Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Cloister

I think, as I'm writing, that this post will be rather disjointed, and I beg your indulgence. Several threads of thought have converged for me lately, as well as the conversations across several blogs (sounds like the Aughts, doesn't it?) and I don't know how to pull them all together seamlessly.

This is a post about why we still choose to homeschool, but it doesn't have anything to do with how to homeschool, or whether anyone in the world but me should homeschool.

I say this upfront because I have read some compelling posts recently about why other families have chosen to stop homeschooling, and their reasons resonated with me, and made me seriously consider (again) why it is this is the right choice for our family. I've stopped writing about homeschooling as a process mostly because I don't feel I have anything to say about it these days. Nor do I read much about it anymore. If I want sheer confidence about how to homeschool, I only need to go back in my archives and read my 26-year-old self, who knew everything. Now I'm 37, with six children, and if I know anything now, it's that wisdom and humility consists of the paring away of superfluous certainties.


Sometimes, the way to find your strengths is to read about people who have opposite strengths.

Rebecca Frech writes about leaving the cloister:
After 14 years of teaching our children at home, I’m done….I think. After all of the hours I have spent counseling other parents on how to fix their homeschool problems, I know enough to know that there isn’t one here. I’m not hanging up my hat because I’ve finally found that one child I can’t teach, or because of burnout or fatigue. I just no longer feel called to do this any more. Which is a weird thing to say when you literally wrote the book on home education. 
My husband and I have been discussing this possibility for the past few months. Over the years, I have steadfastly maintained that we would continue homeschooling until it stopped working for us. I was wrong. It’s still working, and I’m closing up shop anyway. 
It was almost one year ago exactly, in the middle of recording an episode of The Visitation Project , that Bonnie quoted Kendra Tierney (I think) to me, saying “some families are called to the mission field, and others to the cloister.” I can still remember the devastating impact of that statement, and how it took all my strength to not break down on air. The distance from the world which had been such a blessing for so many years, became, in that instant, a crushing weight.
"Some families are called to the mission field, and others to the cloister." This struck me as viscerally as it did Rebecca, but in the opposite way. My family is called to the cloister.

Everyone is called to both the mission field and the cloister in some degree, of course. Perhaps the difference is that the missioner goes out to people, and the cloister draws people within itself. At any rate, I, being the person that I am, raising my particular family as best I can with my strengths and flaws, find that my house is called to be a cloister, a comfortable, welcoming, safe, gracious place for my family and for anyone who comes to us.

We all hear stories of people who are scared of the world, scared of its influences, trying to preserve their children in some primal state of innocence by sheltering them from anything that might disturb their peace. That never works, because our primal state isn't innocence anymore. It's a state of original sin. The cloister isn't about keeping out sin. It's where the attack plan is formed. The cloister is headquarters. It's the stronghold, where the highest level plans are made, and the troops are trained. It's the safe place, the refuge, the home base.

I want my family to be a cloister, not just for our own sake, but as a light to the world. Perhaps as a child you read a book about a happy fictional family and thought, "I wish that were true. I wish I could be in that family." I want to be that model. When people are weary of the world, weary of pop-culture depictions of families, of a model of marriage based on denigration and competition and lust, of a model of parenting based on plans and ambitions and fear, on a model of childhood based on increasingly packed schedules and busyness and the pressure to succeed, I want my family to be, not perfect, but an oasis of calm and strength. The cloister isn't hidden away. It's the city on a hill, letting its light shine for all to see. Who can miss a monastery? They're huge.


Simcha Fisher writes about the decision to stop homeschooling, from the perspective of six years later, with a list of pros and cons of school for their family.

What I want to pinpoint from Simcha's post is the same quote that struck Leah Libresco, about the ability to use time:
7. We don’t get to choose how to spend our time. This is the one thing that makes me really miss home school. We don’t have much time or flexibility to do fun or important things together as a family, like go to museums or other cultural events, or celebrate religious feasts in a big way, or have long vacations, or have vacations when we need or want them. We haven’t even been to the library in a very long time (although they do use their school libraries, and the older kids walk to the public library every day to be picked up). Reading aloud has to happen in the evening, and we may or may not be in the mood. Religious education has to be crammed in here and there. And summer vacation is criminally short. We have to be really judicious about our free time, and there’s never enough of it. 
This inspired Leah to reflect on the joys and the creativity of being able to live timelessly, as it were, and she was kind enough to link to my recent post about art, and the making of art
In California, I knew more people who lived on “maker schedule” with big blocks of time they could use as they saw fit, but, because there was a lot of variation in when people’s free blocks fell, so I would have trouble coordinating events.  Back in DC, I just use doodle polls to schedule big events (like a day-long watch through of The Hollow Crown) up to a month and a half ahead of time, so we can all find a free date.  That’s tolerable for a group of 15 adults with different kinds of work commitments, but I’d wish for more flexibility within a family, and school plus extracurriculars can make it hard to pull off. 
The best thing really is to have the experience of a snow day more often — a day that’s unexpectedly returned to you, that you didn’t have the chance to schedule away. 
Cat Hodge put her finger on why we need this time of our own in the middle of a longer post on art and friendship: 
"There must be amateur theater. There must be amateur most-things, or most people will never experience most-things."
If it's true that our greatest weaknesses can be our greatest strengths, and vice versa, then high on my own list must be a sense of timelessness. I once said to Darwin that I try to live as if I were single, or childless, with all my time at my own command, but of course that's not an accurate depiction of that state of life, as Leah points out. Rather, I begin to see that I yearn wholeheartedly for the timelessness of heaven, where there are no boundaries, no limits, no pressures, no barriers to our total contemplation of God. I think that's one reason why I prefer to work late at night, when I have a seemingly unlimited stretch of time uncomplicated by outside demands, whether from children or from schedule. Of course, heaven entails other things, such as perfect love and a final, blissful conformity to God's will combined with a deeper comprehension of God than this life can ever afford. And there's where my desire for timelessness becomes a weakness here on earth. Practical experience tells me that I work most effectively, and also very willingly, when I have external constraints, either of schedule or expectation. Left to myself, I would do little but just BE, and although that's appropriate for heaven, it's not for earth, where I have the obligations of family and community life, and the responsibility to provide a clean and comfortable home for my family, and to educate my children in a timely fashion. And it's why I regularly wonder if I need the externally imposed schedule of school both as a sacrifice and to help me live as my best self, and to provide the order and schedule that children need.

But order and schedule are not all that children need in order to mature and learn, and I do think that one of my strengths as a parent is my willingness to let my children BE as well. I don't need them to always be DOING: worksheets, every jot and tittle of a curriculum, outside activities, projects, chores, every moment in its own little block, rigidly scheduled and overseen, my sense of wellbeing depending whether I checked every box. My home is a relaxed place, maybe too relaxed sometimes, but a place where my children are generally happy, learning to love one another, able to read for fun and to seek out what interests them, a place where we can center our school day around a comfortable session of reading aloud from Scripture and other literature. Home is a place where we are not rushed, most of the time. It is a place to breathe.

My dad once told me that his house, growing up, was not a particular cozy place. My grandmother, an excellent, loving, devout woman, valued a particular sense of order and appearance. This, coupled with a very serious disease which could flare up at unpredictable times and leave her unable to keep house the way she liked, inclined her to a certain sterility in homemaking. His memories of home from his youth have to do with how the living room was for show and always had to be presentable to company; how the children never really had friends over because either the house wasn't just so, or because the house might get mussed up; how, as a result, the kids tended to break apart, going separately to friends' houses which were more comfortable than their own, and how that may have impacted their relationships as adults.

I treasure my grandmother's memory and her good example, but I didn't inherit her cleaning ethic, in part because my dad, in making our home, chose to pass on what was best from her example -- her strong faith -- through his own gentle personality, his legacy from his father. And so in building our cloister, Darwin and I try to take what was best from our families' examples (his parents' strong, loving marriage; my father's gentle teaching gifts in teaching Scripture, my mother's strong ethic of hospitality) and mediate them through our own personalities. We fight against our flaws, which in my case involve a strong inertia and tendencies to sloth, and we try to play to our strengths.

And that's where homeschooling comes in: as a way of playing to our strengths in the way we raise our children. Homeschooling is the best way for Darwin and I, working as a team and based our our particular personalities, to provide a stable, happy home for our children and a model of family to the world. We don't homeschool out of fear. The kids are good, healthy, strong, stable individuals and would do well in public school, private school, Catholic school, or at home. Given that, it's always best to live the way you think God is calling you to live, and all signs are clear that he's calling us to be a big huge cloister with a library and a cell for guests and a refectory with a long table, a safe place to live and to pray.


Lydia Cubbedge said...

So interesting, and your homeschool life sounds a lot like the one I grew up in. I had lots of friends and activities (drama troupe, Shakespeare troupe, group classes, Irish dance, you name it), and home was just warm and welcoming and a bit chaotic, but good. I experimented with homeschooling my daughter for a year after she'd been in private school for kindy, and I had such high hopes that my home would be like that, but for some reason my personality is different enough from my own mother's that it ended up being cold, chaotic in a bad way, and isolated (in spite of lots of friends and getting out and about and not being fearful of the world at all), and my poor kid was a sad sack the entire year. I wasn't much better. I rediscovered the joy of home as home base, where my kids recharge and learn the Big Stuff, and are just messy and creative and happy, after I switched to brick and mortar. In my family it's not cloister vs. active life, it was more a monastery where we pray, study, recharge, recreate, and then go back out again for our appointed hours of outside duty.

Anyway, I loved this post.

Joseph Moore said...

We do not home school. We're worse: we started a school with 2 other families 19 years ago, so that our oldest would not be subjected to what we could already see coming: pressure to conform to an entirely arbitrary idea of what a child should be doing and, indeed, what a child *is*.

What I saw, in the largely wonderful co-op preschool where he was enrolled, were nice well-meaning adults trying to cajole, bribe or otherwise maneuver little kids into doing specific things at specific times. I did ask why, and the answer was always 'to prepare them for school'. Since this was a co-op, I'd had any number of chances to watch 3 to 5 year olds do their thing with very little structure, and it seemed clear that the kids gravitated toward whatever it is they needed to learn. Some would spend all their time outside on the play structures, others getting people to read them stories, or playing dress up, or playing with toys, or building fantasy worlds with their friends. Choices would change over time.

And the kids were brimming with happiness, energy and curiosity. Then I looked to the experiences of friends and family with kids in school, and saw a lot less of that happiness, energy and curiosity. In the 'good' schools, where there was more, the families or some highly energetic teachers seemed to supply some something that kept the kids more or less engaged. But it never even approximated what I saw every day in that co-op preschool.

I ask why a lot, and am not easily put off with canned answers. Why do we have to make kids do what we say they need to do every minute of every day in class? Why do we even have classes based on age, instead of based on what the kids want or need to learn? Why do we give homework? Why do we restrict their interactions with each other so much? Why do we do so much schooling? Aren't there other ways to do this that are less time consuming, controlling and stressful?

There are not good answers to any of those questions. In fact, my hobby for the last couple decades has been reading education history, and most of the real, historical answers to these questions are terrifying and, in our country at least, dripping with anti-Catholicism.

So we keep our kids out of the public schools and even out of parish schools that follow the same graded classroom model not out of fear, but out of a kind of hatred - hatred of lies, manipulation and an increasingly less and less veiled effort to destroy the Catholic family. That's what the schools are for, even when strong families and good people greatly mitigate the immediate effects. Long term, that's what they're for. Long term, they work.

YMMV, obviously, and I understand the thinking of Simcha and others, where they see the good people and their honest efforts and mistake the goals and intentions of such people for the goals and intentions of the school model itself. And certainly, given a strong Catholic family full of love, the evil is greatly mitigated. But it's still there, a slow poison in the best cases.

Sorry to be Debbie Downer. As I get older, I see the children, *especially* the ones who were great in school, of friends and relatives as they hit adulthood (however long that's delayed - another effect), struggle with coming to grips with adult-level responsibility. I see their searches for somebody to tell them what to do next. I see their inability to process any ideas outside a narrow range. Their ignorance is only overshadowed by their lack of curiosity, both of which are overshadowed by the conviction that they stand at the moral and intellectual peak of all history. They are easily managed sheep.

No, thank you.