Teaching in a Lonely Desert

(Originally published in the George Street Co-op's newsletter, "Food for Thought," in 1996(?)

by Sarabeth Matilsky

I never sit in a school classroom. I’m a homeschooler, and the idea of a classroom with other students around me in orderly rows and a teacher in front is alien to me. Does this mean I have no teachers, that I don’t learn from anyone? Does it indicate that I am deprived of an intellectual community?

Some people think so. Most recently, it was a high school English teacher who actually came out and said it. We didn’t speak directly, but we were exchanging letters via a local paper.

Several months ago I wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. I was responding to an article in which the writer asserted that kids naturally “lose their thirst for learning” and it is a Mysterious Problem That No One Can Solve. I don’t buy that, and in my letter I pointed out that I haven’t lost my “thirst for learning,” and I attributed this largely to my homeschooling. When Daniel Moran (English teacher) responded to my letter, he did not agree with me. He seemed to feel that I am worse off since I don’t attend school, and that I would regret homeschooling later in life. He stated that “...without a community of other thinkers and teachers, [Matilsky] may find that she has reached a lonely desert.”

I want to address his argument, because I know that many people are critical of homeschooling for the same reasons he outlined. Part of this criticism is due to a misunderstanding of homeschooling; part of it may also stem from a narrow interpretation of what teaching means.

So many people have this misconception of homeschooling: They assume that I sit home at my desk, reading all day (or else waiting for school to get out so I can “socialize”), with no human companions save my family(!) Others think that we school at home and actually create a little classroom in our house. Neither of these two examples are true, and a more accurate term to describe my education is life schooling. I am out in the world, surrounded by those “thinkers and teachers” of whom Moran feels so sure I am deprived. In fact, to one degree or another, everyone I know is my teacher, and they’re all definitely thinkers.

There are many different ways I am taught. When I take a class, I am there to learn a specific skill or knowledge of a subject, as a student learning from a teacher. As a student in my ballet class, I am there for the express purpose of learning to dance. That is also true when I take choir: I am in the class to learn choral singing techniques, from one person, the teacher. These are two examples of when a conventional classroom setting (teacher teaching students) works. But, since it is my choice to take the class and I can choose to work with a particular teacher, my situation is already different compared with what kids are able to do (with regard to choosing classes) in school, most of the time.

There are other ways of being taught, too, besides being instructed in person. For instance, this year I am learning writing by corresponding with the editor of the homeschooling magazine Growing Without Schooling. I send Susannah my essays and such, and she critiques my writing. But also, besides commenting on my writing, she offers her perspective on problems or concerns I might have about homeschooling or just growing up. She becomes a different kind of teacher then, and I can draw upon the experience of someone who has been around longer than I have.

I also learn indirectly, by observing others. And when I watch or do something alongside people, they often give me advice or help when I need it. I learned to cook primarily by watching my mother in the kitchen, and although she might have shown me how to hold the knife or fry the tempeh or wash the lettuce, neither of us ever thought of it as a class. Similarly, last year at the ice-skating rink, many of the skaters gave me some tips on my turns, or showed me a particular move. If I had a question, I’d ask the person whom I felt could answer it best. And if one of the other skaters saw me having trouble with a step, sometimes they would come over to me and help me to correct it. I learned a lot from them, but, as with the cooking, none of us felt like it was a class.

One can also be taught by simply learning with other people. My sister April and I are learning Hebrew together this year, and we have been getting together with two women friends to study. We are all teachers in this situation, although Liz knows a lot and the rest of us are just starting. We all remember different bits of information, as if we each have a few different puzzle pieces. So when we put those pieces together, we are closer to the finished picture than we would be if we were studying independently. Also, doing it together has gotten us motivated better than if we were on our own. For example, if I see April reading the Hebrew book, I am reminded that I haven’t picked it up for a week and should do so, and vice versa. Along the same lines: last year, April, two of her friends and I organized an informal science class once a week. I was the oldest, but I was not, however you look at it, the teacher. Together we decided what to do, and each of us would add something to our discussions. Some weeks we fooled around, and others we found out how much water objects displace when they float.

Knowledge does not have to be directed at one person exclusively for her or his benefit, either. A very useful way to find things out when no one else knows the answer is to read a book. Books are a very important resource for me, and I can usually find out whatever I need to know by reading. A few years back, when I was interested in learning about the history of clothing, I took a very thorough and inexpensive “class” by going to the library and checking out some books. Reading by myself, I could go at my own rate of speed, and concentrate on things that I felt were important. That sometimes meant rereading a page over and over; sometimes it involved just thinking about a particular chapter; sometimes I skipped over a part I didn’t find useful or interesting--and sometimes I wouldn’t read at all for a month. I have learned how to do origami almost entirely with the aid of books, and the same goes for learning to make a hammock and many other crafts projects.

Beyond the specific teaching/learning arrangements I’ve described, there are also many times when I learn something less tangible, just by having a discussion with someone. Sometimes conversing with people is as worthwhile as reading, writing or ‘rithmetic. When I talk with my friend Betsy, I feel very uplifted: She has a way of looking at things in the world that I would like to emulate at times; she has a way of making things seem beautiful, without becoming too idealistic, and at the same time she does not lose her analytical reasoning powers. When I discuss a book that I’ve just read with someone else who has read the same one, I hear a (sometimes) different point of view, which is always helpful. When I talk to Ginger while she’s running the register at the co-op, I get more useful knowledge about politics than if I had a private tutoring session with a college law professor. And when I have a conversation with a random shopper while stocking cereal, I usually come away knowing something I hadn’t known before. Talking and listening to different individuals has given me a greater understanding of people; so they have all, in different ways, taught me.

In an unpublished manuscript, the late John Holt writes:

“In the past 28 years at least I’ve been the president of a university, and quite a good one. It has a student body of one--namely, me. The faculty of the university is made up of all the people from whom I think I can learn something that I think is important to me in terms of my own life’s goals, something, to use Kropotkin’s words, that would help me understand better what kind of world I want, what kind of life I want to live in it, the ways in which I can work to make such a world and life, and the things I need to know in order to do that--or simply the things that will heighten my pleasure and excitement in living. When I find such a person, I quickly put him on my faculty. He doesn’t know it. There are no salaries in my university. Some of the faculty of my university are alive, some are dead; some are known to me, some close friends, some are people I have yet to meet. I’m constantly hiring and firing on my faculty; there is no tenure in my university. Some of the people who at one time in my life were very important teachers to me no longer are. Perhaps I now see the world differently, no longer agree with what they told me. Perhaps I’ve simply absorbed what they had to tell me, and moved on. Others of my teachers in the past are my teachers still.
“One might say that one of our important life tasks was to find our true teachers, to make our own university, and we can say of education that it is a process that ought to help us get better at doing this. Certainly to find one of one’s own teachers, someone from whom we think we can learn something really important, is one of the really great pleasures of life.”

Isn’t that true?