Home Education Magazine
January-February 2002 - Articles and Columns
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
The Kingdom That Never Was: Inaccuracies in a Sociological Study of Homeschooling
A recently published sociological study of homeschooling contains serious misinformation that we homeschoolers need to understand and be able to counter. We may not be able to prevent this book from contributing to the mainstream media's and the academic world's misunderstanding of homeschooling. But if we don't at least respond to these ideas, misunderstanding of homeschooling will increase. It's our responsibility as homeschoolers to correct accounts like this because we are the ones who know the most and because we will be most strongly affected by the inaccuracies and misunderstandings. It is especially important that we work to prevent the book from distorting the understanding that we and other homeschoolers have of the history of homeschooling. If we don't understand how we have regained and maintained our freedoms so far, we are unlikely to understand how to continue to maintain them.
A PhD thesis on homeschooling was published this fall by Princeton University Press titled Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement by Mitchell Stevens. Stevens did field work by interviewing homeschooling parents and visiting homeschooling organizations.
In attempting to organize his information, Stevens divides homeschoolers into two groups. He uses the term "believers" for "conservative Protestants...who participate in avowedly Christian groups." The rest of homeschoolers he lumps together as "some home schoolers or, relative to the "believers," other home schoolers" (italics in the original) or, near the end of the book, as "inclusives," a name he chooses because they tend to belong to inclusive organizations that welcome everyone.
Stevens identifies what he considers to be significant differences between the two groups. (Stevens does qualify his generalizations, but he uses this basic construct to make sweeping statements.) He claims that "believers" tend to have hierarchical families and organizations while other homeschoolers don't and sometimes oppose hierarchy. According to Stevens, this difference in organizations divided the homeschooling movement during the 1990s. "It was not their [homeschoolers'] ways of life or religious beliefs that divided them in the end, but rather their different sensibilities about how to organize." (Page 198) Since he finds hierarchy more efficient and since "believer" organizations are larger and have more money and visibility than "inclusive" organizations, Stevens concludes that they are more successful.
Some of the Major Problems with Stevens' Book
Stevens makes sweeping generalizations about homeschoolers based on his field work with a very small number of homeschoolers and homeschooling organizations. "I began this study at a random beginning point and followed home schoolers' webs of affiliation until I arrived at what sociologist Kathy Charmaz has called theoretical saturation, the point at which continued observations and interviews become predictably repetitive and yield little new insight." (Page 17) Yet he would have readers believe that his results present an accurate picture of homeschooling.
The limitations of Stevens' work are particularly telling in his discussions of homeschooling organizations. He focuses on HSLDA and its offshoots as "believer" organizations and a HOUSE chapter in Illinois and the National Homeschool Association (NHA) as "inclusive" organizations. There are more types of organizations than Stevens focused on, including many state organizations in which "believers" and "inclusives" are working well together and succeeding in reaching their goals.
Stevens divides homeschoolers into two groups and assigns a series of characteristics to each group. According to Stevens, "believers" focus on training children in the way they should go, view homeschooling mothers as carrying out a godly role, are heaven-based, have hierarchies in their families and their organizations, and (perhaps his favorite) arrange their chairs in rows at meetings. By contrast, "inclusives" tend to follow children's lead in learning, put so much emphasis on children that homeschooling mothers become invisible, are earth-based, do not want leaders or hierarchy in their organizations, and (you guessed it) arrange their chairs in a circle.
In dividing homeschoolers into two groups, Stevens greatly distorts and misrepresents the homeschooling movement. In reality, there are many different types of homeschoolers and many different approaches to homeschooling. If for some reason it is necessary to categorize homeschoolers, it is much better to use a series of continuums. For example, make a continuum from the strictest, most structured follower of a purchased curriculum to the most relaxed unschooler, and array individuals along the line.
However, even this approach has problems. First, it would be difficult to assign individuals an accurate place, and many controversial judgment calls would be required. Second, many people move up and down the continuums during their homeschooling experience. For example, many start with a fairly structured approach to curriculum, become more relaxed as they gain experience and confidence, then perhaps reintroduce more structure if things start seeming too chaotic. (For more on these points, see Kim O'Hara's excellent article, "I'm Not an Unschooler, But Let Me Tell You," in the November/December, 2001, issue of HEM.)
It is extremely important to keep in mind (and here is a point Stevens misses) that different continuums do not match each other, and members of any given religious group do not all belong at the same spot on any of the continuums. For example, many people with conservative religious beliefs do choose structured approaches to curriculum, but many others do not; consider all the information available on "Christian unschooling."
In sum, dividing homeschoolers into two groups, "believers" and "inclusives," is misleading enough. Assigning other characteristics to each group is even worse. And yet Stevens repeatedly does both.
Stevens has strong biases that distort his work and render his conclusions inaccurate. For example, in the chapter on homeschooling pedagogy, he assumes that sending children to a conventional school is a moral imperative. Therefore, anyone who chooses to homeschool has to justify not enrolling their children in a public or conventional private school. In other words, according to Stevens, parents should automatically send their children to school unless there's something wrong with schools that gives parents a clear and compelling reason to do something else, such as homeschool. Stevens fails to discuss the many families who would homeschool no matter how good or bad conventional schools were. They choose homeschooling for the opportunities it offers for learning in many different ways, communicating religious and other values to their children, socializing children in positive ways, building strong families, etc.
Stevens also assumes that women want and need the benefits of work outside the home, and any mother without outside work needs to have good reasons and a way to solve the problems this creates. He writes: All homeschool mothers explain their decision to stay home in terms of their children's needs. But by themselves, such explanations can come up short. After all, many perfectly good mothers raise perfectly good children while going to work full-time. The broader culture offers a host of reasonable arguments about why it may even be better, in fact, for both mom and the kids if mothers are not full-time caregivers: less parental dependence and fuller socialization experiences for the children; financial autonomy and sturdier self-esteem for women. (Page 87)
An example of Stevens' sophomoric analysis is his discussion of what he sees as the paradox of inclusive organizations. He explains that some homeschooling organizations are exclusive because they require members (or at least officers) to sign a statement of faith while inclusive organizations welcome anyone who wants to join. The paradox he points to is that some people are not comfortable with diversity and don't want to belong to organizations that welcome everyone, so inclusive organizations don't really include everyone. A major point Stevens fails to discuss is who's doing the excluding. Exclusive organizations decide they will not admit people who do not meet some criteria they have selected, but people who decide not to join inclusive organizations are making the decision for themselves as individuals, rather than being excluded by the organization. Another way of putting this is that it seems a long reach to say that inclusive organizations are not really inclusive because they have failed to find a way to make everyone feel comfortable in their organization! This illustrates Stevens' tendency to fail to understand fundamental points about "inclusives."
Perhaps most importantly, Stevens misunderstands the goals of the vast majority of homeschoolers. In extolling the successes of "believers" as entrepreneurs and especially of HSLDA as an organization that has gained members, money, and the attention of the popular press, Stevens fails to understand that most homeschoolers are seeking a different approach to education (and often to life). We are not trying to create large organizations with lots of money and media coverage. We do not want to do what it would take to be considered "successful" by people like Stevens or to attract more attention in the popular press. To do so would require that we abandon our principles and beliefs and our alternative character and adopt the values and standards of the dominant culture. To do so would require that we surrender what we are working for. This is not what we want. We want the freedom to educate our children according to our principles and beliefs and the freedom for other parents to do the same, even though their principles and beliefs may differ from ours.
Stevens devotes two chapters to comparing the NHA and HSLDA. However, his comparison fails to address the fact that these organizations had very different reasons for existing. The NHA's goal was not to become the representative and spokesperson for homeschoolers but rather to prevent anyone from defining and limiting the homeschooling movement in this way. The NHA realized that state statutes and regulations have much greater effect on education, including homeschooling, than do federal statutes and regulations. Also, people who live in a given state are in a better position to deal with statutes and regulations there, since they have the strongest interest; understand the history, personalities, and politics involved; etc. Therefore, rather than seeking to be a national presence, the NHA referred people to inclusive state and local organizations. It also provided an alternative to HSLDA and in this way lessened to some extent HSLDA's prominence.
The NHA was largely successful in meeting its goals. Although a number of individuals and organizations might have tried to claim a national leadership role, only HSLDA gained much prominence. The only time the NHA needed to directly address a federal issue was the 1994 controversy regarding H.R. 6 that Stevens correctly identifies as having been "created" by HSLDA. Even though the NHA had much less money than HSLDA, it was able on short notice to form a coalition, get information to members of Congress, and have an amendment introduced that passed earlier than and by a significantly larger margin than the riskier one sponsored by HSLDA.
Generally speaking, there are several components to our ability to maintain our homeschooling freedoms. One is the foundations on which homeschooling is built (such as parental rights and respect for private education). Another is our willingness and ability to work together (despite artificial divisions made by people like Stevens) so that all of us can educate our children according to our principles and beliefs. A third is the slow but steady way in which we are winning the hearts and the minds of the people by convincing the general public that homeschooling is an acceptable approach to education, making it less and less likely that homeschooling will be outlawed or overly regulated.
Books like Kingdom of Children do not help us, but they are not enough to do us in, either, especially when we understand and can explain to others their major flaws. Such misleading and inaccurate accounts are unfortunate, but they do give us the opportunity to reaffirm our understanding of our history and what we value most. It is important to do this, so we are not taken in by misinformation that could then lead us to act in ways that undermine our freedoms rather than maintaining them.
© 2002 Larry and Susan Kaseman
January-February 2002 - Articles and Columns
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