The Sandy Hook Shootings and Homeschooling

As it should, the tragedy of the Sandy Hook school shootings created an outpouring of emotion and sympathy from the public for the victims and their families. Unfortunately, as usual, the larger, social implications of the mass murders are being used by various groups to advance their own agendas: sensationalized, breaking news by competitive media groups who interviewed the children right after their horrible experiences; the political points being scored for and against gun control immediately after the event; calls for putting armed guards in the schools, and so on. I was wondering if it was even appropriate for me to write about the shootings today, but some things need rebuttal, particularly recent charges made about homeschooling in light of the shootings.

I agree that action needs to be taken to restrict access to weapons of mass killing and not just for the mentally ill; the vast majority of gun deaths are caused by “normal” people under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or uncontrolled emotion. But I want to move beyond the conventional boundaries of the gun debate and explore why when these horrific events happen people view homeschooling both as an alternative that provides safety for children and as an act of extreme individualism that destroys the social fabric of America.

An opinion article in the New York Times that appeared on Dec. 16, 2012, written by a philosophy professor, had what I thought was a good argument about how we delude ourselves that an armed society creates a civil society, however it bothers me how he uses homeschooling as his prime example of extreme individualism. Like many academics that are critical of homeschooling, this author makes an assumption about how all homeschoolers act and think based on little evidence:

After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism — I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings — and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be.

. . . Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power — and one another — and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite.


Clearly this writer views homeschooling as embracing the “I got mine, you get yours” ethos, which is in homeschooling if you look for it: for instance, support groups that only support people of the right faith who will sign statements of faith, or the secular version where new members must reveal their educational and economic backgrounds before being considered for admittance. However, this ethos is well established in our school system, too: public schools determine access based on one’s zip code and private schools can deny admission based on religious beliefs or lack of income and that is perfectly okay with our society. “I got mine, you get yours” is embedded in the way we distribute education in America. Many, including me, feel that homeschooling is a way to bridge this divide rather than make it larger, by making education much more personal and local than it currently is.

I am an inclusive homeschooler: I am open to new people and new ideas coming into homeschooling and I think this is the best way for us to grow and become strong as a movement; too much inbreeding is always a bad thing. John Holt saw that homeschooling could merely mimic the school system, but he felt it was a risk well worth taking in light of the inbreeding he saw in schools of education. Holt had, as I do, faith and hope that if people spend time listening, playing, and working with children outside of schools, new opportunities will present themselves for finding, as Holt put it, “work worth doing and lives worth living, not just, or even a better education.” New combinations of schooling and living are certainly happening, slowly but surely, as homeschoolers move in and out of school and college, leverage online and other types of classes and mentoring, or go directly into work without conventional—or any—high school or college degrees. This is not an insignificant development in a world where more intensive and costly schooling is the default answer to all school problems. But all this gets lost when homeschooling is cast out of the conversation as extreme individualism and nothing else.

The biggest irony for me about homeschooling being viewed as extreme individualism is that the driving impetus for embracing homeschooling by Holt (Teach Your Own), Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society), and others is to create a convivial society, one where children aren’t segregated by age and law from other people, where knowledge and skills are openly shared. Another irony is how educationists claim that homeschooling is not concerned with supporting public institutions or commons. Illich (and other thinkers like him, such as E.F. Schumaker and John MacKnight) wrote deeply about our loss and need for public commons; the institutional model for learning often cited by Holt (and later by John Gatto) is the public library, not the public school. Open to all, no questions asked if you check out Dr. Seuss or the works of Einstein regardless of your age, young and old organizing or attending events together—the public library is a convivial model we can build upon. In addition, Holt provides many other ideas for places and opportunities that help people learn in his book Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better.

Holt viewed learning as both a personal and a social activity, and he saw homeschooling as a way to reintegrate those activities for learners. School atomizes them, emphasizing personal achievement and competition for grades over social activities, particularly free conversation and play in school. Now even recess is closely controlled, if the school has recess at all, and free-ranging conversation among children in school has always been viewed as taking away valuable instruction time from teachers. Since compulsory schooling was created in the United States children and teachers have written about how their love of learning and individuality are crushed by school: Holt, Kozol, Kohl, Dennison, Herndon, wrote a lot about this in the sixties and seventies; Kirsten Olsen’s Wounded By School makes this case for the twenty-first century. There is something that must be done in society and school for supporting individualism, though that discussion is curtailed when the discussion is polarized into you must attend school to contribute to society or else you are an extreme individualist.

The big picture I have is of a society that is open and generous towards its young, allowing them to have many different types of teachers, scopes, and sequences (to use the language of schools) for learning in or out of school. This inclusive vision of learning won’t prevent violence, but I think it will diminish it a lot by providing people who are alienated from their schools and social spheres with a fresh start in a different environment (not necessarily a different school!) or just different people in their lives.

Inclusive homeschooling and its larger goal of creating a convivial society get lost as educationists portray homeschoolers as extreme individualists and conventional schooling as the best place for children to learn and grow. Perhaps I’m in the minority among homeschoolers with these thoughts; some homeschoolers do want to be extreme individualists and that’s fine—you have the right and ability to do so in the United States, and sometimes circumstances make being an extreme individualist your only good option.

However, I want to continue finding and working with homeschoolers and others who want to build a society that provides numerous ways and supports for people to live and learn together, not just more secure, gated schools. Tragedies like Sandy Hook should make us think more broadly about what we can do about school violence, rather than make us circle the wagons more tightly and exclude homeschooling as a way to contribute to the solution.