Cover Story

Aim high(er): by Mike Farris

Homeschooling is good, but homeschoolers must not let arrogance blind them to the need to get better. One of the movement's leading voices outlines six needed areas of improvement, in the form of a letter to his sons-in-law-advice all homeschoolers would do well to take ...

Issue: "Ideal schools," April 28, 2001

Dear Rich, Todd, and Sean:
You three had the good sense to determine that your wives, my daughters, were not only extremely pretty, but that they would also become tremendous homeschooling moms in due season. This next year will be our 20th year homeschooling our own family. And you all obviously know the role our family has played in the homeschooling movement at large. On the eve of this anniversary, I thought I would write to you, to give you a vision for how I believe that you can do even better than your mother-in-law, Vickie, and I have done. Scripture, of course, supports the idea that you should do better. In Exodus 20:5-6, God tells Israel that there is a downward cycle of judgment that befalls those who disobey Him-extending for three or four generations. However, there is an upward spiral of blessing for a thousand generations who love and obey God. The fact that our daughters are all more spiritually mature than Vickie and I were at the same stage of life is evidence that homeschooling has been a key in getting our family on the upward spiral of blessing. It is a humbling thought that Vickie and I are members of the worst generation of homeschoolers. But don't get too much of a swelled head: You are in the second worst generation. Seriously, the goal should be for each generation to get a little better, even though the world around us sees each generation getting a little worse. It is particularly important for homeschoolers to understand the need for our movement to get better. Not only are there areas that clearly need improving, but in a larger sense a movement is never static. Homeschooling will either be going up or down in terms of quality; it will not remain flat. You need to lead your families in a way that ensures that at least for your household, homeschooling quality continues to go up. Obviously I hope that others will do the same, but my greatest responsibility is to encourage my own children to do the best for our grandchildren. One more thought on why we need to do better: We homeschoolers tend to have an overinflated view of our achievements. Sure, we test 20 to 30 percentile points higher than public schools on achievement tests. Sure, we even test somewhat higher than private schools on those tests. But we should not measure our ability against a public-school system that is barely able to teach its students to read and write. If we want someone to compare ourselves to, we should look at the generation of the founding fathers. Even the farmers of that day, with just a few years of education, could read, understand, and intelligently discuss the Federalist Papers and other such documents. That's a high standard, but I believe we can reach it, if we keep these six areas in mind. (1) Homeschoolers need to do better in math. Our reading and language skills are excellent, even though we could always use a little improvement. But our math skills need real help. We only do slightly better than public schools here. We need to drill basic facts, teach concepts, and make sure we take our children through algebra II and geometry at a minimum. The homeschooling movement needs to develop more classical materials that are easy for moms to use. There is much that an adapted form of classical education can offer to homeschoolers. Great literature, history, logic, and classical languages were good for the founding fathers. They will be good for the Farris grandchildren as well. But this can be difficult simply because good materials are rare or nonexistent. Do your part to encourage creative people to develop curriculum resources that make this kind of content much easier for average moms to deliver to their children. (2) Dads need to take more responsibility with their teens-especially with their sons. For years I have been telling dads that they need to help out by relieving the extraordinary time pressures on their wives. I have said that it doesn't matter whether they relieve the pressure in the areas of homemaking responsibilities or in academic instruction-just take some of the load off of their wives. I need to modify that advice. When it comes to teens, I think dads need to play a much more significant role in the academic life of their teens-especially for their teenage sons. You three know that I taught each of your wives math, history, literature, and constitutional law. I believe I need to do even more with their younger brothers, the oldest of whom is going to be a teen late this summer. I believe we have not focused enough on the need for young men to have more time with male leadership-preferably their own dads. But it may be that dads will find it advantageous to develop a kind of co-op class that has been popular among moms. I can envision a time when the three of you are sitting in a living room (ours is always available to you), each with one or two teenage sons for an evening of discussion. The topic might be history or government or literature. But an evening of discussion between dads and sons would go a long way in providing a greater measure of male input into the lives of these boys than has been typical heretofore. (3) Make sure that your children learn to write well. The best advice I ever received on writing was from a political science professor who told me, "Write a lot and read a lot of good writing." I am convinced that the best thing I ever did to develop my own abilities (in addition to simply cranking out a great volume of words on a regular basis) was to read the Chronicles of Narnia out loud to my children. I read this series at least two or three times to your wives and two or three times to their younger brothers and sisters. C.S. Lewis wrote crisp, clear prose that sings. We need people who can do that. But again, reading alone won't do it. Make sure that my grandchildren put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) many times each week. Spelling and grammar count. Creativity and clear expression are the goals. (4) Make sure that your children learn the lessons of freedom. Your children will not have one of the advantages that you and your wives enjoyed: seeing up-close the battle for the freedom to homeschool. Never underestimate how important this life lesson has been. After all, people who find out that they need not depend on the government to provide education but can do it themselves are easily convinced that they do not need government safety nets or subsidies to live their lives. We need a generation that believes that the purpose of government is to protect life, liberty, and property. Too many believe that the purpose of government is to provide them with benefits. Sure, there are still legal battles that occur for homeschoolers, but the nature of the battle has changed. (5) Make sure that your children learn what it means to be a free people. Do this through life lessons, good books, and good discussions. Read newspaper and magazine articles at dinner and discuss them. Make sure they study and understand the Constitution and its meaning and the current fights for the Constitution in the Supreme Court. (6) Teach your children to be humble. The reason homeschoolers tell everyone they see how well their children perform academically is that they have been under legal and political assault for nearly two decades. Homeschoolers have to say, "our kids are doing better than public schools on achievement tests" on a regular basis just to keep the public-school officials at bay. A few people have had to convince their mothers-in-law that it was a good idea-something that we never had to do, praise God. The problem is that our kids have heard us brag on them hundreds of times and they appear to believe their own PR. This is dangerous, but there is a remedy: service. Make sure your children learn to serve others. Serve members of their own family. Serve the poor. Serve widows. Serve in the church. Serve anyone in need. Service is the greatest antidote to pride and the surest path to humility. Like everyone else, homeschoolers need this lesson. And our grandchildren will need it in particular after Vickie and I get through spoiling them with high praise. Teach your children to take pride in their work so that they will do a good job, but not to treasure pride in their heart. Service will temper the tendency toward pride. I had the great pleasure of walking each of your wives down the aisle on that day when you became man and wife. It was a happy, but wistful walk for me each time. But it was not a walk that I made with regret. So many men reach that moment in the life of their child and think, "I didn't spend enough time with my children." While Vickie and I have been far from perfect parents, we have been totally spared the guilt that comes from feeling that your child is grown and you barely know them. If it weren't for homeschooling, we realize that the time would have felt wholly inadequate. Spend time with your children. Do better than we have done. Look up. Reach high. There is still room to improve. Blessings and love,
Dad Farris

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