I’m coming out of the closet. I spent about 6 months as an unschooler some years back. I had just finished reading all sorts of lovely books that made me believe that my children would learn everything they needed to know with little interference from me. It worked for Maria Montessori, right? Well, out of frustration and burnout, I bought the idea. Well, I got rid of all the lists and demands on the children and let them determine the direction of their learning. The problem was, they didn’t. They did have a great time, and it was a low-stress, joyful time in our lives, but they never did what the unschooling experts said they would.

They never started doing science experiments or reading great works of literature or learning Japanese on their own. They did build neat Lego creations, spent a lot of time building nifty sandcastles in the park near our house, and occasionally drew something.

However, if I had it to do over again, well, I wouldn’t. If I found myself in need of a homeschool break, I might figure out a way to take a week or two off or maybe even a month, but I wouldn’t call it school. By the same token, I occasionally let my children play “educational” computer games like Zombinis, but I don’t consider them part of their education.

Now, don’t get me wrong. One of the many reasons we homeschool is because I think children need time to be children, and they don’t get that when they’re in school all day and then have hours of homework to do afterwards. I just want to point out that at least in my experience, that period of our lives didn’t do a lot for my children’s education, though it was nice.

Depending on your situation and why you decide to start homeschooling, some time “decompressing” from school might be in order. I just wouldn’t recommend making a permanent habit of it.

By the same token, though, I think that trying to make our homes into miniature schools is just as useless. In our home, there are no school desks, no bells, and very few trappings of school. Schools do lots of things the way they do because they are necessary to herd hundreds of children through the system. We have sofas instead of desks (they have desks in their rooms actually, but they pretty much never use them), the kids are welcome to study outside on a pretty day, and as of this year, each child has his own timer for subjects that are time oriented (like spending 20 minutes working on Latin vocabulary) instead of goal oriented (like doing 1 math lesson).

As Aristotle so aptly pointed out, virtue is usually the mean between two extremes. Our homes are not schools, and pretending that they are is a good way to become a burned out ex-homeschooler.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, though, is unschooling, and it has one major flaw–it doesn’t take into account original sin. As lovely as it would be if our children always did just what they should, that isn’t the reality for any of us. One of the underlying ideas for unschoolers is that any knowledge is just as good as any other knowledge–that learning to make computer games is just as important as learning your faith. Well, one of my sons is learning computer programming, and I’m all for it, but I would never in a million years consider it as important as learning that the Eucharist is truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

That being the case, I believe that there are some things that all of my children need to learn (and probably all of yours too). I do my best to make it pleasant, and most things really are interesting if you give them a chance. In fact, history is one of my children’s favorite subjects, but I bet they’d never know that if we were unschooling. In our family, some of the things they study are negotiable, but others are not.

Here’s my short list of the nonnegotiables and why:

Theology – to please God
Math – to be able to function in the world as a good steward
Great Literature – to maintain and renew a common culture
History – To understand the world we live in and make it better
Science – To understand this amazing universe God made
A second language and culture – To be able to communicate with others and understand what pertains to universal human nature and what is merely a cultural norm
Logic – To be capable of voting responsibly and to avoid being hoodwinked by the unscrupulous
Music and Art – To appreciate beauty, which is an attribute of God Himself, and because the best way to do that is to take part in the challenge of creating it
Writing – To be able to communicate elegantly so as to persuade others of the logical conclusions drawn from the study of logic
Grammar – This is part of communicating elegantly and persuasively

So the next time your child asks why he has to study this or that, well, you can pull out this list. Feel free to add your own below.