“But Mom, how do you know I’m learning?”

This was a frequent query to my poor mother during her tenure homeschooling me. As a type A, achievement oriented child, I was exasperated with my mother’s refusal to do homeschooling like other people. While my friends systematically worked their way through Abeka, PACE, and Bob Jones curriculums, acing neat little quizzes, checking satisfying lists, and reciting useful facts which warmed the cockles check-list-checker heart, I was given piles of historical fiction, Romantic poetry, National Geographic special issues, and assigned creative projects, discussion with my querulous older brothers, and never ending essays. My mother refused to use text-books for history, literature, and science.

As a child I assumed it was negligent. As an adult, and an educator myself, I know it to be wise.

As she writes in her upcoming book Awaking Wonder, my mother did not aim to fill my mind with facts and tick off educational boxes, but to give me tools to mine my curiosity, to expose me to the best and beautiful ideas, authors, and art work, and to awaken a passionate sense of wonder and love of learning which has never yet died out. She believed these virtues would not be inculcated if my primary education was derived from textbooks instead of “real books.”

For our family, education was not merely an activity one participated to get a good job, or a necessary hurdle to jump on the way to adulthood, but a way of life, intimately tied to our life of faith: loving God with our minds as well as our hearts and souls. And the fruit of that educational vision has been sweet in my life. Having nearly finished a Phd well before the age of thirty, I cannot reasonably claim that I was educationally deprived.

In the education I received I was not only academically empowered, but also protected from some dangers of which my parents probably weren’t even aware. Over the past years, curriculums like Abeka have come under fire for what some people have described as biased, inadequate, inaccurate presentations of science and history.

Privately, some friends have expressed to me a long journey of un-learning some of the prejudices formed in them by the textbooks with which they were educated. Slowly realizing that they were indoctrinated rather than educated on various subjects, some are haunted by a kind of epistemological wounding, a suspicion of how to know and who to trust when it comes to reliable sources of knowledge. Of course, not all experiences with curriculum are so drastic. There are moments of real beauty in these texts, students read other books, and in the end a balanced view of the world may still be the result. But even this seems to reinforce the need for a prismatic approach to education; only by drawing on many sources, do we attain a clear view of the world.

In her excellent presentation “The Danger of a Single Story” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses her journey to discovering her literary voice as a Nigerian novelist raised primarily on British literature. Despite being Nigerian, eating mangos, and enjoying the West African sun, she wrote her first stories about white children drinking ginger beer and playing in the snow. This initial inability to imagine her own experience as being worthy of literary encapsulation reflects what she describes as the danger of the single story; of any imagination shaped by one voice, or one kind of voice, so that all other perspectives are erased or not considered. She writes that the danger of a single story “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” To her, the solution is not to censor literature until we have discovered the one true story (for this is a kind of ideological totalitarianism), but to tell, read, and love a more diverse corpus of stories, to help readers see reality through a prism, not a pane.

When I think of my own education, I count it successful not because my parents were perfectly informed about every historical, scientific, and literary nuance (who could ever hope to be?), but because they emphasized critical, wide, and open hearted reading. While the “correct” view of various topics is a moving target, they equipped me with the tools of intellectual empathy and critical thinking to get at the complexity of history, theology, science. They gave me a prism of stories with which to understand the world, not merely a pane.

Here, I think, is the danger of textbooks, and the gift of an education based in primary literature.

In a textbook, we approach a topic as something which can be reduced to a simpler form, and reproduced as facts which can be learned and repeated on a test. We read lessons, alert to the salient facts we must memorise, important figures, searching for the point we must apprehend. While this promotes a certain kind of intellectual attentiveness, it tends to atrophy the muscle of critical thinking. It implies that what (or who) we are reading “knows” the answer about history or literature or science, and that we are meant merely to absorb and articulate it. Even with the best of intentions, and the best of authors, it seems to me dangerous to trust the entirety of any one subject to one author. Such an approach trains us to be vulnerable to single stories.

Primary texts are different. In a primary text, we are more aware of the contextual and conditional nature of each book. We needn’t trust it entirely, nor doubt it completely. Because primary texts are not usually written for contemporary audiences in American education, we are invited to think about the intended audience; what was their world like? What were they concerned about? What did they assume was true? This both inculcates a more active and critical attitude in the student, but also protects them from any propagandist view of history, literature, and even science. It is one of many stories that help us piece together a faithful view of the world.

As many parents find themselves facing difficult questions about how or where to educate their children, I feel both an excitement and an urgency. Excitement because of all the possibilities that upheaval makes possible. Urgency because I don’t want the moment to be lost. If I could, I would tell every parent: put down the textbook, the quiz, the age-graded material. If you do nothing else with your children this year, read, read, read. Read widely and diversely. Read above your child’s “age-group.” Ask them what they think about the books they read, what they loved, what scared them, where it made them want to go. Do not confine them to the small world of a single story. Give them the gift of a prism, not a pane. Give them the gift of a bigger story.

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Posted by Joy Clarkson

Joy Clarkson is a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of St Andrews on the sparkling coast of the North Sea. She researches the role of art in moral formation, loves Yorkshire Gold, and hosts Speaking with Joy, a podcast about culture, art, and theology.

  • Fernando

    As a mathematician I can’t help but wonder how mathematics was handled. The primary texts are very hard. Did you use them?

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  • Pam

    This is such a wonderful post. I homeschooled my kids in much the same way your parents did, and I came about that method initially because of the Sonlight curriculum. It was a literature based curriculum, and the literature was excellent. It was a Christian curriculum, but in a different way than the other Christian curricula out there. I read aloud to my kids from real books, and my kids read from real books. My daughter learned almost all of her history by reading historical fiction. Later, even when we were no longer using the Sonlight curriculum, we still used mostly real books. I think textbooks are seen as necessary in a traditional classroom, for efficiency I guess. In a homeschool setting, I always thought textbooks were inadequate, or at least really, really unnecessary. The one exception to all of this was math. We used textbooks for that, but we still did multiplication, division, and fractions with m&ms. Well, and baking. :)