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Home Education Magazine

July-August 2001 - Articles and Columns

What's in a Name? - Ginny Hunt

It's been about a year now since our little unassuming homeschooling coop group fractured and disbanded amid sharp and angry words and controversy. One might've thought we had a formula for success: we had no rigid structure, no overt leadership, only participants who had homeschooling in common. We were what is commonly called in the homeschooling community an "inclusive" group, because we accepted any homeschooling family who wanted to join and participate at any level they desired and we had no particular religious focus. I naively assumed that a non-structured or loosely structured inclusive support group would be free of the problems I'd heard about that plagued the more rigid, hierarchical, exclusionary groups. I was wrong.

Ironically, the conflict that brought all the underlying tension to a head and ultimately caused the division centered on the use of the word "inclusive" in our group's self-definition. We had a serious problem between people who wanted to promote decidedly Christian homeschooling organizations on our group's web page and those who felt that to be inappropriate given our group's non-affiliation with any religion. One side took the position that if we were an "inclusive" support group, then we shouldn't "exclude" any homeschool organization from our web page and if we did we could no longer, in honesty, call ourselves an "inclusive" group; they said continuing to do so would be deceptive. Many argued that the open membership policy was all that was needed for the inclusive label. It seemed that despite the founding members' intentions to remove religion from the possible things that might cause division in a homeschooling group, religion was, ultimately, the dividing factor.

The original group was small and the split decimated it. Wearily, the facilitators shut down the support group; temporarily they said, but it has been a year now. For most of that year, I've been quietly going about the business of homeschooling my kids, but this issue has nagged at me regularly. Why did this happen? How did a group which tried to be "inclusive" end up being charged with "exclusivity" where it concerns religion? As I began to hear similar stories from other homeschoolers across the country, about similar conflicts in their own inclusive groups, I saw that this dynamic was not peculiar to my own little group. So how did the homeschool community get into this pickle?

Most interested parties assume that the homeschooling community is pretty much divided into two camps: conservative Christian and non-Christian, with no love lost between them. Well, that isn't really accurate. In fact, it's far from accurate, but it's a common notion and the one by which most people operate. However, as we begin to more closely examine this dichotomy between conservative Christian homeschoolers and non-Christian homeschoolers, it proves itself to be illegitimate. Christian homeschoolers and the rest of the homeschooling community are not really contradictory to each other. Also, as the homeschooling community becomes more and more mainstream, it is also becoming more diverse. More and different groups of homeschoolers are trying to find a place to fit into the community - and they are finding they don't. Even old timers find the two categories restrictive. For example, many Christian homeschoolers are de facto assigned the "non-Christian" label if they choose to participate in inclusive groups instead of exclusive Christian ones. I'm concerned that if we don't address this issue, many homeschoolers will not be getting the support they need from our community because more and more viable support groups will dissolve in conflicts such as the one my own group succumbed to.

The current rather tense situation is due to the history and politics of the national homeschooling community. Conservative Christian homeschoolers separated themselves from the rest of the mainstream homeschool community in the 1980's at the prompting of certain conservative Christian homeschooling leaders, who urged Christian homeschoolers to "not be yoked with unbelievers" and so differentiated themselves from the larger body of homeschoolers by virtue of their religion. Other groups soon followed suit by differentiating themselves from the conservative Christians by labeling themselves according to religion or even the lack of religion. As a result we now have many groups touting titles that proclaim themselves to be non-exclusive, non-Christian, non-discriminatory, non-religious, and all manner of non-things. Only, if you think about it, those distinctions aren't really necessary, or shouldn't have been necessary, since the conservative Christian homeschoolers were already differentiating themselves from the mainstream of homeschooling. Describing a group on the basis of what it is not, such as non-sectarian, non-exclusive, etc., presupposes that the standard of homeschooling groups is sectarian and discriminatory on the basis of religion. Is this accurate? How is it that we have to assume that a homeschooling group is based on religion and discriminates on the basis of this? This assumption is now so ingrained in our community that we are identifying our groups by that standard.

Whereas before I thought the word "inclusive" was a positive, descriptive word to use to describe generic homeschooling support groups, I now question the use of the term in the names of those coops and networks, because by using that term they are defining themselves by reacting against another subset of homeschoolers - exclusive homeschoolers. While I completely understand the reaction in light of homeschooling's history, I don't think it's a reaction homeschoolers should be taking. I think that defining ourselves in reaction to a subset of homeschoolers is an adversarial response and an unnecessary distinction.

Part of the justification for the "non-naming" we find in so many descriptions of homeschooling groups has been that many conservative Christian organizations were being less than direct in the names and descriptions of their groups. People who weren't interested in religiously focused homeschooling joined these groups unaware of a religious focus, and didn't find out until a hurtful experience or two later that the group was Christian-focused and/or required a Statement of Faith to be a fully participating member. In many cases, these refugees started their own groups, and because of their experiences, wanting to spare others the same mistake, went to great lengths to be very clear about the type of homeschool organization they were founding. But a new homeschooler should be able to assume that unless the group specifically calls itself Christian (or Pagan or Muslim or whatever), it isn't religious in focus. All other homeschooling groups should not be breaking their collective necks trying to make sure everyone understands that they are not Christian separatist homeschoolers, but that is precisely what many homeschooling groups are doing across the country.

Homeschooling has other subgroups that have nothing to do with religion, such as those that divide among learning styles and theories of education. Some examples of these would be classical education, unschooling, school-at-home, Charlotte Mason, and Waldorfian, and for such groups, labels can be helpful for identification. Yet few support groups are formed around those distinctions. Instead, they by and large choose religion or a lack thereof as the group's focus. Doesn't this strike anyone as odd? Not odd that someone should choose to homeschool for religious reasons and seek to find others of like mind with which to fellowship, but odd that now even homeschoolers who do not do so for predominantly religious reasons feel they have to identify themselves according to religion.

A subtle but very powerful dynamic is currently at work here, one that subconsciously works to present a "ruling class" and second-class citizens within a subculture - and I don't think that's very healthy or productive. It contributes to poor relations among the various groups. As those who have studied the dynamics of power and relationships understand, the one who has the power to name everyone else holds the greater power. As long as generic homeschoolers continue to nod toward the separatist Christian homeschoolers in their compulsion to differentiate themselves, the separatist Christian homeschool leaders continue to wield an illegitimate power over the rest of the homeschooling community. This leaves all other homeschoolers scrambling to look for ways to identify themselves apart from them.

This dynamic needs to be changed while it's still possible, while our particular subculture - homeschooling - is still relatively young. We do this by starting with the language we use. I think we need a new vision. We've been trying to figure out how to distinguish ourselves from a group that has already distinguished itself as apart from us, but we've been approaching it backwards. No further distinctions are necessary.

So, how do we take hold of this new vision? By rooting ourselves firmly in the past, by gaining a clear grasp on the history of the homeschooling movement. Homeschooling began with people whose reasons for homeschooling had nothing to do with religion working cooperatively with those whose faith led them to homeschool. After these folks had made many cultural and legal strides that benefited all homeschoolers, along came separatist Christian homeschooling, a much more recent development. There is a widely held misconception in the non-homeschooling world (and in some segments of the homeschooling world) that homeschooling and religion are part and parcel of each other. It has become problematic to many homeschoolers that people are coming into the homeschooling community thinking the separatist Christian homeschoolers invented this "new" method of educating one's children rather than understanding that it was simply a popular offshoot of the original concept.

Homeschooling and religion became co-joined because a subset of conservative Christians decided to co-opt homeschooling for their own purposes. What they saw as legitimate reasons for doing this were religiously motivated directives to seek to control the leadership of the homeschool movement. However, these leaders have never spoken for, nor been the leaders for, many homeschoolers who were happily homeschooling before they co-opted the movement, and who are still happily homeschooling today.

By understanding that separatist religious homeschooling is an offshoot, not the main body, and by refusing to respond in a reactionary, knee-jerk way to things subgroups do or don't do, the rest of the homeschooling community is free to identify themselves however they wish, unconstrained by this false dichotomy between Christian and non-Christian homeschoolers. While today it may seem natural to us to define homeschool related things by Christian and non-Christian, doing so erroneously and unwittingly contributes to the animosity and hard feelings that have marked this division in our community.

As long as generic homeschoolers keep trying to find the "least offensive" yet most accurate word to describe their organizations as defined by the Christian homeschoolers, they will continue to be stuck in this power struggle with separatist Christian homeschoolers. So how do we get out of this Chinese finger trap? By refusing to use religious language in our group or individual descriptions unless the group has a specific religious focus. Saying that one's group is a "general" or "generic" homeschooling group that does not have any special focus and is broad-based in membership adequately describes the flavor of the group without attaching religion or lack thereof.

I'd like to see the language of homeschoolers change back to assuming homeschooling is about educating one's children, not strictly about religion, leaving plenty of room for groups to begin centering on other kinds of focuses and dynamics. I think that this seemingly small but powerful shift in our language will result in homeschoolers and their support groups being freer to define themselves on their merits and strengths, by what they are - and not by what they are not. If we do these things, I think we'll see fewer casualties like my disbanded support group. In fact, I think we'll see more support groups flourishing and doing the jobs they are designed to do: supporting a diverse and growing homeschooling community.

(c) 2001 Ginny Hunt

July-August 2001 Issue

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