Marie Curie’s Homeschool Co-op

Marie Curie and her eldest daughter, Irene, in the laboratory.

Today is the 150th birthday of Marie Curie, the distinguished Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist. She was the first woman and first person to win the Nobel Prize twice.

As a coincidence, I’ve been reading a biography of Marie Curie, written by Robert Reid in 1974. The book may have already been surpassed by more recent research on Mme Curie’s life, but nonetheless, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. She was an incredible woman who lived through many hardships, and she managed to gain respect as a scientist at a time when there were few women scientists.

There is much I could write about Marie Curie, but since this blog is about homeschooling, I had to share this part in the book when it describes how Marie took charge of her daughter’s education. If you are a homeschooling parent, it may resonate with you.

 On this subject of education she had the strongest of views. Irene was already nine years old and her education had now to be taken most seriously. Marie Curie believed that the measure of a nation’s civilization could be based on the percentage of its budget it spent on national education. France, at this time, ranked low in her league table. Her answer to the shortcomings of the nation was to devise an educational system calculated to give products of the right caliber. It would be an educational elite, but then Marie was herself attracted to elite groups. In one case, that of her own child, the experience of such a group would have remarkable results.

Today the word “elite” sometimes carries a negative connotation that may not have been attached to it when this book was written. I know that homeschoolers do not consider themselves “elite,” but most of us probably feel that the education we are giving our children is superior to what they would be receiving at the local school. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be homeschooling. Indeed, I’m not sure whether or not Marie considered herself an “elite” either; she simply drew from the well-educated individuals in her social circle.

As I kept reading, I couldn’t help but smile. What Marie Curie created sounds just like what we now call a homeschool co-op! See here:

Marie Curie sat down with her friends from the Sorbonne, all much the same age as she and mostly married with young children, and planned a school curriculum which they themselves could operate. It was an eclectic group: Jean Perrin, the physical chemist; Paul Langevin, the physicist; Edouard Chavannes, the Chinese scholar; and Henri Mouton, the naturalist. However, they were all prepared to give a certain amount of time each day to modeling one another’s children in educational images which they considered to be an improvement on anything achieved by the existing systems.

The result was that eight or nine infants joined the “Cooperative” and spent a relatively small amount of time every day being intensively educated by the highest quality minds, and a relatively large amount in games and physical exercises of one kind or another, of which Marie Curie passionately approved. A still larger part of the children’s time was spent in traveling from one professor to the other. Langevin and Chavannes lived in the suburbs at Fontenay-aux-Roses, and it was there that mathematics and culture were taught: for physics they sometimes traveled to Sceaux and sometimes to the laboratories of the Sorbonne. Literary gaps were filled in by Mme Perrin and Mme Chavannes.

As a system designed by an elite for an elite it was a success. It was scientifically overbalanced, but the children’s memories of it during its brief two or three years seem to have been nothing but happy. Its effects in the case of Irene Curie were salutary. The genetic inheritance from her parents were considerable, but there was some risk that this refined environment might saturate her love of science. The opposite proved true and she thrived on the staple diet of mathematics, physics and chemistry. These years laid the foundations for future success.

Indeed, Irene Curie would go on to become an esteemed scientist herself, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935.

Co-ops today generally meet only once or twice a week, and parents must pay a tuition, volunteer or both in order to enroll their children in classes. I’m not aware of any homeschooling co-ops organized by such an illustrious people as Marie Curie and her colleagues, but I do know that there are co-ops organized and run by parents who are very talented professionals in their fields. There are many that are organized for religious reasons, and they may be inclusive or exclusive. But there are secular co-ops too. I wish we could afford to try out a co-op that is near to us.

I was delighted to read about Marie Curie’s determination to create the right educational environment for her children and what a success it was. She was a brave woman who forged her own path whether that was in work, science, motherhood, or educating her children. Society was not always kind to her, but somehow she managed to pick herself up and keep going. She’s an inspiration to me and a good reminder that it is always worth it to follow your own star.

2 thoughts on “Marie Curie’s Homeschool Co-op

  1. Teaching is an art, so co-ops taught by people knowledgeable in their field aren’t necessarily better than they would be by someone who knows the content AND is a great teacher.

    There are plenty of homeschooling parents who think co-ops AREN’T homeschooling because the Bible says parents (not other parents) should teach their own kids. They also pull their kids out of school so that they DON’T learn certain things, like evolution.

    Marie Curie homeschooling her daughter was in reaction to the school system not teaching everything she felt her daughter should know. The equivalent is the atheist homeschooling because the public schools teach Creationism and doesn’t mention evolution. Or as was more likely the case, Curie found that girls weren’t being offered classes in advanced math and science because they’re girls and only really need to know how to read the Bible, cook, and clean.

    Furthermore, it’s right wing conspiracy nuts who turned “elite” into a curse word. Apparently being educated (something that ANYONE can accomplish) is scary. Especially an educated woman.


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