A few years ago, before my son was born, I spent a weekend in the Hamptons at the country house of a moderately hip American investment banker. There were about 20 of us to dinner that evening, with all the usual cosmopolitan strains amply represented. Boring and predictable as the whole business was, by about two o’clock in the morning wine and cognac were doing to the conversation what Harvard and Wall Street can never do on their own, and I was deep in a meaningful discussion with a German. By way of social definition, I should mention that the man was in his 40’s, a member of the Knickerbocker in New York, and had the heiress to a reasonably important industrial fortune for a wife.
I tested the water by saying something mildly original about Hitler, whereupon your usual guest at a Hamptons dinner party would have moved at least one chair away. Nothing. The German even nodded assent. Then I said something inflammatory about the unification of the Fatherland being a Soviet ploy. Again, nothing. I was almost beginning to think the man had a brain. We spoke about life in London, and then he asked me if I was planning to have children. Just one, I said. If it is a boy, would I send him to school in England? I replied that, boy or girl, I had no intention of sending my child to school. He asked why.
I began answering him. He took off his tie. I went on with my answer. He took off his jacket and put it over the back of his chair. He undid his cufflinks and began rolling up his sleeves, and suddenly I looked up and saw that his face had become blue, as if engorged with venous blood. He was shaking with hatred. A few minutes later, he called for the hostess, who was German, and told her that he would pack his bags and leave the house at once as he found it impossible to spend the night under the same roof with the barbarian. I remember that it took the rest of the guests until dawn to placate him, while I was left alone at the dinner table with my glass of brandy and a half-guilty, half-sarcastic smile.
I can now admit that my presentation on the subject of homeschooling had not been so innocently improvised as I later made it out to be, when making my excuses to the host and hostess the following morning, but had in fact been honed, tempered, and made lethal like some barbarian tool of war in hundreds of similar conversations with equally excitable men and women over the course of a lifetime. It was the Germans, moreover, who had invariably managed to distinguish themselves by the uncontrollable force of their reactions, as though the mere verbal proclamation of a parent’s right to incubate a sociopath in the privacy of the home were an actual crime without an historic parallel, far more barbaric or heinous than any of Hitler’s. After all, those crimes were committed in the name of order, of discipline, of greater social cohesion. In the name of the bright tomorrow of world socialism. In the name of our children’s future.
The political crime of bringing up a child out of school—vnye kollektiva, “out of the collective,” was the standard Soviet locution used in my childhood—is still lacking a legal definition in some countries, such as Great Britain, and is only vaguely defined in others, such as the United States. In modern Germany, as in Russia and elsewhere, it is an offense punishable by fines and imprisonment, though it is quite certain that nowhere today, with such obvious exceptions as China or North Korea, are either the penalties or the manner of their enforcement as severe as the terrible repercussions my parents risked in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union.
In keeping me out of the Soviet school system, my father was pursuing a dual aim. On the one hand, he was opposed to organized education for the sort of general reasons that everyone who regards himself as a dissenting individualist might give, from a loathing of the lowest common denominator to an abhorrence of communally defined intellectual or social goals; from a disdain for easy popularity (and, by extension, of public opinion) to a distaste for prefabricated life in all its forms; and so on down the list of good old nonconformist gripes, the most venial of which is that school is just a waste of time. On the other hand, there was the very real issue of security to consider, since a child who had absorbed certain ideas in the home of a political dissenter was sure to test them on his schoolmates and teachers, inviting a police investigation into their origins; equally, a child who brought a load of cultural rubbish home from school would have to undergo nightly brainwashing, with the best possible, and more than slightly improbable, result that he would develop into the perfect hypocrite, a cultural schizophrenic spouting acceptable banalities in public and thinking dangerous truths once the front door had clicked shut. But in a communal apartment such as one which he might consider himself to be extremely fortunate to inhabit for the rest of his life, that ordinarily magical click of the front door was no guarantee of privacy.
The longer I live in the West, the more clearly I see that the reasons which impelled my parents to risk prison by not sending me to school are equally valid here. Here, too, school is at best a waste of time and at worst a highly politicized mechanism for alienating and subverting the affections and loyalties of the very young—that is to say, of the intellectually and culturally defenseless. Now aged five, my son speaks three languages and can read, write, and do sums in two of them. He can ride a bicycle, shoot, swim and row, eat with a knife and fork, play chess, and say, “How do you do?” when meeting an adult. He does not watch television because we do not own one; he does not wear baseball caps, T-shirts, bandannas, sneakers, or tattoos; and he has never been to McDonald’s. To my mind, this makes him a normal child—in the context of the culture to which we both belong due to the objective circumstances of race, family history, and tradition, to say nothing of the attendant subjective circumstances of our personal wishes, individual caprices, or private whims. To many others, including his American grandparents, this makes him a budding sociopath—which, in the context of a culture whose values his detractors do not find abhorrent, he probably is.
From there to the picture we have all seen on the front pages of Sunday newspapers is but a short paranoid leap. Incongruously, and unhappily for the logic of the argument, the picture in question is usually a school yearbook photograph, though just about ever)’thing else about it seems like a pretty good fit. A “loner” is what the boy is usually called. He is brighter than the rest, but far more socially awkward and, very significant, no good at team sports—at any rate, not at football. He prefers individual achievement, swimming, shooting, running, perhaps a little tennis, or else he is altogether a reclusive bookworm, reading Nietzsche and Chesterton, sticking his nose into musty corners that even the school librarian avoids, flipping through yellowed back issues of Life for the obvious reason that there is no Volkische Beobachter in the library. He is taunted by classmates, reviled by teachers, has hardly a friend in the world. And then finally he snaps, scribbles a note to the effect that some kind of transvaluation of values is long overdue, and before long the people who manage public relations for the National Rifle Association have another hard day at the office.
The phrase “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” was coined to describe Lord Byron. Omitted from the media photofit is the vital fact that the lonely sociopath becomes a homicidal maniac—rather than, for instance, a poet or an Olympic swimmer— when and only when he is forcibly compelled to live within and obey the rules of the organized kollektiv, whether of the Soviet totalitarian or of the increasingly pseudo-democratic Western variety. In both societies, schizophrenic hypocrisy has always been on offer as the middle way. In each society, there have been people for whom that compromise was temperamentally unsuitable and unacceptable.
To them, at least so long as the strictures against homeschooling remain vague enough to allow parents to insulate their children from the collective culture which they mistrust and abhor, educating a child at home is the answer. The fabric of life in the West, when viewed outside such established and avowedly collectivist institutions as kindergartens and schools, government offices, or corporate environments, is still sufficiently porous and permeable to permit a private individual to withdraw into the recesses, to nestle and to burrow as he thinks best. It is probably still possible for a young couple in love to keep body and soul together, and educate a child in the meantime, on $12,000 a year if they are willing to settle in a small industrial town in Piedmont, or a Catalan village with little tourist trade, or an unfashionable Greek island. Not a bad prospect, really, considering that just about anybody who is likely to regard his child’s upbringing as a tragic dilemma, deserving of a radical solution, is not in the socioeconomic position to think $12,000 a year an unattainable dream.
As is clear from the personal anecdote with which I began, I think nothing of engaging a strange German in a potentially explosive discussion, and this brings me to another important element in the personality of the presumed sociopath who is the product of home education. All my life, I have been gregarious in the extreme, talking to taxi drivers about Kant and to train conductors about Reagan, chatting up schoolgirls in buses, merry widows in cafes, old ladies in tearooms. I have sold slim volumes of my verse to people who could not read a cartoon caption, and I have raised money for a magazine that shared many of the cultural attitudes of this one from people who thought George Bush was a conservative extremist. I have always had a hundred friends, which in the words of an old Russian proverb is better than having a hundred rubles, and I have never had a friend who would not have lent me a hundred dollars when I needed it.
Yes, I was raised away from other children my age, and this is the gift I have to show for all those years of deprivation. Socially, I have a style that belongs somewhere in the caricature world of aluminum-siding salesmen, of amiable conmen of every stripe, of Riviera gigolos and old-style American newspaper reporters. And, since style is not only not personality, but often the opposite of personality, I use my social gift—my style, my charm, my gift of the gab —to tell people what they do not want to hear. Some would say that such Sisyphean labor more than makes up for whatever life I did not lose by attending school, and that it is obviously the height of futility to use all of one’s energies to socialize with the very people one intends to antagonize. I disagree. I am convinced that the position of a writer is only tenable insofar as it carries with itself the privilege of telling people what they least want to hear, as well as the obligation of telling it in the most attractive way. A credible writer is like a beautiful woman missionary who lures her victims on the pretext of a night of passion and makes them sing psalms instead.
I suppose I will be happy if my son decides to follow me, my father, and my father’s father, and becomes a writer. But what if, already scarred as I have been scarred, and already a sociopath by any definition save that of his own friends and family, he decides to become something else instead? An architect? A banker? My assumption is that in every field of human endeavor there is always some need for the services of someone who was not only never trained as a yes-man, but was actually trained as a no-man. And if his chosen field should happen to be too narrow to admit the likes of him, perhaps he ought to consider another, one that, in view of the peculiar kind of education he has received, would be more suitable.
Home education, after all, is a kind of early specialization. If you play the violin for eight hours a day from the age of three onward, you should not be surprised at age 20 when a bank tells you that they prefer to hire somebody else, perhaps the boy who ran the lemonade stand under the windows of your practice cubicle. Equally, if your education has consisted, even in part, of dreamy avoidance of the present and of sweet escapism into the past, you should not feel offended that a bum-kissing job in the English department of a major Ivy League university is not there waiting for you. Even if you critiqued Grandison at the dinner table and learned the variant readings of every Shakespeare play when you were just ten.
And if, when everything’s said and done, my son should end up being a writer even more unemployable than myself—because writing, as a career and a means of subsistence, is destined to become as narrow, sterile, and bureaucratized as teaching or banking—then at least I can rest easy in the confidence that he will be more than moderately happy despite such misfortune. The loner who stays at home, after all, rejects society in one of its most virulent and concentrated forms before society, in another of its most virulent and concentrated forms, has had the chance to reject him. Like the hotel bellboy of old who always quit a fraction of a second before he was fired, he has his dignity, and that is the main thing.
That, and $12,000 a year.