Folks often ask me how our homeschooling curriculum differs from what is taught in public schools. I hardly know where to begin on that topic.
To me, the biggest differences between classical homeschooling and a public school education are how children are taught and how their progress is evaluated. For example, homeschoolers teach subjects to mastery rather than tracking a child’s average performance on classwork and tests. (I have never understood the purpose of multiple-choice tests, where guessing is regarded as an acceptable substitute for knowledge. How did such a thing ever become a “tool” in education? It’s now not only a means but the primary means of evaluating children in public schools. The only way, in my mind, to tell if a child understands a topic is for them to do something with it. To write about it. To speak at length about it. To craft a project related to it.) Homeschoolers also move at a child’s own pace, not according to some arbitrary schedule or checklist. Homeschoolers are not afraid to go off on meaningful tangents or incorporate special units based on a child’s passions and interests. We tend to favor animated debate and the Socratic method over lectures and memorization. The list goes on and on.
There are, however, major differences in what homeschooled children are taught as well. Our nine-year-old daughter is on her third year of Latin, for example, which puts her knowledge of history, literature, and grammar ahead of most college students. (And even some colleges themselves, as it is suddenly becoming trendy among financially distressed institutions to drop their humanities departments.)
Two of the regular subjects in our homeschooling curriculum – which most people are introduced to in college, if at all, now – are philosophy and logic. We have made it through several philosophy books, most recently on the philosophy of religion.
But it is the training in logic that is most important to me. Logic is an immensely practical subject. My husband and I both have graduate degrees in philosophy, and spent years studying traditional and symbolic logic. Interestingly, if you study symbolic logic in a serious way, computer programming – in any language – is a piece of cake. You are arguably better at it than folks who studied computer science exclusively, as you have a background of >50-step proofs behind you and can hold in your mind where you are ultimately going with your nests of operations. The best programmers are master logicians.
Studying logic changes how you look at the world in a larger sense too. It’s something that powerfully differentiates people in the social media age, where the masses favor feelings and emotion over analytical reasoning. I have encountered so many people online who can’t even paraphrase someone’s reasoning, let alone respond to it well. They merely skip to how reading or hearing it makes them feel – is it “worthy” of approval, scorn, or snark? Almost all of social media is like a drive-by therapy session. I even saw conservative commentators recently defend “whataboutism,” apparently not knowing that tu quoque is explicitly a logical fallacy. Good job, guys.
I’d say your average American is incapable of the discipline involved in trying to defeat their own arguments and developing stronger and more consistent perspectives on pretty much anything. This is a weakness of both character and training – but more importantly, it is a weakness that public education is making a conscious decision to reinforce rather than improve. The gulf between people who have received a classical private education and people who have received a public education based on the nihilistic whims of the 1960s generation is immense and growing. In some institutions, logic is even being derided as “oppressive” along with mathematics. Talk about dumbing kids down.
For this year, I have been using two introductory logic books, The Thinking Toolbox and The Fallacy Detective. The latter is divided into fallacies that are aimed at distraction, fallacies involving bad assumptions, statistical fallacies, and propaganda.
I have been planning on supplementing the propaganda discussion with the novel Breaking Stalin’s Nose. This novel is about a boy growing up in the Soviet Union who is immersed in propaganda and a true believer. He gradually starts to develop reasoned positions and understand the level of intellectual and psychological manipulation happening in his country.
It occurred to me that I could start stockpiling examples of manipulation from our own times and we could discuss them in the context of our lessons. It does seem somewhat silly to fetishize Marxist regimes when our nominally democratic regime is full of similar behavior now. And, much like the Soviet Union, there are significant consequences in possessing asymmetrical information, like the wholesale deterioration of institutions that provide essential government services.
Corporate media coverage of perceived police brutality over the past few weeks has produced many examples of manipulative behavior for my archives. (No, I am not talking about George Floyd.) I have been saving videos from the Chicago shooting of a 13-year-old boy who belonged to a gang, as a local news agency cropped the police bodycam footage where he was holding a gun during the chase. Though the boy was unarmed when he was shot, they tried to change the context of the shooting to make the encounter seem less violent than it was in reality. Why? The public might be less sympathetic about an encounter with a gang member with a street name of Lil’ Homicide than a child who was simply out for a walk in the middle of the night. Why do they care where their audience’s sympathies lie? What do they get out of giving people a false impression?
This week, a 16-year-old girl was shot by police while she was trying to stab another teenager. This is not an interpretation of events, as she was visibly, objectively mid-thrust when the cop shot her. I have been saving tweets from many news outlets that cropped out the large knife she was holding and footage from security cameras where the girl was shouting (over and over) that she was going to stab the other girl at the top of her lungs. The coverage started with a deliberate attempt to make the girl seem like she was having an innocent, childish encounter before the cops intervened. The cop must have had some motive other than what circumstances called for, like racism. They are also quoting her mother incessantly without mentioning that the girl was in foster care – imagine the perversity of quoting someone who possibly abused her child to smear a man who ostensibly saved another child from being murdered?
I have noticed that friends and family members who remain part of the very small fraction of Americans who trust the corporate media for information often develop passionate, irrational attitudes towards current events based on the information they do not have, not the echo chamber platitudes they are being asked to recite. Despite many of them being otherwise well-educated individuals, they make decisions daily not to seek more information on many important topics where the story is obviously not as simple as they make it seem. Many of them will accuse people of lying when they are presented with accurate details of an event that have been concealed from them because they live in a bubble. They have been on the receiving end of counterfactual narratives for so long now that facts – which are properly shocking, but cannot be assimilated – seem like bold lies. They have been trained to be emotional and not logical. They have been trained to trust extreme narratives rather than say, “Hey, maybe there’s more to this story than a cop was driving down the street randomly capping children.”
It is important information when a cop shoots a suspect that the suspect was armed in media res or that they were, in fact, in possession of an illegal weapon. It is significant that the media is in possession of evidence that includes those details, and they then make a conscious decision not to include them in what they are making available to the masses. This is a great epistemological discussion, but it is also a great moral discussion. Deception is a moral problem, and so is habituated gullibility.
There is something big in the tendency people have now not to care about there being more than one side to an event that I think plays nicely into the intellectual exhaustion and fear in the Soviet Union. They want to fit in, to maintain an even keel, to not experience the social inconvenience of having their affiliations tested, so they kind of find sport in the lies.
We had several left-leaning commentators this week, including people currently in the Biden administration and alumni of the Obama administration, who flatly thought police should not intervene in teenagers’ knife fights, as if getting stabbed in your front yard was a rite of passage in youth. (Who doesn’t want to send their kids to schools run by these people, right?) I have saved copies of those comments too as examples of immoral commitments to propagandizing. You can bet those tweets are not showing up in an NBC News segment or on Huffington Post. Again, it’s the things they don’t show their audience.
I have also saved examples from the AP style account and Politico regarding the correct vocabulary to use in covering the news. For example, to not use the word “crisis” to describe events at the border. Another good one is the cliché use of “without evidence” to suggest someone offered an argument with no premises to rebut – the rhetorical version of cropping a knife out of a video, but this time to turn substantially all of their reporting into solid examples of a Straw Man. There is something amusingly cowardly about these techniques to me, like embedded in them is some fear of actually engaging someone in an argument. It’s a sort of admission that your own positions are not all that persuasive, like let’s just let teenagers stab it out.
All of these are good examples of the propagandization of the media. So are one-sided articles, articles that cite only anonymous sources, articles that do not seek comment from the subject of the article, abuse of statistics or statistics from biased sources, quotes from people who were not there or have no relevant expertise (Red Herrings), articles that were “confirmed” but turned out to be false (like the Russian bounties stories). I am keeping files of all of these for teachable moments. I am also planning a discussion on “silent edits” in news articles, and how making false information go viral and then quietly retracting it is akin to outright propaganda.
The follow-up to this:
(1) The value of being a promiscuous reader. If you understand you are not going to get both sides from a source of information, accumulate more sources. Sometimes you find valuable perspectives in unlikely places.
(2) The value in asking yourself where an interlocutor is getting their information before deciding if they are a reliable narrator themselves. Discipline yourself to ask questions about inflammatory arguments from people you generally agree with.
(3) When it is pointless to argue with someone. We have relatives who deliberately say offensive things about culture and politics – oftentimes things they themselves do not believe, they simply want to start a fight. It is important to understand when you are not in a debate, but have become a captive audience for someone who relishes verbal abuse. Social media is training people on a chemical level to derive pleasure from acting like trolls. There is logic, and then there is recognizing people who are being malicious. They do not have an epistemological problem, but a moral problem.