information required for the
optimum use of that mind. Facts and information are important, but even
more important are skills that must be developed early in life for
optimum mental development. Some such skills, such as mathematics and
writing, are also an integral part of the factual information. Other
skills are a part of the organization of the school itself and consist
of a collection of mental habits and attitudes.
In designing homeschool curricula for our children, we should,
therefore, ask ourselves several important questions: (1) Are the facts
we teach fundamental information of primary importance to productive
thought? (2) Are the study habits and attitudes we teach suitable for
the adult that our child will become? (3) Are these things acquired in
such a way and with sufficient mastery that the child will develop
self-confidence in his independent individual abilities?
Ultimately, no authority can answer these questions. Parents know their
child best, and it is their responsibility to answer these questions for
their family. Parents should realize, however, the importance of these
These questions lead to some surprising conclusions: First, much of the
information traditionally a part of grades 1–12 is of lesser importance
than other often-neglected information. Book selection is of crucial
importance. Second, study environment and habits are very important,
whereas learning tools and active teacher tutoring are of lesser
importance and potentially harmful. Three, children learn by example.
Most importantly homeschool teachers must serve, through their own
behavior regarding their own work, as good examples for their students.
Author’s Note: The future editions of this column will discuss specific
parts of homeschooling and the ways in which each of them fits into
these goals. I am delighted to have this opportunity to share these
thoughts with you. I hope that you will find among them an occasional
gem that proves beneficial for your students.