Saturday, 18 October 2014


I used to be a bit of a home schooling missionary.
`You may be considering home education for your child – either to keep up with his growing intellectual needs that are not being met by his school, or to keep him at the educational level considered normal for his age if he is lagging behind,'  I ventured on a regular basis to the unwary who rang with simple enquiries.  
I usually added honestly, `You may be fearful that if you do so, your child will suffer both socially and educationally.  Take heart from stories of the home schoolers of the past.'  
And I then launched into a veritable diatribe which must have bored them into the ground if they had simply rung to find the contact person for the nearest chess club. 
Blaise Pascal was educated by his father, who gave up his government position in order to devote himself to this task. In hindsight he was a bit like me at my worst.  He particularly wanted Blaise to learn because of an innate curiosity rather than be taught by rote.   Subjects like Geography and History were taught via discussion at meal times rather than in any formal manner.   He also believed classics to be more important than mathematics - (and even now I couldn't agree with him more.)   Later when young Blaise stumbled upon mathematics he demanded to know why he had not been taught this exciting subject.  He was promised maths lessons once he had mastered Latin and Greek.
Karl Witte’s father documented the home education of his son in great detail. (Well I didn't go quite that far myself but I did once write a book about it.)  Herr Witte had unusually strong views about how it should take place and therefore it began at birth.  He felt that such a regime would produce genius no matter what the child’s potential.     He was a village parson and in order to take on this momentous task he resigned from his parish (another real enthusiast you see.)    Baby talk was avoided and Karl was encouraged to speak early, and properly.    The Wittes decided that they must never speak harshly to each other in Karl’s presence and that they should always behave in a manner that they hoped he might emulate.   All disputes and discussions about unpleasant subjects were avoided.   Karl’s diet was closely monitored to ensure that he ate only those foods that were good for him and avoided foods with too much salt, sugar or spices.    He was taken to concerts and operas whilst very young as well as local markets and village fairs.  (And I can empathize with that!)   He had very few toys, being encouraged to look around him for playthings.   His parents did not like him playing with other children for fear he would learn bad habits and only capitulated under pressure from friends and family.     However, Karl quickly did learn bad language and began to tell lies so the friendships were quashed, his father stating that he believed the idea that children needed others of similar age in order to grow up normally was absolute nonsense.  (How often have I heard that from dedicated home schoolers?)  The Witte system seemed to work.  At nine Karl was sent to Leipzig University after being given a special dispensation.  He got a PhD at the age of thirteen.   At sixteen he was made a Doctor of Laws and appointed to the teaching staff as a professor in Berlin. (There you go!)
John Stuart Mill had an almost identical home education although the Mills believed in motivating their son with little rewards which would have horrified the Wittes.    James Mill believed that there was little in the idea of genetic inheritance with regard to intelligence and that given an intensive regime of education, a genius would emerge.    Therefore John was taught Greek when he was three and once he had mastered it, mathematics in the form of simple arithmetic was added to his timetable.   He was not fond of arithmetic but nevertheless was able to teach his younger sister this subject by the time he was eight.   At the same time he was now learning Latin, Algebra and Geometry.  At ten he began Astronomy and Physics and at twelve Philosophy and Logic.    He was largely protected from the company of other boys until the age of thirteen when he was sent to France to stay with friends and to be introduced to Swimming and Fencing. He found this social  experience quite shocking apparently.    However, he was able to recover and went on to use his quite remarkable education to fight for social issues such as equality of opportunity, free education for all and women’s rights. This may or may not have been what his doting parents had envisaged.
John Wesley was mostly home schooled by his mother who got up before five am each morning in order to do the job properly and continue to run her household efficiently.   Hers was a large family and the older children had to help teach the younger ones. (She clearly had the right idea.)
Jeremy Bentham was taught by his father until he was ten years old.   It was an intensive routine and there was little time to mix with other children, and when he did so the other children were made to feel like idiots compared with Jeremy, with many jokes and rude remarks made about their academic abilities.  Well that wouldn't have helped him make friends would it?
Goethe was also home schooled and private tutors were employed to teach him various subjects.  Later he said that he greatly missed the company of other children.
Lord Tennyson was educated at home for a number of years, though sent to school at the age of eleven and so was Anthony Trollope.    Until he went to Harrow at fifteen or sixteen, Nehru received all his education at home, mostly from private tutors.
And in 2014 in New Zealand hundreds and hundreds of parents now home educate their children - and very possibly most of them are as enthusiastic as I was myself.   

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