Susan Wise Bauer | Homeschooling, History, and the Foundation of Science

Our guest today is historian and educator Susan Wise Bauer. A respected and well known name in the homeschooling world, Susan has spent much of her career developing reliable resources and curricula for homeschoolers. She walks us through her own experiences with, emerging trends in, and the biggest issues facing the homeschooling world today. A Christian, Susan also reflects on the reciprocal relationship between devout theistic faith and careful science.

To be fair, overall I am not a supporter of homeschooling. I listened to this interview with Susan Wise Bauer to see, if I could learn anything that would help me understand the enormous historical homeschool trend in the area where I live and it’s broad expansion. She confirmed most of what I already suspected, which concerns me even more deeply. At least in that way, the interview was informative.

My purpose in responding to the podcast, however, has to do with a number of statements Bauer made that are simply wrong, biased or unjustified without examples. I have included time stamps, Jim’s questions, and the segments of Bauer’s answers that warrant response.

19:35
Stump:
Okay, how about this, then how do you respond when people ask for your advice on whether they should homeschool their kids? Is this for everybody? Or what are the pros and cons are, other important factors that want to be considered?

Bauer:
It’s certainly not for everybody. I mean, it does for one thing require that both parents aren’t doing 50 hour work weeks. Somebody’s got to teach the kids. Somebody’s got to run things. It depends a lot on whether your family situation allows one or both of you to take on that responsibility.

While Bauer probably intends to encourage families with romantic ideals regarding homeschooling to be realistic, her example of both parents working 50 hours it’s optional or part of a greedy, consumeristic life style. For many families, who already barely make ends meet, and who have children whose needs may not be able to be met in the public schools in their areas, homeschooling could be a good option, if they weren’t living lives complicated by poverty and terrible living conditions. She sounded blithely unaware of people whose lives are different from hers.

21:30
Stump:
Is there a concern, particularly as kids get older, and topics become more specialized and technical, that the average parent isn’t equipped to be a teacher of those things? I mean, teachers go to school to learn how to become teachers, right?

Bauer:
Actually, that’s an interesting point. Teachers go to school to learn how to become elementary and middle school teachers. People study subjects in order to be effective high school and college teachers. My mother has an education degree and was a licensed certified teacher. And she always used to tell people that most of what she learned in her education classes was classroom management. It wasn’t how to teach, it was how to teach a group, it was how to effectively get information across to 25 or 30 students at a time.

This claim is blatantly wrong. It is the kind of misinformation that many homeschoolers may use to justify their decision, but it is not true. I finished my basic teacher education in 1990, at least 30 years after Bauer’s mother (who we know is around 86). 32 years ago, I had an introductory general methods/ed philosophy course that applied to all secondary subjects. Additionally, although I was an expert in two fields, I had multiple rigorous teaching methods classes in both subject areas. Beyond that I had a course in teaching literacy and reading in all subjects, for which I was required to prepare lessons and materials targeted at teaching literacy and reading in both my major and minor areas. I had coursework in teaching writing as well, which was part of my minor. I also completed a semester of observation and hands on work with students, that is pre-student teaching, and a semester of student teaching, in which I was responsible for teaching 3 German classes and observing in two English classes.

During the years that I taught high school, I worked with student teachers, who had had even more rigorous training than I had had. Their training also included an entire year of independent student teaching.

Bauer must stop relying on these falsehoods.

She goes on, in regard to parents teaching specialized subjects:

That is a very specialized skill and that is something that does need training. It needs training, and it needs skill. But to teach subjects one on one with your own child, you really need resources, you need to know where to go to find tutors, online classes, and online tutors, the expanse of resources for home educators who want to do science and math, really, even if they’re not scientists or mathematicians, well, has just expanded enormously.

She implies that parent at home merely need to substitute expertise in specialized subject with access to resources. Providing one’s child with tutors, online classes, online tutors and workbook curriculum is no more “teaching” than the thing she claims secondary classroom teachers are doing.

32:55
Stump:
…Can you speak at all to science education in general in this regard, not just within home schools, but what’s the place of science education within the educational system as a whole? And what do we need to be doing better in that regard?

Bauer:
…If science is a philosophy, science is a way of understanding the world that has some built in assumptions. Some assumptions that should be questioned, some assumptions that have to be accepted, if you’re going to do science, other assumptions that you ought to push back against. If we were able to approach science in that way, science education could become like learning literature, like learning history, a way of understanding who we are, because we’re looking at the past, we’re looking at how we’ve come to understand the world, and how that affects what we do every single day.

Without examples, her claims about assumptions make no sense. There may be better ways of teaching science to school kids, but she never addresses that. Science is not a philosophy and science education does not work like teaching literature. Each branch of science includes a broad and deep specialized vocabulary, sets of concepts and skills, which are simply not debatable. What would she push back against? Without real examples, she makes no argument.

And the arrogance of many, particularly 20th century scientists writing for a popular audience, who say with complete and total certainty things that they cannot be completely and totally certain about, can be very, very off putting. Not only that, let’s just really pull this back around to education. If you treat science in this way, as this infallible guide, then the only way to study it is basically to just memorize everything that it tells you, right?

No, this is not right.
Again, she needs examples of the arrogant scientists, and why they are wrong. Additionally, she needs to explain how this arrogance affects classroom learning, which she does not.
“Arrogant” scientists writing for the popular audience do not make science classes boring for kids. If the course is boring, it has to do with how it’s taught, which is an unrelated matter.

37:42
Stump:
…Being a philosopher of science myself, let me ask you a little further, if you can make a distinction at all between saying that science is a philosophy, versus there certainly being philosophical assumptions that are that you can’t escape. But is there some distinction in your mind between the methods of science? Is there any way of demarcating, this is when we’re doing science over here, and this is when we’re doing other kinds of disciplines? Or are those lines so fuzzy, in your view, that it all just kind of runs together?

Bauer:
…That’s the thing about fuzzy lines, fuzzy lines really inspire people to make concrete pronouncements…Let me give … an example of what I mean. When you are in elementary and middle school, and you first learn about the atom, you got this model of an atom, where you’ve got the nucleus, and you’ve got the electrons circling the nucleus. And it looks like the solar system, right? … It’s the model that we have created to represent a reality that’s really hard to get hold off, right? Most people never learn that they never learn that they were taught a lie and that the teaching of the lie was in order to get them closer to the truth. That’s a really hard thing to do.

Jim tried again. Bauer failed again, even worse this time.
Using models of atoms or anything else (planes, lines, rays, chemical bonds, sentence diagrams, aerodynamics, statistical data, relational database structures, etc.) is a normal way of helping humans graps unseeable concepts. They are not lies. If Bauer thinks we should teach students more overtly what a model is and when they are working with a model, then great. But using models is a normal part of concept building in all sorts of areas of information.

While I learned some things from this interview, these false and biased claims of Bauer’s can’t just stand unchallenged.

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Interesting observations, Kendel. I think you have some valid criticisms, yet think perhaps you are holding someone in an unformatted interview to a high standard that perhaps is unreasonable considering that it is off the cuff. Still, just as a parent cannot adequately teach all subjects, so can no single high school teacher (though I know a few that could come close) and the key to doing well is recognizing those limitations, and finding the resources to fill the gaps.

Phil, I agree with you that high school teachers can’t adequately teach all subjects. I’m pushing hard against Bauer’s erroneous claim that high school teachers are not adequately trained in the teaching methods that are appropriate to their subjects of expertise. She claimed, based on her mother’s experience training as a teacher, that high school and college teachers are only trained in classroom management. That is simply wrong.

She uses this wrong claim to strengthen her characterization of one-on-one parent teaching in a home-schooling situation. Yet, her description of the praxis (tutors, etc.) is, to my thinking, worse than kids being taught by a well-trained expert teacher in school.

I understand this was an unformatted interview, but Bauer seemed very clear on her talking points regarding inadequate teacher training, science as philosophy, arrogant scientists and the “lie” perperated by the use of models). She emphazied a number of times, particularly regarding the last 3 topics, that she had written a book that covered them. I expect she knew what she wanted to say regarding these matters.,

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Yes,Ihave known high school teachers who were great, and others that just read out of the text book. I have concerns as to some homeschool parents’ ability to be effective teachers. It was tough enough doing drivers ed with my kids, much less doing the full meal deal.
I think with the changes Covid has brought, more parents homeschooling or going to perhaps questionably staffed private schools is a reality. It remains to be seen how well that will all play out.

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I don’t think she is saying or supporting this. My daughter took AP US history last year at Bauer’s Well Trained Mind Academy. It was taught by a woman with a Master’s who formerly taught at a brick and mortar school. She was super qualified, as are all the instructors at the online school she runs. They have teaching licenses and almost all have a master’s or a PhDs. Bauer doesn’t have anything against teachers and actually suggests that you farm out homeschooling to teachers qualified to teach the subject when your kids get to middle school and high school. I believe that is what she did with her own kids, partly because she was working full time teaching at William and Mary and like she said, homeschooling is time intensive. You can’t just hand your kids books and expect them to learn stuff on their own.

I think most of what she is saying is a reaction to the conservative homeschool world she deals with, not directed toward people who are happy with the public schools option. In the conservative homeschool world the narratives are anyone can homeschool even if they barely graduated high school, it’s the right choice for every family even if your kids have special needs or you can’t adequately pay attention to all of them because you had ten kids, parents can teach any and every subject because they can just learn along with the kids if they have a book. I think she was actually saying the opposite of what you heard. She is always promoting not being the only one educating your kids because they deserve qualified subject matter experts who are passionate about their field.

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The words that she said are below with Jim’s question. Additionally, In my original comments I accurately quoted the words that she said. Those are the words I have to work with. Perhaps she did not accurately convey her thoughts on the matter. But I understood the words that came out of her mouth, that is, what she said.
Whatever she intended to communicate, she prefaced by misrepresenting all highschool and college teachers’ ability to teach in their subject areas by bringing into doubt their preparation for teaching their subjects. She did this by referring to her mother’s teacher training, which probably took place in the 1960s. I have been listening to public schools and public teachers being misrepresented by christians and christian organizations since I was a pupil in them myself. I won’t let this slide.

I am well acquainted with under-educated homeschoolers and their need for resources that teach the subject matters for them. Clinton and Gratiot Counties in Michigan are filled with them. Most of the people from my former church come from those counties and about half the families from the church homeschool. Additionally, the culture among most of the home-schoolers I know puts horrifically low emphasis on the education of girls. This is the culture the homeschool heads, the mothers, were raised in, and it’s the one they bring their daughters up in. They need excellent resources, but are unable to evaluate the content of most of them and rely on “who they trust.”

But Bauer did not limit her discussion of the need for reliable resources. Rather she began that discussion by (falselyj claiming that high school teachers are not prepared in the teaching methods for their subject areas, buth rather mere classroom management. (Read or listen for yourself. I have, many times.) These (false and misleading) comments precede her explanation for the way homeschoolers effectively teach these subjects with resources. So, the homeschooler armed with the right resources is better prepared than the expert in her subject matter is, because her training was in classroom management, not methods of teaching her subject effectively. Honestly, I hope this is not what Bauer hoped to communicate or what she believes. But it is the way she presents in the interview.

Rather than arguing that I have misheard what she said, or misunderstood what she intended to communicate, it would be more fruitful to direct the interested to Bauer’s work that better addresses the concerns I identified from the interview.

I am not interested in further arguing this matter. I have made valid points based on what Bauer communicated in interview, and arguing that I misunderstood her based on my only access with her thinking is pointless. Anyone who listenens to this interview, who is not already a friend of homeschooling, will likely pick up on the problem areas I have identified. Again, I recommend, rather than arguing with me about this, that you remedy the deficiencies of her interview comments with links to articles or the like that better explain what she perhaps intended to communicate.

Stump:

Is there a concern, particularly as kids get older, and topics become more specialized and technical, that the average parent isn’t equipped to be a teacher of those things? I mean, teachers go to school to learn how to become teachers, right?

Bauer:

Actually, that’s an interesting point. Teachers go to school to learn how to become elementary and middle school teachers. People study subjects in order to be effective high school and college teachers. My mother has an education degree and was a licensed certified teacher. And she always used to tell people that most of what she learned in her education classes was classroom management. It wasn’t how to teach, it was how to teach a group, it was how to effectively get information across to 25 or 30 students at a time. That is a very specialized skill and that is something that does need training. And my hat is off to teachers who do this effectively, because it is a tough, tough job. It needs training, and it needs skill. But to teach subjects one on one with your own child, you really need resources, you need to know where to go to find tutors, online classes, books, curricula, you need to know where to get help with the subject areas. And I would say certainly, since we’re talking about science in the area of science, particularly as you get into late middle school and high school, that has always been one of the weakest areas for home educators. But with the rise of online classes, and online tutors, the expanse of resources for home educators who want to do science and math, really, even if they’re not scientists or mathematicians, well, has just expanded enormously.

I’m not defending the way she made her point here. I’m saying your interpretation of what she meant (justified as you may think it is from the words she said) isn’t consistent with what she has communicated elsewhere and her own practice, that’s all. She is a college professor herself, at a well-respected college, not some fundie institution. I taught adjunct at W&M for a semester in the English department filling in for someone on maternity leave and I went to staff meetings with her. She is a normal educator who very much respects the idea of liberal arts education and preparing students to be successful on standardized tests and in college. She’s not some patriarchy weirdo who thinks girls should learn to cook. She thinks girls should be equipped to get PhDs, like she did. The whole Well Trained Mind crowd is very different from the homeschoolers you know. Many are college professors or former teachers with gifted kids. (I have to psych myself up before going on the WTM forum, because it’s easy to get an inferiority complex when you see what a lot of these parents are doing with their kids and what their kids are achieving.) Although SWB is a Christian, her material is secular and so are the classes her school offers, and many of the people who follow her classical model are not religious, so you don’t have that fundamentalist indoctrination aspect you find in the Gothard/Bob Jones/A Beka homeschooling crowd.

When I read the part you quoted, I think she is highlighting a difference between elementary teacher prep and secondary teacher prep, not intending to make the main point that teacher prep is worthless. Elementary teachers do not typically specialize in a particular subject matter, whereas secondary ed teachers and college teachers do. I agree that it distracts from this and is confusing to say her mother didn’t learn “how to teach.” But then she goes on to say she did learn “how to teach a group,” which is teaching. I think the point is that one-on-one tutoring for elementary school age is different than running a classroom, which is true. I don’t see where she implies at all that if you have the right resources you are better prepared than a classroom teacher to teach a subject, she is saying you don’t need classroom management skills like a classroom teacher is trained in, you need to understand the subjects (like secondary ed or college teachers do) or rely on others who do by seeking out tutors, online classes, and other resources prepared by people with that training.

I am personally not sold on the superiority of the “classical model” and I also find people who are all into it to come across as arrogant and condescending toward other educational models at times. But I don’t think it’s true that parents using that model are encouraged to disrespect teachers or subject matter experts. They just disagree with some of the typical methods used to teach in public schools and prefer other methods. Homeschooling or private tutoring allows you to take a different approach in a lot of areas because it is one-on-one teaching and you can do things with one student that a classroom teacher cannot do with a whole group.

Bauer does not believe that everyone should homeschool. She wrote a whole book on navigating the public school system to get the best experience possible for gifted students and students with other learning differences. It’s not adversarial: “Rethinking School advises you on how to suggest changes and make decisions for your own child while still remaining respectful and supportive of the teacher and school.”

From her book, The Well Trained Mind, which you can read online here: http://mis.kp.ac.rw/admin/admin_panel/kp_lms/files/digital/SelectiveBooks/Education/The_Well-Trained_Mind%20by%20SUSAN%20WISE%20BAUER%20JESSIE%20WISE.pdf

“Not everyone who uses this book will want to join the ranks of full-time homeschoolers. Although much in this book (and most of the information in Part IV) will be useful to parents who are educating their children completely at home, the information on teaching each subject and the resource lists that follow each chapter will help you supplement the education of a child who’s already in school. Every involved parent is a home educator.”

The first paragraph of the book acknowledges that some people are fortunate enough to live where public schools provide an excellent education. A lot of people don’t though.

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She recently has received a lot of blowback on a Facebook post for acknowledging that homeschooling IS a privilege.

I think the sacrifice of time is looked as an “important factor to be considered” (Jim’s words), and not necessarily an endorsement or not understanding that people need to work… She understands it deeply! Many people who choose to homeschool have to make large sacrifices in order to do so.

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That seems to work for me at this point on math and science, other than exams.

*the majority of kids

I have a son who learns a lot of math and science and computer programming on his own. But not so much in the subjects he doesn’t like.

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I knew a young man very much like that, threescore years ago. ; - )

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Bauer had some interesting things to say about home schooling and curriculum during the first half of the interview. I found that fascinating and informative. Then in the second half she launched into attacking teachers, scientists, science textbooks, and the practice of science using a bunch of strawmen and outright fallacies.
I get that it is an interview, and you want to give your guest latitude to speak and share their perspective. And we aren’t all going to agree on everything. But there are differences of how to interpret the facts and then there are straight up misrepresentation or being wrong on the facts and she didn’t get challenged on anything. Which is a big problem with modern journalism too- never asking a follow-up question when someone is evading a question or spouting obvious “alternative facts”.
I’m annoyed. And I know it’s coming through strong here. And I’m coming off as a bit arrogant myself. (That is the sin I struggle with most, I think.) But this was the most frustrating interview I’ve ever heard on BioLogos. I’m going to post each point separately to make it easier for people to read/respond.

Edit: Nevermind that. I’m not allowed to post more than 3 posts. So here comes the blog:

1.“Teachers are basically experts primarily in classroom management” Hogwash. Teachers are taught how to teach- how to take complex systems and subjects and then break them down into basic components, find creative ways to help students understand it and to fit those individual bits of info into a cohesive system. The average parent does not simply lack content knowledge and a curriculum. I have a PhD in the biological sciences. I have way more content knowledge than the average person in math and science. But you know who tutors our kids with their homework? My wife who is an elementary teacher. She is amazing at helping them understand in ways I cannot begin to fathom how to even start with them.

I teach at a university. And I teach within my specialty. It is utterly laughable and unprofessional to expect me to teach competently outside of it. If someone handed me a curriculum for early 20th century American literature and told me I could teach a class with that, even at a middle school level, I (and any other reasonably honest teacher/professor without the expertise) would defer unless we were an amateur literature nerd.

2.“science textbooks are full of lies, the atom doesn’t look like that” Lies require intent to deceive. Like all the history books that claim the founders of America were good Christians or that slaves were treated well or gloss over the genocide of Native Americans. Using models to understand complex subjects is completely different. The actual world is incredibly complicated. We use models and generalized systems to try and help people grasp the general concept. When we tell kids where babies come from we don’t tell them all the details of sex or when we talk to general audiences about the development of babies, we don’t go into all the fine details of embryology. We tell them “when a mommy and daddy love each other very much, they make a baby together”. When we talk about fetal development we talk about a fertilized egg dividing and dividing until it grows into a fully developed baby. Showing that model of an atom to teach physics or using detached earlobes to teach genetics (even though it is far more complicated) is no different.

3.“science textbooks are so arrogant. they don’t address the history of figuring out the science.” No. They don’t. Science class would be 4x as long. We try to teach the facts and the systems as we understand them. Do we teach people the study of history and how we decided what would be in the history books or how we tell the (heavily simplified) stories of peoples we find in there? No. We could do better at both of those things though and I think students would benefit, but we are not going to teach the entire history of scientific discovery.

But I also think that the reason many conservative Christians want science books or courses to teach how scientific understanding has changed (or to “teach the controversy”) is to sow distrust and reflect their distrust of the scientific process and our present scientific knowledge. We are still developing scientific understanding of the universe, yes. But there are some things that are just not going to change. We are never going to change our general understanding that the common cold is caused by a rhinovirus infecting the nasal mucosa or that our sense of odor is from molecules of substances triggering various receptors or that the moon and sun cause tides or that proteins are coded by sets of 3 bases in our DNA which each code for an amino acid, building a chain and the interaction of those side groups cause the protein to take on a particular shape and function (some details will likely change, yes). On other things like did velociraptors really have feathers or why do we need sleep or how do neurons code for thoughts we freely admit we think we have some ideas and some data that supports certain a hypothesis, but we are still figuring things out.

4.“Scientists are so arrogant in the way they present things.” She has never seen or talked to a scientist besides Dawkins or NDT. The vast majority of scientists that I know (and I spent 10 years working in public universities, going to many scientific conferences) or read are quite humble about their work. Science requires both a dogged determination to try and try and try to show how a hypothesis might be correct, but also the humility to admit when the data does not support it. This is also why we have peer review, to help give us accountability and an outside evaluation. The pathway between the scientists’ presenting of their findings and how it is presented in popular media, though…

5.“Science has flourished primarily in monotheistic cultures.” I would expect a historian to know history better. I actually do teach about the history of science in my intro courses and because I trust that experts in other fields know better than I do, I tell them about:
-Africa: first to develop agriculture, writing (about the same time as Mesopotamia), architecture
-Babylon: math applied to astronomy in 700 BC
-Egypt: independently developed writing and architecture while mammoths walked the earth. Medical textbook, from 1600 BC applies examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis to the treatment of disease
India: dentistry in 7000BC, cataract surgery in 500BC, independent discovery of zero and algebra, concept of gravity by 600 BC
-China: architecture and physics, magnetic compass 100-1000AD, printing press, matches, dry docks, the double-action piston pump, cast iron, the iron plough, the horse collar, the multi-tube seed drill, the wheelbarrow, the suspension bridge, the parachute, natural gas as fuel, the raised-relief map, the propeller, the sluice gate, and the pound lock. All between 600-900 AD. (Like, just turn on Nova and learn about their earthquake-resistant architecture and the physics they had to understand to build the Forbidden City for crying on loud!)
-South America- Turned grass into corn using selective breeding, corn+beans+squash ag, potatoes, wheels were playthings, ancient empires and architecture we are just beginning to uncover.

All of these people were using math and science (Studying, understanding, and applying patterns/concepts about the natural world) for millennia before the Christians got around to it. (Like, how many food crops did the Holy Roman Empire develop that now feed the world?)

6.“you are not allowed to question the assumptions of the scientific method” Which ones? “Oh, I don’t have examples.”

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Yes. I think the best teachers are adept at devising analogies to demonstrate abstract ideas to their particular audience and are also skilled at articulating it well in their language.

(Welcome as an active participant, btw. You have been ‘lurking’ a while, apparently. ; - )

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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