Our Homeschooling Odyssey
By Bryan Caplan
Six years ago, I began homeschooling my elder sons, Aidan and Tristan. They attended Fairfax County Public Schools for K-6, becoming more disgruntled with every passing year. Even though they went to an alleged “honors” school for grades 4-6, they were bored out of their minds. The academic material was too easy and moved far too slowly. The non-academic material was humiliatingly infantile. And non-academics – music, dance, chorus, art, poster projects – consumed a majority of their day. As elementary school graduation approached, my sons were hungry for a change.
So what did we do? In consultation with my pupils, I prepared an ultra-academic curriculum. Hours of math every day. Reading serious books. Writing serious essays. Taking college classes. And mastering bodies of knowledge.
While my sons’ objective performance and subjective satisfaction in middle school were both sky-high, my wife insisted that they try regular high school. Back in those days, the political brainwashing at FCPS was modest, but the anti-intellectual pedagogical philosophy was already overwhelming. I never liked high school, but at least in my day teachers actually taught their subjects. Not so at FCPS. With the noble exception of their calculus teacher, my sons’ high school teachers just showed videos and treated teens like babies. After three weeks, my wife gave a green light to resume homeschooling.
Silver lining: Since comedy is tragedy plus time, we’ll be laughing about those three weeks of regular high school for the rest of our lives. Yes, a kid in their Spanish class really did raise his hand and say, “Spain’s in… South America, right?”
Once Aidan and Tristan returned to homeschooling, we picked up the pace.
In 9th grade, I prepared them for AP Calculus AB, World History, and U.S. Government. They audited a GMU class on Western religion. And taking advantage of Mason’s High School Guest Matriculant Program, they started studying Spanish.
Why study Spanish, especially given my dim view of foreign language education? Simple: Virtually every college has a foreign language requirement, and my sons want to be professors. Like Homer Simpson, I believe that weaseling is a vital life skill, but in this case, I bluntly told them, “There’s no weaseling out of this.” They were displeased, but worked hard. I hired an excellent Spanish tutor to give them Spanish five days a week year-round. And I asked their tutor to use the immersion method: ¡No Inglés!
The results were phenomenal. In months, the twins started speaking exclusively Spanish to each other. The wishful thinking of, “You hate it now, but work hard and you’ll come to love it” came true for them.
In 10th grade, they prepared themselves for AP Calculus BC and Spanish Language, while I prepared them for AP English Literature. In case you didn’t know, my first big career goal was not to be an econ professor, but an English professor. And I do love the subject, especially when you don’t take it too seriously. My sons continued taking Spanish classes at GMU, skipping from first semester Spanish to third semester, and then skipping again to fifth semester Spanish. Their Spanish tutor filled in the gaps so they practiced every weekday.
Around the same time, my sons also launched the History Twins Podcast, and began doing (largely) in-person interviews with top historians around the world, most notably with Kyle Harper on The Fate of Rome and the role of disease in history.
In 11th grade, the twins prepared themselves for the AP tests in Spanish Literature and Physics C: Mechanics, while I prepared them for AP English Language. Despite Covid, all three tests still happened. (Thank you, College Board, for rising to the challenge). They also officially took a history class on modern Russia, as well as an independent study course where they learned to write their first history paper. Under the guidance of my good friend John Turner, author of the magisterial Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, Aidan and Tristan used their knowledge of Spanish to dissect the great Mexican Mormon schism of 1936-46. By early summer, their article was ready for submission to an academic journal. And amazingly, by the time they applied to college, they already had their first refereed journal acceptance. Seriously.
When Covid closed the schools, I began homeschooling my younger kids as well, and the twins helped out by teaching a daily Spanish class. Due to their poor attitude, my younger kids learned little Spanish, but my older kids did discover a lot about pedagogy.
In 12th grade, the college application process took over my sons’ lives. While they still prepared themselves for AP Statistics and Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, filling out applications consumed almost the entire first semester. Despite everything we’d accomplished, I was nervous. The most reliable researchers I cornered told me that discrimination against homeschoolers was now mild, but short of a major lawsuit, how can anyone really find out?
To cope, I gave my sons the same advice I give everyone in this situation: Not only is admission random; funding is random as well. So throw a big pile of dice.
In response, my sons maxed out the Common App, which allows you to apply to up to 20 schools. (They also applied to Georgetown, which stubbornly refuses to join the Common App).
The college application weighed heavily on my students. I raised them to think clearly and speak bluntly. They knew to pull their punches on AP essays, but the whole college admission process is simply drenched in Social Desirability Bias. If you write a personal statement that admits, “I want to attend your school because I need a strong signal to advance my career, and you’re selling the thirteenth-best signal on the market,” you won’t be getting in. This was the one time I had to push them to do their work. Tristan averred that the academic refereeing process (four rounds of revisions!) was easy by comparison. My many pep talks largely fell on deaf ears. Still, they soldiered on, and finally resumed their actual studies. Intellectually, the highlight of their year was probably auditing my Ph.D. Microeconomics class.
Soon, college acceptances started to come in. Once the University of Virginia admitted them to their honors program, I stopped worrying. Johns Hopkins, by far the highest-ranked school in the DC area, took them as well. Then in early February, Vanderbilt offered both of them full merit scholarships. No one else came close to that deal, so that’s where they decided to go. And that’s where they are this very day. (Hi, sons!) If you see Aidan or Tristan on campus, be sure to introduce yourself. They’re not attention hogs like me, but they have much to say about anything of substance, and are hilarious once you put them at ease.
My general read: I think the median school probably did discriminate against my sons for being homeschooled. Their SATs were 99%+, their AP performance was off the charts, they ran an impressive podcast, and they had a refereed history publication. (At many schools, five such pubs would buy an assistant professor tenure!) Yet they were waitlisted by Harvard and Columbia, and rejected by all the lesser Ivies. All public schools accepted them; I don’t know if this stems from lower discrimination or just lower standards. Nevertheless, the net effect of homeschooling was almost certainly highly positive. My sons used their immense educational freedom to go above and beyond, and several top schools were suitably impressed. The critical factor at Vanderbilt, I suspect, was that their faculty, not their admissions committees, hand out academic merit scholarships.
In my view, homeschooling has two goals.
The first is preparing students to be independent adults. On that score, we did great. The twins will be not only great scholars. Before too long they will be great husbands and great fathers. As I told my friends years ago, “You can take those two to the bank.” Even if they change their minds about academia, they have success written all over them. Success, and character.
Homeschooling’s second goal, however, is to give students a happy childhood. How did we score on that count?
The plain fact is that my sons grew up with very few friends their own age. Critics will definitely blame homeschooling, but the truth is that the twins had few friends their own age even when they were in regular school. They’re old souls, who naturally have much more in common with adults. (That said, they are the most nurturing older brothers I have ever known). And since the twins were homeschooled, they were able to socialize with hundreds of fascinating, accomplished adults. We lived abroad for many months, and made friends in Germany, Britain, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Guatemala, Mexico, and all over the U.S. Especially Texas, where we spent three months of Covid. And with the exception of those three awful weeks of high school and three agonizing months of filling out college applications, Aidan and Tristan were pleased as punch throughout.
Yes, they missed their chance to have a normal high school experience. They had something much better instead. At least in their own eyes.
Isn’t that just because I totally brainwashed them? Though I get the brainwashing criticism a lot, I deny the charge. Brainwashing is what conventional schools do when they drown you in Social Desirability Bias, and use intimidation to silence criticism. What I practice, in contrast, is candor and friendliness. I don’t use negative emotions to blackmail people into agreeing with me. I speak my mind, and face hard questions with a smile. Brainwashing? No, but I freely concede that all my kids deeply trust me. All false modesty aside, that’s because I’ve earned that deep trust with a lifetime of unblemished honesty. While I occasionally respond to children’s questions with, “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” I sugarcoat nothing. Ask any of them if you doubt me.
In my work on parenting, I greatly downplay the effects of upbringing. Why then did I bother homeschooling? At minimum, I gave my kids a much happier childhood. They never would have “adjusted” to regular school – not in a year, not in six years, not in a century. And while it’s hard to be sure, I’m confident that I improved their long-run prospects as well. If you find this inconsistent, remember that I gave my sons a family environment that was literally off the charts.
Coda: I never claimed that homeschooling was for everyone… at least until Covid closed the schools. Since our local schools finally re-opened, we sent our younger kids back to FCPS on an experimental basis. From what I’ve seen so far, the schools are worse than ever. FCPS is basically just daycare. They’ve combined their long-standing anti-intellectualism with novel ugly brainwashing.
Still, regular school remains a great place to hang out with your friends. After three weeks, it looks like my daughter will do 4th grade at FCPS. That’s fine. Let her play. Vali can prepare for her future when she’s older. Simon, my son in middle school, has decided to take the other path. Starting today, he’s back in homeschool. He’s going to need a different curriculum than his brothers; if they’re old souls, Simon’s a young soul. Math is non-negotiable, but otherwise he and I will work things out together. Like Bilbo at the end of Return of the King, “I think I’m quite ready for another adventure.” Six years from now, I’ll share his homeschooling story, too.