I’m writing to you as a long-time reader of The Tenured Radical, as a fellow blogger, fellow leftist, and individual who spent the first seventeen years of my life learning outside of school — as did my fiancee, until she entered public high school. I wanted to respond to your post regarding home education and the religious right.
I realize that in our contemporary landscape “homeschooling” in the public eye has become virtually synonymous with conservative Christian organizations like the Home School Legal Defense Fund (which actually financed a lot of the court battles that made home education legal for families of all political persuasions), and families who take their children out of public schools for fundamentalist religious reasons. However, I find your characterization of home education “as a grassroots movement” being anti-intellectual and anti-citizenship troubling.
Yes, you are talking about a specific subset of home-educating families and philosophies, but throughout your piece you obscure the wide variety of motivations to home education and styles of learning and teaching by using “home schoolers” as a substitute for “fundamentalist-evangelical Christian conservative homeschoolers.” As a woman who grew up as part of the “grassroots” home education movement in Michigan during the 1980s and 90s, this erases my experience — and the experience of many of my contemporaries — whose home-based education expanded horizons, rather than limiting and controlling them.
You say in your post:
Public education is about putting citizens in the making in one place to talk to each other and learn together. Is it an accident that when large numbers of voters fail to participate in a common enterprise with Americans not of their choosing that we have so little to say to each other during an election season?
I have seen a lot of anti-homeschooling liberals express similar sentiments, that home education is somehow inherently un-democratic because it removes children from the public square. This is a very limited understanding of the potential of learning outside of school, and in fact many of the progressive home-education folks I know would argue precisely the opposite: that home-based education takes children out of the age-segregated ghetto of school and brings them into the community at large.
As a home-educated child, rather than spending my days in a school building I volunteered at cultural institutions such as the public library and the local history museum, participated in community art classes and music groups, in sports activities and “field trips.” I held part-time jobs as a teenager that not only gave me excellent work experience but also further grounded me in the community. I was involved in church, another locus of social interaction and civic participation.
Obviously, this is not an automatic benefit of home-based education. But I would argue that exposure to a wide range of viewpoints, diversity, and the values of civic participation is not an automatic benefit of public education either. Public schools can be homogeneous, and educators narrow-minded, just like individual parents and families can be. My siblings both attended public high school for part of their grade-school education and benefited from that experience; my brother now teaches art in a public middle school. I am grateful that public provision of education is part of our nation’s commitment to its citizens, and feel that — like hospitals or roads! — public schools are our responsibility to fund whether or not we choose to, or need to, access those services.
Suffice to say, I believe it is a profound mis-characterization of home-education per se to suggest it is at root an anti-democratic, anti-public-spirited endeavor. Obviously, some people who make the choice to home-educate will do so for sectarian reasons, to withdraw from the society at large, because of profound disagreement with mainstream policies. There are examples to be found on the left as well as the right in this regard. But I would argue that this is a freedom-of-conscience decision. There is a long tradition in the United States of allowing parents to decide what the best method of education provision for their family is; compulsory education does not mandate form or content for good reason — local, familial, and religious priorities and needs vary. There is no “one size fits all” that would work well for the majority.
I believe that demonizing/scapegoating people who choose to home-educate for religious reasons actually threatens the freedom of all of us to form and organize our families as we see fit (see: same-sex marriage, polyamory, attachment parenting, etc.). It is certainly within our rights to point out that some forms of parenting foster us/them thinking — but home education is not the cause of that parenting outcome. It is simply the chosen method of delivery for some families. It is a tool, not a uniform ideology, and the values a family holds will shape how home education works for that family, rather than home education pre-determining an exclusionist, reactionary outcome.
In closing I want to thank you for your articulate, insightful blogging at The Chronicle; I have your blog in my Google Reader and regularly click in to read what you have to say. As a fellow blogger I realize that no one post can cover all aspects of an issue. In this instance, I just wanted to share my perspective as someone “on the ground” as a home-educated adult, who has been on the receiving end of fellow liberals’ suspicion of home-based education for many years! I think that the picture is (as always) much more complex than outsiders perceive it to be, and conflating “home education” with “reactionary conservative isolationist” does more harm than good.