In the early twentieth century, modern travel advances combined with a fascination to reduce the study of human beings to a real science—anthropology—and led to a boom in ethnographic research. One might name Bronisław Malinowski’s study of the curious kula nut exchange economy at the Trobriand Islands (how did they manage without money?), or Franz Boas’s exploration of the language and culture of the natives of Baffin Island (how do languages develop?), or Margaret Mead’s observations on sexuality on the island of Samoa (oh, look, free love!).
I had occasion to think of these studies recently in connection with the Washington Post’s series of features on homeschooling in America this year. Some have been scathing, others more neutral, and the most recent one simply considered the statistics—those numbers that unquestionably show that a homeschooling boom is underway, and homeschooling in America is becoming decidedly mainstream.
Something about the entire series has, frankly, hit me as “off,” and I think I’ve finally figured out what it is: the approach and even the very attitude reminds me of these early twentieth-century ethnographers. The tone and methodology of this series is at times pitying, other times condescending, and other times just baffled. Altogether, however, the overall message is: here, readers, we have discovered a whole new mysterious island filled with these strange savages, previously unexplored. You wouldn’t believe what they’re doing out there! So now we’ll count them for you (can you believe there are so many of them?) and tell you their savage, uncivilized ways. Because we’re scientists.
The problem is, while scientists claim and try to be neutral, as indeed the early ethnographers did, they never really are. So it is with Washington Post’s reporters. It has generally been widely recognized in journalism that the best reporters are those with at least some intimate knowledge of the topic involved—for example, someone assigned to, say, the religion beat for a major newspaper is likely a person of faith and has close knowledge and understanding of the particular religion they cover. Likewise with sports: it has become commonplace for some retired athletes to become sports commentators. Why? Because after decades of time in their particular sport, they know its ins and outs better than anyone. They’re not impassive scientific observers, and that results in better reporting.
And so, the Washington Post could have turned to any of the dozens of currently active homeschooling parents and writers for its series—like, for example, Dixie Dillon Lane, a historian of homeschooling, or Ivana Greco, a lawyer-turned-homeschool-mom, who has been writing about homeschooling in the context of her broader advocacy work on behalf of homemakers. So far, unless I have missed something, they have not, although they have not had any qualms citing the decidedly unscientific research of a former Harvard professor, who has argued that homeschooling is dangerous and ought to be banned. And the piece in the series from a student’s perspective was by no means reflective of typical experience, but emphasized to an extreme degree the same ethnographic weirdness of homeschooling.
What is the problem with the ethnographic approach to homeschooling, this mysterious island that houses a surprisingly large population (who knew?) of people who are decidedly not like the reporter writing about them? This approach certainly gets some things right, but because the researchers utilizing it cannot ever imagine themselves living on this particular island, they are bound to emphasize its weirdness in their own eyes—and in the process, utterly misrepresent it.
One underlying assumption among early anthropologists was that the remote islands they visited were pre-modern and lacking in modern civilization; therefore, their strange practices offered intriguing keys to understanding the primitive human past. What was life like before steam power or electricity and running water and refrigeration and, of course, before kids were rounded up into public schools? Of course, ethnographers like Margaret Mead tried to nuance this condescending approach by also arguing that perhaps these savages knew something that we moderns have lost. But such conclusions were generally selective and limited to particular areas—in Mead’s case, justifying the sexual revolution. Besides, even while making such positive observations—here are some things we moderns can learn from these noble savages—anthropologists still somehow managed to come across as blissfully unaware of their condescension toward the people they studied.
And so, I worry that series like the one that the Washington Post is running inadvertently perpetuate many stubbornly persistent assumptions, some harmless and some problematic, about homeschooling among the general public—for instance, the stereotype of the weird and poorly socialized homeschoolers, the perception of homeschooling as this abusive environment that must be escaped, and the idea that homeschoolers get an education that is much inferior to what the public schoolers are getting—or maybe they are full-on crazy fringe Nazis. But what if homeschooling is not this mysterious island that ethnographers need to come visit and document for the voyeuristic curiosity of the civilized modern readers?
It is striking that in our modern society, so proudly pluralistic about religion, there is yet no combating the ingrained human reflex that there is a right and wrong way to do things; a “normal” and a “weird” way to do them, the “civilized” and the “savage,” the “natural” and the “unnatural,” the raw and the cooked. Perhaps what has been so difficult for many to accept is that homeschooling requires us to embrace a pluralistic mode—or, one could call it, the libertarian mode. It requires onlookers to see a family make a decision different from the one they might make and know that there is more than one good way of educating children. Ultimately, the people best equipped to weigh all the factors and make this decision are the parents. We need to give families this essential freedom. Perhaps the conversation, in other words, should be not about mysterious islands of savages, but about the respect of individual castles and homes and their place as the foundational building blocks of society.
The problem with these kinds of anthropological inquiries into homeschooling is that they have repeatedly inspired calls for greater regulation not only of homeschools but of parents in general. This is, in other words, not just about education, but about eroding parental authority by employing red herrings. It makes sense, of course. If you object to how a particular parent educates children at home, you would likely object to many more facets of that parent’s philosophy of child-rearing. I am reminded, for instance, of the scathing comments that one mother received on social media a few months ago when she said that per her five-year-old daughter’s request, her focus with her this year was going to be learning to plant trees. But how (sputtered outraged strangers in the comments) would this poor child ever learn how to read? And what about math and science and social studies? What kind of a monster raises a child like this?
By emphasizing the ethnographic weirdness of homeschooling, the Washington Post’s series only reinforces the views of such naysayers, instead of explaining that a completely different philosophy of education is afoot, one that has a focus on human flourishing and love of learning in mind rather than the ticking of boxes in achieving standardized learning outcomes. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if more of us knew how to plant trees, for instance? And so, I would invite anyone interested in learning more about homeschooling to get to know homeschooling families in their communities. We’re not inhabitants of a faraway, mysterious island, and we’re decidedly less weird than some might like to think. Rather, we’re families who love being families and consider it a privilege to educate our children. We’ll happily have you over for coffee or afternoon tea, slurped with joy and cookies and maybe even a good read-aloud book.
Image credit: “Mother and Child in an Interior” by Peter Ilsted via Wikimedia Commons