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In 2018, at the height of my public engagement on the competency-based curriculum, the concept of homeschooling gained prominence media discussions on education. In a few interviews, journalists asked me if homeschooling was an alternative to CBC and public schooling. I answered from my experience of having taught homeschooled students in my university classrooms in both the US and Kenya, saying that some of the students whom I consider outstanding were homeschooled.

In hindsight, I now see that I was naïve, and that I fell into a trap that I did not know I had fallen into. I understood the trap after I criticised a media report on homeschooling and received an unexpected and persistent backlash from homeschooling parents.

Before I talk about the news report, I need to clarify the following. I am not making a personal critique of the parents involved or their children. In a free world, making this caveat would be unnecessary, but not in Kenya which has such an entrenched anti-intellectual and passive-aggressive culture that is used to bully and harass Kenyans when we dare to discuss anything social. The first response in the anti-intellectual and passive-aggressive toolkit is usually to brand commentary on social phenomena as attacks on specific people, or in Christian parlance, as “judging others”.

Secondly, education is more than just the personal choices of select families. I will address this neoliberal ideology of choice further in the article, but for now, let’s say that the project of education is a complex one where we must ask not only about individuals, but also about the society. Education requires complex thinking, which once again takes us back to Kenya’s anti-intellectual public and institutional culture, a culture that seeks to alienate complex thinking from public discourse. And finally, by virtue of that argument, a debate on whether children should go to an institution or school at home is not the interest of this article.

Education mumbo jumbo

Following the closure of schools last year to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the government and the complacent Kenyan media offered parents the option of covering the curriculum at home. The manner in which this endeavour was packaged is troubling, because it mixed terms which seasoned educators know refer to different types of education. On their twitter handle, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) talked of “home based learning”, which misleads parents into thinking that they now have access to homeschooling which normally only a minority can afford. However, what KICD was really offering is curriculum content that is broadcast on radio and TV. In yet another tweet, KICD introduced yet another term, “digital curriculum” while announcing content available on the KICD cloud.

The media played its part in this muddying of the Kenyan public awareness. KTN reported about a homeschooling family that was teaching an unnamed curriculum to the children. In a twist that once again made CBC and homeschooling strange bedfellows, the parent talked of choosing homeschooling to develop the children’s “talent”, an argument which the government has also made about the new education system.

The concept of talent is problematic. “Talent” gives parents the impression that their children are receiving an arts education and that the education system is addressing parents’ desire for opportunities that do not emphasize academic performance. In reality, however, “talent” in the new education system refers to the pathway for children whose performance might most likely be determined by their limited access to resources.

For an arts educator like me, this jumble of different elements of education was too much to bear. I ranted on Facebook that the middle class are in over their heads, and that they were choosing to run away from the public education system without understanding the philosophical implications of the education choices they were making for their children.

Head start in an unfair race

I was not surprised by the parents who responded that teaching is best done by parents, because this argument, again ironically, was also made by KICD when they were marketing CBC as unique because of its “parental involvement”. “Parental involvement” in CBC found fertile ground in the middle class, which had, for the 40 years that the American evangelical movement has been in Kenya, consumed family enrichment programmes such as James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family”.

What I did not anticipate was the persistent rebuttal of certain Kenyans who refused to address the points I was making.

Their first line of defence was that I don’t know what I am talking about because I have not met any homeschooling parents, and I should only comment on homeschooling when I meet them. They did not clarify how they determined that. They would repeat this line even after I pointed out that sample size, a question of method, still did not respond to the philosophical question I was raising. When I insisted on my position, they started talking about me in the third person on my wall, about my character and what colleagues say about me. For a group of people who insist that their education raises Christian children, this conversation was weird.

I was not surprised by the parents who responded that teaching is best done by parents.

When the snide comments on my wall persisted, I asked why it was so important that I support homeschooling, even against my own conscience. Because I am a prominent voice on education, I was told.

That answer struck me as odd. As an advocate of good public education, especially for the poor, why would my voice on education matter to homeschoolers? After all, I had been emphatic that we should have a public education system that is so good, that parents would choose a different type of schooling for reasons other than running away from the public system.

More than that, what I was saying about arts and education was not at all new. The argument I made about “talent” as a replacement for the arts is the same one I had made when criticizing the public education system.

That was when it occurred to me that for my critics, my argument was fine as long as I restricted it to the public education system, because then I articulated a case for homeschooling as the alternative to the public school system. That is what the media was referring to when they asked me about homeschooling. It was essentially another way of asking, “How do I protect my own children from this clearly botched public system?”

At some point, some were brazen in their assumption that I was a voice for homeschooling. At various times, homeschooling advocates reached out to me, tried to twist my tweets as support for homeschooling, and were adamant in refusing to listen to my clarification that criticizing public education did not mean I was advocating for homeschooling. Others even reached out to me to join a court case they were pursuing to get the government to include homeschooling in the Basic Education Act.

The exchange on Facebook made me realize that there was a pattern in the behaviour towards me. Even in encounters with homeschooling advocates two years ago, they were politely and patronizingly rude, refusing to engage in my arguments despite my responding to theirs. I now understand that they were trying to shut me down from commenting on homeschooling since I was their PR person in their justification as to why they were avoiding the public education system.

So far, I have mentioned two points of convergence between CBC and homeschooling: the idea of talent, and the emphasis on the nuclear family as the primary space of education.

There is a third convergence between CBC and homeschooling: the neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalism is an ideology that is committed to destroying the social aspect of life. Its vision of humanity was famously articulated by Margaret Thatcher as follows, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” The goal of neoliberalism is to fragment society so much, that individuals become independent and isolated atoms that never collaborate. And the reason is obvious: collaboration is always a challenge to power and profit.

Others even reached out to me to join a court case they were pursuing to get the government to include homeschooling in the Basic Education Act.

Neoliberalism is a complete contradiction to education, because education is necessarily an affirmation of society. When we take children to school, it is because we want children to relate with the world and people outside the family. So there is no education without all of us asking, together, with whom children will interact, and what we want for all the children, not just for some children.

This means that the best education for individuals is the education that wants the best for society as well. What disturbs the status quo about my thinking on education is not that I am opposing the government programmes. It is that I am saying that for us to have a coherent, humane education system for individual children, we must think about all aspects of society – including the economy – differently. At the risk of sounding absolute, there is no good education for a child if there is no good education for all children.

If, as my critics say, they want the best education for their children, then they must articulate a vision for SOCIETY that goes beyond them trying to force me to accept that an individual (bourgeois) family is a substitute for society. Yet at every turn, they block that conversation and get upset when I insist on it.

Which leads us to a deeper, more disturbing paradox.

The homeschoolers want to have their cake and eat it. They want to privately benefit from ideas on how to treat individual teachers and the classroom, but they want those ideas removed from the social thinking from which it springs. They want to use social thinking to give their children a head start in a privatized status quo. That is why my ideas are useful to them when I’m talking about teaching and children, but not when I ask broader social questions that influence decisions about content and teaching in the classroom. But for me, one comes from the other. Social thinking and how we educate children are inseparable, hence the need to bully me by restricting my discussions to the public education system.

So in essence, homeschooling and government schooling are not opposed; they are collaborators. Homeschooling gives children not an alternative, but a head start in meeting the demands of KICD and the private sector. As one advocate put it, with homeschooling, “good moral and mental habits, high academic achievement and success in career are almost guaranteed.” Questions about whether the government or economic system we have is human, fair or efficient, is outside their purview. After all, to afford homeschooling, one is already doing well in the system as it currently exists. So if the private sector says it wants not just certificates but also a compliant character that is, ironically, authentic, homeschooling gives children a head start in moulding such a person.

This means that in an environment of extreme inequality where only 2 per cent of Kenyans have a university education, homeschooling will create a hyper social class has lacks either the interest or the worldview to improve the public education system, because they benefit from having an edge in it.

Homeschooling and mainstream media

This collaboration between homeschooling and public schooling becomes clear when one examines media reporting on homeschooling. Using the discussion on homeschooling on NTV Kenya’s morning show Living with Ess as a sample, a number of common features emerge from these shows.

The shows which host a discussion on homeschooling are the morning shows that are typically about lifestyle. On NTV, it was Living with Ess, on KTN recently, it was Morning Express, and on Ebru TV, it was on Being Mommy. The fact that the hosts are mainly women, and that homeschooling is associated with motherhood, as on Ebru TV, shows a clear imperial and evangelical ideology about the role of women in the nuclear family.

These types of broadcasts necessarily imply that there is no debate or critique of homeschooling, as we would expect of the more overtly political shows. Similarly, the same type of show essentially packages homeschooling as a lifestyle choice or consumer product, when homeschooling is fundamentally a political choice.

At the risk of sounding absolute, there is no good education for a child if there is no good education for all children.

For instance, in the Living with Ess episode, homeschooling is presented as shielding children from the competitive culture that dominates institutionalized education. Yet, as I have explained, the reality is that children who are homeschooled ARE still competing. They are just getting an edge over the others. This is confirmed by the show providing a list of American celebrities and an interview with an employee who was homeschooled.

The symbol of advantage of homeschooling is typically arts education, subjects that the Ministry of Education, the media and the private sector typically fights against through misrepresenting the arts and frustrating artists. The end result is that children in public schools are unlikely to get an arts education, a situation that is highly discriminatory against poor children but is politically deliberate.

The ideology of homeschooling is the neoliberal ideology of choice, which ignores the reality that options for choice are not equally available to all. Some time back, the media reported about a woman from a poor Nairobi neighbourhood who was arrested because she chose not to take her children to school for religious reasons. This discrimination becomes glaring when one considers that homeschooling in Kenya is largely informed by religion.

I’m sure I have disappointed some parents who may have wanted a balance sheet about the pros and cons of public or institutionalized education and of homeschooling. But what I am saying, in essence, is that with education, we cannot avoid political questions about what kind of society we want. The lesson of COVID-19 is that our standard of living is only as good as the standard of living of the poorest among us.

It takes a village

So in conclusion, let me clarify the following: Parents perform a unique role in children’s lives that cannot be replicated by any form of schooling. Lessons of identity, character, love and work ethic are taught by parents and extended family. No school can provide those. It is this love that should compel parents to make political demands of the public education system and of public culture as a whole.

Homeschooling is not simply about learning from parents alone. Whoever designs or informs the curriculum which the parent is teaching the child also has a huge role in moulding the child’s consciousness. While many Kenyans may think that this does not matter for children, it has political and psychological implications when the children become adults, and not just for the children, but for the entire society. Therefore, homeschooling is not the absence of state in a child’s education; it is a choice about what kind of state.

Accessing curriculum materials online is not necessarily homeschooling, or “digital learning”. Accessing digital materials is simply that, and it is no different from using a textbook. It does not necessarily translate into better education.

Online learning refers to education conducted almost entirely online, when meeting physically is the rare exception rather than the norm. Kenyans should know that online learning success rate is terrible, especially for adults who do not already have a strong background in the traditional face-to-face learning.

The media and KICD are misleading the public when they refer to use of materials online or on broadcast media as “digital learning”. The desire for online learning is a project that the president has flirted with since he was the Finance and the Education Minister in the Kibaki government and it is designed to deny poor children in public schools access to education provided by human teachers.

The ideology of homeschooling is the neoliberal ideology of choice, which ignores the reality that options for choice are not equally available to all.

That parents are the best teachers of children is a claim that is not necessarily true and is definitely not ideologically neutral. The claim comes from a specifically ideological project, and for Africans, especially those who use the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, this ideological project is troubling.

Incidentally, the same argument applies to CBC, where the state has decided to intervene directly in families in the name of promoting “parental involvement”, but the involvement is modelled on the Eurocentric middle-class Christian nuclear family. If anything, one would argue that in Kenya, homeschooling ideologically paves the way for privatization of public education.

Homeschooling converges with CBC in its ideology of talent, parental involvement and employment. It therefore does not offer alternative education but simply an alternative venue and facilitator.

Although parents often feel that they are making a practical choice between homeschooling and institutional education, my argument here is that this is not a real choice. Homeschooling is as good, or as flawed, as public schooling.

At this time of the COVID-19 pandemic this analogy may, hopefully, warn us against complacency about public education. Just like the middle class is vulnerable to a pandemic if the poor don’t have healthcare, it is also vulnerable to the cost of ignorance when the poor are getting a bad education. And public education is wider than schooling. It includes culture, festivals, arts, research, publishing, public libraries, public spaces like parks, museums, playgrounds and halls. In other words, anywhere where people can get together and learn from each other.