Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Penelope Trunk Should Not Homeschool

I read Penelope Trunk's blog, which I enjoy even though I am not interested in career advice (since I am not a career-focused person, or at all interested in entrepreneurship, start-ups, my "personal brand", and so on). I like it because she is very smart, an excellent writer, and full of interesting ideas and perspectives (many of which are correct if poorly researched/thought out: her strengths are creativity and boldness, not careful consideration and logical reasoning).

She is also really crazy and probably has a personality disorder of some kind (Borderline Personality Disorder has been suggested, which seems likely). She definitely has serious social interaction issues (she believes she has Asperger's) and problems with depression, anxiety, self-harm, anger management, body issues, self-hatred and possibly substance abuse. None of this bothers me as a blog reader, since I simply benefit from her fascinating writing and sparkling mind without having to manage the crazy. But of course in real life dealing with her would be a disaster.

She's recently decided to home school her two young children (6 and 9 years old). This lends further proof to my theory that homeschooling ought to be banned. For the most part, the only people who choose to homeschool are those who should definitely not. Most people homeschool because they have wacky religious beliefs and want to assure that their children do too (over 80%). I do not think that deliberately depriving children of important knowledge about history and science is at all a good idea; in fact, it teeters on the border of child abuse (in addition to being terrible for society).

The small minority of non-religious fanatic homeschoolers are a diverse bunch, ranging from people like Penelope Trunk (who is basically a upper class Jewish urbanite oddly living in rural Wisconsin, who not surprisingly dislikes the local schools) to hippies who don't believe in formal education to those searching for a solution to a lack of meaning in their lives (housewives who don't want to go back to work, for example).

The non-religious homeschoolers tend to concentrate on the humanities: reading, writing, the arts, drama. These are all noble and important endeavors. Unfortunately, it's difficult to measure one's talent in them objectively. As a result, without a lot of feedback from the general public, it's hard to know if you are any good. Being publicly educated is a great way to learn how to compare yourself to others, and develop a realistic sense of your talents. Homeschoolers do not have this advantage and thus tend to become conceited, with unfounded very high opinions of themselves (this article is a great example of such a phenomenon).

Homeschoolers also don't learn how to deal with being bored. One of the things I really liked about the otherwise not-great Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is that it acknowledges that learning most worthwhile things is often dull. While learning can be incredibly exciting, especially if you are smart, in any subject there's also a lot of rote memorization, practice, and general dullness. If you aren't willing to put up with this, then you aren't really going to know that much.

This is especially the case for the more mentally-challenging disciplines of math and science. It's not surprising that few homeschoolers do either one; it is very concerning, however, because an understanding of science in particular is truly crucial for any modern person. In addition, since almost all the careers which pay well are in these areas, disqualifying your child from pursuing them is a real disservice.

Another major problem with homeschooling is that it draws children much closer to their families. Homeschoolers tend to cite this as a positive (a majority listed it as a major benefit of homeschooling in one recent survey). Penelope Trunk is no exception: she lists it as the main reason she likes homeschooling. But it's only an advantage if your parents are really well-adjusted, loving, and respectful of a child's need to differentiate and become independent. If the parent is crazy (as in Penelope Trunk's case), the child needs as much exposure to alternative, non-crazy modes of being as possible.

Penelope Trunk obviously loves her children, but unfortunately love is not enough if you are psychologically troubled. Homeschooling, and thus shrinking your child's world down to your own personally created universe, is a terrible idea if you are a needy, highly unstable, constantly distracted mother in an abusive relationship.

Such a shrinkage would only be desirable if the parent was such a superior person that their world really was objectively better. Sadly, this is the case for very, very few people, and almost certainly almost none of them would think it about themselves (since one of the signs of true greatness is humility, or a genuine understanding of one's defects). It's sort of like Plato's Republic: the only people qualified to rule are those who have no desire to do so.


  1. I've never read Penelope Trunk's blog (though it sounds like I should because wow, all of that is fascinating to me) but I totally get where you're coming from on the homeschooling front. I often think that it's selfish of the parent to hold their children back from the social interaction with other kids, but especially from interaction with other teachers/ adults. Formal schooling teaches children how to deal with all sorts of different personalities out in the world, which is SUCH valuable experience when they finally graduate and find themselves amidst a bunch of people with very different world views than theirs.

    And yes, the main main main reason that I could never even think of homeschooling is because my strong suits are not math and science, which I would love my children to be better at them than I am so they can have lucrative careers if they so chose.

    Did you do a review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? I thought briefly of buying it, but I'm not sure if it would just make me mad, or if there are any truly good parenting tips to meditate on.

    1. I didn't, because I read it before I was blogging as much. It's a quick read, funny, and the author is very honest, which is refreshing.

      Note that she's not really a Chinese parent at all; instead she's a typical wealthy and well-connected upper middle class type (I went to school with lots of people with parents just like her, she's just a little more extreme than average). Not surprising, as her husband is Jewish and she grew up in the US.

      It's not really a parenting book in terms of tips, more a description of her parenting philosophy and vignettes of it in action. I wouldn't use it as a guide for anything though due to the elephant in the room (the fact that her family is incredibly wealthy (mid-six figure salary at least) and brainy--her dad is a genius for instance). If her children are successful (by her standards of good grades and acquisition of party tricks/college application-worthy hobbies), it's only to be expected (it would really be a shocker if they didn't do well: they even get preferential admission to the top colleges given who they are). The real question has to do with their psychological adjustment and moral character, and this is something Amy Chua cannot answer (she is not a very introspective person).

  2. The thing about homeschooling is that those who practice it rarely ever focus on the failures. Those who practice homeschooling tend to focus solely on the exceptional cases, those children who may have excelled in the setting. However, those children may very well have done well no matter the circumstance of their education - as long as one was provided.

    The "unschooling" movement is silly. These parents are not offering their children anything more than what good parents should. What they are not offering on top of that however, is a formal education. They are not offering as much to their children, and in my opinion cannot be considered as good of parents as those who offer both.

    I live in a place where homeschooling is common, and I have seen only a few excel. The majority are dull, interact poorly in conversation, arrogant (you hit the nail on the head), and unmotivated. The girls generally get married right off or work a dead end job until they have kids. The boys generally learn a trade or if they try college, will quickly quit.

    Both of my own cousins were home schooled, both work at dead end minimum wage jobs and have no plans for their future. When asked they basically say "I don't know" and then change the subject. They are also arrogant and overestimate their abilities, which is bound to happen when the only people you have much exposure to are constantly telling you how much better you are than anyone else. They never have had to compete for a grade or anything else, and so never learned that valuable life lesson of humility.

    Of course you hardly ever hear about the home school failures...

    1. Yes, the fact that intelligence is mostly inherited (evidence suggests the role of genes is about the same as for height) is a big problem when judging the success of homeschooling, especially given the fact that homeschoolers tend to rely on anecdotes to make their arguments. Though to be fair, this does mean that the homeschoolers you have met might have been dull in any circumstances.

      I completely agree with you about unschooling, and confess that it puzzles me greatly. Don't most children (at least those with good parents) already spend significant amounts of time pursuing personal interests, going to museums and plays, and spending time with friends? School is not that onerous in the US. The typical American kid spends only 900 hours in school annually (versus 1500 hours watching TV). Cut out most of the TV and your kid will have plenty of time to write poetry or skateboard AND attend school.

  3. I love these posts (even when I am the recipient of your critique as has happened in the past, haha). I have gone back and forth on homeschooling (apparently I think I'm the exception to all of the problems you cited above?) but decided that I am far too selfish to devote all of my time to educating my children. I have other things I want to do (and my incompetence in math and science would be problematic as they grew older).

    1. Haha, that is the OTHER elephant in the room. Devoting most of my waking hours to my kid(s) until they are 18, and not being able to pursue my own dreams AT ALL, sounds so unappealing to me, that I don't understand why others don't feel the same.

      In my case, the math/science wouldn't be a problem, since B is a scientist (even used to work in a lab doing experiments) and has a doctorate in what is basically math. Isn't your husband pretty math savvy?

  4. As a public school teacher (on a SAHM break), I sometimes feel sick when I think about sending my daughter to public school. My dad was a public school teacher and is now an administrator, and so I was really raised to believe that public school was just as good as private. But my experiences in the classroom in the past 6 years have really made me question whether I can send my girl there. I've worked in elementary, middle, and high schools in 3 states, and public school has just changed A LOT in the 11 short years since I graduated. And I don't believe that it's for the better. While my husband makes a good salary, I don't know how financially feasible it will be to send multiple children to private school.

    I also don't particularly want to devote every waking hour to my children's instruction since I would like to go back to school/work, but if I'm going to be sending them to public school I also don't want to have to supplement all of their schoolwork with things-they-should-have-learned-but-were-too-busy-taking-practice-standardized tests-instead.

    All this to say, I'd prefer not to homeschool, but if it came down to homeschool vs a crappy public school, homeschooling would probably win (and unfortunately, my huband's job moves us around, so we can't just pick a nice college town with good schools to settle in).

    1. Yes, the problem with public school in the US is that it is so variable. Some schools are excellent (like the high school my sister went to), but some are just dreadful. I am a private school product (at least after first grade), and received an excellent education as a result. I am certainly not a die-hard public school person.

      If we lived somewhere without excellent schools, I would definitely send little R to a private one, regardless of cost. (My parents took out loans at some point to pay for my education.) A good education is worth every penny.

      I just don't believe that homeschooling is GENERALLY a good alternative (of course everything depends on an individual's situation) to a formal school, for the reasons above.

  5. If a parent can't be trusted to homeschool, maybe they can't be trusted to parent either.

    1. This reminds me of the idea that licenses ought to be required in order to become a parent. Practically, this would never work. But I do have a lot of sympathy with the idea.

  6. Penelope Trunk is an attention seeking narcissist. End of story.

    1. I couldn't agree more.

  7. Penelope is a mother who cares enough for her child that she gives the greatest gift in the world: Freedom. Freedom is a thing that can't be found in the educational system. Freedom and love are the things that make a child grow.

    You're all just whining because you are too self-absorbed to take care of your OWN children. Your self-development is more important than educating your own kids.

    Everybody takes a different role in their life. Working and getting a paycheck is a noble thing that should get respect. But staying home, educating the children YOU carried en brought into the world, is the most humane thing to do. Every research that has been done shows it; homeschooling makes a more intelligent, more social kid. Who's also more likely to get into a great university or win the spelling bee.

    And i know. I went true the system here in Holland myself, completed my 4 internships and 4 years of college to become a teacher. Almost done and almost starting my second study to become a secundary school teacher as well. So i guess i know what i'm talking about. I will definently homeschool my kids even if it is the last thing i could do on this planet.

    It takes a village to raise a child.
    But you don't want the village to raise yours!!

    1. What a big fat liar you are. Do you suck up to Penelope (whom I'd rather call Pen) so much that you're blind to her faults? I've seen her advice online. And it's atrocious. All she does is brainwash others into following her excuse for good advice. For example, I read in 2006 in an article of hers that people shouldn't report harassment if they're at work and many reviewers have criticized her for giving that.

      If you ask me, Pen's a hypocrite for giving that kind of advice. And here's how: She sounds like she wants victims to let their abusers walk all over them but claims to not tolerate domestic violence. If you follow her advice on purpose, then don't be surprised if you end up in trouble that you can't get out of.

      Also, it's ironic that you faulted Pen's haters for whining when you did just that.

      Another way that you're a liar is that you assumed that everyone of Trunk's haters are too self-absorbed to take care of their own children. Newsflash, you don't know them since you never met them in real life. In fact, you're just as judgmental, hypocritical, and self-righteous as that Pen bitch. Hell, your fanaticism of hers must have brainwashed you into stroking her ego and blinded you into seeing her true colors.

      If you think that homeschooling your kids is the only way to go, then you're sadly mistaken.

      I'd hate to think how Pen's kids would turn out if she gave her infamous advice to them. If they did follow her advice, they'd be in deep shit.