An early leader in the homeschooling movement, Manfred Smith has dedicated his life to the field of education. As founder of the Maryland Home Education Association and executive director of Learning Community International, he has helped countless parents, who wanted more for their children than America’s failed educational system had to offer, find the resources they needed.
Today he is laying the groundwork for a new organization, titled The Lyceum College, designed to apply homeschooling principles at the collegiate level. In this interview with the Atlasphere, Smith reflects on the problems with modern schools, the importance of objectivity in education, his experiences homeschooling his own children, and his goals with Lyceum College.
The Atlasphere: How did you become interested in home education?
Manfred Smith: I had been involved since the 60s in what they called the “radical reform school movement” — free schools, Summerhill, and so on. This was one of the reasons why I actually started teaching, because I wanted to change the system, although I eventually learned better.
Then in 1978, I read an article about homeschooling written by John Holt and I immediately knew this was what we were going to do with our own children. Within about a year, I had started the Maryland Home Education Association; but there was nobody else around that we knew, so I put out some information about it through Holt’s magazine, Growing Without Schooling.
I wrote to Holt and we corresponded back and forth for a little while. Eventually, one or two people contacted me in Maryland, and by about 1979 we’d met three other families who were interested in home education — and that’s how it began.
So, we got into homeschooling because we felt it was right for our own children. Instead of sending them to a free school, we just decided to get away from the whole school concept altogether.
TA: What was it in the public school system that you didn’t like, that you wanted home education to replace?
Smith: Well, it wasn’t so much even the public school system; it was disillusionment with the whole schooling concept— with their boxes, with their routines, with all the politics and the nonsense. But our decision wasn’t just about rejecting those things; it was really a lifestyle decision. It isn’t just some kind of educational alternative; it really is a way of life.
TA: And what is special about this lifestyle?
Smith: First of all we have a lot more family continuity. Your children grow up with you all the time; you are around them a lot. In our case — and generally with home schooling families — there is much clearer communication between parents and kids. There’s much more respect. There’s less of shoving them in buses, being not more than an appendage of the school system — meaning checking their homework, making sure they do what they’re supposed to for school, and so on.
With homeschooling, we have a much broader and deeper connection with our kids; and you can see that over time, because there is very little of the typical parent-child conflict and sturm-und-drang that goes on in so many families with school-age children.
The pressures on kids can be quite enormous. The peer pressure to conform to the lowest common denominator really has a negative impact on the kids and on the dynamics of the family. The so-called youth culture pits kids against adults, against their parents, and undermines parental rights. It actually undermines even the children’s rights — though a lot of times they don’t see it that way, of course.
In any case, we’re able to avoid these dynamics, because our kids are home with us.
TA: Is it necessary for one parent not to work, in order to be with the kids at home during the day?
Smith: Generally, especially in the past, that’s certainly the way things started. If the kids are young, naturally you had to have a parent at home. Usually it was the mother. Sometimes it was the father, and sometimes it was both, if they ran their own business.
And then, over the years, what’s happened is that, with the greater creative flexibility we have now, with lots of people homeschooling, you have a much more cooperative situation. For instance, you might have both parents working, and the child might be going with them to work, might be with a grandparent for a while, might be with tutors, or you can have kids doing their own independent study alone at home, because they are twelve or thirteen or fourteen. And neighbors, or another homeschooling family, come in to check on them. Or they may be with another homeschooling family for part of the day.
So “homeschooling” really is a misnomer in many ways. A much better title would be “home-and-community-based learning.” That’s a mouthful, but provides a clearer picture of what is actually going on.
TA: When you started homeschooling, how did your extended family and your community react?
Smith: In our case, people were more curious than anything else. Because I am a teacher and my wife Jeanie has a Masters in Library Science and also a teaching certificate, I guess a lot people thought, “Well, you are teachers.”
TA: And was your teaching experience helpful?
Smith: I knew right from the beginning that teaching was not a good qualification for being a home educator. In fact, it can be an impediment, because what you have to do in the dynamics of a classroom, with other people’s children, is often radically different from the way you have to behave and act with a few children in a much more rational setting, where you can make decisions that are going to be obviously to the best interest of the family and the best interest of the children, as opposed to the interest of political groups — you know, pressure groups, with all the mumbo-jumbo that goes on in public schools and in most private schools, too.
TA: What did you teach in public school?
Smith: I’ve taught social studies and history, although I would infuse all the things I have learned into my classes — philosophy and ethics and everything else.
TA: Did you ever feel a conflict between being a public school teacher and a home educator?
Smith: No, not all. I was paid to teach other people’s children, and my job was to do it as well as I could. Actually, being a home educator really enabled me to be a much better teacher, because I would look at things more in terms of how children learn, because of all the things I was discovering about how my children were learning, which I could then apply in the classroom.
TA: And right now you are also the director of the Maryland Home Education Association.
Smith: Yes, I’ve actually retired from the school system after thirty-two years, so I’m not teaching any more. Right now I am basically the full-time founder and president of the Maryland Home Education Association. I coordinate conferences, write newsletters, help homeschooling families, and so forth.
And I’m also the executive director of The Learning Community International, which is a kind of private school where we have enrolled homeschoolers, to whom we give support and guidance and assistance.
TA: Is it only for homeschooled kids?
Smith: Yes, essentially. There is a day program, but it’s always been a school without walls. We mostly enroll homeschoolers. We do things like home visits, conference calls, high school and K-8 guidance workshops, math and science fairs, and performing arts fairs. We also provide networking opportunities and other services homeschoolers find useful.
It’s a home-and-community-based program of learning that requires a lot of individual responsibility on the part of parents to make it work. Our tuition isn’t thousands of dollars — it’s three or four hundred dollars — and we try to provide as much value for that tuition as we can. But it’s really an individualized program that we’ve set up for parents to pursue the education of their children, following their interests and needs.
TA: I understand you’re also working on a program called “The Lyceum College.”
Smith: Yes, the Lyceum College is the fruition of my work. It’s an independent college program fashioned somewhat after what I’ve learned working with The Learning Community.
My goal with The Lyceum College is to create an independent college program that allows someone to pursue their interests, while bringing in additional support systems, and be able to earn a bachelor’s degree for under $10,000. The objective is to kick open the door of higher education, which has the same school monopoly going on, and a lot of the same bureaucracy found in the K-12 monopoly.
The Lyceum College is still in the planning stage, but we know the basic gist of how it will work. I’m hoping to write up a proposal soon, and there is already a core group of people who are definitely interested on one level or another. My goal is to replicate what we did with home schooling: first there was one, then there were two, then there were four, then there were eight, then there were sixteen.
TA: And you homeschoooled your three children right from the start. How old are your children now?
Smith: My daughter will be 27 soon, my older son will be 23, and my youngest one just turned 17.
TA: Did your two older kids have any problem going on to college after being homeschooled?
Smith: Not at all. In fact, my daughter was the speaker at her University of Maryland graduation, and she graduated summa cum laude, and she had a 4.0 average for all of her studies. She is actually a reporter for the business section of the Baltimore Sun right now.
TA: And your son, the middle one?
Smith: Pretty much the same thing for him. It’s rare for him to get anything less than a perfect score. And he’ll be graduating in December from UMBC in Computer Science. And, my youngest one, he is pretty eclectic; he’s good at just about anything. He likes to write, and he is taking college algebra this fall, and will be taking college math and geology next semester.
TA: Do you think your children have had a sufficient social life while being homeschooled?
Smith: Let’s put it this way: If anybody ever pressed me to give one reason why you should not want to send your kids to a school, that reason would be “socialization.”
If you want your children to become peer-dependent, if you want them to operate by group-think, if you want them to be like everybody else, if you want them to learn how to become the lowest-common-denominator, if — from an Objectivist point of view — you want them to become Peter Keatings, then keep sending them to schools. The school system does a good job of that.
TA: Did Objectivism influence the way you homeschooled your kids?
Smith: I only discovered Objectivism in 1995; but even before that, we were always a very rational household. We’ve always looked for “What is the truth here? What is real here?” I regard Objectivism foremost as a commitment to reality.
By the way, homeschooling households are generally more rational. They are more conversant with literature and mathematics and science; they’re just more competent in these areas usually. So, homeschoolers generally are going to be a more independent lot of people, even the religious ones.
TA: Do you find that homeschooling parents have something in common? Do they tend to come from a specific background, or do they have a specific outlook or political views or religious views, or anything else in common?
Smith: No, not at all. Homeschoolers represent virtually every stratum of society. With regard to income, it ranges from people on welfare who are doing homeschooling, believe it or not, to people who make large sums of money. It includes the right, the left, the middle, and anarchists — we’ve got those, too.
It’s pretty much mainstream, so it includes, of course, some of the mainstream’s problems. For instance, parents who are claiming to be homeschoolers, but they’re really not. They’re just trying to stay under the radar, and are really neglectful. They’re really not educating their kids. Some of them can be outright abusive.
Homeschooling is not a panacea; it requires commitment from the parents.
TA: Let’s get into the method of homeschooling. How does it work? Did you tell your kids what they have to study, or did you give them options so they could choose? How do you make them learn without a structure?
Smith: First of all, you have to understand that there’s a vast difference between “learning” and “schooling.” It’s interesting how you just said that, “make them.” That’s often what has to happen in schools: “ram it down their throats.” We all know the result of that. As soon as they are done with school, a large percentage of this population will never pick up a book and read it again. This is one of the things we wanted to avoid with our own children, and homeschoolers in general want to avoid.
In reality, children are natural learners. I mean, we didn’t have to do much. Of course, we got them from the beginning — not after they’d been damaged from years of schooling.
My wife and I always read and think and do things, and are involved, so of course our kids are like that, too. With our kids, we would try to find different materials, like math lab materials. And we used the public library extensively.
We’d read hundreds and hundreds of books to our kids; and eventually, as they learned to read, they would read much more themselves. And we continued to read with them. Even now, with my son who’s in high school, we often do joint reading. In our history work, for example, we used two copies of the same book; my son would read a section, and I would read it at the same time.
And we would discuss things, or raise questions. This is how we can bring in a lot of philosophical clarity, in terms of saying “Look at this — this is what happens when you take this pragmatic point of view. Anything goes, and now the situation gets worse. Do you see what happens here?” You can really point that out, and it’s a very tutorial relationship.
Our kids learned what they wanted to learn, and we just gave them everything they needed in order to learn. Kids are natural learners, because it’s right in front of their face: trees, rocks, blue sky, birds — so it’s a very perceptual, very inductive learning. It’s absorbed right in their head.
As they get older, once they move from perceptual learning to conceptual learning, that requires, as we know, a volitional effort of the learner. Now, if you’ve got kids who love to learn and are not turned-off and damaged, that process goes much smoother. It generally doesn’t require making kids sit down, and cramming things down their throat. It does require a more rational approach, saying, “Okay, for this child who’s not ready to read yet, we’re going to do more reading — but look, she can do mathematics at a high level. Let’s get the math materials to her at the level she can work at.”
But what happens in school? First grade: “This is what we do in first grade. Here’s our little box.” The kids who are smart, they get turned off, they get bored, they become a problem. The kids who are not ready to do reading or writing or math at that level, what happens to them? Well, obviously, they also become turned-off or bored, or they become labeled as “slow learners,” et cetera.
You can see the whole thing is really irrational, because it does not take the child’s individual needs, ability, and readiness into consideration when making a program. It’s more or less “one size fits all.” If you don’t fit in, you are wrong. And that’s, of course, a very irrational approach, which has negative consequences on the individual, on the family, on the society, and on our future.
TA: Home education has been growing fast across the U.S. recently. Do you foresee that it will eventually take over and replace formal schooling?
Smith: No, but certainly homeschooling has had a widespread impact on our society, because for the first time, the school monopoly, both public and private, is being challenged. By the way, most private schools are not much better than public schools, because they only have to be a little better than public schools to attract students.
So, what’s happening now is you have a real true alternative that says, “Hey, we do it like this. Kids pick up, they learn, we sit there, read with them. Hell, they’re smarter and they’re much more interested in learning than the typical schooled child.”
And, it doesn’t require billions of dollars of money to educate the kids; it just requires a rational approach. So, for the first time since the last century, schools are being held up under a microscope, or held up to public scrutiny, because you have a real alternative to compare them to — to compare what’s going on in schools, with billions of dollars of investment, to what’s going on with these parents, some of whom don’t even have a high school diploma, and yet their children are turning out to be really good students and good learners.
So, I think this is the first impact that homeschooling is having on the schooling monopoly — which, by the way, is exactly what my goal is with The Lyceum College: to break the monopoly of higher education.
Manfred Smith recommends the following web sites for learning more about homeschooling: The Maryland Home Education Association and John Holt's Growing Without Schooling.
Michelle Fram Cohen wishes to thank Atlasphere member and business writer Robert Benz for his assistance transcribing this interview.