Toward the Greenhouse: Reflections on Analogies for Schooling

8 Aug 2012

I enjoy a good analogy—the comparison between two things for the purpose of clarification. My mind starts to rattle and spin like a dervish when word pictures or stories are employed to better explain complex ideas. Analogies are especially useful for thinking about the whole of human existence and our relationship to God and to others. I have been reminded of the power of analogies and their limits recently in my involvement with NCHE. As education VP, I’m responsible for NCHE’s educational publications, including the Greenhouse Report. In the last year, I’ve encountered several individuals who said they did not understand the title. It’s an analogy for education, and I think it is a good one. One way to understand its value is to understand how difficult it is to find a good analogy, and more important, what a good or bad analogy can do. Because of my duties during the NCHE conference, I did not get to attend many talks. I did, however, get to attend one talk that really got me thinking. The speaker did a good job of explicating the Christian view of living in and for the Kingdom of God, which sees heaven and earth as the now and future dwelling place of the redeemed. He reminded the audience that homeschoolers have often been accused of shielding their children too comprehensively, of retreating from reality. He rightly rejected this view, offering instead the growing view that home educators “launch” their children into the world. The speaker left the audience with several candid questions: Do your educational practices, your homeschooling, reflect this worldview? What does the language you use to describe your educational practices and the educational practices of others communicate? These are important questions, but difficult to answer. Education is very complex. Analogies can be a useful way to talk about the practices of learning and teaching, of schooling. It is important to remember, however, that while analogies can be powerful tools, they can also be over-extended and thereby start to warp our view of things. We must reflect on the power of our words and the limits of the analogies we employ. We must be willing to acknowledge when our understanding, in the form of an analogy, fails to illuminate the worldview we confess. We are prone to deceive ourselves. Reflecting on the analogies we employ to talk about homeschooling and contrast it with other educational practices can give insight into our views. My own view is that analogies more often than not fail us when used to critique. Instead we should reserve them for casting a positive vision.

Many educational reformers, including homeschooling advocates, have employed analogical rhetoric in which the stakes of schooling are very high. Freedom is idealized in modern Western civilization, and anything less is considered tyrannical. Many analogies employed are radically critical of authority and structure. Schools are said to be factories or warehouses where students are not treated as persons but are rather dehumanized and become like cookie-cutter widgets. Conformity is the goal. Another popular analogy is equating school with prison. Student movement is heavily restricted. All interaction with others and the media is dictated. One must abide by the rules, or else. Recently, I read an article that described schools as forced ghettos, characterized by overcrowding which produce an unhealthy competitiveness for limited resources. Ironically, this article was written by a teacher.

These analogies contain a hint of insight into the reality of many educational practices today. But they also fail at many points. Intuitively, we know that not all structure is bad; good structure supports flourishing. A world without proper authority and submission would be chaotic. I think most parents are sensitive to this truth. A student needs structure, and school, that is the web of relationship between teacher, parent, student and curriculum, is educational structure. Someone with authority must make decisions and plans and carry them out. What is often at issue is the authority of parents, especially parents with religious commitments. Parents have been made second-class citizens in the conversation about educational structure. It has been assumed that because an adult has not gone through some specialized training, he or she has little to offer to a child, let alone to a professional teacher. The prison analogy was popularized by John Holt (1923-1985), a celebrated advocate for a radically de-structured alternative he called “unschooling.” But the issue is not the presence or absence of structure, but the type of structure. Many educational practices today arose out of the modern, scientific dream of a neutral method that would efficiently guarantee results. These analogies are valuable in describing the one-size-fits-all, secular worldview that is materialistic and reduces the human experience to a gross determinism, as if the universe was a mechanical factory. That worldview fears and undermines will, and therefore, wrongly asserts control over every aspect of life. Many educational theorists are becoming increasingly critical of modernization, arguing that efficiency and stewardship are not the same thing. Increasingly teachers find themselves at odds with administrators agreeing with parents that our institutions are in need of radical reform. Since modern educational practices are a reflection of a broken worldview, these critical analogies are more appropriately applied to an oppressive worldview.

Unfortunately, the factory, prison and ghetto analogies are often over-stretched, and they offer the temptation to demonize genuinely service-oriented people. If schools are factories, prisons or ghettos, are teachers then floor-managers, prison guards or the Gestapo? These analogies fail to do justice to the many parents, educators, statesman and civic-minded people (yes, even administrators) who genuinely wish to see the next generation live healthy, productive lives but are held captive by a broken worldview. Rightly so, these analogies draw attention to the dangers of poor educational practices and excite the natural protectiveness that is in us as parents, but they tempt us to quickly lump the good with the bad and communicate hopelessness in the situation. At their worst, they encourage us to entirely dismiss the good intentions and efforts of others, and instead, accuse others of engaging in malicious, abusive power-trips. This is not to say there are not particular cases that reflect that reality. We live in a fallen world, and so we should not anticipate perfection. But do we find ourselves unable to relate, let alone respect, our neighbors who work in or enroll their children in such environments? Do we find ourselves asking, “What kind of person would continue to collude with evil? A good/smart person would condemn it and leave it.” This rhetoric is inappropriate, too dire. It reflects more the speaker’s inclination to flee, escape and disavow those who are different. The stakes are simply not that high. Each of us, no doubt, has friends whose children were not homeschooled and who survived, even flourished in, the experience. So what is going on with these analogies? I think all of these are modern, secular reflections of a commonly misapplied biblical analogy: The Exodus.

The most commonly employed analogy for the life of the Christian is the Exodus. Advocates of homeschooling use it, and in doing so, abuse it. It is important to understand how and why this story of God’s faithfulness gets misapplied. The ancient Greek worldview (Stoic and Gnostic) emphasized the inferiority of physical existence in favor of a transcendent plane. For many Greeks, this world had next to nothing to offer. Indeed, it only weighed one down. It kept one out of the higher plane. Much of Greek theology and later philosophy taught a radical detachment from life, a hatred for the everyday, the mundane. Caring too much for things of this world only resulted in pain. It was far better to separate oneself from things, especially people, who might distract, things which might cause one to get too complacent, too comfortable and excite your passions. In Greek thought, we see the seeds of radical individualism. Ironically, radical individualism wasn’t really possible in pre-modern times. Life was too difficult, and so people had to work with others in order to survive. For the ancient Greeks, this tension produced an “all or nothing” mentality. They had to work together, so they all had to be on the same page. The only way to maintain unity was a strong social order. Thus, they developed an over-appreciation for the value of the state. Today, the Greek worldview manifests itself in either an over-appreciation or under-appreciation of communal activity.

Much of Western civilization can be understood as a struggle between the Christian and Greek worldviews, with frequent synthesis, which has resulted in Christian stories sometimes propagating non-Christian concepts. One such example is the teaching that this world, including our neighbors, has no value to the Christian. Are we to reject and abandon our neighbors, including our communities and our institutions? Sadly, the story of Exodus has been frequently hijacked to propagate this view and used as an excuse to ignore and to avoid working with our neighbor. The story of Exodus does help inform our experience. Christians in the twenty-first century serve the same God who faithfully led his people out of Egypt. It gives us powerful imagery, to which we can occasionally relate. Does the story of Exodus tell the whole story of the Christian life? Is it always appropriate to employ it to explain our experiences? The answer is no. We should recognize that we are not living the Bronze-Age Israelite experience. We are not locked in a genocidal struggle that was typical of competing civilizations of that era. If we talk about our differences with our neighbors as if we are ancient near east Israelites and they genocidal Egyptians, we do them (and God) a disservice. We are tempted to dehumanize, to demonize our neighbors. We are trying to escape the world. We are living the Greek lie. It is an unhealthy fear and oddly enough, our neighbors sense it. If we talk about homeschooling as a kind of holy Exodus from schools, we diminish the savor of our salt. We darken the light that is God’s redemption of his good creation.

Is there a better way? An alternative? Instead of using analogies to be critical of what others are doing, we should use our creative, cultural energies to yield better images, better analogies to what we are hoping to do. I consider organic analogies to explain educational practices the most warming and helpful. One of my favorite analogies was employed by Charlotte Mason (1842-1923). She described learning as nutrition that serves to strengthen the mind and will. Teaching was the preparation and serving of a healthy meal. The question is: are our children being fed? Homeschooling, to me, represents the joy of preparing and enjoying a home-cooked family meal. Who would wish to deny another this opportunity?

Raymond (1916-2007) and Dorothy (1915-2002) Moore, home education advocates and contemporaries of Holt, employed the analogy of gardening. Children are like flowers, which must be carefully tended. If, however, they are given the right resources and sheltered from the elements, they have the best opportunity to grow to be beautiful. The Moores were very influential in establishing homeschooling in North Carolina. They directly inspired some of NCHE’s founders and first leaders. NCHE’s newsletter is entitled Greenhouse Report, and for many years, a single rose was part of the NCHE logo.

Even the greenhouse analogy can also be overstretched. We might be tempted to think that more of a good thing is always better! I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and frequented Phipps Conservatory, an immense structure that simulated a variety of environments, from the tropics to the southwest desert. Visitors walk among full-grown banana trees and Saguaro cacti. Inside a conservatory are many beautiful plants, but they are in an artificial, simulated environment. If taken outside the conservatory, they may quickly wither. At its best, the greenhouse does not symbolize a conservatory, but a nursery. A greenhouse is a smaller, more intimate structure in which seedlings are nurtured to develop strong roots. It has a high degree of transparency, for it has nothing truly to keep secret. A greenhouse is fragile, but strong enough to let the light in and keep the wind out. But eventually the plant will have to leave the greenhouse. The gardener hopes that the plant will flourish and withstand with the seasons of life. Only time will tell. The greenhouse is a strong analogy for what an educational structure should do and for what parent-directed home education seeks to be. It casts a positive vision. When we employ it to describe what we as home educators are trying to achieve, we let others draw their own conclusions about how other practices compare. Let those conclusions speak for themselves. Nearly thirty years ago, NCHE’s founders and early leaders adopted a wise analogy for our educational practices, and I continue to marvel at the simple, profound truths it reveals. I commend it to you.

GREENHOUSE is NCHE's flagship publication. 

GREENHOUSE magazine is published fall and spring plus an annual graduate issue in May. GREENHOUSE is mailed to NCHE members.