bullying,  homeschooling,  how do we know what we know is true

a big muddle of things that come together, sort of, at the end

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Lots of things have crossed my facebook feed the last few days that feed somehow into questions I tend to dwell on. These are questions about how we know what we know, whether we can trust our own ideas, and whether telling someone they are wrong is inherently being mean.

Thing one: a math fail

My confidence in homeschoolers and homeschooling took a strange shake the other day when I saw a woman online offering some pizza pictures for parents to use to teach fractions. The problem was her pizzas were all cut into eighths in thin lines and then she tried to keep the fractions divided according to the slice lines – so she showed 1/3 with two slices for 1/3, and then another 1/3 with three slices, and the other 1/3 with three slices. Her quarters were fine, but then to make “fifths” she divided one of the quarters into two. To make “sixths” she showed divided two of the quarters into eighths and left the other two as quarters. Hence six pieces, unevenly sized. The first three or four attempts to explain to the woman why her pictures were horrible wrong were met with her vague “but my children have a hard time with fractions and this helps them understand” comments. And while this was going on, ten people clicked “like” on her picture apparently missing noticing that it was totally, totally mathematically incorrect. A couple of homeschooling moms reading the facebook thread acknowledged the picture was wrong but tried to be supportive of the woman saying they don’t understand fractions either.

I know everyone makes mistakes.
I know I make mistakes.
I know there are things that I don’t know I’m wrong on.
I know my blog is filled with errors.

Yet I also think, if you don’t know what a fraction is learn to do fractions before you teach it to your kids and before you try to tell other parents how to teach it to your kids. I wonder what type of math education her children will end up with. With they forever think that fractions are confusing, because it confuses their mom? Hopefully she takes some time to learn fractions better or uses curriculum that teaches her children the math for her.

Thing two: a rant about looking at those who judge as “meanies”

Then someone shared a status update on their facebook page with a long rant about the similac advertisement about moms judging other moms. I’ll quote one paragraph:

At the end of the day, this ad is about making sure that if you are someone who speaks up for breastfeeding, you are the “meanie”. It is about making sure formula is seen as an absolute equal to breastfeeding – and not just in terms of what’s best for a given woman, but an absolutely equal choice. After this, when people hear anyone speak about the risks associated with formula on the personal or even societal level, they will think of this and assume the person is a judgmental ass. It’s already happened, but Similac has now managed to capitalize on it.

The poster of the status update seems to be arguing that it is good to judge mothers for not breastfeeding because we can’t ignore real risks or benefits in order to try to be nonjudgmental. I’m not going to get into the discussion about whether the benefits of breastfeeding in a developed world outweigh challenges some individuals might find in breastfeeding or not. I’m going to ignore the phrase “even societal level” though I suspect that it hints the writer would credit incredibly unrealistic benefits to breastfeeding and a disregard for the individual woman’s needs.

I’m going to focus on the question of whether people are meanies for judging others. People weren’t mean to point out to a woman online that her math pictures were wrong, right? (Several people seemed to bend over backwards to try not to be mean.) Is it mean to judge if one does it quietly, keeping one’s opinion to oneself? If one does it politely, or couched in nice terms? What if one is blunt? When does blunt honestly become being mean? I’ve written about this here and here and here.

Someone claims that the Similac commercial pretends to claim all parenting is equal while at the same time suggesting that those that believe that breastfeeding is better are mean. It makes sense that a formula commercial try to defend all feeding methods as equal. We can recognize that as a defense. Yet the person claiming that the commercial paints lactavists as mean is also trying to defend herself. She’s claiming they are calling her mean so she doesn’t have to consider the possibility that she is mean and that the prioritizing the benefits of breastfeeding over the reasons individuals choose not to breastfeed is mean.

Thing Three: people saying people who blame anti-vaxxers for the measles outbreak are meanies.

I’m linking above to a facebook post where people are talking about a post by “Modern Alternative Momma.” The Modern Alternative Mother tells people to report facebook groups mocking anti-vaxxers for hate-speech. I don’t know whether she would take it as hate speech for people to point out the logical fallacies in her blog post, but I do know she hasn’t posted comments made on it.

I can understand people not allowing comments critical of their argument. My blog is my home, I get to choose what goes on it, right? My most commented about post is my one about Operation Christmas Child and I gave up posting all the comments from random people saying “I love that program” because I thought this isn’t a popularity contest. Knowing that random strangers love it doesn’t give any information to people.  But at the same time, when we try to make public arguments, shouldn’t we let others give feedback?

Thing Four: Non-homeschoolers discussing homeschoolers.

Then the fourth semi-related thing I saw was a discussion on about homeschooling on a blog post that was really about people being anti-vaccinations. The non-homeschoolers, including a few people who had some experience being homeschooled or with family members who were homeschooled, were pretty critical of homeschooling.

There were a number of accusations made about homeschoolers. There were the normal comments about some homeschoolers being kept isolated. More surprising to me was a comment about homeschoolers being pushed to hard, not allowed a chance to be a children. There were also some comments about homeschooler’s blending the mother and teacher role in a way that prevents the kid from really having either a mother or teacher.

The comment that stuck out in my mind was this one:

“Being homeschooled by parents who are professional teachers is light-years away from being homeschooled by someone with eccentric views who barely got through high school and that was years ago.”

In some ways the comment is a rehashing of the whole “are you really qualified to teach your own kids?” comment I’ve heard elsewhere, and I’m sure I could find a lot of blog posts about how yes, parents are qualified to teach because they know their children, and that teaching one’s own children are different than teaching a class of twenty to thirty kids.

But there’s also that phrase “by someone with eccentric views.” That phrase deserves some attention. Does eccentric views disqualify someone from teaching? No, of course not. Eccentric views can be wonderful! Eccentric views can inspire all sorts of new creations.

And yet… and yet… as parents it is easy to end up living in an echo chamber, where we hear only what we want to hear, only what we are used to hearing. We might call the echo chamber a particular parenting philosophy or a religious group, or it might be an echo chamber relating to a specific controversial issue. The commenter probably meant something to the effect of “people who reject modern science and medicine in favor of what they think is more natural.” At times I’ve been one of those people. I don’t think I am, as much, anymore. (See my post about vaccines and the selling of fear, distrust and a sense of superiority.)

People live in all sorts of different echo chambers. As parents we might be comfortable in them, but do we do a disservice to a child by not allowing them out of the echo chamber? While there are not seriously people trying to argue in the right to teach their child that 1/8 = 1/5th there are people seriously defending their right to teach their children all different other things. Is this okay, because we’re all entitled to our beliefs, or does teaching children just the views of the parent’s echo chamber become a type of educational abuse?

No, no it doesn’t, because it is okay for everyone to believe different things. We have to be able to believe things others think of as wrong. That’s utterly necessary, and if some children believe false things, that’s just the price to pay for freedom of thought, right?

Except that thoughts have consequences. Distrust in vaccines, promoted by frauds, leads to measles outbreaks again. The Onion does a great job with their post about parents having the right to decide for themselves which disease to bring back.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I am definitely not saying that people should not be allowed to homeschool if they believe certain things, but I am questioning whether homeschooling parents have some sort of moral obligation to go out of their way to try to move beyond their own comfort zones, to open themselves to questioning themselves. There are different types of isolation, and even if homeschoolers have lots of contact with other families or other kids, the parents (and by extension the kids) might have contact only with those who share similar viewpoints and not to the contrary arguments, which homeschoolers might not bring up with one another because of the risk that doing so would be mean.

I want to believe that homeschooling can be a good thing. I know it can. Yet I can also recognize that it is only as good as the family makes it, and that eccentricity still makes me nervous, because I don’t think we can find truth in isolation. We need to hear from others, to struggle to find what is right, and to recognize that we are often wrong. We can all have our own opinions on things, but we don’t get to have our own facts.

It isn’t like public school isn’t an echo chamber of its own either. It isn’t that all eccentricities are wrong and the majorities are right. Many people homeschool partly because the culture and ideas of the school system do not connect with what they believe. Should they have to expose their child to it just because? Of course not.

But as homeschooling parents we owe it to our children to try to not just question the system, but question those who question the system. We need to question ourselves and let ourselves be questioned.

We owe it to our children to help them  to be strong and independent enough to try to create a better world. But we also owe it to them to be honest about our own weaknesses and limitations, our own lack of knowledge, the times when we know we have been wrong on things and the times we might be wrong.

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  • Ana

    I think one of the most important functions of education is to teach children how to be aware of, how to question, and, most difficult of all, how to transcend conditioning. Everyone should be able to examine the echo chamber they were raised in, in particular to spot the agendas of governments and corporations. We should all strive for freedom of thought.
    Brockwood Park school is one of the few schools I know of that absolutely privileges this https://www.brockwood.org.uk/index.html
    Thanks for a great post.

  • Anne G.

    I could be wrong, but I don’t think the quote you shared from the breastfeeder is in favor of judging moms at all. I think the quote says that even if you are really, really nice about it, if you say something positive about breastfeeding or approach a conversation about breastfeeding from a “breastfeeding is the biological norm” viewpoint, then you will be labeled a “meannie” or any number of other derogatory terms. The ad itself labels the breastfeeders undercover police. They intended to reinforce the stereotype! Is it reasonable to categorize those who do not breastfeed as less likely to be mean than those who do? Are there other generalizations about formula feeding moms that should be made?

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