I have been considering this morning a strange and on the face of it utterly weird proposition. Yesterday, somebody commenting on here expressed the following opinion:
"Do you really believe that going to school all day is more beneficial than using Facebook all day? I certainly don't. At least, while using Facebook this girl is enjoying herself and potentially making friends and raising her self esteem. Many children un-school in this way. If she has potential, it is more likely to emerge under these conditions."
I have seen this view put before, indeed it seems to be quite a popular one on some HE lists. If it were not for this, I should be inclined simply to dismiss it as obviously mad and irresponsible. However, let us treat it seriously and see where it takes us. I think we may safely ignore one sentence straight away; the fact that many home educated children spend their days in this way is no sort of recommendation at all. Many children might be starving themselves or taking drugs; this does not mean that these are desirable course of action. What about the assertion that if a teenager has potential, it is more likely to emerge through using Facebook all day? It is an interesting thesis.
Anybody watching a teenager using Facebook will soon notice that this is all too often an essentially sterile pursuit, somewhat akin to leafing idly through a magazine in the dentist's waiting room. A lot of it consists of looking at photographs of other teenagers, generally taken on mobile phones. There is nothing wrong with this, although most of the photographs are very similar; teenagers putting their tongues out or pulling silly faces. I have never personally seen the attraction of this, but then we all have different hobbies. Another popular game is checking up on friends and friends of friends' status updates. Who's in a new relationship, what's written on your friends' walls and so on. Again, quite an innocuous occupation as far as it goes. The question is, is this the best way to bring out a young person's potential? This is far from clear.
What sort of potential is likely to emerge from glancing at other people's photograph albums or reading what teenagers have to say about their relationships? It might well be valuable socially, but bringing out potential? And being more beneficial generally than being in school? These are curious ideas indeed. One can see how school might bring out potential. Perhaps a child will discover a love of creative writing or an interest in literature. Possibly she will find that she is good at painting or sports, a passion for history might emerge as a consequence of learning about the Tudors. She could find that she enjoys music. I can think of many similar examples. I cannot readily think of any example of the emergence of potential which might come about through spending the day browsing Facebook! The potential to be a spiteful gossip, perhaps? The potential to waste one's life by living vicariously the experiences of others? The potential to be some sort of digital peeping Tom?
It is certainly possible that a teenager would enjoy doing this, as the person who commented yesterday said, and that is absolutely fine, although I am a little unsure as to how looking at Facebook would raise anybody's self esteem. It is conceivable that a lonely teenager would be able to make friends like this, although this is not how it usually happens. Most of us would think that real flesh and blood contact with other human beings would be better than clicking on little avatars like this. And of course, at least as much bullying takes place on such sites as in the playground! Hanging out on Facebook might raise a child's self esteem; it might equally well drive her to despair!
I am grateful to the person who made this comment yesterday, because it illustrates perfectly why many professionals in the field of education feel that there is a need for greater oversight of home education. I don't doubt for a moment that it is true, as this person says, that, "Many children un-school in this way" . That many children supposedly being educated out of school are spending their days slumped in front of a computer while they trawl through social networking sites does not surprise me in the least. This may be a harmless enough hobby or pastime; whether or not it is an adequate substitute for an education is rather more open to question. I can very easily understand why parents who are neglecting their children's education in this way should be resolutely opposed to allowing local authority officers into their homes lest they discover this. I strongly suspect that this fear is at the root of much of the uneasiness about the new legislation and it is refreshing to hear the views of somebody who is being honest about the matter.