This post is sponsored by Graphic Stock. I agreed to publish photos from their collection and tell you to go to  their site. The company specializes in creative images. So naturally I was drawn to the images of school art projects.

They are beautiful images, actually. I remember all the art projects I came home with as a kid. They were generally very well done because the teacher knew how to give us a project that would work out. My mom has a framed picture my brother painted in the style of stained glass, with thick, black out lines. I have a picture framed in my house from when my son was in school and painted Starry Night.

I have even made fun of how un-creative it is to have 30 kids paint Starry Night, but every school does it. (I didn’t know that. I had thought our school was special.) But I still like looking at those art projects.

The one below is in the style of Eric Carle. Open one of his books—you must have The Hungry Caterpillar at home—and you’ll see that he paints each piece of paper before he uses it. Just like these kids did here.

Kids don’t make this sort of art when they are doing self-directed learning at home. For one thing, most art we envision by ourselves does not turn out so well, which is why the process of learning to be an artist is mostly making mistakes.

Mostly, the process of making art is also solitary. While art in school is about doing something together—everyone trying the same technique, or the same reproduction—most art is about looking inside your heart and sharing what you find there.

Which is why I am so emphatic about self-directed learning. To me education is teaching kids to perform self-interrogation and self-scrutiny, not to reproduce a specific technique, whether in art or math or writing.

I find myself struggling with the question of whether I am sufficiently supportive of my community if my kids do not participate in community schooling. But then I read an article about Anne Frank’s Diary.

Most American kids read her diary in their 8th, 9th, or 10th grade years. In the US, this is the book that introduces kids to the Holocaust. But Holocaust scholar Dawn Skorczewski explains that kids in Amsterdam don’t feel so connected to the diary. Many people in Amsterdam never even visit the home where Anne hid during the war; they see Anne Frank’s house as an American tourist attraction.

That really surprised me, but then Skorczewski explained that, “Anne’s self-interrogation represents a version of self-scrutiny that many Americans value. It’s probably part of the reason Americans hold the diary in higher regard than the Dutch, who are more interested in reading about people who try to help one another or who work toward a common good. Americans like stories of self-development.”

In an essay in The Objective Standard, Craig Biddle does a great job of showing the great American conflict between collectivism and individualism. The conflict happens throughout our culture—not only with classroom art projects and homeschooling. But I like hearing that my choice of homeschooling falls solidly in the realm of the American love for personal development.

Even if I am not upholding collectivist values by educating my kids in a classroom, I am upholding American values by taking my children out of school.


26 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    When I was in the 7th grade in 1979, the art teacher was this cool hippie refugee, clinging hard to her flower-powered ways in a changing world. That was such a low-pressure class. I remember one assignment where we were to paint with these watercolory paints a small animal (I chose a Gila monster) over and over again in a pattern. And another assignment was to reproduce a product from an advertisement using colored ball-point pens and a shading technique. I chose an ad for Polaroid sunglasses with three classic horn-rimmed shades. I liked it a lot; I kept it for 20 years, until the cheap paper the school provided finally crumbled away.

    You’re right, this kind of thing only has the air of creativity. Every kid in the class did some version of this. But it was pleasant, and it introduced me to some tools and techniques I wouldn’t have stumbled upon on my own. But most importantly, it helped me relax and be creative without feeling like it wasn’t any good because it wasn’t Great Art. And that’s a lesson I’m glad I learned. My uptight, rule-following parents were never going to be able to teach it to me.

  2. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    I am not sure if your main point about individualism vs. collectivism is exemplified in the art class example/anecdote.
    Participation in a group art class where you produce your own work does not diminish individualism. Learning a technique from a teacher one on one or in a group does not lessen your individualistic lifestyle. (I might add that I was also in 7th grade in 1979 and my art classes are my best memory from school, though I am not particularly talented in it.) The context of experience is what matters. You will drive for hours to ensure that your son has world class musical technique. He will not figure it out on his own. He sometimes uses it in a group (ensembles, orchestra). None of that denies his individuality. What does deny it is being obligated by a political entity to attend what, when, where and how long. Getting graded for it also puts it in a social construct. The question circulating out there these days is: are the privileged homeschooled students denying other less privileged kids the benefit of their influence and are less privileged homeschooled students being deprived of opportunities by being isolated from the students in the classroom? That isn’t my question (or questions, I should say) but I read articles with that question rather frequently. Learning from someone else is a natural and beautiful thing. The fact that Europeans aren’t as interested in Anne Frank is not unlike Americans not being as interested in Frank Lloyd Wright as people from other countries. Europeans are definitely more collectivist in their thinking, though. Homeschooling is basically non-existent. We have so many conflicting ideologies circulating in public discourse that people are getting burned out. The biggest advocates for public schooling I know are very vocal about individual freedoms and rights, free artistic expression and the obligation of citizens to contrubute to and participate in mandatory public schooling. To me, there is a major disconnect there, so why try to reason with such illogical thinking?

    • Bostonian
      Bostonian says:

      Katarina, one answer to the question that you point to out there is that the more privileged homeschooled kids are side by side with the less privileged homeschooled kids in park days and coops. Kids who live in fine houses learn and play alongside kids who live in the ghetto.

      If the more privileged homeschooled kids were in private school and the less privileged in public school, like normal kids, they would share less, not more. They’d never even see each other.

      One of the things the appeal to European collectivism misses is that American society was already very divided before the homeschoolers came along. We didn’t break our communities, and maybe we are making them better, not worse, through homeschooling.

  3. Gena
    Gena says:

    Learning a technique could be more efficient in a classroom as you observe others trying and making mistakes. But when you’re learning technique, you can’t truly create.

    A totally different issue with “art” in the classrooms is that teachers are obsessed with sending a kid home with something. Clutter in kids rooms, much of it meaningless and not too likely to be objects of pride due to the production mentality and time limitations. Best pieces my kids produced came unprompted, self-directed with ample time to work on an idea, complete at their own pace and no restriction on technique, unless they imposed it themselves.

    On individualism of homeschooling… while we definitely have that… enabling us to focus and learn, we’ve never felt more part of the community than now. So supportive, sharing, loving. And large too – over 200 families.

  4. mh
    mh says:

    I just signed up my unschooled kids for homeschool “science activities” at the local children’s museum.

    I told them this was probably not our idea of ” science” (unrestricted, unstructured exploration and questioning), but it would probably be fun.

    I’m happy to participate in community activities and support local efforts, but I’m certainly not willing to consider an hour per week as “science.”

    Depending on the instruction, it may be worthwhile. Mostly, it’s a chance to hang out with their friends apart from swim team and drama club. We shall see.

    Anyway, we’re among the “less privileged” homeschoolers in this area, so it will give some rich privileged white homeschool kids a boost to associate with us. Funny.

  5. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Self direction isn’t about leaving your kids to fend for themselves in the wild. It’s about presenting them with tools and seeing where they go with them. Sometimes a little direction in life is a good thing. Art and music are all about self expression and self examination but they involve certain techniques which should be studied. Every great artist or musician was shaped somehow by someone or something in their lives that taught them something (a mentor teacher or life event). Even if the person taught them what not to do. Very few of them just spit out great works on the first try by being left totally to their own devices. You can learn a lot about yourself and your own work by looking at or listening to someone else’s work. (Learning to be constructively critical of others helps us to be constructively critical of ourselves and helps us grow.) Also, the modern world is so full of stuff it can be overwhelming if we aren’t given a little nudge down a certain path once in a while. If we just stand back and watch our kids make mistake after mistake without occasionally discussing with them what they are learning from their mistakes, we might miss the opportunity to spark a connection to a whole new branch of learning. Knowledge itself was meant to be used and shared and it has to be put out there or taught sometimes or no one else could learn about it. One can be creative with a technique or put a new twist on it, but they first have to be aware of the technique. And not all techniques can be developed alone. I was a public school orchestra director for 16 years and quit because I was tired and disgusted with the limits of the public school system. Now I homeschool my 12year old and we go to co op once a week for drama, music and art. I teach the music classes so she can have an ensemble of peers to play with and a troop of other actors to perform with. Sometimes you do need a group and or a little guidance from others.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      This is a really interesting comment that made me wonder, “How did the first humans learn to read, write, play music and draw when there was nobody teaching them?”

      If one has access to materials, such as books, paper, instruments and art supplies aren’t we hard-wired by now to be able to self-teach these things through observation and curiosity?

      Having a tutor or a mentor is wonderful if one can find a good match, but what about those who are truly autodidacts?

      Those who learn better through verbal instruction I can understand needing that person in the room to talk them through the process step by step, but for the person who learns primarily through visual-spatial means, processes are self-taught through trial and error.

      I agree, self-direction does *not* mean we leave our young children to fend for themselves. That would be cruel. I try to act as a guide and facilitator.

      • Melissa
        Melissa says:

        Cave art, then writing and reading developed slowly over time as people began to copy each other and improve on each others ideas and techniques through collaboration and observation. It was most likely a group effort derived from group needs. I believe there have always been teachers and students. The great thing about the world today is you don’t have to find a teacher on your own, you can go to YouTube or Google and search out a video or article or download a book, and YES you can teach yourself anything if only because someone else chose to share their knowledge so you could build on it and make it your own. But I don’t know many people who could pick up a violin and play it correctly without seeking out some form of help along the way. I love self directed learning but I think there is always room for collaboration at some point especially in art and music. Still the way art and music are taught in group lessons and private lessons and independent study is very different. I do a bit of all the above and encourage my students to as well.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          My daughters have used Youtube as well as books to help with their manga and animation. :) They don’t copy technique, but it is more inspiration to try something new.

          ‘Picking up violin and correctly’ well, my father self-taught the violin and my brother was able to pick up an electric guitar and taught himself how to play by ear, never had a lesson, and was the lead guitarist in a rock band for awhile. So, maybe you haven’t known anyone, but I have met several people who have taught themselves instruments without a lesson. Of course that probably isn’t ideal for everyone, including me.

          My kids get a chance to collaborate through their theater and acting groups as well as swim team. Their art class experiences have been less than ideal, and in fact, are mostly goofy, copycat, everyone does the same thing type work, which does not appeal to my original and creative kids.

      • mh
        mh says:

        Education is something that only comes from within.

        No one can “educate” a child. The child has to learn for himself or herself. What the teacher teaches DOES NOT COUNT, only what the child learns counts.

        That’s why schools have it backwards. Sitting children in chairs listening to nar-nar is unproductive. And prohibiting meaningful collaboration (in school-speak, “cheating”) is unproductive.

        So, even in a team sport, all learning is individual. Or in an orchestra, each performer is an individual who must learn and perform one part. The choice of a coach/mentor is important. We’ve been burned once on a music coach and once on a cross-country coach. Coaches we happen upon are usually better than coaches who advertise.

        Even in a classroom, all learning is individual. Teachers would like to be assessed on their awesome lesson plans. Right? That’s why all the garment-rending over ranking teachers based on student standardized assessments.

        Standardized tests measure “can they do this?” Not “what can they do?” It’s very limited.

        I don’t go for standardized anything. I’m the parent who considers “nerf war with neighbors” a learning category involving science, history, civics, leadership, companionability, persuasive techniques, first aid, and manliness training for six-year-olds. I’m the parent who considers “trained the dog to heel” as big an accomplishment (in self control and self discipline) as performed in the recital or aced the big test or got gold in the hard event.

        Self mastery is the lifelong accomplishment I’m trying to train. Sometimes it can be learned cooperatively. Sometimes it can be learned only individually.

        Most of the times kids spend with other kids, they aren’t learning what you signed them up to learn. Unschool provides the most opportunities to benefit from this.

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      Hey everyone! I am back to say hi. Sometimes I read the posts but my phone is too annoying to type answers in.

      It’s so good to question whether self-directed learning and unschooling are conductive to community living and giving back; whether or not it can thrive in a more collective society.

      I think it can.

      I think it can do more for a society where children have the chance to explore their wants. There is a lot of room to exercise self-discovery and have a tight-knit group or cohort that we live in and with.

      Just think what our children can be doing for solving problems in the community if they have free range to observe, quantify the problem, and start searching for answers rather than being tied up by homework after school.

      Unschooling can give the freedom to do it even better.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “Which is why I am so emphatic about self-directed learning. To me education is teaching kids to perform self-interrogation and self-scrutiny, not to reproduce a specific technique, whether in art or math or writing.”

    I like this post and agree with most of it. However, I don’t agree with the ‘education is this and not this’ statement above. I’m including self-directed learning here. I think education involves both self-interrogation & self-scrutiny and reproducing a specific technique. The amount of each will depend on the individual and what is being learned. The reasons are mostly addressed by Melissa’s post above. The reproduction of a specific technique allows you to become knowledgeable of it and it’s currently established boundaries. Once you’re familiar with these boundaries , exploring outside of them gives you reference points of your level of creativity or determines the success of a specific goal.

  7. Emily
    Emily says:

    Since this post discusses art, I wanted to mention a blog post I recently read on Jake Weidmann, a Master Penman. Much of the post discusses Weidmann’s faith, but this section really stood out to me, especially because of the topics discussed on Penelope’s blog:

    “Weidmann’s advice to aspiring artists of any medium is to play and always practice and never have fear. He also advises against becoming hung up on formal education. ‘The highest level of success will come from experimentation.'”

    If you want to read more, the title of the blog post is “Meet One of the World’s 12 Master Penmen.”

  8. BenK
    BenK says:

    An explanation for some of the reactions to home schooling is found here:

    “School is a sacred space in republican [French republican] theory – it’s the church of the republic.” Vinvent Martigny, a political scientist at the Ecole Polytecnique, outside Paris, said. “School is the place where an individual, especially a child, becomes a citizen, which is a superior form of the individual.”

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh, that’s such a great explanation. Love that quote and that link. Thank you.

      It’s a huge conflict in our society today that parents are very tuned in to their child as an individual but they send their kids to school eight hours a day to crush the individual in favor of society.

      Then parents fight the mission of the school. But I think that mission is too core to the school.


    • Amy A
      Amy A says:

      Yes. It is that mindset that causes some people to get PISSED about kids being homeschooled. They use the “socialization” argument as a way to say, “How will your kid be a citizen without the conditioning which takes place in school, without your kid being bombarded with propaganda, without the group-think bullying, and _with_ your (parent’s) influence and nurturing?”

      I have had people respond to me like I’m a child abuser because I don’t own a TV. The reason? See paragraph one. I assure these “concerned” citizens that my kids have access to television at their father’s home. You should see the relief on their faces.

  9. hm
    hm says:

    It makes me so happy to read this post about art and school. I’ve written a lot on this topic (some articles and a dissertation worth), and agree with a lot of what you’re saying. A few thoughts — at school, kids resist doing art collectively (most adults and children don’t like creating collectively, it’s a myth), but social art making and collective art making are different things. Many kids enjoy creating socially, building relationships through art activity, and making their own art a response to the other artists/kids around them. Making art is much more a social activity than a solitary one (Howard Becker’s “Art Worlds” is all about this) (though I get that you’re contrasting solitary with communal creativity, which I agree with).

    In a classroom, kids will generate their own creative community or art world. That is the self-development that happens in that context — kids learning together how to shape a community. Art making at school is great for this.

    From the first squiggle, art making is about making and sharing meaning (“looking in your heart and sharing what you find there”). Kids will do this regardless of, despite, and because of the restrictions adults put on their art making. Kids will find their own way to subvert or push against those restrictions to bring their own meaning to the activity. And, there is some value to the “starry night” phenomenon. Mastery is an important motivator, and kids can be highly motivated when trying to make something that looks “real” or as good as or better than an original. Copying is also an important way that artists (kid and adult) create new things, because the imagination usually steps in and wonders what would happen if I change it like this…

    But I agree so much that there should be more open-ended art making in schools, the kind where kids have some boundaries to push against but must come up with their own creative problems and share their heart. Often teachers just don’t know how to do it, or feel the pressure to conform to school culture or accountability.

  10. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    The quote BenK shared is the crux of the matter for people who are deeply connected to the concept of public schooling. (There are many public school educators who are not so wedded to public education. I am not referring to them.)

    They consider the idea of homeschooling to be anti-democratic. They believe in their “democratic ideals” with a religious fervor and they have formulated a particular moral code. If you do not abide by their moral code, you are very likely going to face some sort of veiled or direct contempt. Their construct cannot function if everyone does not participate. They must have 100% involvement in order to make their “democratic ideal” work as it should.

    They believe in “freedom” and “individuality” and all kinds of noble causes. They believe that refusing to participate in the system (which they think should be adequate as long as it isn’t the current system which is dogged with bogus testing, technology, nonsense curriculum requirements and business people trying to take over, which they complain about dailyl, but that is another story) is a form of rejection of our society and our neighbor. In other words, we are not just abdicating responsibility for caring for our neighbor, we are adversely affecting our society by limiting the opportunities available to other people by limiting our engagement in a classroom. I am not making this up. This is truly how many, many hard core public school advocates think.

    My son’s robotics team competed against 35 other schools from several states and did well in many categories, but the prize they were most proud of was 2nd place in “Spirit and Sportsmanship.” How can a group of homeschooled kids win against public and private schooled kids in that area? They made it a point to reach out and help other teams. The other teams had to vote for the most helpful teams. Our team stood out for being helpful. They didn’t do it to win an award. They did it because they wanted to be kind…sincerely kind. They didn’t even know their chances to win that award would be enhanced by votes from other teams.

    We all know that homeschooled kids can provide some of the most meaningful community service out there. We know that most homeschooled kids don’t need anti-bullying seminars because they don’t care about the junk that kids get bullied about (clothes, hair, a long list of stupid stuff).

    There are people who deeply believe that democracy can only function if people accept, without reservation, without question, without a right to decline, public education. There are also those who believe that way and still choose private education for their kids, but when asked, they still do not believe that homeschooling should be an option. A school of some sort should be mandatory, according to them.

    I don’t mean to harp on this, but discovering this ideology really surprised an disappointed me. How un-enlightened. How shallow. How uninformed. How simplistic. How narrow minded. How scary!

    My son hangs out with kids from all kinds of educational backgrounds on a regular basis. The public schooled kids think he is the luckiest guy in the world. A few kids lately have been asking to be homeschooled.

    The homeschooled community is always reaching out, always sharing resources, always finding ways to meet each other’s needs, digging in, rolling up sleeves, cleaning facilities, offering classes, driving everywhere, making it happen, making interesting and worthwhile things happen every day, without pay, without awards, without accolades, for years. If that isn’t the best of what a democratic society has to offer, and if that isn’t a lesson for kids to emulate when they become full-fledged adults, then I don’t know what democracy is.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Nicely said.

      To those people, public school is their religion. Brainwashing is their way as is indoctrination.

      It is difficult to have a fruitful discussion with anyone who comes into the debate with a closed-off and limited mind.

      My kids are more engaged in community now than they ever would be if they were in school. I am more engaged now that I am not in school. Their logic is flawed. But to be fair, I am finding more and more people truly interested in homeschooling, and hardly any push back from teachers and others in the community that I meet. It could be that I come off in an intimidating and serious manner, but I don’t think so. I hope they see how wonderfully engaged my children are when they meet them.

      I don’t believe I should have to sacrifice my children’s time, energy, and resources by putting them into a traditional school. I already pay taxes to the public school system that I am not using. I like a lot of things about the European system and their community, but forced schooling isn’t one of those things.

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