• U.S.

Mother Knows Best?

4 minute read
Andrew J. Rotherham

Midway through Quinn Cummings’ new book about her adventures as a homeschooling parent, the former child actress in Los Angeles becomes obsessed with fundamentalist bloggers and “their sublime self-confidence” about educating their children at home. To get a closer look, she hops on a plane–without her “usual airline companions, Countess Valium or Lady Vodka Tonic”–and drives a couple of hours to a fundamentalist homeschooling convention. She tries to blend in with the other attendees by wearing a modest, below-the-knee skirt. As she scans the books for sale (How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It, Cutting Your Family’s Hair, Land Animals of the Sixth Day), she overhears a customer ask, “Do you have any faith-based geography books?” Bewildered, Cummings leaves after purchasing a children’s book about Herodotus.

The convention chapter is one of the few parts of The Year of Learning Dangerously that feel like a stunt. The rest offers a detailed account of a parent concerned enough about her daughter’s future to handcraft her education. The book covers the author’s first year as a homeschooler; she is about to begin her fourth. Cummings describes her fears about taking on this responsibility, the enormousness of which “settled on my chest like a Volkswagen.” She cobbled together a program that had her teaching U.S. history and “justifying another pass through Ken Burns’ Civil War.” For English, her bookworm daughter could read whatever she wanted and then write reviews. Science was outsourced to an online class, and French to a tutor. “Math would come from a series of textbooks named after one of those countries that consistently outscore America on math tests,” Cummings writes. “I just needed to remember where I hid the answer sheets.”

This is not your typical education book (for starters, it’s funny), and it reflects homeschooling’s increasingly mainstream appeal. There are more than 1.5 million students being homeschooled in the U.S., roughly double the number in 1999. Once a marginal community of the educationally disaffected, homeschooling families are a diverse group with a variety of reasons for opting out of traditional schools. Cummings didn’t want her child to be as apathetic in school as she had been.

Part confession, part anthropological expedition, The Year of Learning Dangerously includes a brief history of homeschooling. But it’s really more a survival guide, something a beginner should read before diving in–or reread when hyperventilating, which Cummings recounts doing on her second day of homeschooling. Seemingly all the people she meets tell her they are concerned about her daughter’s socialization, from the lady at the dry cleaners to the cop who pulls her over for a traffic violation. The awkwardness she describes at a gathering of homeschooling families in a Los Angeles park might feel familiar to nonhomeschooling parents: “I couldn’t figure out how to swing the conversation subtly around to, ‘So, do you stop having panic attacks after the first year, or do you just drink in the daytime?'” Cummings writes that she is “spastically self-conscious.” This is perhaps because, as she briefly mentions in the book, she was nominated for an Academy Award at age 10 (for 1977’s The Goodbye Girl) and grew up in a house that “had a poltergeist and had to be exorcised.”

But the book is not the vanity project of a fading star. (“If I’m going to start trading on my former status, I’ll join a reality show,” she told me in a recent interview.) Nor is it a how-to book for aspiring homeschoolers. She muddles through her first homeschooling year yet concludes, “For the first time in recent memory I’m looking at something that matters very, very much to me and feeling neither dread nor angst.” Cummings remains inquisitive, thoughtful and a little unsure of herself in a refreshingly humble way–precisely the qualities a parent should look for in a good teacher.

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