The Host’s Puzzle

The following fun puzzle is from The Canterbury puzzles: and other curious problems by Henry Ernest Dudeney published in 1908.

6.—The Host’s Puzzle.

Perhaps no puzzle of the whole collection caused more jollity or was found more entertaining than that produced by the Host of the “Tabard,” who accompanied the party all the way. He called the pilgrims together and spoke as follows: “My merry masters all, now that it be my turn to give your brains a twist, I will show ye a little piece of craft that will try your wits to their full bent. And yet methinks it is but a simple matter when the doing of it is made clear. Here be a cask of fine London ale, and in my hands do I hold two measures—one of five pints, and the other of three pints. Pray show how it is possible for me to put a true pint into each of the measures.” Of course, no other vessel or article is to be used, and no marking of the measures is allowed. It is a knotty little problem and a fascinating one. A good many persons to-day will find it a by no means easy task. Yet it can be done.

The Solution

The puzzle propounded by the jovial host of the ” Tabard” Inn of Southwark had proved more popular than any other of the whole collection. “I see, my merry masters,” he cried, “that I have sorely twisted thy brains by my little piece of craft. Yet it is but a simple matter for me to put a true pint of fine old ale in each of these two measures, albeit one is of five pints and the other of three pints, without using any other measure whatsoever.”

The host of the ” Tabard” Inn thereupon proceeded to explain to the pilgrims how this apparently impossible task could be done. He first filled the 5-pint and 3-pint measures, and then, turning the tap, allowed the barrel to run to waste, a proceeding against which the company protested, but the wily man showed that he was aware that the cask did not contain much more than eight pints of ale. The contents, however, do not affect the solution of the puzzle. He then closed the tap and emptied the 3-pint into the barrel; filled the 3-pint from the 5-pint; emptied the 3-pint into the barrel; transferred the two pints from the 5-pint to the 3-pint; filled the 5-pint from the barrel, leaving one pint now in the barrel; filled 3-pint from 5-pint; allowed the company to drink the contents of the 3-pint; filled the 3-pint from the 5-pint, leaving one pint now in the 5-pint; drank the contents of the 3-pint; and finally drew off one pint from the barrel into the 3-pint. He had thus obtained the required one pint of ale in each measure, to the great astonishment of the admiring crowd of pilgrims.

>A Faustian bargain: An open letter to George M Philip, President of the State University of New York At Albany


I am wholesale copying and pasting the letter below by Gregory A. Petsko because it so perfectly captures the implications of universities not offering a liberal arts education in the name of so-called sound fiscal decision making. Schools seem to perennially face funding problems, but the issues raised in the letter below are far bigger than mere funding. Our society has changed its views on education over the decades, and I fear we have made several wrong turns along the way, not least of which includes abandoning better ideas in favor of thin apologia and bureaucratic fads. It’s a long letter, but worth reading in its entirety.

Dear President Philip,
Probably the last thing you need at this moment is someone else from outside your university complaining about your decision. If you want to argue that I can’t really understand all aspects of the situation, never having been associated with SUNY Albany, I wouldn’t disagree. But I cannot let something like this go by without weighing in. I hope, when I’m through, you will at least understand why.
Just 30 days ago, on October 1st, you announced that the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts were being eliminated. You gave several reasons for your decision, including that ‘there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs.’ Of course, your decision was also, perhaps chiefly, a cost-cutting measure – in fact, you stated that this decision might not have been necessary had the state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed your university to set its own tuition rates. Finally, you asserted that the humanities were a drain on the institution financially, as opposed to the sciences, which bring in money in the form of grants and contracts.
Let’s examine these and your other reasons in detail, because I think if one does, it becomes clear that the facts on which they are based have some important aspects that are not covered in your statement. First, the matter of enrollment. I’m sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn’t have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn’t required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy: humanities, social sciences, the fine arts, the physical and natural sciences, and to attain minimal proficiency in at least one foreign language. You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it’s because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs – something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.
Young people haven’t, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it’s hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.
That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I’m sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it – if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don’t.
Then there’s the question of whether the state legislature’s inaction gave you no other choice. I’m sure the budgetary problems you have to deal with are serious. They certainly are at Brandeis University, where I work. And we, too, faced critical strategic decisions because our income was no longer enough to meet our expenses. But we eschewed your draconian – and authoritarian – solution, and a team of faculty, with input from all parts of the university, came up with a plan to do more with fewer resources. I’m not saying that all the specifics of our solution would fit your institution, but the process sure would have. You did call a town meeting, but it was to discuss your plan, not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend. In your defense, you called the timing ‘unfortunate’, but pleaded that there was a ‘limited availability of appropriate large venue options.’ I find that rather surprising. If the President of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don’t have much clout at your university.
It seems to me that the way you went about it couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.
The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.
And do you really think even those faculty and administrators who may applaud your tough-minded stance (partly, I’m sure, in relief that they didn’t get the axe themselves) are still going to be on your side in the future? I’m reminded of the fable by Aesop of the Travelers and the Bear: two men were walking together through the woods, when a bear rushed out at them. One of the travelers happened to be in front, and he grabbed the branch of a tree, climbed up, and hid himself in the leaves. The other, being too far behind, threw himself flat down on the ground, with his face in the dust. The bear came up to him, put his muzzle close to the man’s ear, and sniffed and sniffed. But at last with a growl the bear slouched off, for bears will not touch dead meat. Then the fellow in the tree came down to his companion, and, laughing, said ‘What was it that the bear whispered to you?’ ‘He told me,’ said the other man, ‘Never to trust a friend who deserts you in a pinch.’
I first learned that fable, and its valuable lesson for life, in a freshman classics course. Aesop is credited with literally hundreds of fables, most of which are equally enjoyable – and enlightening. Your classics faculty would gladly tell you about them, if only you had a Classics department, which now, of course, you don’t.
As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do ‘old-fashioned’ courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. I’ll give you two examples of that. The first is the science of virology, which in the 1970s was dying out because people felt that infectious diseases were no longer a serious health problem in the developed world and other subjects, such as molecular biology, were much sexier. Then, in the early 1990s, a little problem called AIDS became the world’s number 1 health concern. The virus that causes AIDS was first isolated and characterized at the National Institutes of Health in the USA and the Institute Pasteur in France, because these were among the few institutions that still had thriving virology programs. My second example you will probably be more familiar with. Middle Eastern Studies, including the study of foreign languages such as Arabic and Persian, was hardly a hot subject on most campuses in the 1990s. Then came September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized that we needed a lot more people who understood something about that part of the world, especially its Muslim culture. Those universities that had preserved their Middle Eastern Studies departments, even in the face of declining enrollment, suddenly became very important places. Those that hadn’t – well, I’m sure you get the picture.
I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I’m willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word ‘university’ derives from the Latin ‘universitas’, meaning ‘the whole’. You can’t be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.
I utterly refuse to believe that you had no alternative. It’s your job as President to find ways of solving problems that do not require the amputation of healthy limbs. Voltaire said that no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is ‘God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh’). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I’m sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don’t.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you have trouble understanding the importance of maintaining programs in unglamorous or even seemingly ‘dead’ subjects. From your biography, you don’t actually have a PhD or other high degree, and have never really taught or done research at a university. Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.
One of the things I do now is write a monthly column on science and society. I’ve done it for over 10 years, and I’m pleased to say some people seem to like it. If I’ve been fortunate enough to come up with a few insightful observations, I can assure you they are entirely due to my background in the humanities and my love of the arts.
One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.
Some of your defenders have asserted that this is all a brilliant ploy on your part – a master political move designed to shock the legislature and force them to give SUNY Albany enough resources to keep these departments open. That would be Machiavellian (another notable Italian writer, but then, you don’t have any Italian faculty to tell you about him), certainly, but I doubt that you’re that clever. If you were, you would have held that town meeting when the whole university could have been present, at a place where the press would be all over it. That’s how you force the hand of a bunch of politicians. You proclaim your action on the steps of the state capitol. You don’t try to sneak it through in the dead of night, when your institution has its back turned.
No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it’s performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get – well, I’m sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don’t, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It’s awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That’s the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven’t given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.
Disrespectfully yours,
Gregory A Petsko

You can email Mr. Petsko here: 

Challenging books: Adler and reading for one’s mind

It is easy to get excited about the idea of a classical education, especially if one naturally loves both books and history. We are trying to offer a modified classical education to our children via homeschooling. The modern idea for a classical education via classical books comes, in part, from Mortimer J. Adler and his book How to Read a Book.
Adler was an advocate of reading books more difficult than one’s current level can easily handle, thus stretching and elevating one’s mind. The best books require one to work at understanding them. The secret is that the process (the labor) of trying to understand is actually part of the joy of reading. Only reading books as escape, as easy pickings, is like eating only cake for dinner: in the short run it seems great, but in the long run it leaves one unfulfilled and anemic.
Adler also put together his canon of what a classical reading list should look like. I love reading lists; they give me more reasons to buy more books. But I hate reading lists too because they remind me of how much I have yet to read and that I am a notoriously slow reader. My desire is the get through the list below. I doubt I will read half the list before I die. Still, it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?

From Wikipedia: The following is an example list from How to Read a Book:

  1. Homer: The Iliad, The Odyssey
  2. The Old Testament
  3. Aeschylus: Tragedies
  4. Sophocles: Tragedies
  5. Herodotus: Histories
  6. Euripides: Tragedies
  7. Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War
  8. Hippocrates: Medical Writings
  9. Aristophanes: Comedies
  10. Plato: Dialogues
  11. Aristotle: Works
  12. Epicurus: “Letter to Herodotus“, “Letter to Menoecus
  13. Euclid: The Elements
  14. Archimedes: Works
  15. Apollonius: The Conic Sections
  16. Cicero: Works
  17. Lucretius: On the Nature of Things
  18. Virgil: Works
  19. Horace: Works
  20. Livy: The History of Rome
  21. Ovid: Works
  22. Plutarch: Parallel Lives; Moralia
  23. Tacitus: Histories; Annals; Agricola; Germania
  24. Nicomachus of Gerasa: Introduction to Arithmetic
  25. Epictetus: Discourses; Enchiridion
  26. Ptolemy: Almagest
  27. Lucian: Works
  28. Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
  29. Galen: On the Natural Faculties
  30. The New Testament
  31. Plotinus: The Enneads
  32. St. Augustine: “On the Teacher”; Confessions; City of God; On Christian Doctrine
  33. The Song of Roland
  34. The Nibelungenlied
  35. The Saga of Burnt Njál
  36. St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica
  37. Dante Alighieri: The New Life (La Vita Nuova); “On Monarchy”; The Divine Comedy
  38. Geoffrey Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde; The Canterbury Tales
  39. Leonardo da Vinci: Notebooks
  40. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy
  41. Desiderius Erasmus: The Praise of Folly
  42. Nicolaus Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
  43. Thomas More: Utopia
  44. Martin Luther: Table Talk; Three Treatises
  45. François Rabelais: Gargantua and Pantagruel
  46. John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion
  47. Michel de Montaigne: Essays
  48. William Gilbert: On the Lodestone and Magnetic Bodies
  49. Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote
  50. Edmund Spenser: Prothalamion; The Faerie Queene
  51. Francis Bacon: Essays; The Advancement of Learning; Novum Organum; The New Atlantis
  52. William Shakespeare: Poetry and Plays
  53. Galileo Galilei: Starry Messenger; Two New Sciences
  54. Johannes Kepler: The Epitome of Copernican Astronomy; Harmonices Mundi
  55. William Harvey: On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals; On the Circulation of the Blood; On the Generation of Animals
  56. Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan
  57. René Descartes: Rules for the Direction of the Mind; Discourse on Method; Geometry; Meditations on First Philosophy
  58. John Milton: Works
  59. Molière: Comedies
  60. Blaise Pascal: The Provincial Letters; Pensées; Scientific Treatises
  61. Christiaan Huygens: Treatise on Light
  62. Benedict de Spinoza: Ethics
  63. John Locke: A Letter Concerning Toleration; Of Civil Government; Essay Concerning Human Understanding; Some Thoughts Concerning Education
  64. Jean Baptiste Racine: Tragedies
  65. Isaac Newton: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy; Opticks
  66. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics; New Essays Concerning Human Understanding; “Monadology
  67. Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe
  68. Jonathan Swift: “A Tale of a Tub“; A Journal to Stella; Gulliver’s Travels; “A Modest Proposal
  69. William Congreve: The Way of the World
  70. George Berkeley: Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge
  71. Alexander Pope: “Essay on Criticism“; “The Rape of the Lock“; “Essay on Man
  72. Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu: Persian Letters, Spirit of the Laws
  73. Voltaire: Letters on the English, Candide, Philosophical Dictionary
  74. Henry Fielding: Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones
  75. Samuel Johnson: “The Vanity of Human Wishes“, Dictionary, Rasselas, Lives of the Poets
  76. David Hume: A Treatise of Human Nature, Essays Moral and Political, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding
  77. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, On Political Economy, Emile, The Social Contract
  78. Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy
  79. Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments, The Wealth of Nations
  80. Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Critique of Practical Reason; The Science of Right; Critique of Judgment; Perpetual Peace
  81. Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Autobiography
  82. James Boswell: Journal; The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
  83. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier: Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (Elements of Chemistry)
  84. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison: The Federalist Papers
  85. Jeremy Bentham: Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Theory of Fictions
  86. Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France
  87. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Faust; Poetry and Truth
  88. Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier: Analytical Theory of Heat
  89. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Phenomenology of Spirit; The Philosophy of Right; Lectures on the Philosophy of History
  90. William Wordsworth: Poems
  91. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Poems; Biographia Literaria
  92. Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice; Emma
  93. Carl von Clausewitz: On War
  94. Stendhal: The Red and the Black; The Charterhouse of Parma; On Love
  95. Lord Byron: Don Juan
  96. Arthur Schopenhauer: Studies in Pessimism
  97. Michael Faraday: The Chemical History of a Candle; Experimental Researches in Electricity
  98. Charles Lyell: Principles of Geology
  99. Auguste Comte: The Positive Philosophy
  100. Honoré de Balzac: Le Père Goriot; Eugénie Grandet
  101. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Representative Men, Essays, Journal
  102. Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
  103. Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America
  104. John Stuart Mill: A System of Logic; On Liberty; Representative Government; Utilitarianism; The Subjection of Women; Autobiography
  105. Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species; The Descent of Man; Autobiography
  106. Charles Dickens: Pickwick Papers; David Copperfield; Hard Times
  107. Claude Bernard: Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine
  108. Henry David Thoreau: “Civil Disobedience“; Walden
  109. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Capital; The Communist Manifesto
  110. George Eliot: Adam Bede; Middlemarch
  111. Herman Melville: Moby-Dick; Billy Budd
  112. Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment; The Idiot; The Brothers Karamazov
  113. Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary; Three Stories
  114. Henrik Ibsen: Plays
  115. Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace; Anna Karenina; What is Art?; Twenty-Three Tales
  116. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; The Mysterious Stranger
  117. William James: The Principles of Psychology; The Varieties of Religious Experience; Pragmatism; Essays in Radical Empiricism
  118. Henry James: The American; The Ambassadors
  119. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Beyond Good and Evil; The Genealogy of Morals; The Will to Power; Twilight of the Idols; The Antichrist
  120. Jules Henri Poincaré: Science and Hypothesis; Science and Method
  121. Sigmund Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams; Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis; Civilization and Its Discontents; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
  122. George Bernard Shaw: Plays and Prefaces
  123. Max Planck: Origin and Development of the Quantum Theory; Where Is Science Going?; Scientific Autobiography
  124. Henri Bergson: Time and Free Will; Matter and Memory; Creative Evolution; The Two Sources of Morality and Religion
  125. John Dewey: How We Think; Democracy and Education; Experience and Nature; Logic: The Theory of Inquiry
  126. F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
  127. Alfred North Whitehead: An Introduction to Mathematics; Science and the Modern World; The Aims of Education and Other Essays; Adventures of Ideas
  128. George Santayana: The Life of Reason; Skepticism and Animal Faith; Persons and Places
  129. Lenin: The State and Revolution
  130. Marcel Proust: Remembrance of Things Past (the revised translation is In Search of Lost Time)
  131. Bertrand Russell: The Problems of Philosophy; Principia Mathematica; The Analysis of Mind; An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth; Human Knowledge, Its Scope and Limits
  132. Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain; Joseph and His Brothers
  133. Albert Einstein: The Meaning of Relativity; On the Method of Theoretical Physics; The Evolution of Physics
  134. James Joyce: “The Dead” in Dubliners; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ulysses
  135. Jacques Maritain: Art and Scholasticism; The Degrees of Knowledge; The Rights of Man and Natural Law; True Humanism
  136. Franz Kafka: The Trial; The Castle
  137. Arnold J. Toynbee: A Study of History; Civilization on Trial
  138. Jean-Paul Sartre: Nausea; No Exit; Being and Nothingness
  139. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle; Cancer Ward
  140. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; Philosophical Investigations

>Star Gazing


Two nights ago we bundled up our little family and joined up with a few of our homeschooling friends for some star gazing. What a wonderful experience.
Compared to so much of our fast-paced, highly technologized world, looking at the stars is a truly remarkable experience that also connects us to the ancients. It is fascinating to think that the stars and planets we look at today are the same ones the ancient Greeks gazed upon. On the cosmic time scale essentially nothing has changed since they looked out to the heavens.
The telescope we used was hand built and is owned by our friend Chris. It is a Dobsonian telescope and he built it with some help from a former student based on plans from a book. Here is Chris gazing upon a star map looking for clues to finding M31, or the Great Andromeda Nebula, which he did locate and we saw through the scope:
We were behind a middle school just outside of a town outside the city, so we were not bothered by the city lights. The kids ran and played in the dark with glow sticks. There was a playground nearby, so while we looked for stars we could hear them playing. When some interesting object was focused in the telescope the kids would then come running. Sometimes they needed a ladder to reach the eye piece:
We also saw Jupiter and three of its bright moons (it has at least 63 moons). To think that we saw what Galileo first saw in 1610 is really cool. We could even see a clear line of one of its atmospheric cloud bands. Later we gazed upon a globular cluster and the double star in the handle of the Big Dipper.
I know that these kinds of experiences are not unique to homeschoolers, but I know they were not available to me as a kid. I know we were not worried if we got to bed late because our school schedule is flexible. Regardless, if you know someone who has a passion for astronomy and has a decent telescope, convince him or her to organize a night out with several families. Both kids and adults will be rewarded.

>fears of the homeschooler

>Homeschooling is not for everyone. Though more parents might try it if they thought they could. A number of people have told me they are considering homschooling but are not sure it’s for them. They have fears and worries about taking on more than they can handle or want to handle. The reality is that homeschooling is not easy. In fact, it is quite difficult. In a way it’s impossible. What do I mean?

I want to approach my answer in two ways: 1) The 40,000 foot level, and 2) specific fears.

Homeschooling is a little like jumping off a cliff or a leap into the unknown. It’s a big bite to chew, a heavy load to carry, a constant worry of sorts. The goal of the homeschooler is to educate their own children, for any number of reasons, such that they grow up better educated in some way than they would have from other educational methods or systems. How homeschoolers define better is varied and debated, and sometimes better isn’t better. And even if one has hit upon something better one faces into the daunting task of implementing that method or system. Thus, while one is struggling in the midst of the implementation, one is often haunted by lingering thoughts about the solidity of the chosen method or system.

But consider the flip side. Deciding which school your child goes to is not the end of your responsibility for your child’s education. Sending your kid to the school bus with a warm coat, their bag of books, reams of completed homework, and their lunch box is not the end of your responsibility either. We have inherited historically recent ideas of what education is and how it should be done. Our society tends to believe that education, like medicine, should only be done by professionals. This is both a fallacy, based largely on incorrect and incomplete ideas of what education is, and a false hope, based largely on misunderstandings of learning processes. Professional educators are generally quite good and many are excellent. But they also struggle with both method and implementation. There is virtually no consensus in the politically charged world of public education on which method is best. There are many competing ideas (sometimes changing from year to year in schools) that fight for support and funding. Putting those ideas into practice is also fraught with peril. Schools often have to settle for a compromise between the latest educational ideas and maintaining adequate control of 20+ different personalities and learning styles in the classroom. I have written about some of these perils previously here. My own experience, and much of what I have observed of others, shows me that both method and implementation are the great bugaboos of all education. And private school education may be only slightly better than public at a much greater cost.

Therefore, in regards to the difficulty of homeschooling, as seen from the 40,000 foot level, I would say that to not homeschool is at least as difficult if one takes one’s responsibility seriously. There is a lot of pressure to see homeschooling as an aberration, but it is not a true aberration. All educational choices have some validity in certain contexts. And public schooling is, historically, an aberration of sorts, designed to accommodate the needs of the industrial revolution and the barest requirements of democracy – both recent events in Western culture. Homeschooling, on the other hand, has been around for millennia. For the thinking and loving parent the choice, and maybe the inevitability, of public school for one’s children is not an easy one. From the perspective of the parent who is homeschooling, or trying to do so, the choice to not go with public school can be seen as difficult a choice in that there are no perfect alternatives, no obviously correct methods, and implementation troubles all teachers. Thus, the homeschooling parent can at least be confident that choosing to homeschool is not harder than choosing public schooling, though we have been conditioned to falsely see the public schooling choice as the easy one.

But then there are the specific fears of homeschooling that may cause prospective homeschoolers to shy away from making that choice. The fact is there are no easy answers or secret shortcuts. I have listed some of those fears below, but I know there are many more.

  • Are you truly qualified? I wrote about this in a previous post. The short answer is there is no one more qualified to teach your own children than you. Does this mean you will be the perfect teacher? No. But no one else, even a state accredited teacher, is more qualified than you.
  • Can you teach your child to read? Yes. Children have a remarkable, God given capacity for learning. Like with most skills one learns to read through repetition and taking small steps day after day. As a parent you can guide your child uniquely to their learning style and speed. There are many excellent resources to use as well.
  • What about subjects in which you are weak? Remember you are teaching a child. In no way do you need to be a master of any subject in order to teach it to a child. The most important quality is a passion for learning. Plus, taking on a subject that you don’t know well, say science or math for example, gives you to chance to learn it yourself. The best way to learn a subject is having to teach it to another. Remember, most public school teachers were not experts in the subjects they teach at the beginning, and many never gain true expertise. Again, there are many excellent resources to pick from.
  • Can you manage it? This is a bigger question beyond merely the teaching of specific subjects or making sure your child makes it to the next grade. Homeschooling is a total family kind of project. Educating your child does not get separated from the rest of life, including cleaning the house, running errands, and everything else. If one has more than one child, especially little ones that need a lot of attention, management becomes rather challenging. From my own experience, and more so from observing my wife, the answer is yes you can manage it. That is not to say it will be easy, and sometimes you may want to throw in the towel. Most likely you won’t throw in the towel because you have bigger reasons for homeschooling. Remember you set the schedule. If it gets too tough, take a break and do something else for the rest of the day, or even the week.
  • Will your own flaws get in the way? Yes. You are far from being a perfect person. You do not have as much patience or kindness or strength as you need to do everything you wish you could. Neither does anyone else who might educate your child. It’s called being human, which includes both our finite capacities and our sinfulness. Since there is no getting away from your flaws then it’s a mute point in a way. You are who you are, the key is to seek wisdom and love and forgiveness in the midst of homeschooling. Ironically, your flaws may provide one of the better opportunities for teaching those things that are most valuable.
  • Do you know where to begin, and then where to go from there? Maybe not, but you can find out. One of the most surprising aspects of homeschooling is the plethora of teaching materials, curricula, and advice. In fact it may be too much. There are complete programs that send you a box with everything you will need for an entire school year, including all the books, science materials, worksheets, and even pencils. There are curriculum guides that lay out courses of study and require you to then pick and choose what materials work best for you. And then there are tons, and I mean tons, of great teaching aids that can be used to supplement any subject, any teaching style, any learning style, and everything else.
  • Won’t you be stuck at home all day, every day? One of the big surprises of homeschooling is how much one is not actually at home. Homeschooling is about learning, not about staying at home. Field trips are common. Doing lessons with other homeschooling families is also common. There are many resources for education outside the home, including homeschooling co-ops in many areas.
  • Will you have the support you need? That depends. The answer is, you can if you seek it out. Homeschoolers tend to be a supportive kind of people. Maybe it’s because they recognize they don’t fit into more common educational and societal categories. Regardless, it’s not hard to find others who homeschool, especially online. There are no guarantees you will have the support of your extended family, or that you will want to hang out with the other homeschoolers you meet. But that’s life. The key is to know why you have chosen to homeschool, cling to that in times you don’t have support, and be able to articulate your position to others who may then see the light and become supportive.
  • Won’t it be hard? Yes. That old platitude is very true – anything truly worth doing is never easy. But the fact is, life is hard. You don’t get away from “hard” by not homeschooling.
  • Will I be denying my kids a fuller educational experience? This is a question to ponder. The short answer is no, but a more substantial answer has everything to do with unpacking the idea of “experience” and how the homeschooling experience creates a different experience than public education. Much of it depends on one’s reason for homeschooling. I wrote about a disagreeable trend in homeschooling that sees pulling one’s children out of public school as a retreating from the world on the whole. But one can choose otherwise. Homeschooling can, in fact, provide a much richer, much fuller, less damaging and less demeaning experience that other options.

There are many more reasons that parents might have fears about homeschooling. There is no way I can either address them all, or address them adequately. Maybe most of my thoughts above are inadequate. But I see the fear to homeschool being similar to the fear of being in relationship with another, or taking on a new job, or having a child. What is remarkable is how often we take on big, scary projects in stride – and even come more “alive” in the process. The truth is, one’s love of one’s children is a powerful motivator for the homeschooler. Homeschooling is a monumental task, even impossible in some ways, but it is a privilege to do and a challenge worth embracing.

>qualified to homeschool

>Homeschooling raises basic questions such as “why do we homeschool?” and “how does one homeschool?” But there is also the question, often coming from well meaning, and sometimes concerned, family and friends, “Are you qualified to educate your children?” This question raises a number of other questions, all of which are fueled by numerous assumptions and presuppositions. I want to try to answer the question because it is important to me and to my family, but I also want to try and give an answer because there are a lot of concerns among homeschooling parents as they worry about their “qualifications” and hope they are doing the right thing. Of course I am no expert (we are practicing teachers, like doctors practice medicine or lawyers practice law) and you may have better answers than I.

I want to split the answer into two broad categories: 1) What about being qualified to teach? and 2) What do the statistics say about homeschooling qualifications?

Neither my wife or I are qualified teachers in the eyes of many people. Though we are more educated than most people (our combined formal education includes three BAs, one MA, and an MBA) we do not hold a teaching certificate from any institution. It would not be uncommon for some to think that because we lack official, state sanctioned teaching credentials our abilities to teach our own kids are sorely limited at best and possibly dangerous at worst. Nothing could be further from the truth. I will add that this is true for the parent who has far more limited formal education than we. To be qualified to teach is something wholly other than a state sanctioned credential or even an accumulation of formal higher education.

Do not get me wrong, there are plenty of “official” teachers in my family and among my friends. I had plans myself to become a teacher and I think teaching is a noble profession wherever one teaches (except for places like the School of the Americas, but that’s another story). But someone holding a teacher’s certificate does not make them automatically or fully qualified to teach my child, nor does my not having said certificate disqualify me. Here are my reasons.

  • There is no one, other than my wife, who loves my children as much as I. Nor is there any who desires their well being as much, or an education for them as much. My wife and I have a unique perspective and passion for our children that no one else has. We know their nuances, their learning styles, their hearts. From the day they were born we have been committed to knowing and loving them. Have a teaching certificate does not instill a passion for teaching, and certainly not the level of passion and love I demand for anyone teaching my children. An educator who must carefully manage and teach 20+ students cannot offer the educational focus or specific academic goals that we can, even if they are passionate to teach. Of course, this does not mean I would never allow someone else to educate my children, just that a teaching certificate, or even 20 years of classroom experience, is a thin argument for saying a public school is a better educational choice than homeschooling.
  • In my experience the common educational goals found in most educational systems are below mine and my wife’s standards, whether they be reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, and all the rest. Schools, for the most part, also do not emphasize the arts as much as they should. We are not the kind of parents who seek to drive our children to educational extremes. We don’t want them to enter college at age 9 or receive their second PhD by age 17. We want our kids to grow up rather normally and at the right pace for healthy development, Regardless, many educational systems, and in particular public schools, tend to have lower achievement goals than we do. With our kids we don’t have to teach to the lowest common denominator. We also don’t have to focus on the slower learner and let the faster learner languish.
  • Developing an excellent curriculum is not impossible. There are innumerable resources for home educators to create wonderful, rich, and top-notch curricula. There are also good arguments for choosing some of these curricula over the standard fare found in many schools. We are fond of using the concept of the trivium as an overall guide, but there are others. And we adapt the trivium by including other ideas and constantly testing our choices through experience. We have also been greatly influence by the book The Well Trained Mind as a guide. The specifics of what books, programs, or exercises we use are too numerous to mention here. This means we are not tied to questionable top-down delivered federal or state programs, nor are we slaves to whatever is the latest method. We can change and adapt quickly, focusing more on the needs of our children than the needs of educational bureaucracies.
  • Implementing an excellent curriculum is not impossible. Many good ideas fail because of poor implementation. This is as true in education as is it in business. There is a mindset that sees the need to separate children from their parents and from their home environment in order to effectively implement educational curricula. There may be some wisdom in that, and for some children that might be best. However, we believe, and our experience tells us, that the home environment is highly suited to educating children. A “normal” day may appear less structured than one might find in a public school (no bells, no standing in line, no strict beginning and end of classes) but the integration of education with the rest of life is a better way to teach in our opinion. It is probably more likely that a homeschooled child will grow up with a more holistically integrated sense of learning as a part of life. Another benefit is the ability to move from one subject to another when it is most appropriate for the child. The “class” is over when the lesson is done, not when the bell rings. As we see it, a traditional classroom is not required and may, in fact, be a hindrance.
  • For many the idea of homeschooling does not fit into the common lives of many families where both parents work at full-time jobs and need a place for their children to be during the day. For many homeschooling families it is the wife/mother that does most of the teaching while the husband provides the primary source of income. This scenario just does not work for many women who love their careers and would go insane if they had to stay home all day with the kids even though they truly love their children dearly. (Note: Much homeschooling is actually done outside the home with other families and is not confined to literally staying at home.) But for many the homeschooling scenario is ideal. Some families, however, believe they need two incomes, and certainly some do, but a careful financial analysis often shows this not to be true. Adding up all the costs associated with having both parents working is an eye opener. Think of the costs of day care, dry cleaning, eating out, two cars, higher tax bracket, someone to clean the house and maybe do yard work. It adds up and can dramatically cut into the two incomes. Regardless, each family has to decide for themselves. For us it works, though we see it as an experiment year to year. Our willingness to “go for it” and make it work is another of our qualifications as teachers though it does not come with a signed and sealed certificate that says so.
  • Finally, some might say that all those reasons above may be fine and good, but you can’t deny that teachers are highly trained professionals. I have no reason to deny that. But I would say a couple of things. First, ask any teacher to compare their initial training with their experience and I would guess that hands down their experience trumps their training. Years in a classroom outweighs their official teaching credentials as far as making them truly qualified to teach. Second, we have all experienced the fact that the best teachers in life are often not professional teachers at all, but someone with a passion for the subject at hand, plus a passion that others understand that subject, and the desire to see the subject through another’s eyes. Thirdly, much of the professionalism of modern teachers has to do with things that are of little or no importance to homeschooling scenarios. Homeschooling does not have the same kinds of cultural and societal burdens as does public education. Homeschooling also tends not to be burdened with internal politics or socially cautious ecumenism.

You may have other reasons. I’m sure we do to, but I want to stop there. Of course some will still be skeptical. They might say all those reasons sound fine but let’s be honest. Traditional classroom education has been with us for a long time and is a proven method. Besides, with public education, they say, there is more accountability. Sure some schools might not be so hot, but overall it is still certainly better than a relatively untried and inconsistent homeschool education, right? Wrong. First of all homeschooling has been around for centuries whereas public education is a product of the industrial revolution. Homeschooling has been tried and tested long enough for us to know that prior to the industrial revolution history was largely made by homeschooled individuals, including virtually all of the great scientific, artistic, and social accomplishments that public school children study today. And even since the industrial revolution many individuals of noteworthy accomplishments were educated at home, including most U.S. presidents. Second, let’s look at some statistics that compare median standardized tests scores from public school students with homeschool students.

The following two tables come from a 1998 study comparing homeschool students scholastic achievements compared to both public and private school students. I hope these numbers address the question of whether, on average, homeschooling parents are qualified to teach their kids.

Median Scaled Scores (corresponding national percentile) by Subtest and Grade for Home School Students compared to publicly schooled children:

Grade N Composite Reading Language Math Soc. Stud. Science National
1 1504 170 (91) 174 (88) 166 (82) 164 (81) 166 (80) 164 (78) 150 (50)
2 2153 192 (90) 196 (89) 186 (80) 188 (85) 189 (81) 195 (86) 168 (50)
3 2876 207 (81) 210 (83) 195 (62) 204 (78) 205 (76) 214 (83) 185 (50)
4 2625 222 (76) 228 (83) 216 (67) 220 (76) 216 (68) 232 (81) 200 (50)
5 2564 243 (79) 244 (83) 237 (69) 238 (76) 236 (71) 260 (86) 214 (50)
6 2420 261 (81) 258 (82) 256 (73) 254 (76) 265 (81) 273 (84) 227 (50)
7 2087 276 (82) 277 (87) 276 (77) 272 (79) 276 (79) 282 (81) 239 (50)
8 1801 288 (81) 288 (86) 291 (79) 282 (76) 290 (79) 289 (78) 250 (50)
9 1164 292 (77) 294 (82) 297 (77) 281 (68) 297 (76) 292 (73) 260 (50)
10 775 310 (84) 314 (89) 318 (84) 294 (72) 318 (83) 310 (79) 268 (50)
11 317 310 (78) 312 (84) 322 (83) 296 (68) 318 (79) 314 (77) 275 (50)
12 66 326 (86) 328 (92) 332 (85) 300 (66) 334 (84) 331 (82) 280 (50)

Median Scaled Scores of Home School Students (Corresponding Catholic/Private School Percentile) by Subtest and Grade:

Grade Composite Reading Language Math Soc. Stud. Science
1 170 (89) 174 (86) 166 (80) 164 (80) 166 (73) 164 (75)
2 192 (88) 196 (84) 186 (74) 188 (81) 189 (81) 195 (85)
3 207 (74) 210 (74) 195 (55) 204 (71) 205 (69) 214 (80)
4 222 (72) 228 (72) 216 (58) 220 (69) 216 (56) 232 (76)
5 243 (71) 244 (72) 237 (60) 238 (68) 236 (60) 260 (82)
6 261 (71) 258 (71) 256 (58) 254 (65) 265 (72) 273 (77)
7 276 (72) 277 (77) 276 (63) 272 (70) 276 (68) 282 (73)
8 288 (72) 288 (75) 291 (65) 282 (68) 290 (68) 289 (67)
9 292 (63) 294 (70) 297 (61) 281 (56) 297 (63) 292 (59)
10 310 (71) 314 (81) 318 (71) 294 (57) 318 (72) 310 (66)
11 310 (63) 312 (72) 322 (69) 296 (56) 318 (67) 314 (63)
12 326 (74) 328 (81) 332 (71) 300 (53) 334 (74) 331 (72)

These statistics are from only one study, but a quick survey finds many similar kinds of examples. Given these numbers, one must conclude that in general homeschool students out perform public school and private school students in standardized tests in all subjects and in all grades. This is not to say that our children will out perform the median for public/private education, but if we want to base our decision to homeschool on some objective criteria these numbers are not bad.

In conclusion, we all have a number of prejudices that seem to us to be mere fact. One prejudice I run into is the belief that homeschooling is, at best, taking a big educational gamble with one’s kids. I hope it is clear this a prejudice and not factual. But prejudices aside, many who homeschool, or who are thinking about homeschooling, question their own abilities to do so. They are deeply concerned abut their kid’s education and want to make the right decision. The truth is there may be no right decision, just several decisions that all have validity with both upsides and downsides. We have chosen to homeschool our children because it fits our particular situation, goals, and values. Many of our friends choose public education, and some private. All things being equal there is no universal right answer, but there is no wrong answer either.

Final note: For those who are contemplating homeschooling their children, but who are concerned whether they are qualified to do so, or are feeling pressure from family or friends to choose a more traditional route, I want to say fear not. But I can’t say that entirely. Yes, you are qualified to homeschool, I am certain of that, but whatever educational choice you make for your kids is a big deal. A little fear is a good thing. The truth is, one should have the same fear whether the choice is to homeschool or to send your child off to the schoolbus each morning.

>homeschooling and the world

>There is a trend within the subculture of homeschooling* that is all about separation from society at large. This makes some sense. Homeschoolers are often defined, in part, as people who want to pull their children out of mainstream society and protect them from “the world.” Certainly not all homeschoolers are this way, and I hope we are not, but it has some appeal given the many troubles this world presents.

Recently we attended a Christian homeschooling conference. As you might imagine we saw all kinds of Christians, from the young hip couple with their cool glasses and lattes to the families with 6+ children all wearing 19th century prairie outfits. The conference had numerous speakers and work sessions. One of the keynote speakers struck me as the kind of homeschooler parent I don’t want to be. I don’t mean to be unduly harsh, and I only heard the one talk (or I should say over-the-top performing-preacher show), but I was encourage by his talk to more clearly define an aspect of why we homeschool and why some of our reasons stand in contradiction to his.

He began by lauding his father for taking his family to an island away from “the world” and homeschooling them. In other words, our keynote speaker was raised on an island cut off from the taint and spoilage of the wider world. He went on to say that that was a great thing and we should not be afraid to separate our children from the world on “islands” where they can be protected and safe. If you are like me you might be chafing at this idea, but it is not unwarranted, and I want to give the idea its due.

This world we live in full of may horrible things – war, famine, crime, and all kinds of ugliness. There are also many competing ideas that challenge one’s own beliefs. A Christian parent who is interested in their children knowing God as they know God may want to protect them from those competing ideas for as long as possible. The same goes for any parent who has a worldview to which they cling. I can understand the desire to keep one’s children away from the corrosive influence of the world. To do so feels like being responsible, and in some cases it certainly is. So I know where our keynote speaker is coming from. I know that feeling. But there is more to the picture.

The concept of “the world” is a big deal in Christian teaching. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world. John the Apostle said “Do not love the world nor the things in the world.” Paul the Apostle said “do not be conformed to this world.” There is a lot more to be said, and I do not intend to unpack the biblical concept of the world here, but most Christians know there is this thing called the world which they must avoid in some way. Christian homeschoolers might see pulling their kids out of public school as pulling them out of the world. Christian families who move to the country far from urban areas may believe they are removing themselves from the world in some fashion. Certainly to raise one’s family on an island would feel like the world is far away.

However, when John says “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world,” we see that the world is not so much a physical entity as it is a heart condition or a spirit. Also, when Jesus said, “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world,” it appears his intention was not fleeing the world but to bring it light. Elsewhere in scripture Christ followers are called to be light in the world and salt of the earth. And when we read that “God so loved the world that he gave us His son,” we get the idea that our stance towards the world may not be so simple. We may not be able to separate ourselves from the world as easily as we think for “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” comes with us wherever we go, even to an island. Also, we cannot be light or salt to the world if we decide to have nothing to do with the world. And we certainly cannot love the world as God loves the world if our stance is to flee the world which, as we have seen, may not be so easy anyway.

At that homeschoolers conference it became clear that the world could be seen most clearly in such things as 1) cities, 2) public schools, 3) government, and 4) anything other than far right politics. If one didn’t know better one could conclude that homeschooling is all about 1) getting out of the city to the country – a kind of “back to the garden” idea, 2) avoiding any kind of public education, including any education or activities that has public monies attached to it, such as a city funded soccer league, 3) having nothing to do with government or public service unless it is to defend against liberals who want to impose laws on homeschooling, and 4) assuming a political stance and championing the values of such organizations as the Christian Coalition. I may be taking a somewhat extreme critical view here, but I don’t think so. This is what I see coming from much of the Christian homeschool subculture and from our keynote speaker. But those are not our reasons.

One of the great blessings of Christian truth is the incredible freedom we have. As we love God and His values we find ourselves marveling at this world He created. This world of His includes all that we find, including the incredible variety of humanity and human creativity. We might and should grieve at the evil we see in the world, but we should also love the world. We should love the cities and the arts and the culture and the governments. Wisdom dictates that we do not love folly or evil or rebellion against God. On the other hand this world is full of God’s creative work, it is His sovereignty manifest in all things everywhere, and this world is full of the people He loves – which includes all people. We have the freedom to engage in this world head on. We also have the opportunity to be light and salt. This opportunity is a great privilege. As a parent I can chose to model light and salt, or I can model the act of withdrawal.

Another great blessing is that because I know God is sovereign I can engage in this world without fear. I can live in the city or in the country, work in private business, ministry, government, or public schools, listen to Christian or secular music, visit art galleries and museums, watch popular movies, and even drink, smoke, play cards and cuss, without fear. If Jesus is my example then I can eat dinner with the most worldly people. If Paul’s theology is correct then I can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Wisdom will dictate that I consider the weaker brother (and I too am a weaker brother), so I may chose not to do some of these things at times, but there is no need for fear. But I must say that having no fear is not the same as not being scared. A man may say he is not scared of the world, and that may be true, but he may still live in fear of the world. To take one’s family away from the world and live on an island because the world is a bad place is to live in fear of the world.

There is another kind of separation – the separation through ideology and stereotypes. On our keynote speaker’s website promoting his daily radio program he touts the following: “There are no psychiatrists, professional counsellors, bureaucrats, and seminary professors. But you will find fathers, mothers, grandparents, pastors, and friends.” Other than spelling counselors wrong this quote says a lot. There is an attitude within some quarters of Christianity that sees psychiatrists, professional counselors, bureaucrats, and seminary professors – along with scientists, social workers, and anyone from Hollywood – as being other than fathers, mothers, grandparents, pastors, and friends. Not only is this a wrongly prejudiced perspective more indicative of a passionate narrow mindedness than of wisdom, it is also a perspective indicative of fear. There has always been a class of persons who claim victim status though they are not victims in a meaningful sense. This class is also easily manipulated by those who point to the educated, or those in government, or big city dwellers, or those in the entertainment industry, as the victimizers. Some politicians can be quite good at doing this, and so are many preachers. Our keynote speaker not only claims the victim status but uses his talents to fan the flames of fear. Fear thrives in the world of stereotypes. And just like the religious leader who prays to God, thanking God that he is not like other people, we can all fall prey to a profound blindness. What we see in Jesus is someone hanging out with the sinners. We see someone not only reaching out to everyone, but doing so without fear, and not drawing lines between himself and the rest of humanity. And, ironically, it is the religious leaders – the upstanding citizens, moral agents, family lovers, Bible teachers – who criticized Jesus for just such activities.

Where does this leave us? Our confusion, like so much in Christianity, is to make the wrong distinctions and then fall into the pit of religion and self-righteousness. We confuse the world with superficial distinctions as “psychiatrists, professional counselors, bureaucrats, and seminary professors” rather than with a heart rooted in “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.” The world, in this bad sense, is as much alive in Christianity as it is anywhere else. When it comes to worldliness there is no distinction between the Hollywood movie star and the megachurch pastor. In fact we bring the world with us where ever we go – wherever there is humanity. Only through the grace of God do we have any hope to be free of the world – and that freedom can come to a professional counselor/psychiatrist working for a government agency while moonlighting at a seminary and living downtown in the biggest city as it can come to the man barricading his family against the evils of the world in some distant wilderness. Grace be to God for our hope and freedom.

But what about my charge as a parent? It is one thing to be an adult confronting the ugliness of this world, it is another for a child. As a parent I must protect my children when appropriate. I must also guide them in wisdom. I would rather my children face into the harshness of reality, guided by my example, sometimes stumbling and struggling, but learning to see themselves for who they truly are and learning to love others where they are. I also want my children to grow up without fear. If we can walk through this life together, confronting the variety of human experience and choice, and do so hand in hand, I think my children might have a decent chance of knowing good from evil, of learning humbleness, of appreciating all that God has created, and learning that goodness comes not so much from trying to avoid the stain of the world as turning to God in genuine repentance. We have come to realize that fleeing the world and taking one’s family to an island, even if those actions are clothed in the finest Christian robes of piety, could very well be an act of rebellion against God. Not necessarily, but could be.

This is one reason we homeschool, and we do so within a city context, and we listen to all kinds of music and study all kinds of art, and we are interested in politics beyond narrow “Christian” agendas, and we appreciate MLK and Gandhi, and we appreciate revised histories when they offer clarity and truth, and we don’t believe one can homeschool true faith into any child. And we also don’t think we’ve got it all right. All we can do is move forward in humbleness (which itself is a gift), looking to God for grace and mercy, and seeking goodness the best we can.

* Like many different elements of our society, homeschoolers represent a kind of subculture. However, it would be incorrect to think of it as a single or homogeneous subculture. At best it is a subculture of subcultures, and may be better described as an eclectic group of families that have a rather unique similarity regardless, and sometimes in spite, of their many dissimilarities.

>we homeschool

>We homeschool our kids. I have not written much about it here, but it is a big deal to us and part of the very fabric of our family. It is not easy. It takes a lot of work, most of which falls on my wife’s shoulders. I have been realizing more and more that I need to sort through my thoughts on homeschooling, why we made the choice, and what it means to us.

There may be as many different reasons to homeschool as there are families who homeschool. But I would hazard a guess that most families who homeschool do so for many of the same reasons. They want their kids to be better educated, better socialized, safer, more well-rounded, and closer to the family. There has been a deeply rooted idea is Western culture, from Plato to Rousseau to Marx and onwards, that the best way to educate children is to get the parents out of the picture as soon (and as much) as possible. This idea is rooted in the other idea that the individual is primarily beholden to the state, especially within ideologies where the state is elevated as the primary social group. Homeschoolers tend to take exception to both of these ideas and go in a different direction. And yet, probably most homeschoolers do not choose to homeschool because they take exception to such ideologies, rather they homeschool because they see their local public education, and much private education, to be less than what they want for their children. This is not to say public or private education is always wrong – I am a product of both – but that public and private education is often a lesser education rife with conflicting issues, stultifying bureaucratic “requirements”, unnecessary compromises, and various dangers on many levels. We know that children are natural learners. That a student becomes educated within traditionally and culturally accepted environments (public and most private schools) is often in spite of those environments as much or more than because of them. That was very much true for me and, in fact, I had a lot of catching up to do. Only because I am a little obsessed with constant learning in my own life have I managed to become an educated adult and make up for much of my elementary and secondary education. But I am still behind where I should be.

And yet homeschooling is not all about academics. There is probably no more important element of becoming an educated person as that of one’s character. In public schools one learns basic character traits as standing in line without pushing, or not hitting other students, or not stealing, or how to stay awake in class, or how to take standardized tests. Of course, mostly one learns that to behave well is all about “getting along.” The goal is to follow the rules and to avoid anarchy. This is driven, in large part, by the needs of the teachers who must maintain order in classrooms with too many children. Cooperation, as we are told from Sesame Street and reinforced in public school, is the highest good. Goodness, as an end in itself, is not the focus of public school character development. Nor is much directed character development possible at all. In our local school district the ratio of students to teachers is 20+ to 1. There is no way that a teacher, no matter how “qualified” can truly develop and nurture the individual characters of 20+ students. In fact they can barely teach them. Certainly they cannot uniquely customize their instruction to the unique needs of each individual child. But that is exactly what homeschooling does do. Our kids get teachers who truly know them, who love them, will even lay down their lives for them. There are many excellent teachers in public and private schools (and know that I am a supporter of public education both in principle and with my tax dollars), but none know or love my children the way I do.

In short, we believe that we can give our kids a better education because we can customize the education for each child uniquely, tailoring our teaching to their learning styles and capabilities. We can give our kids a better education because we can better focus on their individual characters and help them grow into the kind of people they were made to be. And we can better educate our children because we are deeply committed to them for who they are – we love them like none other can.

I will write more here on why we homeschool and what it means to us in the future, but I am still sorting out my thoughts. I also realize there are many stereotypes about homeschooling and the strange people who make such choices. I will address some of that too. And I want to examine the idea of being “qualified” to teach and why we think we are qualified. But know this, homeschooling is no formula for success. We take each year, even each day to some degree, as an experiment. It is working so far, but who knows what the future will bring.

>Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey

>For forty years David Harvey has been teaching Karl Marx’s Das Capital. Recently his 13 part (two hours each) lecture series has been made available through iTunes. [Go to iTunes/iTunes Store and search for either “Reading Marx’s Capital” or “David Harvey.” You can choose either the video version or the audio only version.]

Harvey’s goal is to truly understand what Marx was saying rather than preach some standard line about Marx. He is a fan of Marx and so one could label him a Marxist, but his studies often end up undercutting the popular myths about Marx. As one would expect, that undercutting is one of the benefits of a close reading.

The first 5 or 6 of the lectures are also available on Google video. Here’s #1:

>opera, more opera, and choices worth making


If you are like me then your knowledge of opera is largely limited to a few Looney Tunes cartoons (Long-Haired Hare & Rabbit of Seville). I think that’s a bad thing, though I love those cartoons. Recently we got a CD of songs from various operas, sung in English, and geared towards kids – though adults will enjoy them as well. We have been listening to these songs in the car and the girls love them. Our two year old shouts out after each song, “again!”

With this in mind I have checked out some operas on DVD from the library and we just finished The Barber of Seville. We loved it. This is the 1982 version made for television and starring John Rawnsley as Figaro and Maria Ewing as Rosina.

Figaro will help Rosina

I was not sure how the kids would take to watching an Italian opera, first performed almost two hundred years ago, now made for 1982 television, with English subtitles, and more than 2.5 hours long. To my surprise and joy they were enraptured. Even our two year old would sit and watch it (sometimes transfixed), then clap at the end of each song. My eight year old watched intently and did not want to spread the viewing over three nights – which we did due to bedtimes.

What a great show. There is no need for me to go into the plot, or say how good the music is, or describe the performances. All that is well known and I am not yet knowledgeable enough to say much, except to say I think it is all really, really good. I can also say that I loved it and so did my family.

Everybody sings: Mi par d’esser con la testa
in un’orrida fucina
“My head seems to be
in a fiery smithy”

I can’t think of anything like opera. I am beginning to see why some people become smitten with opera. I think I could go down that path as well. But it was not always the case. Like most Americans I grew up absorbing our typical dislike of opera. It’s not that we Americans hate opera, though some do. It’s more that we (I mean most Americans of course) think it is funny and corny, something to make fun of and lambaste. It’s good for cartoons and occasionally setting the mood in a film, but not for putting on the car stereo or playing on the radio by the pool, or taking the time to go and see a performance. But for me that is changing.

Figaro has triumphed

The triumph of Figaro is my triumph too. By the end of The Barber of Seville I was thinking that more opera is in my future – and my kid’s future.

Years ago I saw a stage production of Bizet’s Carmen, which I loved. I don’t know why or how I got to the the theater. I only remember the music and the sets, which were wonderful. I had the same experience with Puccini’s La bohème. Why I did not see more opera’s I do not know. More recently I posted briefly on watching Das Rheingold on DVD. We still haven’t made it through that one. I realize now I need to see more opera’s more often.

Finally a note on parenting and some choices worth making. My desire is that my kids grow up loving good art, whatever the form or genre. I hope they love opera. At least they will have had some introduction to it. But whether they love opera or not is not really my concern. I am often taken aback by how many parents limit their kids knowledge and appreciation of art merely because those parents have limited themselves. Parents should continue to expand their own horizons, even get out of their comfort zone, not merely for their own pleasure and personal growth, but also because it will expand their children’s horizons as well. Kids are very attuned to what their parents are doing. So often when we don’t choose the choice is made for us. There are plenty of mediocre cultural products lying around for easy consumption. If we don’t make good choices about the art in our lives then our culture will supply us with mediocrity. That is, unfortunately, the default setting. As a parent I want my kids to know that there are great choices out there and that those choices are worth making – whether it’s about opera or anything else.