I was in the car quite a bit this week, so I had the chance to listen to a good chunk of the book Quiet by Susan Cain. I haven’t finished it yet, but I listened with great interest as Cain’s work on introversion has much to say to many spheres of our lives – including education.
In the first part of the book, Cain discusses how in the early 1900s, culture shifted from being concern with character – something that anyone can work to improve – to being obsessed with performance, appearance, and personality. This perceived importance of personality developed as society began transitioning from working on the farm with family and neighbors to working in urban areas with strangers. To get along and succeed they were encouraged to improve their personality – to be more outgoing, friendly, and appealing. Dale Carnegie, who grew up as a shy farm boy, discovered that those with great speaking ability were often successful. He began to study speaking at College, became very good at it and went on to teach it to others. Eventually writing the famous book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” The modern obsession with personality continued. Young men and women were encourage to develop charismatic personalities to attract a husband or wife. Now the strength of character was replaced with a bubbly personality.
Further, schools began enforcing this line of thinking. Introverted kids were labeled as a problem and were encouraged to be more outgoing. According the new thinking, to be successful in business and in life, kids would need to break out of their shell and be more outgoing. So schools began to warn parents when students spent some time alone, instead of with their fun-loving peers, apparently concerned that they would be socially awkward and not able to survive the social demands of the new economy. Although Cain didn’t mention the home school movement, I think this is particularly interesting as a homeschooling dad. Why? Perhaps the number one argument against homeschooling is that kids will struggle socially.
The “social argument” regarding homeschooling seems to be predicated on the same basis as the personality emphasis of the early 20th century: In this new age, you need an outgoing personality to succeed. Character matters little. Never mind the fact that some of the greatest contributions of our age were from introverts as Susan Cain points out in her book (think Einstein, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, etc.) It is also interesting that many older people in our culture lament the lack of respect and manners in the youth of today. Are these not social issues? Yet these social problems persist even though the vast majority of the student population attends public school. (Just for the record, I’m not saying all public school kids turn out to be disrespectful. Nor am I saying that homeschooling is for every family)
Kids indeed can learn social skills in homeschooling – they can learn manners and respect for all people, regardless of age or what they look like. These character traits are the old virtues that all children used to be taught. You don’t need an outgoing personality to show respect. You just need character and some good habits. An outgoing personally does not guarantee success, nor is it the mark of genuine godliness. And if God created a child to be naturally introverted, then what business do we have to try and force him to become more “outgoing”? Perhaps the “social argument” regarding homeschooling is really about our culture’s bias toward the extroverted and gregarious.
Regardless of whether a family chooses home school, private school or public school, parents need to ensure that their children have social skills. Is is possible that home-schooled children don’t get enough social interaction? Yes, its possible in some cases, but this concern is overstated. Sometimes, we act as if the traditional school is the only place in society where children can encounter other children. Is it possible that traditional schools can be harmful to children socially when there is pressure for them to be more outgoing, more friendly and to do whatever possible to fit in with the crowd? In another words, if a child is a born introvert, parents need to ensure that their child’s educational environment is developing the strengths that often go along with introversion – deep intellectual abilities, independence, and creativity. In many cases, education environments may be working against these strengths, and in fact label them as weaknesses.
Many children are able to perform well, especially in front kids who are their own age. But this is exactly what it is: a performance. Wouldn’t it be better if our children were educated and nourished as the individuals that God created them to be - whether introverted or extroverted – instead of pressured to conform to the personalities of their more bubbly peers?
It is true: Our children’s social skills are very important, especially from a Christian perspective. But what kind of social skills? Regardless of educational choice, perhaps we need to stop, be silent, and think: Do we want our children to grow up and be performers in front of peers, or men and women of character, treating everyone with respect?