As I addressed a home school graduation exercise the other day, I thought -- more than once -- ah, good old human nature at work once more.
It's what happens when institutions fail or give the distinct impression they're about to. Customers head for the exits: not all of them, maybe just a handful. Yet those who do flee, taking their hopes and their children with them, tend to be people of sharp and quick perception; the kind you want around as much and as long as possible. Their departure evacuates the institution in considerable degree of priceless qualities -- sense of mission, dedication to task, willingness to work and to sacrifice.
The public schools can't hold such people? More shame for those schools. Once upon a time, the great majority of us attended them. In the 21st century, their widely advertised shortcomings and deficiencies are driving out, or keeping away altogether, people whose presence in the classroom every half-sensible educator should crave.
The ceremony at which I spoke featured two -- count 'em -- two young men, supported by scores of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, fellow church members and well-wishers in general. A public high school principal might shrug at the loss of a mere two students from his rolls. Too bad. C'est la vie.
The two in question, nevertheless -- Eagles Scouts soon to take flight, accomplished debaters, tireless readers, international lawyers in the making -- are the sort who clearly adorn whatever company they keep. The public schools want more such, not fewer. Yet fewer and fewer they get, as more and more Americans express their distrust of the public schools' ability to impart an education such as was fairly common up to the '60s.
With the '60s, a kind of sloth and indifference and arrogance and mendacity settled over public education like a blanket. General indictments never give general satisfaction. This one won't either, I confess. We all pretty much know, in any case, what happened. The quest for "social justice" -- busing for racial balance being one instance -- drew attention away from Bunsen burners and Wordsworth.
Late 20th-century demography hardly helped. Public institutions reflect public expectations. Expectations for the schools declined markedly. As divorce split up families and the job market siphoned off the achievement overseers generally addressed as Mom, families tended to see classrooms as holding pens for underfoot kids. Schools ventured into new terrain, such as sex education and the representation of the American story as a narrative of racist imperialism. God was advised rudely to get Himself off the school ground, fast. Teacher unions rated pay and benefits as more important to them than standards and teaching methods.
How fast did the customers catch on? Fast enough. Parents moved themselves and their broods to suburban districts. Private schools, especially religious ones, multiplied. Still other parents took on themselves the task of educating their children. By 2007, an estimated 1.5 million young people, 2.5 percent of all students, were learning at home. Networks arose to provide school opportunities and curricular materials.
To the charge that they were undermining public education, parents pled self-defense. What did the schools expect anyway -- that savvy parents were going to let their children's minds and prospects perish in second-rate settings or worse?
Home schooling isn't the answer for everybody. For one thing, it requires the oversight of highly motivated parents. The best thing to call it, I think, is an end-run around political and cultural obstacles to the flourishing of young people whose parents love them very much.
The two kids -- pardon me, young men -- I addressed on the occasion of their Going Forth into the World (by way of good universities) are individuals of high promise, imbued with ambition, drive, intelligence, sensibilities of various sorts and, not least important, religious instinct. The public schools might have had them but for the schools' perceived inability to maintain the right environment for success and the breeding of character.
Goes to show as a nation we may be smarter than our standardized test scores make us out to be.