In 1808, when he was two, the father of John Stuart Mill decided that it was time to begin his son's education in earnest. A year later, the child knew Greek. Young John's achievements throughout his childhood were astonishing. At eight he learned Latin and was soon reading the classical authors of antiquity in the original languages. In adolescence, he was regarded as an absolute prodigy of erudition. What an example for today's home educators! At twenty though, he had a nervous breakdown. For many modern home educators, that sort of burnout is seen as a fairly natural consequence of stuffing a young child's head full of facts and learning in this way. It is the sort of thing that few mothers would attempt and since the great majority of home educating parents are women, this particular style of home education seems to have fallen from favour somewhat. Most people are familiar with other examples of this peculiarly male desire to produce a genius by so-called "hothousing". Often, the long term effects do not recommend the whole scheme to the neutral observer.
Ruth Lawrence was twelve when she began studying mathematics at Oxford University. She had been home educated by her father, who gave up his job in order to do so when she was five. She went on to marry a man almost thirty years older than herself; about the same age as her father in fact! Sufiah Yosuf was thirteen when she started at Oxford. Also home educated by her father, a few years after leaving university she became a prostitute. There have always been cases of this type of home education. Invariably, it is fathers who undertake it and it always involves the relentless pushing of a child to achieve more an more at a younger and younger age. Intriguingly, local education authorities have never seemed to have a problem with such home education. It was only when ordinary mothers like Iris Harrison started doing it in the nineteen seventies that the court cases began. Was this sexism? Or is it that when women educate their children, things are often a little more relaxed and laid back? Could it be that the average local authority officer can recognise easily what is going on in the home of a father who is trying to produce a genius, but has more difficulty understanding the gentler pace of informal learning which women seem more to favour?
Certainly, there are still such men home educating their children. They are unlikely to be seen on the home education circuit though. This is hardly to be wondered at. The sort of men who do hang out with home education groups often tend to be semi-emasculated males who are determined to outdo the women in sensitivity and gentleness. They are "New Men" and only an ordinary man with the strongest stomach and remarkably powerful ability to suppress the gagging reflex would be able to withstand their company! I have observed before that from time to time I would encounter lone home educating fathers. I have a strong suspicion that they too were the pushy type of home educator whose child was performing calculus at five. One seldom hears them mentioned on the home education sites and I can only guess at how things turned out for them and their kids. There is little doubt that the world of modern home education, at least in this country, contains far more women than men. This may well be due to economic reasons, but I would be very curious to know if there are any long term differences between the outcomes for those children taught by their fathers in this way and those who spend their days in their mother's company.