The Undecided Homeschooler


Through the cobbled streets of my childhood hometown there often rode a father and daughter on a tandem bicycle. The pair were famous in Oxford and throughout England, generally. The little girl, Ruth Lawrence, had earned a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and now was completing her second undergraduate degree, in Oxford’s physics department.

At a time when an Oxbridge entrance exam score of 100 guaranteed admission to the math program – the exam went on virtually forever, so there was no maximum score – Ruth broke the record with over 400 points. She was 11 years old at the time, and entirely home schooled.

It’s a choice parents are making in droves now, but home education means something different to everyone, it seems. To the unschoolers, who believe in child-guided natural learning, it means protecting their little ones from the ghastly sight of a single textbook. To the fundamentalist Christian faction, it can mean an upbringing free of sexual education and Darwin’s heretical fabrications. High performance athletes and isolated rural kids often work through a traditional canned curriculum by correspondence.

By the time I knew of Ruth Lawrence, the prodigy ship had long since sailed from my own harbour, if indeed it ever docked there. My envy centred instead on her opportunity to study for long hours at her own pace. I often wished I could work through textbooks, ask questions as I went, and be handed another when I was finished. So when it came to parenting in a region where a high school diploma confers a solid elementary school education, I seriously considered the home tutoring route.

The research on socialization is quite convincing – homeschooled children are no less socially skilled than their peers, despite the stereotypes. I was wary, though, of hothousing – the tendency to push training too far, to replace a real childhood with the vice grip of ambition.

I looked up Ruth Lawrence, the math and physics genius of my childhood. It turns out that she went on to have a lackluster academic career but found her own way in a personal sense. She made no major breakthroughs in her field. At age 27, Ruth fled the clutches of her overbonded paternal relationship – her father had quit his job to work full-time on her education – into the arms of her 57 year-old mathematician husband.

She converted to Orthodox Judaism and took a non tenure-track position at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she remains an Associate Professor. The couple will not be home schooling their two sons.



Images: Wikimedia Commons, University of Wolverhampton Annual Review

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6 thoughts on “The Undecided Homeschooler

  1. That was really derogatory toward unschoolers. I’m not one, but those I knew were doing interesting activities and the kids were delightful. I’m pretty sure that the most hard-working teenager I know today unschooled most of his life.

  2. I’m reading it over and I’m surprised you picked that up, but I should say I didn’t intend to derogate unschoolers at all. I’m sure it’s an oversimplification to identify them only by their child-directedness and aversion to textbooks, but I do agree with you that it’s probably the least likely of the methods to kill curiosity and thus the best way to nurture intrinsic motivation.

    Needless to say, somebody like Lawrence was the opposite of unschooled.

  3. I’m completely with you on this point: “So when it came to parenting in a region where a high school diploma confers a solid elementary school education, I seriously considered the home tutoring route.”

    Though, I think it’s more wide-spread than most people would like to think. I don’t have the patience or inclination to home school/unschool but I’m certainly concerned that the current education system is more about warehousing/daycare than teaching basic skills. I also think the amount of homework kids seem to get is absurd. You’d think 6-8 hours a day would be enough time to teach the fundamentals.

  4. Just curious about Ruth Lawrence — when you say you looked her up, does that mean you gave her a call? Or looked her up online? I interviewed her back in 2000 for a big story I wrote about whether mathematicians hit their prime early. I didn’t have the impression then that she lost curiosity or motivation, or stopped being interested in mathematics, which I think is what you are implying.

  5. What a thoughtful post – and an important question. I’ve noticed people have really strong feelings about home schooling, and although I read the post as a pretty neutral one, I can see how assumptions about academic or personal success play a huge role (for example, is it “better” for brilliant but not particularly motivated or competitive children to be able to opt out of being “prodigies”?) I’m not a parent, so I won’t pretend to know the answer. :)

    But re: “parenting in a region where a high school diploma confers a solid elementary school education,” I hear you. When I got to college I was a year or more behind everyone else in all my subjects. For example, I hadn’t had any calculus; I’d had almost no trig. I’d been tracked out of advanced math thanks to a sexist a-hole teacher (fun story!); my little high school only offered calc every other year anyway. Sigh.

    Anyway, I’ve often gnashed my teeth in frustration about opportunities lost in high school. But on the other hand, I got all of that out of my system in college, catching up from behind in all my subjects, and I have two graduate degrees. So I don’t think a lackluster high school education necessarily puts you behind — as long as you’re not then thrown into an environment you can’t handle. Judging by the stories of Ivy League friends and family, I wouldn’t have thrived at Harvard, etc. – the courses weren’t harder than mine, but the environment was much less supportive. I wasn’t in office hours often, but I needed professors who could accept that I’d never been exposed to fundamentals in their fields, accept that I had the capacity to catch up, and pragmatically tell me what resources I needed to go do that. I needed classmates who weren’t hypercompetitive. I needed a constructive, supportive space to figure out how to “study.” (I never had).

    We’re all different, but I’m glad I wasn’t homeschooled. A little frustration about not getting access to enough information, fast enough, just made me more intellectually curious. I’m pretty sure I’d have burned out before 23 if I hadn’t been held back a little, and it would not have been good for my family relationships. That’s not to say homeschooling is bad – but if you don’t think it’s right for you or your child, it definitely doesn’t mean you’re sabotaging their chances.

  6. My son goes to a private school that is … quirky. (Also terrific and I love it.) Many of his friends are home-schooled, some went to the mainstream public school, and then, of course, he has friends who have shared his private school experience. The most interesting difference I see between home-schooled kids at high school age and the other kids is that the home-schoolers are almost shockingly independent and self-motivated. The level to which the 16 year olds have internalized the idea that their lives are their responsibility is … well, sort of scary to the kind of mom who has shelled out thousands of dollars every year for an idealistic education. They’re so pragmatic. I suspect it’s probably the right preparation for adulthood and yet, I sort of want my boy to still have a romantic sense of caring about knowledge for the value of knowledge. That said, the public school kids are focused on the score for the sake of the test for the sake of the achievement for the sake of the next step — I’m not even sure they see the connection between what they’re doing today and what they need tomorrow, they’re more like little white rats in a machine that gives pellets for pressing the right button. At going into 11th grade, I’m still happy with my private school choice, but I definitely would pick home-school over mainstream public.

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