Why Homeschooling Freaks Me Out

An article on Alternet today bears the ominous title: “An Army of Home-Schooled ‘Christian Soldiers’ On a Mission to ‘Take Back America for God.'” In it, Robert Kunzman discusses some of what he uncovered researching the “Generation Joshua” program for his book on the “world of conservative Christian homeschooling.” Children are quoted calling public schools tools of “the Enemy” and “quite simply humanist churches” out to undermine Christian values. (I guess they’ve never heard of Christian humanists.)

Of course, Jesus Camp probably holds the honor for the most disturbing depiction of anti-science Christian fundamentalist homeschooling: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DH_wPUVlJ38]

Sure, there are positives to homeschooling. My own mother sometimes wonders if I would have been better off homeschooled, citing the wasted time I frequently spent bored and learning little in the public school system (in what are considered good schools, comparatively). The public education has a lot of flaws No Child Left Behind did nothing to remedy, and homeschooling can look like an appealing way to accelerate your child’s learning, if you can afford the time commitment. In the realm of test scores, homeschooling has its successes and failures, just like public schools–the quality of the teacher is an important factor whether that s/he is a parent or professional.

Yet the larger problem is the impact of parental indoctrination on their children. Already, kids get most of their beliefs from their parents, for good and bad; school is the other major force in their lives, exposing them to diverse viewpoints. Although schools could certainly improve in encouraging students to think for themselves, when the parental and educational influence become one, children lack the experiences through which they could grow to discern the positive and negative in their parents’ beliefs and prejudices. (Whether their parents be evangelical Christians or atheists, liberal or conservative.)

Religion, unsurprisingly, raises the stakes. The Jesus Camp documentary states that a three-fourths of homeschooled children are evangelical Christians; Generation Joshua tells homeschoolers: “America is in a culture war. A few good soldiers can make a difference. Equip yourself and come join the battle!” And, unfortunately, passing the SATs doesn’t say anything about a students’ accurate knowledge of science or history, the areas in which the fundamentalist Christian Nation agenda tends to be weak on.

Sweden might have the right idea: it’s planning on banning homeschooling for “religious or philosophical” reasons, only allowing it in special exceptions, such as medical need. On the other hand, this action has garnered a lot of opposition, mainly from religious groups citing it as inference with protected belief, but also in terms of the inadequacies of the public education system and parental rights (what about children’s rights to a real education?).

In the end, I don’t have a ton of sympathy for homeschooling. There’s such a thing as too much parental control (although an involved parent who helps with homework and provides additional teaching afterschool is a fantastic asset), not to mention the social benefits to attending school with other kids. This doesn’t even take religious completely out of the equation–private and religious schools exist as options (whether that’s a positive or not). The best argument I see for homeschooling is one that not about instilling ideology but simply providing your children with a better education, basically an opt-out route.

However, like private schooling, this removes the people with means and time from wanting to push for stronger universal education, penalizing those left behind who don’t have the time to homeschool or the money to private school.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Why Homeschooling Freaks Me Out

  1. I still need to watch Jesus Camp. Soon. Have you seen “Saved”?

    What gets me most about the quotes on this article are people who have never set foot in a public school believing they’re the experts on what goes on there…

    • Saved is a fantastic, hilarious, and also disturbing movie I need to watch again, and highly recommend to everyone. Not as true-to-reality/scary depressing as Jesus Camp, however–and the homeschooling alarms me more than even a particularly crazy depiction of a born-again Christian school.

  2. I am an atheist home schooling mom. I made the decision to teach my son at home for several reasons. The first was that by the time he was ready for Kindergarten, he was far ahead in both reading and math, but in other ways he was simply not ready for school.

    So, since I work from home anyway, I thought I’d teach him at home until he was ready for class work.

    And I did intend to send him to public or private school at some point. I think I still do. But each year I look at the curriculum, talk to the teachers, and can’t help but think he’s better off at home, where the Christian lobbyists haven’t scared teachers and administrators to the point of exorcising the dreaded “e” word from science classes, and where Christianity and Islam can be taught as mythology and history without fear of either the faith-based or secular extremists distorting things.

    I understand being freaked out by the ‘Jesus Camp’ type Christian homeschoolers, but look at it this way….

    …in the future, under the presidency of Sarah Palin, creation science replaces evolution as the standard taught in public schools. The majority of the American public believes evolution is erroneous, and creationism is true. Wouldn’t you like the right to pull your children out of school and teach them what you believe to be right, and by doing so, hopefully shape the course of the future of the country?

    That’s what Christians are doing when they home school, just from the opposite perspective. And I can’t argue with their right to do so.

    For the most part, I don’t think there’s any permanent harm. The kids who stay Christian would have been as fundamentalist as their parents even if they went to public school, while those kids who end up questioning their faith can quite easily find some books, videos, or online courses to correct errors and lapses in their home education.

    I know this because I was raised in a fundamentalist home and went to a Christian school. I was taught that the earth was created in six literal days, and that dinosaurs never existed. It only took a few weeks to catch myself up enough to ace my first year bio classes at university.

    Anyway, I’m a homeschooler, and a supporter of universal education. I support public school. I volunteer at a public school. I just care about my son too much to enroll him there.

    • Those are definitely valid points about the attractiveness and benefits of homeschooling, which I chose not to address much in my post. I do understand these considerations and respect the desire to provide the best educational situation for your child, and won’t pretend that homeschooling is never the right answer to a child. As I said, my own mother debated homeschooling for me; the public school system has its flaws, particularly in its inability to tailor precisely to each child, in the way a one-on-one environment like homeschooling might be able to. At another time, I might go further into my concerns with the public education system and necessary reforms. However, in terms of what homeschooling means as an “opt-out” option, I don’t agree with all of your points.

      If schools all go creationist, I’m not sure that I would promote homeschooling as a response. Firstly, there’s the class-based issue, that the “right” to homeschool is not a real option for everybody. That is, in fact, a flaw of private schools as well: the people with the money and clout to fight for improved public schooling aren’t motivated to, because they can send their children off the Exeter (worsening the class divide that’s already a major issue in this country).

      Furthermore, if the people who realize the deep-seated problems with the creationist system pull their kids out, those children whose parents have weaker opinions on the subject, or are less informed, get left behind. My concern with the opt-out option thus isn’t a simple matter of losing the incentive for parents with means to battle for better education (and I’ve seen Board of Ed politics and know just how hard parents with incentive can fight), but also removing the parents with the best comprehension of what should be taught from agitating for change.

      It’s admirable that you volunteer at a public school, but the incentive to enact change isn’t the same as if you had to send your child to public school. You care about your son too much to enroll him in public school–but if you HAD to send him there, you would probably be provoked to put far more effort into improving his quality of education, and unlike the time spent on homeschooling, this would benefit all of his classmates as well. My belief in what formidable opponents parents can be when it comes to something that could harm their children is what makes me want to keep everyone in the same system.

      Even had McCain been elected, suffered a heart attack, and left the crazy Alaskian as our President, I don’t think the kind of sweeping change to our educational system you describe would occur. As long as parents continued sending their kids to school, they would oppose those changes–sure, probably more Texas schools would be able to go creationist, but non-fundamentalist areas of the country would hold on to basic science.

      This argument might seem odd in criticizing homeschooling for removing parental influence from public schools. It’s not that I want evangelical Christians pushing for creationism in public schools, but I think that it’s best for everybody if we keep everybody in the same area fighting to get at the truth and best education. Of course, parents still teach their children what they believe to be right outside of school, retaining massive influence. My fundamental beliefs originally came from my mother, then through the influence of college and public education began to change and grow into my own set of beliefs. So while I have very strong beliefs I’ll fight for, in the end I recognize that I could be mistaken, so I approve of healthy debate and learning other perspectives. This acceptance of fallibility ranks high in my opposition to homeschooling, not to mention that that being right isn’t always enough (i.e. if no god exists, I am right in being an atheist–yet I value exposure to other beliefs and interfaith dialogue): a life almost completely under the influence of one person, even if s/he is a loving and brilliant parent, seems concerning.

      Furthermore, I consider it unjust to sacrifice the right to education of any child to brainwashing. You say you don’t think there’s any permanent harm, but I disagree. Even a fundamentalist school seems preferable to agenda-driven homeschooling; As fundamentalist Christian as a school might be, there will still probably be some diversity of thought amongst teachers and questioning from peers that is absent when a child is under the exclusive influence of an authoritarian parental figure. Partly because it’s not just about religion: literalist Christian schools might insist on rigid adherence to the doctrine of creationism, but maybe they’re not so strict on debate about aspects of, say, history, that don’t threaten their religious doctrine. For a parent homeschooling a child, unless they make the active effort to incorporate alternative opinions and debate into their curriculum, their viewpoints will be transmitted exactly, so the student has no basis for the concept of open inquiry, which they could apply to other areas. This can even happen when a parent is well-intentioned, educating from a desire to accelerate their child’s learning rather than to instill an ideology.

      From personal experience, I know a couple of homeschooled students for whom college had virtually no impact, because it was too late: they weren’t just spewing Christian fundamentalist talking points, they were carbon copies of the parent who educated them, so strictly indoctrinated that exposure to the internet and college debate had little impact. Religious and political identification are almost always transmitted from parents, demonstrating what a powerful force parental influence even without homeschooling. I’m proud of sharing many beliefs with my mother–but I’m as grateful that public education provided me with the framework from which to disagree as well. I’m not sure that the positive elements of homeschooling can make up for losing that.

      • valkyrie9

        I totally agree with what you said about religious schools vs. religious homeschooling. I went to a very conservative Lutheran school for the first half of elementary school, and I have friends who attended conservative religious schools for all or most of their pre-college education. There’s a big difference, and I mean, BIG difference, between what you get out of a religious school and you get out of religious homeschooling. In my case, I’m not going to make an argument on the basis of the effects of religious schooling on me since I attended public schools from 3rd through 12th grade, so I think any effect it had was temporary and negligible. But with friends who went to Catholic or evangelical schools for many years, they definitely were not exclusively exposed to their schools’ ideas about religion, politics, and science. They had friends there who rebelled (or who came from a liberal background to begin with); they had teachers who didn’t toe the line. And it’s worth noting that even within the Religious Right, there is a large diversity of theological interpretations. For a kid whose parents are arch-conservative, talking to another kid who is a little bit less conservative can be a catalyst for questioning more and more of their beliefs. This is why even some people who go to college at a Liberty or Bob Jones University manage to rebel. It’s not always simply about what you’re learning; it’s about who you’re learning with, too.

        I’ve seen with my friends from conservative religious schools, that they are a LOT more likely to question their parents’ and schools’ views and do a complete 180 once they get to college than kids who are homeschooled. Like the author suggests, I think this is because they still learn how to think critically about other, non-religion-related things in these schools; it’s not like they’re completely indoctrinated. By contrast, I’ve met a token few homeschoolers, and virtually none of the “conservative religious” type, for whom college did a damn bit of good in opening their minds. They had never learned to think outside the box; they had basically been brainwashed, and even when exposed in college to other views, they were too far in to even give those views a bit of thought other than “How sinful!” I’ve noticed a similar inability to question their own beliefs, though not as universal, from “secular”/”liberal” homeschoolers.

  3. I too am an atheist homeschooling parent. Watching the video of the homeschooling mother was scary to me as well, as I certainly don’t share that family’s viewpoints. However, I assume that footage from a fundamentalist private school would be similarly worrisome to me. If your argument is to prevent such indoctrination, and force all parents to work toward improving education for everybody, then I assume you are in favor of banning all private schools as well? If you aren’t in favor of that, the only reason I could think of would be that you assume that homeschoolers are only educated by their parents (a lot of folks understandably assume that), and that at least a large group of fundamentalist teachers is better than one crazy fundamentalist parent.
    I’d like to clarify that my children attend a 75-100 child co-op once a week where they take classes from instructors other than myself. No, these teachers don’t all have teaching degrees, but the caliber of instruction is simply MUCH higher than what they would find at a public school. As a sampling, they are learning Mandarin from a translator from Beijing, math from a college professor, wilderness survival from a pilot/paramedic, and art from a woman who actually makes a living as an artist. Class sizes are 10-15 kids, and each class has one teacher and a parent helper. Any disruptive behavior in class results in the child having to sit the class out (and since kids actually WANT to take the classes, that rarely happens). My kids also get to interact with a wide variety of families and nationalities, as many foreign families have no intention of subjecting their children to our public school system.
    I decided to homeschool when I went to put my oldest into kindergarten and realized he knew everything they were planning on teaching him… honestly, if they were just going to let him play and socialize I probably would have let him go. But I knew my son would not sit still for hours on end doing worksheets that he was already way beyond. My daughter, who is now 5, just tested out as GREATER than 99.99% in reading. In other words, she broke the test. What the heck is my local kindergarten going to do with my daughter who is reading anything she gets her hands on and is doing double digit addition? And we barely spend any time at home doing schoolwork!
    I guess I’m simply not willing to sacrifice my own children for the “greater good” – and I question how many parents you can convince to do so. Are you a parent? Would you send your child into a situation to be reprimanded, and made to feel like he is a “bad kid” for wiggling, talking, and being bored out of his mind? Especially when there is such a good alternative out there? When you were young, homeschooling wasn’t big enough for your mother to have had enough other families to get together with. I suspect if your mother would have had access to a coordinated, secular, homeschooling co-operative like we have, you would likely have been homeschooled too! It’s not all about sitting at home being isolated anymore. There are so many social activities and classes that my kids can take part in, that I have to carefully pick and choose between them. (They also take homeschooling classes at our local state park, at the Science Center, and at the Carnegie Museum. They play soccer, are in scouts, and go to summer camps.)
    Anyway, your argument, that all homeschooling kids are isolated and only influenced by their parents, just isn’t accurate for kids like mine. And if I’m to throw all my efforts into public education, then you’d better suggest outlawing all private school options as well. In the meantime, until the public school can show me they are even vaguely on par with the education level and opportunities for “real world” socialization that I am providing my children… I’m homeschooling. I’m sure my kids will grow up to disagree with me in plenty of ways, as they are already “pros” at doing so!