Why Do We Hide Behind Institutions?

This post is inspired by a meme I saw on Facebook late at night (below). Now, anecdotal evidence is always problematic. I’m only trying to use these commonly accepted anecdotes to show flaws in how we think about our lives; not to prove one lifestyle is better than another.

So: I was homeschooled so I often hear about the stereotypical, awkward, ill-socialised or unsuccessful homeschooler. Many folks use these stories to conclude that homeschooling doesn’t work; you need institutionalised education.

Now look back at your high school classes (if you went to school). Were there any awkward, ill-socialised or unsuccessful students? As a public school teacher, I see so many. So many.

So how come we’ll say that awkward homeschoolers proves homeschooling doesn’t work, but all those stunted public schoolers doesn’t dismiss public schooling in our minds?47317633_2044461182241084_7275273054341562368_n

Leaving aside the debate about whether homeschooling does in truth work, why do we hold our anecdotes to a double standard?

I don’t attend a church service. Christians ask me tonnes of questions about whether that’s really healthy for my faith. Yet, I also sit on so many conversations where we mourn that many people attend church but do not grow, without anyone suggesting this abject failure means we must reject church-going.

At least, that’s where conversation goes when no one’s buckling an institutionalised trend. Hrm…

Again, we apply a double standard to how we live our lives, based on whether you’re using an institution or not.

It seems to me that as a rule, we are often okay with stunted growth provided it happens under the auspices of a socially approved organisation or norm. We chalk it up to the inevitable “falling through the cracks” that always happens in large groups of people. Maybe this is okay; maybe this is the only way to psychologically cope with the horrible fact that in a fallen world, not everyone’s going to have a good experience.

But when God’s love drives you to see people flourish, you talk about their flourishing and the best ways for them to achieve it. Their methods’ normalcy or institutionalisation is not relevant; only their effectiveness.

So why do we keep coming back to institutions, regardless of results, when we should know better?

This is probably too harsh, but at least on the surface it feels to me like intellectual cowardice. Needing institutions regardless of results can blind us to the scary truth that our flourishing is ultimately our responsibility, even if we choose to use an institution. Instead, we fob that responsibility off to an institution. This shirking is so ingrained in us that we actively distrust any efforts to secure flourishing aside from bureaucratic organisations!

I’ll repeat that: we actively distrust efforts to secure flourishing aside from bureaucratic organisations, independent of fact!

Josh’s blunt, late-night brain (which really shouldn’t allowed to blog) says we should develop the testicular fortitude to own our own flourishing, whether we use the formidable resources an institution has to offer or craft our own solutions. We should judge the results based on the results, and not out of fear that we are not under the covering of a wider organisation.

The overworked, more winsome side of Josh’s brain wants to ask: “next time you see someone embrace unorthodox choices, can you find a way to keep the conversation on the fruit of their behaviour and not their non-conformity?”


A Series of Homeschooling Questions

My mum is writing a series of homeschooling blog posts, and as part of that, interviewed all four of us kids about our homeschooling experience.

That is, she emailed us a list of questions and said, “I need a reply by Friday, please.”

Journalism is not what it once was!

However, I don’t believe in letting stuff go to waste, so I thought I could shamelessly repeat my answers and turn it into a blog post. Go to mum’s original post to read my siblings’ replies- they’re very good. Also- did you know just how many Croods gifs there are out there on the internet? Nomi does. Just see her interview!

Anyways- Eight Questions To A Former Homeschooler

Heading Off

How would you describe your homeschool years?  In the primary school years, I remember doing lots of classes directly with Mum and the siblings, including a lot of Bible studies, character traits, math, science and reading. The high school years featured mostly independent work, guided by Mum. There was always a lot of reading- books were a big part of my education and they worked really well with my words-based learning style. Homeschool co-ops with local homeschooling families were also important; group discussions on character traits (proto-philosophy classes, in essence!), public speaking training and perennial games of Cops and Robbers.

What was your favourite thing about how you homeschooled?  My favourite thing was learning to love learning, and then having the freedom to explore the areas that most excited me. Sure, I still had to do math and science, but I was also able to pursue my interests (writing, reading, history and philosophy) in far more depth than I could have tied down to a regular classroom and curriculum.

I think it also helped build strong family ties among us, which has been absolutely awesome in the post-homeschool years.

What was your worst? There were some public school guys about my age who I probably would have become really good mates with, but never did because we didn’t mix in the same social circles. That was a shame.  

How do you think homeschooling has shaped you as a person?  Besides the love of learning, homeschooling was also where I learnt to think for myself and test everything. At the same time, homeschooling exposed me to the importance of family and community ties, a vision of the good life which has shaped my decision-making process ever since.

What story would you like to ‘tell on’ your mum?  Be kind!  This question is rigged!  

What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of homeschooling with people who don’t homeschool?  It’s strange how adults can enjoy a long mature conversation with you and only begin to doubt your socialisation skills once you mention, 15 minutes in, that you were homeschooled as a child.
For kids, I think the biggest misunderstanding is their notion that being schooled at home actually means not doing any school, ever, and playing X-box in your PJs all day instead.

How would you answer the questions about socialisation?  Homeschooling made me more socialised, not less. Without a classroom of peers to keep me in my comfort zone, I had to learn to befriend younger kids, older kids, boys, girls, adults, and people with different interests to my own. I also had to be intentional about developing my friendships. In ‘real life’ those social skills are paramount, and homeschooling taught them to me.   

How has homeschooling prepared you – or left you hanging – in terms of further education?  The love of learning that homeschooling imparted for me is easily the best motivator to study hard and get good grades (or even learn something!) at university, where everything is self-motivated. The high school homeschool years also taught me to learn independently, and that’s crucial for further education, where they don’t spoon-feed you like most high school classrooms. 

On the other hand, I still had to learn university’s essay writing rules and how to answer pre-set questions, rather than just write what I wanted to talk about. That was a bit of a learning curve, but it didn’t take too long to adjust.

Simplifying, Polarising, Demonising: Killing Off Enriching Conversation

Conversations about ideas are glorious creatures, and everyone has them. Those ideas might be intellectual behemoths about the GFC and Keynesian economic theory or antithesis in Hegel, or they might be ordinary, down-to-earth conversations about what you believe, what is good, what is right, how we should treat people, how we should live. All human beings have those types of conversations.

However, when talking about ideas, it is easy to simplify, polarise and demonise.

Discussions don't need to look like this...
Discussions don’t need to look like this…

Often, we will simplify our, and our opponents’, views into a single, simple thesis, rather than recognise the diversity of ideas we are bringing to the table. An over-simplified idea is easier to understand, communicate and disprove, which is why they’re so tempting. We might claim a leftist has no time for personal liberty, or a creationist has no respect for science or a right-winger understands all social functions through the lens of the marketplace.

Admittedly, many ideas do err by reducing the universe to a few favourite hobby-horses. But if we fail to listen to what is really being thought, then we risk over-simplifying, and misrepresenting, the idea. This process is unhealthy because it strips us of intellectual creativity. It’s hard to think outside the box when we’ve over-simplified everyone’s contributions to conform to the familiar, pre-determined stereotypes.

It’s “Us and Them”- or rather, “Us and Bull”

Over-simplification helps us to polarise the debate. It’s hard to pit two people’s contributions (let alone two whole groups of people’s contributions!) against each other if we recognise their nuance. But if we reduce them to single mantras, then we can create a contest between these ideas. That’s tempting because we know where we stand in a contest.  We also know deep down that there is absolute truth. There is right and there is wrong. Humans have a deep emotional desire to be on the right side of that fence. Polarisation assures us that we’re right, and they’re wrong, and assures us that we know where everything stands in this conversation.

This is a false confidence. I strongly believe that there are right ideas and wrong ideas, good proofs and weak arguments. But it’s illogical to assume that rightness always sits with one group of ideas and wrongness on the other. That’s the bitter fruit of over-simplification. It’s very unlikely that either side has a monopoly on truth, but it’s easier to believe if you’ve reduced each “side”, or collection of ideas, to a single entity. Then, if there are only two ideas in the conversation, we think one is right and the other is wrong.

This false confidence encourages demonisation. If people who believe in the existence of right and wrong ideas stop thinking in terms of ideas, and start thinking in terms of sides, then our “right-wrong” reflex inevitably follows suit. Now, whole sides are right or wrong, regardless of the various ideas and nuances that exist inside that idea. Our focus is on sides, rather than ideas, so we become emotionally invested into defending our side’s entire plethora of ideas, rather than treating each idea on its merits. We subconsciously slide from intellectual rigour to partisanship and bias.

It's amazing how often our opponents are actually dark lords attempting to dominate all life in Middle Earth...
It’s incredible how often our opponents are really dark lords attempting to dominate all life…

Over-simplification handicaps our understanding of the universe. Polarisation creates false loyalties to a group, rather than a commitment to the truth wherever it may be found. And demonisation creates unnecessary, unfounded conflict that distracts us from the honest appraisal of ideas.

These habits are instinctive to all of us. I think we’re trapped in this cycle already. And it can kill honest, vigorous, civil, effective debate about ideas. As anyone who’s participated in a civil, honest discussion can testify, this is a grievous loss.