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Regaining Our Pioneer Spirit: Staying Home and Standing Out

By Austin Webb
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #69, 2006.

Have homeschoolers lost our pioneering spirit?
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Austin Webb

Like many other homeschoolers, I'm a history buff. I am particularly fascinated by the history of the homeschool movement. In my observation, what once made homeschoolers distinctive was a special outlook that could be called a pioneer mentality. Basically, it was a steadfast dedication to family, to home education, to individual initiative, to creating our own opportunities, and to ignoring what the rest of the world thought we needed to be doing. It's what kept that first generation of homeschoolers going in spite of the fact that they could be arrested and jailed at any time, in spite of the complete absence of pre-packaged homeschool curricula, and in spite of the harsh reality that homeschoolers weren't allowed to compete in public school sports.

This mindset built the modern homeschool movement and, I suspect, will be required to keep that movement viable. At least, it worked for my family.

My Family's Story

If such a thing as a pioneering spirit exists, it couldn't find a better home than the corner of rural Oklahoma where I grew up. Though it was less than ideal economically, as opportunities for low-income homeschool families were scarce, I wouldn't have had it any other way.

My family has always been very close. We don't lead separate lives. Whenever something needs to be done, we all pitch in until it's finished. Insofar as is possible, we do activities as a family and keep excessive outside commitments from encroaching on our time together.

Whenever we need a group activity that doesn't already exist in our community, we create it. Over the years, my family has started (or helped start) a homeschool group, three speech and debate clubs, and a state chapter of TeenPact Leadership School.

This was made possible because our homeschool relied almost completely on self-study and Socratic dialogue. I did have a mentor to whom I owe much, and I took one outside class over the Internet, which was very helpful. Other than that I learned from books (real books, no textbooks except for science and math) and informal conversations with my parents. As such, we weren't tied down by set schedules or deadlines and could drop whatever we were doing to take full advantage of any worthwhile opportunity that presented itself.

When I worked with TeenPact, I gave up school entirely for several months of every school year in order to fulfill my responsibilities. Similarly, when an important event came up, like my Eagle Project or a standardized test, I could shift classes for more preparation time. This was possible since we schooled year-round.

It would be nice to say that our philosophy included detailed plans for how everything would work and that we never doubted our choices. However, neither would be true. Things were often difficult and uncertain, but we hung on. We kept building things and quietly honing skills.

At 17, I applied for an extremely competitive summer research program (the Research Science Institute) at MIT. Against all odds, I made it in. After that came the scholarship and science competitions. I made it there, too. Then came the college applications. We'll just say that I'm attending my dream school this fall, essentially for free.

Standing Out

The successes I had weren't accidental or purely the result of ability. They were directly linked to the philosophy that had guided my family and me for all the years that came before. The lifestyle we led allowed me to sharpen valuable skills to an unusual degree and to prove that I had initiative, that I could overcome both external obstacles and my own weaknesses.

These things were valuable for their own sake (which was why we did it that way in the first place), but they did not go unnoticed by colleges and scholarship programs.

Tragically, though, it seems that just as my family realized how powerful this "do it yourself" philosophy is, much of the homeschool community seems to be abandoning it.

A Heritage Lost

I think that one main reason many homeschoolers give up the historical homeschooling outlook is fear: fear of not doing it right, fear of messing the kids up, fear of high school calculus, etc. By letting these fears (which admittedly are natural enough) get the better of us, I'm afraid homeschoolers too often bail out and fall back to safe-seeming and conventional alternatives. In doing so, they throw away the independence, originality, and "apartness" that makes homeschooling special.

I'm no stranger to the fact that homeschooling can be a nerve-wracking experience. Are we doing the right thing? Will our kids be able to get into college? It's enough to make many parents farm the work out to co-ops, community colleges, public-school-at-home programs, youth groups, and tons of outside activities. Some even quit home education entirely and send their kids to a traditional high school. That might seem like the safe option, but is it?

Pioneering Proves Practical

Let's look at just one consideration: getting into college. The advantage of a more institutional approach to school and life is that, to a college, you look normal, like your peers. The disadvantage is that you look normal, like your peers. If you're applying to a top college, this is exactly the type of person that they reject.

But someone who has taken a risk, who has initiative and has done what others fear to do just might catch an admission officer's eye.

In my experience, you don't need to take loads of college classes or be a part of every activity in the immediate universe. One friend of mine scored perfect fives on nearly thirty AP exams; another attended one of America's top prep schools. Still another completed most of a science degree at a local university before graduating high school. However, my homespun candidacy fared every bit as well as theirs (and a few times, even better than theirs) when scrutinized by elite schools.

Now, I can't generalize my experience; everyone is different. However, staying independent and outside of the institutional box is a viable option if you're willing to take some risks and work hard.

The Big Picture

Every generation, including ours, sees new threats to life and liberty. If our nation is to overcome the decay within and the enemies without, we will need strong, steadfast leaders. Many observers believe that the homeschooling movement may provide those leaders.

However, that won't happen unless we stay tough and independent, unless we fight the temptation to go with the crowd and do what everyone else does. Don't assume that things will take care of themselves or that someone will hand opportunities to you. We have to take the initiative and create our own solutions.

Those of us who are Christians believe we are called to be a people "set apart" for the Lord's service. Not to be uninvolved in the world around us, but to be special, to be a light that shines out through the crowd. This doesn't happen automatically, though. It means living intentionally. It means walking away from what feels safe. It means rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.

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