A Little Way of Homeschooling, by Suzie (Zeiter ’87 ) Andres
Reviewed by: Becky (Loop’96) Mohun
A few years ago, when I was reading every book I could find on education and homeschooling, I ran into a definition of virtue in a very fat book on homeschooling written by some Calvinists. They claimed that virtue is doing the right thing when you really don’t want to. The corollary was that in education our job as parents is to force compliance with a predetermined learning schedule, and this will make our children virtuous.
In contrast, I remember being struck, the first time I read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, by the proposal that virtue is a thing of joy. Whereas the merely continent man finds virtuous action distasteful and a struggle, the truly virtuous man desires and delights in good actions and is by such actions disposed toward the summit of human activity, which is contemplation of truth.
This particular truth, that virtue and contemplation are integral to our happiness as human beings, is at the center of our whole learning experience at Thomas Aquinas College. We study the arts of the trivium and quadrivium, and we acquire a beginning in philosophy and theology, in the perennial wisdom passed down through the ages. But we do it in a manner which is definitely outside-the-box and even radical. We sit around in small groups and discuss the Great Books. We do so under the guidance not of professors, but of tutors. We are given a very active role as students, and we are encouraged not to think too much about grades.
Suzie Andres’ new book, A Little Way of Homeschooling, invites us to think outside the box with regard to our children’s education. She proposes the principles of unschooling as effective means toward our own and our children’s happiness, and she encourages us to make use of these principles whether our children are in school or not, whether we use a curriculum, bits of curricula, or none at all.
Unlike many books on parenting or education, this one does not propose one paradigm upon which to model or against which to measure our lives. Instead it offers a path along which we can accept and even rejoice in our human limitations, abandoning all anxiety and fear and allowing room for God to work in our lives and those of our children. This is precisely where St. Therese and her “little way” come in, imbuing this radical approach to education with her own radical approach to sanctity — the approach of complete, childlike trust in Jesus, and confidence in God’s infinite tenderness.
In A Little Way of Homeschooling, Suzie often quotes St. Therese to illustrate how we can follow the saint’s lead as we take responsibility for our children’s education. For example, in Chapter 1 she quotes from Story of a Soul: “No word of reproach touched me as much as did one of your caresses. My nature was such that fear made me recoil; with love not only did I advance, I actually flew.” This gentleness of approach — being gentle both with our children and with ourselves, as God is gentle to us — Suzie revisits in a sweetly encouraging chapter toward the end of the book.
The author also introduces the concept of unschooling not as an ideology — some fixed system against which to measure reality — but rather as a habit of observing children carefully and being willing to adapt our approach in light of our observations. In Suzie’s words, “Unschooling makes much more sense when we think of it as a suggestion rather than a mandate. Be with the children. Really look at them. Enjoy spending time together, talking, investigating, reading, playing.”
At the end of Chapter 2, we find a summary of the principles of unschooling. “Let the child learn by his own initiative, in his own way. The basics are not hard, children want to learn them, and they will ask for help when they need it. Learning is easiest and most effective when it is spontaneous and entered into by desire. Our home life will include necessary tasks, obligations, and duties, but learning does not have to be one of them.”
In her first book, Homeschooling with Gentleness, Suzie provided many of the philosophical underpinnings of unschooling, and we caught a glimpse of her own family’s life. In A Little Way, the bulk of the book is written by 12 other homeschooling mothers, who describe their families’ journeys and how unschooling principles play out in their lives. The families vary in size from two to eight children, and exhibit a wide range of styles and differing emphases. The first eight families are less structured (these comprise Part I of the book), whereas the four families featured in Part II mingle more formal approaches and classical content with unschooling principles. Among these families we see children with learning disabilities, children who learn to read early, and children who learn to read later. There are families running their own businesses, a family with seven boys, and families with one of the children in school.
Despite the differences, there are several common themes running through the 12 contributors’ chapters: An emphasis on relationships in the family as primary; gratitude for the time for conversation and the encouragement of wonder that unschooling provides; the power of modeling and example above the reliance on rewards and punishments; zeal for learning which the children maintain into adulthood; the peaceful acceptance of the limitations inherent in family life; the use of curricula as a tool rather than taskmaster; a great deal of freedom, not as an end but as a means; and above all, joy in learning and in life. Throughout the book, Suzie and the other authors interweave beautiful, encouraging quotes from educators such as John Holt and Charlotte Mason, as well as saints such as Don Bosco, Francis de Sales, and Bl. John Paul II.
In the first Appendix, “A Philosopher’s Perspective,” Suzie’s husband and Thomas Aquinas College tutor Tony Andres (’87) treats of unschooling principles in light of truths about human nature taught by Aristotle and St. Thomas. He also spends time addressing objections and explaining how Catholic unschooling will differ from secular unschooling. It is a treat to delve back into philosophy (especially for those of us whose intellectual life has been somewhat anemic since our thesis defense), and some may even wish to start with this chapter before reading the rest, as an excellent compact overview.
I found A Little Way of Homeschooling to be a wonderful complement to the material which has already been helpful in introducing me to good content in education, especially Catholic education. This little book places the whole daunting project of educating our children into perspective — specifically, the perspective of God’s mercy and tender care for us. It is a delightful read and a good antidote to the anxiety, scrupulosity, guilt, and fear which so easily overtake us as parents aware of the awesome responsibility placed before us.
You can purchase A Little Way of Homeschooling at www.hillsideeducation.com, the website of publisher Margot Davidson (’92).