Regular readers will, I am sure, be familiar with Mr Peter Williams of Alton in Hampshire. He frequently comments here and is apparently obsessed by the fact that his son is not receiving a good education at home, but would be better off at an independent school like Eton. Mr Williams belongs to a small subset of home educators, who wish their children to develop one particular skill to the exclusion of all else; in his case, chess.
I say that this is a subset of home educators, but in fact it was once the only type of home educator of which anybody seemed to hear; people like Harry Lawrence and Laszlo Polgar, determined that their children will be the best in the world at something. Whether it is mathematics, chess, piano playing, singing or tennis; these children must be the best in the world. I have remarked several times before that it is always fathers who seem to be at the back of this type of home education, but today I want to focus upon whether this sort of thing is good for the children themselves.
The great problem with being brought up to be better than anybody else at something is that if you spend all the time with your family and don't attend school, then you may come to believe this to be true, even if it is really no more than an ambition or delusion of your father. The shock of discovering the truth, that there are many better musicians, mathematicians or chess players than you, can be profound. Once in awhile, this kind of enterprise pays off. We have seen it with the Williams sisters, who are the best at what their father taught them. We almost saw it with Judit Polgar, but not quite. In most other cases, it does not turn out that the child being raised like this is anything special. This is where the process can be traumatic. For years, a child has been told by her father that she is brilliant and special, that she will be world famous at whatever it is that the father has chosen for her. Every aspect of life is geared towards the realisation of the father's ambitions and the child herself becomes no more than an extension of the father's own thwarted hopes for his life. Sooner or later the realisation dawns for the child. First, she has sacrificed many of the ordinary pleasures of childhood for the sake of somebody else's goal and secondly, she it has all been in vain because she is not the world's best singer, mathematician or chess player at all. This often leads to an estrangement from the pushy father, coupled with a crisis of identity. If the child is not the world champion whom she believed herself to be; then who is she?
We do not hear of most cases of this sort. The ones of which we generally do hear are people like the Williams sisters, who are the best, or those like Ruth Lawrence, who showed great early promise and went to Oxford at a very early age. For every such case, there are many other children who are coached and pushed by their parents to the exclusion of all else in the search for perfection at the field chosen by their parents. There are psychological dangers in this type of home education, but there are ethical considerations too. Ruth Lawrence was not allowed to associate with children, because this would waste her time. All children who are being groomed for stardom in this way, inevitably miss out on many aspects of childhood. These are often things which however successful they might be in later life, are irreplaceable. The chance to become engrossed in other hobbies apart from the important passion of their fathers. Being able to spend a summer not practising tennis or chess, or even taking up something quite different and focusing their energies on that instead.
I have always been fascinated by this particular strand of home education and I have to say that although to most home educators this kind of thing is seen as very unusual; for the man in the street, it is what home education is all about. They have all heard of the Williams sisters or Ruth Lawrence and the popular perception of home education is largely defined by mad fathers pushing their kids on to become champions! Do any readers know of this sort of thing in real life, apart of course from Peter Williams? I would be curious to hear of modern examples of this practice and to know in what field the kids are being trained.