On Homeschooling

I entered Brown as something of an anomaly. I was sixteen, fresh off a gap year, and had something of a rare background even among the heterogeneous population that is an incoming class of an Ivy League university: I had been homeschooled my entire life.

I want to discuss the merits of homeschooling, since I often get the questions, “Are you glad you were homeschooled?” And “Do you think that other kids should be homeschooled?” But, in order to give the right context, I’ll start with some background on my education.

My Education

I’m from a rural part of Western Maine, and grew up on a dirt road in a town of fewer than 2,000 people. I’ve described it as a place plucked from a Steinbeck novel–the town’s raison d’être was a wood products factory, shut down many years before my birth. Twenty minutes away was the nearest “population center”–a cluster of towns totaling about ten thousand people.

My homeschooling started when I was quite young, though for the first ten years of my life it was probably best described as unschooling. My mother worked for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, acting as a liaison with gardeners and farmers in the region, while my dad stayed home to teach me, while also sporadically running a rare plant nursery out of our home. In my younger years, I spent time blazing trails through the forest surrounding our home, building computer games with Scratch, and reading voraciously. My dad occasionally taught extracurricular activities at local private schools and summer enrichment programs, and I acted as a mix between teacher’s assistant and fellow student.

For many years, the “structure” of my education consisted of weekly assignment sheets my dad would write for me, consisting of a motley collection of tasks, from reading chapters from Guns, Germs, and Steel and completing a chapter of his chosen math curriculum to building science experiments and woodworking. I interacted occasionally with local homeschooling groups, though (as stereotypes often allude to) many students in them were homeschooled due to either religious reasons, or due to learning disabilities. Mostly, though, my social interactions were via a local gaming store where I hung out with high school kids playing the card game Magic: the Gathering, and online in games like World of Warcraft, Runescape, and League of Legends.

When I was eleven, the focus of my education pivoted due to my introduction to Allen Gerry, the coach of the local high school math team. I went from being fairly ambivalent towards math (I’d been taking classes through the Art of Problem Solving) to spending most of my waking hours practicing for state competitions. I did so for the next five years–my last competition was a few months before matriculating at Brown.

For three years, my education took on a more traditional homeschooling bent: I began taking classes through the University of Maine (eleven, over the course of three terms and a summer), conducting chemistry research, and filling out a portfolio of activities in preparation of applying to college. I was fourteen when I applied to five schools (my application essays were atrocious, even after weeks of workshopping them), and was waitlisted, then “z-listed” at Brown (accepted after a one-year deferral period.)

Having the benefit of five years of hindsight, the effects of homeschooling on my education were varied: I came in with a huge leg up in introductory computer science and math, and was able to move into advanced (1000-level) courses in my first year at Brown. But, due to the siloed nature of what I’d learned (I had never officially taken a history or biology course, for example) I felt out of place among freshmen who were still eager to engage in academic self-boosterism. Combined with my age, it took me years to adapt to college social life.

Advantages of Homeschooling

I view my academic career as having been shaped almost entirely by four people: my parents, my math team coach, Allen Gerry, and my college advisor, Paul Valiant. Fundamentally, homeschooling was the opportunity to be taught almost solely by one of these four individuals for a decade of my life–and I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.

My education wasn’t shaped by any particular deep academic brilliance in my family. My dad has worked as everything from a woodworker to a researcher in Acadia National Park, and is particularly gifted at teaching, but math and computer science, the bread-and-butter of my childhood, are not his specialty. I view homeschooling, and his teaching, as having granted me three overarching attributes.

First, the absolute self-confidence that comes with being a well-trained autodidact. I’ve never questioned my ability to learn a concept or complete a task, and this has led me to take on brutal quantities of work, jobs, and projects during my college career. I’ve also consistently strove for excellence: If I invest time in studying a topic, I eventually want to be taken as authoritative, not merely knowledgeable. It’s a double-edged sword–I never had delineated boundaries between school and home life, and I’ve consequently struggled to set boundaries on my work in college. Regardless, I regard learning as endless, along with my capacity to learn and change, and I think this has caused me to adopt a form of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Second, a deep and ever-broadening intellectual curiosity. It’s a sad truth that this isn’t a given of every primary school, but the decline of extracurricular activities and the increased importance of standardized testing means that most people never have the opportunity to spend a significant portion of their life exploring topics that they themselves find fascinating. It’s a given that homeschooling (or unschooling) has this in spades, but the direct result is that I still find myself fascinated with everything from comparative literature to biology, and this combines well with the aforementioned skill at being an autodidact.

Third, an appreciation for educational diversity. I’ve had the fortune to study alongside many brilliant people, from those who were similarly homeschooled, to those who attended underfunded public schools, to those from the fanciest preparatory schools in the country. It’s hard to believe in any form of educational orthodoxy when your own education was, by definition, self-defined and self-directed. I chose when to apply to college, chose what areas to study, and have continued to make idiosyncratic choices throughout my subsequent educational career. It’s also emboldened me to break traditional barriers on age and study–from walking uninvited into the offices of professors at fourteen, when I was waitlisted at Brown, to co-founding a startup at fifteen with people decades older than me.

Separately, I’m fairly certain I ended up at Brown because of how closely Brown’s Open Curriculum dovetails with the aims of homeschooling. I had little insight into the differences between top-tier schools when I was applying to them, but I do think homeschooling prepared me particularly well for Brown.

Risks of Homeschooling

I think that my experience dodged the disadvantages of homeschooling in large part, so I prefer to write about risks of homeschooling, not fixed disadvantages. I grew up in an environment where I had access to both the internet and greenhouses, literature and hands-on woodworking. I credit my dad for searching tirelessly for opportunities that would enrich my education–I was only introduced to computer programming when he found Scratch, printed out the manual for the language, and gave it to me. I am certainly biased, but I can’t help but believe this is the hallmark of a successful homeschooling parent: Finding and providing opportunities from across the academic and experiential spectrum, and allowing the kid to choose the ones that are to form the core education.

It should go without saying that the biggest challenge of homeschooling is social: A setting wherein a kid is working from home more often than not produces social isolation (and I’m incapable of relating to many standard middle and high school experiences.) I was raised an only child, doubling down on that risk. I avoided it in two ways. First, by seeking to interject myself in the social world of adults early on. I have no recollection of this, but my parents have told me that as a young kid I regularly expressed my irritation with not being invited to sit among the adults when we had guests over. I also was lucky to have many older mentors, connections made via my parents, who took interest in my academic and personal success and undoubtedly guided me more than I can realize.

Second, I developed strong hobbies, and these led me to find the sparse social connections that existed in my small town. I had some from being a part of the high school math team, some from online math classes, and a few from the private schools my dad would teach at. However, a majority of my pre-college friendships originated from gaming (both in-person and online.) I formed communities with twenty- and thirty-somethings across the world, and would play online games with them on a nightly basis for many years. Looking back, I am astonished that I even had this opportunity–my parents trusted the gamers I spent time with more than I could’ve expected. Yet, these connections were a constant as my homeschooling life evolved (and I’ve retained some of them to this day.)

So, to summarize this point, there is a constant risk of isolation in homeschooling. I think I misidentified as an introvert for many years because I hadn’t figured out normal patterns of social interaction with people my own age. Yet, the cure for this (as a homeschooling parent) isn’t to seek “standard” interactions, but to find specific communities that dovetail with your kid’s interests that can provide encouragement to them. It’s beyond important to have role models (this is true of everyone, obviously), but for homeschooled kids those role models can be drawn from a far wider segment of the populace.

Second, being a homeschooling parent means being discerning about the value of different opportunities. It’s critical for kids to guide their own learning, but no ten-year-old is a good judge for when learning on a specific topic is saturated, or for the other areas of academic interest that are being missed out on. For myself, I wish I’d developed an interest in literature earlier on (I read voraciously, but mostly fantasy or science fiction until I got to college)–an easily corrected flaw, but an example of the more endemic challenges that could present themselves. It’s hard to balance these two competing priorities: breadth is important, but not at the expense of depth, and learning how to properly introduce new topics to a curious mind is more an art than a science.

Third, being socially isolated can cause homeschooled kids to lack expressive skills–I struggled with writing and public speaking, partially due to my age and corresponding lack of worldliness, though thankfully I was able to confront both weaknesses in college. It’s a truism that modern society doesn’t reward academics who can’t communicate their ideas–a trend magnified by the reach of digital communication and the collaborative nature of academic progress. I took part in online writing courses when I was young, and my parents both fervently attempted to instill some level of talent in essay writing, but it took many years of painful papers and broadening experience in the world before I could confidently express my thoughts on paper or from behind a lectern.

So, Should You Homeschool?

It’s impossible to answer this question in any absolute manner. I have plenty of faith in traditional educational institutions, and in many cases, they have a high expected return on investment, with (comparatively) low variance. I was in a unique situation, due to the lack of focus on education in the region where I grew up, my dad’s unique talent as a teacher, and a number of “lucky breaks” that allowed me to form intellectual connections and interests far outside the traditional ambit of homeschooling.

I am generally skeptical of the path of alternating between homeschooling and traditional schooling–it’s not uncommon to hear of people who were homeschooled for two years before returning to traditional school. This isn’t because it’s impossible to produce good outcomes (indeed, most of the people I know with this background are successful by many metrics), but because the motivations between homeschooling and traditional schooling are orthogonal. If traditional excellence at test-taking, extreme breadth in experiences, and a comprehensive college application are the goal, then homeschooling is emphatically not the right path. Homeschooling demands very different skills (from both the parent and kid), and produces very different outcomes when done correctly.

I conclude by saying that the demands of homeschooling on a family are extreme, and I don’t know if I will ever have the dedication to take such a task on myself. Yet, it is one of the few channels remaining that allows kids to explore their own interests (at least, before they get to college) and this type of learning is inherently high variance: It can produce successes in life far before anyone else has the opportunity, but it can also lead to frustrating outcomes due to missing “standard” experiences. It’s impossible to give a conclusive weighing of these pros and cons, but I hope this exposition can at least identify the critical philosophies that define (what I believe to be) a successful homeschooling experience.