Home Schooling book review: Catholic Home Schooling Part 1

Several readers have recommended this book by Mary Kay Clark, the director of Seton Home Study: Catholic Home Schooling: A Handbook for Parents Even though I was skeptical about this book, because from what I know of Seton Home Study it is really not my thing, I decided to get it from the library (have I mentioned how much I love the interlibrary loan program here in Massachusetts?) to check it out for myself.

I haven’t finished the book but here are my first thoughts.

What I have read so far is primarily an apologetic for home schooling: what does the Church teach, what does the Bible say, why is is socially and academically sound, etc. Which is all well done (though I prefer Hahn and Hasson’s lighter approach) but I am already convinced and thus much more interested in the hows than in the whys.

So on to the how. So far the book confirms what I’d gathered previously from talking to people about Seton, reading about Seton and a perusal of Seton’s website. I basically disagree with their philosophy of education which seems to boil down to Catholicizing the curriculum currently used in public and Catholic schools by rewriting textbooks to be explicitly Catholic. (Anybody who uses Seton and who thinks my hasty assesment—admittedly I haven’t actually paged through any of their materials—is wrongheaded is welcome to enlighten me. I don’t mind being told that I’m wrong.)

The chapter “What is Catholic Home Schooling” describes this approach: “A Catholic curriculum is one in which every subject taught is permeated with the truths of the Catholic Faith. A Catholic curriculum is not a standard curriculum that simply includes a religion class. Every class is to incorporate Christ’s teachings.”

Now I have a problem not so much with the idea that Christ should be the foundation of all we do, but in the means by which Seton attempts to accomplish this goal.

For example, she discusses word problems in math being used to make the math experience a Catholic one: “In school students are given math word problems so that they may learn to apply concepts to real life situations. In the secular texts, the real-life situations involve classroom or school situations and kids doing things together, often without family memebers. In the Catholic home schooling families, the real-life situations involve visiting shrines as a family, going to Mass, playing with other homeschoolers, enjoying family activities, field trips with home school support groups, and picketing abortion clinics. Consequently our aim is to produce a math series reflecting the real-life situations of a Catholic home schooling family… Problems relate to gas milage on the way to a rosary rally, or measuring the floor width at the parish church”

I guess what bugs me about that it seems forced and over-the-top, a reaction against the secularism of our age. A pendulum that swings too far in the other direction. It is like a caricature: everything in life must be viewed through the prism of going to church, of the trapping of Catholicism. The insistence that being Catholic means you have to deliberately ghettoize yourself and wear your Catholicism on your sleeve.

The first imaginary home schooling situations involving math that occur to me would be going to the grocery store to buy food for dinner, using measurements to follow a recipe, for sewing a quilt, caluclating how far one swam doing laps in the pool etc. Why measuring the width of the church rather than of the baby’s room? Not that there’s anything wrong with church-related and home-schooling-related word problems, but it seems as if the curriculm is insisting that’s the only thing there is in life. If you are a Catholic home schooler then you must make that the only focus of your daily life. This seems to reinforce the negative stereotypes about homeschooling as being fundamentalist and closed-minded and producing children who can’t relate to the wider world around them. 

Certainly, I believe God should be the pivot around which life turns. I think you should punctuate the day with prayer, spend time each day on the bible and catechism and lives of the saints. And I’m not really opposed to working faith issues into the curriculum where they naturally fit. But that’s the thing: naturally. Does it naturally fit to include information about the Eucharistic miracle at Lanciano into a biology chapter on the heart and blood? I agree that schools have to some degree articficially compartmentalized knowledge, but I think one can go too far in trying to compensate and artifically confuse different disciplines as well. 

This is why I like Laura Berquist’s apporach of a classical model. Rather than aping the secular model of textbooks for all the subjects—which are either the secular ones which have been artificially wiped of all mention of faith or the religious ones which artificially insert it everywhere—she advocates a more hands-on, primary source approach. Rather relying than a history text like Seton’s, which Clark explains has been re-written to emphasize Catholic leaders in the Americas, Berquist has students read a chapter from a textbook as background information and then explore a period in depth by reading biographies and other primary sources. The parent can then contextualize faith appropriately. Berquist suggests teaching the subjects in parallel so that, as much as is reasonable, you cover the same period in history, literature, science, religion, art, etc. But it seems less forced, more natural.

Clark never questions whether textbooks are the most effective tools for education or whether is makes sense for a homeschooling curriculum to model itself on an institutional curriculum.

When she discusses the possibility of parents not using a program Clark says, “your first major objective will be to find Catholic textbooks.”

In her rundown of Catholic resources on the market she seems to dismiss exactly the kind of approach that Berquist advocates: “The old Vision books, a series of saint’s biographies…. are good reading for book reports. Nevertheless, it would take a mother a good deal of time to use something like this for vocabulary development, reading comprehension, and analytical thinking skills, skills which should be included in a good educational curriculum.” Of course, I am not familiar with the series to which she refers; but I wonder at her take on vocabulary development and reading comprehension. I never got much out of the kind of workbook exercises that were meant to improve my vocabulary. Instead, I was a voracious bookworm and read constantly. I have always had an extensive vocabulary.

Now, I am not completely dismissing the value of traditional vocabulary building methods. For one, they did force me to learn dictionary definitions rather than only contextual understanding of words. Also, I learned formal critical thinking like analogies, synonyms, antonyms, etc. And I know not all children learn as I did and that different methods suit different learning styles. But neither do I think it as difficult to use other kinds of materials to build these skills. They can be learned quite successfully if a parent is involved in their child’s reading, encourages making lists of unfamiliar words and dictionay work, asks a child to narrate or retell what they have read and asks the child questions that make them think about the reading.

Certainly throwing out the textbooks will take more time and effort than simply following a pre-made curriculum. But I believe that edcation is more about learning how to learn than being stuffed with facts and information. And thus I look forward to the journey of exploration as I learn how to teach my children, each of them different, each with a unique style, unique needs, a different way of perceiving this grand universe that God has made. I look forward to learning to see with their eyes, touch with their hands, and hear with their ears the wonderful everlasting newness of things. I want my children’s education to be a voyage into the known and unknown alike, with my hand firm on the rudder but ready to veer into unexpected coves and discover new, unforeseen and unforeseeable lands. And, knowing for certain that there will be storms, there will probably even be rocks and shoals and wrecks, but I also know for certain the star by which we shall steer and even if it be temporarily obscured by clouds, I know it never sets and I trust that it will see us all safe to that final shore.

So yes, I am willing to throw away charts and maps that have proven themselves to be of dubious quality, I am willing to strike out into more dangerous territory because though the risks are greater, perhaps, so too might be the rewards.

2 Responses to Home Schooling book review: Catholic Home Schooling Part 1

  1. mama_nerd March 28, 2006 at 8:33 am #

    beautifully stated….

    It is a trap that’s easy to fall into…. comparing one’s own spiritual process to others…. but He always brings me back to what HE wants for ME…. not what was popular/prevalent in other people or other times. It involves constant prayer, reading and reflection… a lifelong process that is different for each person.

  2. Melanie Bettinelli April 14, 2006 at 9:37 am #

    I just discovered that I’ve been linked to! In a great response here  by Wimsey at All Else Confusion. Go read what she has to say.

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