Recently I was pondering the question of how to determine what qualities or actions will lead to a superior homeschooling experience. It can be so easy for aspiring homeschoolers to look at a “successful” student or school program and draw incorrect conclusions about what must have been the secret to success, without realizing the behind-the-scenes factors that actually contributed to a good outcome.
It occurred to me that many people probably look at homeschool success stories—and their hope of replicating what seems to work so well for others—with a cargo cult mentality.
First, it occurred to me that I ought to be very careful mentioning “homeschooling” and “cult” in the same article! So let’s define the concept of a cargo cult, which, despite the sound of the term, is not at all a controversial idea.
The notion of the cargo cult has evolved throughout history whenever clashes between civilizations provided societal conflict and integration of new ideas. However, the colloquial use of the term became widespread after World War II, during which various small and isolated Pacific islands became critical strategy points for Allied planes. The local inhabitants witnessed—and grew accustomed to having—planes stopping on newly built airstrips, bringing supplies and gifts. After the war, when the planes stopped coming, the locals tried to replicate the actions that had previously brought such astounding results. They rigged their own homespun versions of landing strips, signal beacons, and even “straw men” to serve as landing teams, but to no avail. Somehow just mimicking—as best they could—the external appearance of what they had seen others do did not produce the same results.
So a brief synopsis of a “cargo cult mentality” is the notion that results can be predicated on superficial rather than foundational qualities, or a belief that one must just attend to the exterior trappings, focusing mainly on appearances, and the rest will come along.
But in reality, just going through the motions, following form over functionality, can be an exercise in futility. When it comes to a quality education, as in so many areas of life, we shouldn’t be looking for cheap solutions, easy answers, or quick fixes.
One could apply this principle to the question of successful leadership qualities. What makes a great leader? Well, one could study great leaders throughout history and understand what made them great, instead of merely trying to emulate the obvious external features.
For instance, Winston Churchill was famous for his cutting wit (to the point of being often bitingly cruel to his adversaries); he was given to drink; he was stout. But a careful student of history would be wise to conclude that these personal preferences and mannerisms were not the source of Churchill’s great leadership presence and would instead focus on emulating his actual leadership qualities, such as his dedication to ideals, his ability to explain his positions in ways that rang true to his audience, his clear understanding of valid threats, his devotion to a righteous cause, and his unwavering commitment to principle.
To take another example, an admirer of Abraham Lincoln might focus on his good qualities—compassion for all, even his enemies; humility in his determination to do the right thing (“with firmness in the right, as God gives us to understand the right”); a statesmanlike resolve to end the war as graciously and humanely as possible, and so on—rather than seek to replicate his missteps or the things that were immaterial to his leadership success. Someone who tries to be like Lincoln in the most obvious superficial ways—growing a beard, wearing a top hat—is merely replicating historical drama.
Actually there’s a term for that: historical reenactment. And there’s a valid time and place for such replications, which can honor our heroes and highlight our history, but it must be remembered that it’s merely play-acting. Such reenactments don’t produce new or tangible results.
In homeschooling, there can be a strong temptation to look at the results and base a plan on the exterior trappings, as if that produced the superior results. Was it the emphasis on music lessons, sports involvement, Latin etymology, and modest dress that resulted in a competent, intelligent, well-adjusted young homeschool graduate? Or were there other factors at work?
When it comes to my family, I am always willing to learn from others’ examples, but I strive to tailor good ideas to suit our particular needs and goals.
We march to the beat of our own drum. And if we do take a field trip to Mount Vernon so we can literally march to the beat of drums, it will be because we want to do it, not because some homeschool curriculum or support group told us that we have to take field trips to learn about history!
Photo Credit: First image copyright HSLDA; all other images courtesy of Rose Focht.