Perhaps, in retrospect, one thing that the pandemic has done was bring homeschooling more prominently into public consciousness than before. Many conversations have been positive—indeed, some have cheered the “homeschooling boom” over the past three years. This summer, however, has seen much negative publicity, connecting homeschooling to abuse. What do we make of it all? I would like to begin with an overview of the critiques before proceeding to a response.
On May 30th of this year, Washington Post, a publication that not so long ago celebrated the diversity of homeschooling in America, published its most hostile essay on homeschooling to date, profiling a husband and wife who have renounced their own fundamentalist homeschooling background, sent their youngest child to the local public school and, last but not least, walked away from church or, at least, organized religion. The article’s message was clear: there is a right and a wrong way to educate children. The modern educational-industrial complex is clearly the right way. Anything else is—well, wait, what is that alternative from which this family, depicted as victims throughout, so bravely and dramatically escaped?
The timing of the essay was not accidental, as Shiny Happy People, a horrifying documentary about the Duggar family and Bill Gothard’s IBLP movement released on June 1st. Since then, essays like this scathing Salon piece have continued to emerge at a steady pace, criticizing IBLP and adjacent movements as abusive. As the author of this last article argued, the church or the family’s religious beliefs bear only part of the blame for the abuse in the Duggar family. Rather, “a significant element at play here is easily overlooked, and that is the systemic deregulation of homeschooling over the last 30 years.”
The author, who was homeschooled herself, laments her educational experience, explaining that she was encouraged “to think of everything in our lives as potentially educational—baking was fractions, babysitting was home economics, attending my mother’s gestational ultrasound appointments was science. Some of my education was solid, but after I reached high school, much of what I was taught was self-directed.”
In addition to criticizing the homeschooling education she received, which she dubs lamentable, the author explains what she considers the most important reason why homeschooling is problematic and requires much greater oversight: public school teachers and other staff are mandated reporters—meaning, if they suspect that any abuse is happening in the home, or if the child confides any problem in them, they are mandated by the state to escalate such complaints for further investigation by appropriate channels.
Facts are important, but how we use facts is never neutral. Sometimes facts can be made into red herrings. I believe that this is precisely the problem with accusations that both the Amazon docuseries and this summer’s anti-homeschooling op-eds have leveled against the entire movement—and, in the case of the Salon piece, against parents more generally. All parents are potential abusers, the latter piece implies. Therefore, significant oversight over parents is necessary to keep their own children safe from them. Restricting homeschooling becomes, in such rhetoric, an essential strategy for keeping children safe from the enemy at home.
So, let us summarize the undisputed facts before considering which ones are, despite their veracity, red herrings for anyone considering homeschooling policy in America. First and foremost, we cannot dispute that the Duggar family had tolerated and hidden significant abuse at home for years. Since Joshua Duggar has been found guilty of specific crimes in a court of law and is currently serving a 12.5 year sentence, his crimes have met the high standard of legal proof. Second, since his earliest crimes involved his own sisters and his parents did not hold him responsible for them—or, at the very least, did not stop him—there is evidence of atrocious neglect and irresponsible parenting in the home. Also, it is a fact that the Duggars homeschooled all of their children, relying on the older kids to mentor, teach, and take care of the younger ones. That education did not look like public school education. We can add one more key fact to all of these. The IBLP movement, as more and more information emerges, was indeed abusive and not aligned with the teachings of the gospel. Christianity Today’s Russell Moore recently aptly mourned the abuse of power that defined IBLP’s treatment of the vulnerable.
All of these facts that I just summarized are, well, facts. The problem is that when they are used to paint all homeschooling families in broad brush strokes, they are a bucketful of red herrings. Is the Duggar family experience and the horrors that IBLP perpetuated a good foundation to criticize all homeschooling as abusive in this Anno Domini 2023? Are these stories a good reason to call for greater homeschooling regulations right now? Does the protection of all homeschooled children from their parents truly constitute “basic human right advocacy work,” as the author of the Salon article argued? Must all homeschooling parents have “multiple interactions with mandated reporters per year” to ensure that they are not abusing their children and are adequately educating them to become thriving, responsible citizens?
In her recent two-part essay, historian of homeschooling in America, Dixie Dillon Lane, explains that homeschooling has gone decidedly mainstream of late and is now a readily accessible option for many families who are dissatisfied with their other options. What are parents supposed to do, she has asked previously, if the local public schools are inadequate for their needs, but private schools are simply out of financial reach for a family with multiple children? Homeschooling has become the essential alternative for such families. There is also no evidence, she notes, that homeschooling is more abusive than any other type of educational experience.
Homeschoolers of today are a varied bunch. Yes, Wiccan homeschooling is growing, and so is Christian homeschooling of various stripes, especially Classical Christian education. But there is something else. Every time I see attacks on homeschooling as educationally inferior, I laugh. You see, both my husband and I hold Ph.D.’s from Ivy League institutions (Brown and Princeton respectively). A number of other university professors I know homeschool their children. You will be hard pressed to find someone with our credentials teaching at your local public school. And, indeed, we are using our expertise to encourage our children to pursue topics of interest that would not be an option for them elsewhere.
My middle son taught himself to read at age four and is now beginning the fourth grade. He just turned eight. He is a walking encyclopedia of facts about American history, US and world geography, and ancient Egyptian mummification practices. The only subjects for which we use a traditional curriculum with him are math and ancient Greek. For all other subjects, we allow him to pursue his own interests. Why? Because the most important thing he can learn right now is a love of learning, and the skills for pursuing it himself. I have written about my family’s homeschooling experiences last academic year and about my plans for this new upcoming year. In a nutshell, the two learning outcomes for our homeschool are to pursue the joy of learning and to cultivate human flourishing. When is the last time you saw these goals listed as learning outcomes in your local public school?
There is more. Until recently walking away from academia, I worked as a professor of History and Classics for fifteen years, teaching undergraduate and graduate students. Repeatedly, some of the best students I have taught have been homeschooled. What set them apart was precisely the spirit of bold curiosity that I see in my own kids: that bright light in their eyes, an interest in asking questions and in pursuing rabbit trails independently.
Public school curricula, with their strictly set state standards and increased emphasis on standardized testing, simply cannot allow this sort of flexibility. As a result, no matter how amazing the teachers are (and, believe me, many are truly amazing!), students do not get the opportunity to cultivate curiosity, wonder, and a genuine love of learning. More control and oversight is not helping American public schools, and it certainly would not help homeschoolers.
True, some homeschoolers may feel like their experience left them with educational gaps, but here’s the thing. In my fifteen years of teaching college freshmen, I have taught a lot of public schooled students. Guess what? Most of them came to college with a lot of gaps. The DFW rate (meaning, the rate of students who receive a D, F, or Withdrawal from the class) for freshman math and English at regional comprehensive state universities, like the one where I taught for most of my career, is through the roof.
Last but not least, the criticism of activities like baking as educational is remarkably short-sighted in a world where so many adults struggle with such basic tasks as cooking. I have been surprised time and time again to hear from students that they did not know how to make the most basic dishes to feed themselves.
Seeing the attacks on homeschooling now from some former homeschoolers who suffered, I want to be clear: their suffering matters. Abuse happens, and it is real, and yes, it can happen in homeschooling families. But arguing by extension that all homeschooling parents are potential criminals who must be closely supervised is problematic. Sure, if the only condition on which I could homeschool were to require such visits to my home, I think I would comply rather than relent and send my children to a different educational model that does not align with the philosophical expectations that my husband and I have for our children’s education.
We might also ask, nevertheless: do such extra layers of supervision really catch and prevent genuine instances of abuse? Keep in mind that the Duggars were followed around by cameras as part of their reality show for years. There was more documentation and supervision of their family than any other, and abuse still happened. More mandatory reporters visiting their home would likely have made no difference.
But my concern is with another question given the present climate of fear: if all parents are too suspect to educate their own children at home, what other attacks on parental authority should we expect next?
As an ancient historian, I am reminded of a state that did not trust any parents to raise and educate their own children. That state was, of course, Sparta. Taken from their parents at a young age, all children lived in state-regulated dormitories, subject to strict regulations. They were reported to be starved on occasion (builds character!), beaten, and given inadequate clothing for the cold weather, all to toughen them up. Models of state-mandated education for children go a long way back. But what I find striking is that in these histories, it is the state that ultimately ends up as the worst abuser of all. In the hands of these centralized policies, children suffer.
Indeed, a more uncomfortable history of such abuse, closer to home, is the schools to which Americans, Canadians, and Australians forcibly removed indigenous children from their families in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all with the aim of giving them what they considered to be a better education. In her award-winning book, historian Margaret Jacobs considers this horrific history, which resulted in the needless death of many children, the heartbreaking breakup of their families, and the erosion of their culture.
In all such histories, what we see is the desire on the part of some policymakers to boldly proclaim that when it comes to education, they know best—certainly better than the parents. The results, history shows time and time again, are lamentable.
Maybe the enemy is not at home after all.
Image credit: “The Country School” by Winslow Homer via Wikimedia Commons