I’m almost 20, and I’ve gone to “real” school for about five years.
I was homeschooled until the ninth grade. I was a first-year at Yale when I returned home for a permanent spring break in March of 2020 due to the pandemic. Today, as a sophomore who has been on campus for a little more than two semesters, I’ve spent only a fraction of my life physically “going” to school.
Last spring, I complained about Zoom. On phone calls, I told my friends I just couldn’t handle doing school at home, I couldn’t focus; I was bored. I was saying the same things everyone else was saying.
But the truth is, I actually could handle doing school at home. In fact, I had done it before. I spent my childhood living in rehearsal for a pandemic. If experience was measured by time, I was more prepared for quarantine than for Yale. Last spring wasn’t the first time in my life I’d had empty afternoons. But as a child this had been an opportunity for free-range learning; as an exiled college student, I was restless and unhappy.
Certainly the pandemic itself contributed to my stress. But I’ve realized that every school, whether it’s homeschool or Yale, teaches its own agenda, ideology, “hidden curriculum.” Education is never just a transfer of factual knowledge: It’s a set of physical, material experiences that teach habits and lifestyles. Zoom can never recreate that.
My Yale experience was equally material and intangible. I was learning ice sculptures, Chicken Tender Thursdays and the names of consulting firms just as much as I was learning about renaissance art and American Architecture. I could still attend lectures from my childhood bedroom, but I wasn’t receiving a “Yale education” anymore. As a former homeschooler, I know that it’s possible to learn at home. But Yale teaches something it doesn’t tell us we’re learning.
Homeschooling has a material reality too. During a summer camp in elementary school, a non-homeschooled friend once asked me if my mom had ever made me pancakes on a school day. “Of course not,” I had lied, because what kind of kid eats pancakes and has a serious education?
But that girl wasn’t really asking about pancakes. She was asking if I was learning how to exist within an institution. Had I developed a conception of myself outside of the home? How would I learn societal norms if I also enjoyed the privilege of mornings at home? In 2021, perhaps most people can agree that children can become functional individuals without a classroom, and pancakes don’t seem so ridiculous anymore. But that girl recognized that our habits and routines, even our diets, are a piece of our education.
The physical experiences of our lives reflect the agendas of our institutions, whether it’s the comfort of pancakes or the extravagance of ice sculptures. There’s a culture of privilege and luxury the University literally feeds us. The “hidden curriculum” of Yale is real, it’s embedded in dorm room fireplaces and bay windows. That didn’t cross over into Zoom. At home, my desk is in front of a flat little window that looks out onto a freeform tomato garden. That’s not Yale.
The things we learn from Yale’s legacy and endowment can be good or bad. I have friends from different majors and different countries, I learn from people with entirely different worldviews. I didn’t have this at home. But at times campus can be an anxious, uneasy place. And I’m not so much more than an easily misled puppy who follows free food until I love and trust the University and forget that there is a world outside.
The architecture of homeschooling may be invisible, the “hidden curriculum” might just be family culture, but this is still an ideology students have the tools to learn. Yale, however, isn’t something all of us can learn at home. Assuming that Zoom could be a substitute for Yale assumes that the Yale culture is a universal reality. It assumes we don’t need to be taught the practices of Yale’s legacy. And maybe we shouldn’t be taught those practices at all — maybe Yale’s legacy excludes most of us — but these traditions and histories are part of the education this institution gives.
Zoom lets us forget that we learn more than facts, we learn lifestyles. We don’t just learn from textbooks, we learn from our friends and our families. Divorcing the physical from knowledge creates the emptiness of a semester at home. In 2012, I had a stay-at-home mom, a desk, a library card and decent internet. Last spring I didn’t even have a notebook. Learning at home isn’t necessarily impossible, but Zoom school doesn’t even acknowledge the infrastructure we need or the education we’re actually receiving.
There is a choreography and cooperation to education that we often overlook, thinking that it’s about facts and dates. But education is more of a practice than a knowledge base. When we complain about the material conditions of remote learning, we speak about a problem beyond back pain and bad WiFi. It’s about the placeless ghost of our education, now an online void without the conversations and connections that actually teach us.