All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1991

Home Schooling: A Personal Experience

Hannah Lapp is a dairy farmer and writer in Cassadaga, New York.

“Where did you get your education?” or “Which college do you attend?” are questions I find harder to answer than most people do. Education has meant much more to me than mere academic study.

My own formal education, and that of most of my 11 brothers and sisters, consisted of eight years of schooling at home. Our teacher was Mother, or our big sister Lydia. Going to school meant going to an upstairs hall or other suitable room in one of the sundry and fascinating dwellings we called home in those days. Our curriculum contained the basics for each grade in English, arithmetic, geography, and so on. Lydia selected our books from companies such as Scott, Foresman and Company, Laidlaw Brothers, and other publishers; some of the texts were as old as the McGuffey Readers.

As students, we were aware that education is serious business, and we worked our brains to the fullest. School was a thrilling opportunity. It opened the doors of knowledge and was a path into the mysteries of grown-up life.

Inborn in a healthy child is a thirst for the liberating powers of knowledge. Our teacher utilized these instincts of her students in introducing us not only to hard academic facts, but to an infinite learning process whose boundaries only our own self-discipline could shape. School learning meant learning how to expend mental energy to get information we wanted. Thus our minds were exercised not only in academic questions, but also in such difficult social concepts as freedom through meeting obligations, and the price of privileges.

“How can eight years be enough?” is a justifiable challenge offered against an educational background such as my own. Certainly the potential of young minds is much too valuable to justify halting education at age 14.

It does not occur to me to separate the education I received after the age of 14 from my eight years of formal schooling. For I regard the disciplined acquisition of knowledge too highly to draw its boundaries at the doors of an academic institution. I also respect it too much to assume that it is best taken care of by a government bureaucracy or any other monopolizing agency. For where, but within individual minds and circumstances, can it be determined what type of knowledge is the most needful and how it is best obtained?

The most suitable continued education for me and most of my siblings involved such things as skills training on our farm and self-help through reading, using libraries, taking short courses in specific subjects, and so on. Those of us who later decided to pursue specialized professions had no problem passing a high school equivalency test and taking off from there.

Even during my years of going to school at home, those hours of book-learning that qualified as a legal education were only a small part of my total education. More than we could fully comprehend at the time, we youngsters were receiving daily moral, emotional, and intellectual exercises that were just as important in preparing us for adult life as the mandatory hours spent in school. For just as becoming literate was essential to a self-sufficient and productive future, so also was learning responsibility and proper human coexistence. These concepts were instilled in us through necessity in our large, close family with many children to feed.

My family’s search for a suitable private school, and finally the search for a region having laws compatible with home schooling, was a major factor in our many migrations when I was small. It was also a factor in our often tight finances. We children learned thriftiness from infancy, and enjoyed few niceties. But it was enough for us to be healthy and happy.

The same circumstances that appeared at times unfortunate endowed us with learning experiences which could well be envied by the less needy.

For example, my older brothers and sisters were compelled to search out employment from a young age in order to help support the family. During one school term, two of my sisters took turns babysitting for a neighbor lady who was consequently able to stay off public assistance by holding a job. in the absence of welfare, two low-income families were drawn together to trade resources, thus benefiting all parties involved. My sisters were able to maintain their grades in school by taking their books to work, and their job in itself provided excellent hands-on education. Lydia, one of the two, would go on to instruct her younger siblings and, afterward, many other students during her teaching career.

Our quest for jobs where we could work together to support ourselves while being home schooled led us to a number of different states. Among other ventures, we traveled about in our family station wagon, following fruit harvests in their season. Where our employers permitted it, family members six years old and up helped to earn. It was through their children’s ambitious participation that my parents were able to save up a considerable sum of money so that by 1972 they purchased the farmstead that would come to embody our long-time aspirations.

Dad picked Chautauqua County in western New York for the site of our farm because of reasonable land prices and job opportunities on the abundant fruit and vegetable operations lining the nearby shores of Lake Erie. He also questioned our real estate agent about New York’s tolerance toward home schooling.

“Try it and see,” was the agent’s response.

My parents proceeded to do so.

School officials first confronted us five months after we arrived in Brocton, New York. At the time, we knew of no other families who attempted to home school in New York, and we had no idea what to expect. However, my parents determined to stand on their beliefs, come what may.

Lydia was teaching six of us younger ones at home when school officials came to question Mom. We heard them speak from where we were studying in an upstairs room, and teacher and students fell silent, trying to catch their words. “We have to see to it that these children attend school legally,” a woman’s voice was stating. Many scenes raced through our minds, including those frequent wearying travels we’d undertaken in our determination to home school. And we pictured a drama of recent years when school officials chased Amish children through an Iowa cornfield, trying to forcibly enroll them in public school.


Challenging the State

Our right to home schooling was challenged even more severely after we moved to a farm in Cassadaga, which was to become our permanent home. The Cassadaga school administrator was greatly annoyed by the presence of this family from out of state attempting to defy his previously unchallenged authority. “Child neglect” was the charge he tried against my parents in family court.

The danger of forcible removal from our parents was the only thing we children could not acceptably face. So we banded together and arranged a secret hideout, unknown even to our parents, to which we would flee if the officials ever came for us. We never had to use it. Acquaintances and employers of ours were vocal in our defense, and the case was thrown out of court, thus demonstrating the power of concerned citizens in reining in oppressive government. Also somewhat influential in our case was a brand-new Supreme Court ruling in favor of Amish families who had objected to public schooling and education beyond the eighth grade for their children.

We cooperated with Cassadaga school officials as far as possible throughout our years of home schooling. Initially we underwent inspections, exams, and interviews. The Cassadaga school principal came to observe our school and concluded of the teacher, “She may not be certified, but she’s certainly qualified.”

Later on we simply maintained free and friendly communications with school officials. Local teachers offered us their out-of-date books. On several occasions Lydia was even asked by area parents to tutor their children whose public school education was proving insufficient.

After teaching at a mission school in Belize, Central America, for five years, Lydia returned home to teach her own daughter along with several nieces and nephews. Present regulations require her to submit quarterly progress reports on each student to the Cassadaga school. The paperwork aside, she still teaches as she sees best, and with her superior results, no one wants to interfere.

The success of schools such as Lydia’s and other private schools is drawing more attention with every new statistic on the disappointing results of public education. I have heard various suggestions advanced by citizens concerned with bringing American education back to par: teach teachers better, return to the three R’s, require more hours in school, and so forth. The difference between private and public education, however, involves issues more fundamental than these arguments. It involves the entire teacher-student relationship. Private, competing schools are bound to the individual choices of those whom they serve. Schools bound to mandatory regimens rather than client interests are inherently incapable of providing what I call true education—i.e., knowledge garnered through the inner instincts to inform yourself to your own benefit. There’s a difference between this type of knowledge and the kind that is methodically dumped upon you by the state.

Since knowledge that benefits one person may not benefit another, true education is infinitely diverse, varying from methods as ancient and basic as apprenticeship, to the most sophisticated academic instruction.

We as a family are now far from alone as home schoolers in our county and state. Lydia meets and exchanges ideas with a number of other parents who teach their own children. She also subscribes to The Teaching Home magazine, where one can gather or share helpful information as well as insights into national home schooling developments. The Teaching Home (P.O. Box 20219, Portland, Oregon 97220-0219) informs us that there are 4,000 children on record as being home schooled in New York State. We know that there are more who are not on the record, perhaps fortunate enough never to be discovered by the educational bureaucracy. All told, there are an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 children being taught at home in the United States (The New York Times, November 22,1990).


The Advantages of Home Schooling

It is from my own experience that I call these children fortunate. If their education bears any resemblance to my own, it will possess several advantages.

First, it will contain a much richer infusion of parental interests, which are more sensitive to a child’s individuality and total needs than are bureaucratic state interests.

Another rather marked contrast between public schooling and home schooling involves children’s peer relationships. The home-educated child is spending more time with adults and siblings and therefore devotes more mental energy to relationships spanning age and generation gaps. Some parents may not see this as desirable. Others find it offers a healthy alternative to the intense peer pressure in most public schools. Excessive peer pressure can and does inhibit a human being’s ability to think freely.

In my own growing-up experience, I spent fewer than average hours with children outside the family, and zero hours watching television. Certainly this restricted my range of interactions with others. It did not, however, restrict my intellectual exercises in the least. I turned to my own unbounded imagination. I turned to exploring everything in sight, including books. Adult books were interesting enough to read cover to cover before I was 10 years old. For some reason, I never experienced, nor could I mentally conceive, the boredom with life displayed by many other youngsters.

Learning is exploration and discovery, whether you are observing the development of an ear of corn, working alongside Mom in the kitchen, going to school at home, or even attending a prestigious university.

  • Hannah Lapp is a dairy farmer and writer in Cassadaga, New York.