The socialization question

By Isabel Lyman
web posted October 30, 2000

The Homeschooling Revolution by Isabel LymanBarnaby Marsh's parents, John and Cheryl Marsh, raised him in the Alaskan wilderness near Talkeetna. They gave him the equivalent of a fifth grade education, and then allowed him to do his own learning. During Barnaby's adolescent years, he lived with his family in what he describes as "an extended exercise in wilderness survival" which included sojourns to Anchorage.

To his credit, Barnaby made the most of his unusual circumstances. He continued his education by reading the classics and observing his natural surroundings, which included a study of the red-necked grebe, a waterfowl.

Today Barnaby is in his twenties. Did he grow up to be like a Boo Radley misfit - the recluse in To Kill A Mockingbird? Is he now a misanthrope, having been deprived of the privilege of 'hanging out' with other high schoolers? Not even close. Barnaby's bonafides are enough to make the parents of a suburban slacker weep.

He spent his maiden semester of college, which was his first time in any school, at Harvard University, where he completed several part-time courses to determine how he would perform in a formal academic setting. He then elected to enroll at Cornell University, because he admired their ornithology department. At Cornell, he founded the Ecological Conservation Society; participated in non-competitive crew, golf, basketball, and swimming; was a reviewer for the The Ibis (a respected ornithological journal); and served on the Undergraduate Research Board. In 1996, during his senior year at Cornell, he became one of the 32 American recipients of a Rhodes Scholarship.

He is completing his doctoral dissertation, finishing up his third year at Oxford University in England, and has been elected to a very competitive research fellowship at Oxford.

Alexandra Swann was raised in the desolate desert of New Mexico. Her parents, John and Joyce Swann, were more sympathetic to middle-class amenities than the Marshes. Consequently, her free time didn't center around gazing at desert wildlife.

Instead, Mrs. Swann, armed with only a high school education, assumed full responsibility for her then-five-year-old daughter's education. Never attending school meant Alexandra spent her days at home with her nine siblings, helping her mother manage the household, and learning from the Calvert School's correspondence course program. For Alexandra, the lifestyle excluded her from cheerleading try-outs, proms, and gossiping with classmates in the halls.

Did Alexandra cry herself to sleep for leading such a family-oriented, insulated existence? Again, not even close.

By age 16, Alexandra had earned her diploma - a master's degree in history from California State University's external degree program. At age 18, she was hired by El Paso Community College to teach western civilization and U.S history to students her own age. She says that all her students were products of the public education system. "I was horrified because there were so many of them who couldn't read and write," recalls Alexandra.

Like Barnaby, Alexandra is currently in her late twenties. She manages a mortgage and loan business with her father. She has self-published a book about her educational experiences and has been written about in national publications like National Review and Investor's Business Daily. Very active in her church, Alexandra didn't grow up to be a bitter Miss Havisham, the woeful Dickens' character in Great Expectations, rueing her past.

That the feats of Barnaby Marsh and Alexandra Swann were accomplished when the homeschooling movement was barely a blip on the educational-reform screen makes their unusual stories all the more remarkable. "Twenty years ago we didn't know anyone who homeschooled. There was a concern we would become vegetables, unable to function in society," says Alexandra.

And therein lies the heart of the matter.

Spend time, even briefly, chatting with homeschoolers, and they will inevitably indicate that the most frequently asked question they encounter is about socialization, not academics. Neighbors, extended family, critics, and clerics have always been curious about how homeschoolers acquire social skills. The questions run something like this: How does a homeschooled child make and keep friends? How does he get exposed to young people from all walks of life? Isn't a homeschooled child isolated? These are apparently the same concerns of the National Education Association, which adopted an anti-homeschooling resolution at the association's annual convention in the summer of 1999. Resolution B-67 stated that "home schooling programs cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience." In the same breath, the NEA also demands that "home-schooled students should not participate in any extracurricular activities in the public schools."

As Kathleen Lyons, a spokesperson for the National Education Association, puts it ...

Too often missing from the debate on home schooling are the benefits that public schools provide children, advantages that most common measures of education success overlook. Educating children to live and work in a global society where they will have to interact with people from different races, economic status, backgrounds, and ethnic groups is best taught by experience. Public schools provide such experiences. Further, public schools offer students the opportunity to sharpen essential skills that are required in the job market today, such as problem solving in cooperative groups.

That sentiment is echoed by Lyons' colleague, Bob Chase, National Education Association president. Notes Chase in a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Education is more than forcing facts into a child's head. It is learning to work with others and interacting with people from different races, backgrounds, and ethnic groups. Public education represents a slice of reality that goes beyond participation in 4-H activities, ballet classes, and church socials. It is a preparation for the real world that students will have to face whether they are leaving the security of a school or their parents' home.

Giving the benefit of the doubt to Lyons and Chase, let us assume that the advocates for a powerful teachers' union are committed to producing well-rounded, intelligent students. This begs the question: What concern is it of the State?

This article is an excerpt from Isabel Lyman's new book on homeschooling entitled The Homeschooling Revolution. For more information about this book, please contact the author at

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