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Up from Ritalin By: J.P. Zmirak
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, April 04, 2002


I WASN’T HOME-SCHOOLED—THANK GOD. As you’ll read some day in my memoir of an Irish-American childhood, Angela’s Ashtray, my sainted, chain-smoking, agoraphobic mum wasn’t up to the task: To buy chalk, she would have had to leave the house. And the store that sold chalk was owned by Koreans—who Mom warned us must be "Moonies." (As a gag, I once subscribed her to The Washington Times. She tossed it aside with disdain: "Crossword puzzle’s too hard.")

Not every parent is suited to teaching—or to parenthood. Andrea Yates sure wasn’t, as you’d think her husband might have discerned, somewhere between "I do" and "Honey, I drowned the kids." Does that mean the government should wait in the wings like a good pet owner, deciding which citizens to "fix" and which to "breed"? (After all, it takes a village…) That idea was fashionable among liberals just a few decades ago, when Margaret Sanger called for "More children from the fit, fewer from the unfit." Subsequent decades have proven that the birth control pill is remarkably effective at thinning the ranks of just one group: People bright enough to remember to take a pill every single day. Not quite what the old floozy had in mind. (The bell curve tolls for thee, Meg. How’s the heat down there?)

Progressives don’t really trust people to bear and raise their own children, much less to educate them—that’s why they try to get kids into day care and nursery school as soon as possible, at public expense. As James T. Bennett and Thomas J. Dilorenzo document in their classic Official Lies the rise of public schools in America was driven by state-loving liberals in the 1850s, such as Horace Mann. They were eager to homogenize new immigrants, separate children from the superstitions of their parents, and remake them according to the ideals of secular, modern America. The same utopian socialists who wanted everyone educated by the state, planned to recruit the masses in "labor armies," put them to work in federal factories and feed them in government cafeterias. (Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward was the manifesto of these well-meaning, addled reformers.)

Despite the best efforts of regulators who tried to strangle the home education movement, almost a million children today are home-schooled in America, and the number grows by tens of thousands each year. Parents make this decision for a wide variety of reasons, among the leading ones being:

* Violence and bullying.

* Low educational standards.

* Anti-religious or racial bias.

* Sex education, involving bananas, condoms and lubricant.

Of course, there are many home environments also afflicted by violence, ignorance, irreligion, and sex. But then, not every school is suited to teaching, as thousands of high-school graduates across the U.S. would attest, if they could write.

When it comes down to it, sending your children to school makes sense if you’re sure the school will do a better job than you could. It’s a matter of outsourcing—like hiring a cleaning lady. A good friend of mine, who’d taught for ten years, decided some years ago to home-school her 8-year-old son. She figured out that it was foolish for her to go off and teach strangers’ children, so she could earn money (minus 30 percent or so) to pay for strangers to teach and feed her own. So she ordered a sophisticated, traditional Catholic curriculum—there are dozens of home-school programs out there, for nearly every faith and worldview—and now she teaches him at home. He socializes with the children of other home-schooled families, with the Cub Scout troop, with other altar boys (don’t snicker) and with the songsters of a local cathedral choir. Like the young George Washington, he goes hunting and fishing with his dad, then learns religion and etiquette at his mother’s knee. The boy gets the special attention and individual help that wouldn’t be possible in school—where a kid this rambunctious would find himself dosed with Ritalin and shoved in the back with the other "troublemakers" (read "normal boys"). His story is no exception—it is the rule. And that is why home-schooling grows.

By contrast, I went to an ordinary Catholic grammar school, which had made the transition from rote learning to modern educational methods—which meant we sat around doing SRA cards in every subject, while the teachers read magazines. (Okay, I didn’t actually do any of the cards. Instead, I roamed the room, hopped up on Captain Crunch, sexually harassing the girls.) I pretty much educated myself at home, reading encyclopedias for fun and watching college credit courses on PBS. Then I went off to a low-end Catholic high school, which wasn’t much better than the average NYC teacher’s union special. (We were spared stabbings and shootings—a fact for which I’ll always remember the auld school fondly.) The main difference was Religion class: We had disaffected, leftist nuns who showed us recruitment films for the Sandinistas and denied the resurrection of Christ. In public schools, the Social Studies teacher does this.

I’ll never forget the last lesson I had, in my last math class. The teacher, overwhelmed by our youthful zest for lethargy, announced with a sigh, "Well, we didn’t get through all of Trigonometry. If some of you had done the homework…aw, screw it. Anyway, one day, some of you are going to come across something called a logarithm," she said, closing the textbook. "But you won’t know what they are…"

Our teacher was right. When I got to Yale—the S.A.T.s plucked me out of Queens like a coal out of a dung fire—I tried to kill off the science requirement by taking Physics for Fools. But Professor Horvath, an earnest, brilliant Hungarian began to sling around that "math jargon," including the dreaded "logarithm." I looked around, and confirmed that I was not alone ignorant, seeing hundreds of scrunched-up, puzzled, non-Asian eyes. Since I was born without the gene for shame, I raised my hand and asked this refugee from Communism who now taught at America’s top undergraduate college:

"Excuse me, Professor. What’s a logarithm?"

He paused, and went into an explanation of how to derive the confabulatory scrutative precipitates of an ordinal imaginary fraction from the…no, and none of the other kids understood, either. So my hand shot up again.

"Excuse me, Professor. My math’s not so strong…" He breathed the harrumph of the just, and explained more simply, speaking more slowly. The words sounded pretty.

This time I put up my paw more timidly. "I’m sorry, Professor, I still don’t understand...What’s a logarithm?"

With flashing eyes, he admitted at last: "It is a button on ze calculator!"

We wrote that down, every word. "A logarithm is a button on ze calculator."


Dr. Zmirak is author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist. He writes frequently on economics, politics, popular culture and theology.


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