Ten years ago, two men in Toronto spoke to a group of immigrant Muslims and introduced them to a word they had never heard before: homeschooling. Today, the growth of the Muslim homeschooling community, at least in the Bay Area, is largely a result of these two scholars: John Taylor Gatto and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. They came together again with the collaboration of Kinza Academy and Averroes Institute to speak at the Transforming the High School Experience event. I was there to show support to my good friends and their newest venture, but my trip up to the Bay was also driven by selfish reasons. I have a son entering his seventh year of schooling and I wanted guidance and inspiration to a path that will lead him to success. John Gatto is an amazing inspiration and even at 76 years of age, has the stamina to speak like a twenty something year old. I was blessed to be able to spend quite some time with John (as he prefers to be addressed) and ask questions of this amazing resource and thus plan the next few steps of my own homeschooling venture.
Averroes Institute founders come from the knowledge that the public schooling system is a failure, and they have done surveys and studies to prove through the mouths of those who’ve been there and done that, what a miserable failure it is. With the rise in numbers of Muslims in the Bay Area and perhaps with the establishment of the nation’s first Muslim College there as well, Averroes cofounders, Reem Bilbesi and Ateka Ali, decided to start Averroes Institute, a transformative Islamic high school that “prepares students for life.”
John Taylor Gatto is a retired schoolteacher, who spent most of his career differing with the system that he believes stifles, instead of raises students. As an ex- schoolteacher myself, I couldn’t agree with him more. John Gatto emphatically urges parents to challenge the system of public education and give their kids a “real education”. I heard John say this many times before and I always wondered, how easy is this to do, and how realistic is it? John’s response to me was simple: we won’t know until we try, and we won’t know how until we do. He gave me examples of people who made it through situations that others thought they could not. They did and proved the world wrong. I’m sure he could see the overprotective mom frightened by his “extreme” philosophy, so John came up with an idea for me: Why not have my son give the world a “try?” Have him sign up for apprenticeships or shadow a worker for a day just to see how he/she works. Let him “try” his hand at life under the shadow of a watchful adult.
Of all the things that John said that evening, the one statement that resonated with me and made most sense, was “Don’t go the usual route. There are already too many there!” John Gatto pointed out the sheer numbers of high schools in the US: public, private, otherwise, and the number of valedictorians coming out of them each year and the fact that not all of them get into Harvard or Stanford or any other ivy league school. Why? According to a Harvard admissions officer, Harvard looks for something beyond good grades and good test scores. They look for promise in the student, they look for ” a record of excellence through performance.” When I saw the article showing how well Chinese students are doing at standardized testing 1, I thought to myself, ” how will my children cope?” News article after news article shows how hard the world is working to get their children up to the modern measure of excellence 2. The competition is mounting for our children. In a global economy, at a time when the world is indeed becoming smaller, my children will be up against students from China, India, and every developing nation with a rising economy for a seat in college 3. They will then compete with them for a job in a world with fewer and fewer jobs, and more and more people who are willing to do it for less. If we want our children to be able to survive in this world, one which is changing before our eyes, we need to prepare them for anything that may come at them. They have to be self-reliant, educated, prepared for challenges and willing and able to work through challenging times.
In order to accomplish these goals, we have to according to John Gatto, go back to the America of the pre eighteen fifties; an America of creativity and ingenuity. This was the time when young people were treated as adults and they acted as such as well. They lived in an environment where they were driven to create and experiment, where performance measured quality; not grades and most of all, students had the right mix of intellect, character and religious understanding to propel this nation to greatness. John suggests that we take charge of our children’s education and develop a curriculum that is God centered, meaningful, fluid and community based and thereby build an educated consciousness in our children.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf embellished this talk by adding that parents are the first and should strive to be the best teachers for their children. We have to nurture our children to have the best Adab and give them the best Tarbiya to refine them as human beings. We cannot throw our kids into the coliseum of chaos unprepared. We should give them the tools they need to properly communicate and articulate their sentiments. Our children have to grounded firmly in our deen and have a deep understanding of their purpose and place in this world for them to succeed in it. In today’s world we have to teach our children to find their middle space: one which teaches them to not be too harsh so they become destroyers, yet not be too kind to become destroyed!
Coming out of the conference, I felt my decision to homeschool validated once again, but more so, I left reassured that though our swim may be upstream, we shall see the benefit of our struggles soon enough, inshaAllah. Whenever there is a mode of commonality, it’s the unique ones that stand out, hence a demand for the different may well be what our children can meet in society and if they do so with God consciousness then inshaAllah our homeschooling ventures will be successful!
May Allah grant us all tawfiq, Ameen.
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