Posted by: Tracy Barsamian | October 9, 2013

Networks vs. Communities

community vs network

I went to a fabulous homeschool conference this weekend.  It was the 10th Anniversary of AHEM (Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts).  The keynote speaker and cofounder, Sophia Sayigh delivered an inspiring, warm, and funny speech.  While the whole speech was wonderful, the piece that I am still thinking about today is the idea of networks vs. communities.

John Taylor Gatto, a former NYC public school teacher and author has a lot to say on the subject.  Gatto (Dumbing Us Down) explains, “[Networks] provide mechanical (by-the-numbers) solutions to human problems, when a slow organic process of self-awareness, self-discovery, and cooperation is what is required if any solution is to stick… Networks [such as schools] do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that they can manage human social and psychological needs. The reality is that they cannot.”

In theory, homeschooling should naturally build strong connections within and between families, as homeschool families make similar educational and lifestyle choices.  BUT, as Sophia (AHEM) pointed out in her eloquent speech, homeschooling, too, has become an industry.  Farms and museums and nature centers have all created homeschool classes.  There are learning centers popping up all over the country.  And all of these choices are creating a network in which homeschoolers can “plug in” to plan/form their weeks and months and years.  BUT as Gatto so eloquently explains, networks are not communities.  So merely plugging into the homeschool network would not leaving us feeling part of anything bigger than ourselves, as what satiates us is connection, community.

I could sign Keira up for three separate stand-alone classes each week.  Each class would have different students and a different teacher.  I could drive her to each class.  Go do a couple of errands with Lauren, and then pick Keira up again.  Her days would be busy.  She would be surrounded by other children.  But where is the community In that?  And in addition to this haphazardness of the students and teachers she would see each week, there is another huge, glaring program:  the kids don’t PLAY in these classes.  The classes are formed in the image of school classes.  The learning is in the subject matter.  There is no room for play!  The kids don’t even necessarily talk to each other!!  It’s instruction.  The parents are paying for instruction.  Thus, the teacher’s ability to (or even consciousness about) fostering of community (in that 1 to 2 hours) is very unlikely.

In his NYC Teacher of the Year acceptance speech, Gatto explains, “Our school crisis is a reflection of this greater social crisis. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to an unprecedented degree; nobody talks to them anymore. Without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the term “community” hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that.”

So this whole idea of networks in blowing my mind.  Gatto is right!  Our whole society has become a system of networks.  Communities are few and far between.  Now, I can understand why I really don’t want to go to church.  Why I feel lonely surrounded by so many other church goers on Sundays.  It’s because the Unitarian Church is a network, too!!  I go there.  I listen to the sermons.  I feel a little more “filled up” by the end of the sermon.  Keira attends Sunday School.  And after that we leave.  I do eat up the content of those sermons.  And I know that Keira is getting something out of her class (though she couldn’t tell me the name of even one of her classmates).  But that’s it.  It’s not community.

And much like the homeschool classes, the religious education classes are also based on the public school model: children are vessels and teachers fill those empty vessels with knowledge!  The kids sit and receive information from their teachers at Sunday school.  This also really defeats the whole “community-building” for children at the church.  It’s a problem.  And it’s just so interesting how no matter where I go these days, the very same issues are screaming out at me.  Ahh!!  It’s a network!!  Ahh!!  More teacher-directed learning.  Sh*t!!!!!

Getting back to the main point of the post – the discovery that networks are responsible for the feeling of loneliness so many people carry in the pit of their stomach – let’s revisit the goal:  community.  Yes!  Community is so hard to find.  But, what I need to keep reminding myself is that you can only be a full member of any community by GIVING something of yourself to that community.  I, currently, am not giving anything to the world of homeschooling.  Nothing.  We are not regular members of any of the homeschool regular meet-ups.  We are not currently hosting or organizing anything for the homeschool community.  Just feeling sad about how we are not “in community”.  Look at the Waldorf homeschool coop mamas, though.  They are pretty awesome.  They dig deep and give generously to their coop and to the larger homeschool community.  That coop is not a network.  It is a community.  And that is why it was so hard for me not to join this year.

And the Unitarian Church.  It clearly must be a community for many of its members.  Why else would you give your family’s resources to keep the church running?

And this brings me full circle from my previous post.  I am feeling oh so in between…not really finding community anywhere at the moment.  BUT patience is a virtue.  Not a strength of mine, but a virtue!  We have been homeschooling for a grand total of one month!  And we have not been regulars at the church ever.  Becoming a member of any community (new or existing) will take time.  A lot of time.  And in order to live in ANY community, I must GIVE and give generously of my time.  May I listen to my own well-intentioned advice.  Ha!


  1. Love this, Tracy. Thanks for your report of the weekend I had wanted to attend!

    • Thanks for your comment, Heather! I will look forward to sitting next to you at the next conference! Hugs, Tracy

  2. I think you make an excellent point about the difference between networks and communities. I have found, over the 5 years since we have been embedded in the local homeschooling community, that some of my deepest friendships and those of my daughter have come through the homeschool classes that are offered from various organizations which often lead to playdates and separate meet-ups, and, especially, the weekly park days that help to build friendships and community. You are so right that community is such an important part of all of this! -Kerry

    • Hi Kerry! Thanks so much for your comment! I love hearing about your (veteran homeschooling) family’s experiences!! From your comment and listening to the panel of homeschoolers at the AHEM conference, it seems that finding that one class that your child LOVES – and thereby meeting kids with similar interests – and then cultivating those friendships – is pivotal to creating that cozy homeschool community that we crave. Thank you again for sharing your experience; your family’s deep connection to the homeschool community is wonderful inspiration!!

  3. Your on to something Tracy, follow it. To give is to open yourself up and be vulnerable, it doesn’t matter where (home, school, church,) what matters is that you do.

    • Thanks, Jeff! I suspect that one can never go wrong with a “quit b*tching, start doing doing” mantra. Ha!! Love, T.

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