Homeschooling is a Social Movement

It is all too easy, particularly in election years, to forget that homeschooling is a wide-ranging social movement, not a party-specific political movement. Conservatives, liberals, lefties, righties, greens, libertarians, and so on all homeschool. Social movements such as abolition, women’s suffrage, worker’s rights, civil rights, the antiwar and environmental movements cut across political boundaries to gain their strength and longevity. I have long viewed homeschooling in this category.

Homeschooling is not just a reaction to school techniques, it is also as a reaction to schooling as the institutional gateway to the ethos of competitive consumer culture, to schooling's service as a social sorting machine, and to schooling's continual push to segregate young people from old people in ways that enable educational institutions to take over many of the duties and responsibilities of parents and local communities. Grit, emotional intelligence, self-discipline, character, morals, sex education, financial education, cooking, and life skills are all expected to be taught and accounted for in school (yes, they have standardized tests for grit), as well as science, technology, engineering, math, and, perhaps, a smattering of arts and outdoors activities. Add all this up and it seems like we have made an impossible mission for teachers. However, this list is getting even longer and more intrusive on students, teachers, and families.

We are constraining children’s growth and development by strapping them ever more tightly and for longer periods of time to the Procrustean bed of schooling. Now we even measure and test preschoolers forcing them to fit into school’s expectations of what a preschooler should know and do and causing young children who don’t fit the mold all sorts of unnecessary anxiety and even harm.

This situation is not getting better for the upper grades, either. In addition to the pressure to get into college or become a burger flipper, American elementary and high school students must face ongoing scrutiny from teachers who might identify them as potential terrorists. The Federal Bureau of Investigation released a program for educators, “Don’t Be A Puppet,” that instructs teachers to report any children who they suspect might be “disaffected.”

In the UK a similar program, Prevent, is under way. An article in the Guardian about how this program is leading to even more discrimination against Muslims futher notes:

This summer, the government intensified this battle by making Prevent a statutory duty for schools: along with prisons, local authorities and NHS trusts, they are now under a legal obligation to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. According to the government’s guidance, the day-to-day responsibilities of teachers and even nursery staff now include being able to spot children who might be vulnerable to radicalisation, and dealing with them—if necessary, by referring them to the government’s anti-radicalisation programme, Channel. Since 2012, more than 4,000 people have been referred, half of them under-18s—with the youngest a three-year-old from London.

It is a shame that the threat of attacks is being used as an opportunity for government agencies and others that seek to expand their powers of surveillance into everyone’s lives, but it is not a new phenomenon. Pitting race against race, rich against poor, young against old, child against child, in the name of national security has a horrible outcome that we’ve seen in societies before and that modern technology now makes more comprehensive—as Orwell and others warned about throughout the 20th century.

However, saying that the answer to these issues is to stop funding public schools is not a serious answer for the majority of people who rely on schools for childcare while they work, who believe that schools are just fine as they are, or for children who feel safer in places outside of their neighborhoods or homes. Maintaining the right to make our own decisions about our children’s learning in no way implies the need to end all government involvement in education. But chastening the reach of compulsory schooling into our lives is even more important now that our fears about terrorism further diminish our abilities to create friendships and community among different people and push us to accept the Panopticon of schooling as our best hope for a safe life.

Homeschooling, contrary to public opinion, is for many of its practitioners less about keeping children at home than it is about getting them out of the house and into the world to learn. I certainly support and encourage businesses, nonprofits, and schools that want to create friendlier and higher quality places for children to learn, but I still don’t think that’s enough. We don’t only learn in these ways and places, and there's a lot more to living a full life than simply learning in approved learning environments. Indeed, I think the more we let children communicate with us about what they wish or want to do and how they want to do it, the more we will learn about what actually helps children learn and grow into responsible adults.

Casting the fate of homeschooling regulation to any political party is shortsighted and bound to be changed by the next party in power that disagrees with the former party’s policies. But social movements that emerge from the bottom–up cut across political boundaries because of the broader principles or issues they bring to the fore. I think the time is near for homeschoolers to band together despite our differences—religious, educational, and political—and unite on the general principles (articulated in Teach Your Own by John Holt) that are under threat in today’s educational and political climate:

• Raising our children is our business, not the government’s.
• We want to physically, mentally, and spiritually protect our children.
• We enjoy being with our children and don’t want to give that pleasure up to others.

A model for getting such a group started is the Wisconsin Parents Association, founded 33 years ago and still going strong. Their annual conference is a wonderful patchwork of different ways to homeschool; they have never brought in “name” speakers from around the country and rely upon their local members to lead the workshops and sessions. Their current conference (May 6–7 in Oshkosh, WI) is themed “Homeschooling with Integrity." The program cover has this statement:

This conference is for all of us. Meet and learn from families from all sorts of homeschooling backgrounds, with kids of all ages, and from all over the state. Some of us purchase curriculum, some of us create our own, and some of us unschool. We must work together to protect our freedom to homeschool.

This is the spirit I think we need to unite around in order to broaden our base and gain more public acceptance for the idea that parents can be far more involved in their children's education than schools imagine they should or can be.