Every morning, after eating a breakfast of whole wheat biscuits and gravy, with milk straight from the cow, my brothers and sisters and I would gather our worn notebooks and stubby pencils around the table and begin our lessons. But first, we prayed and my mother read from the Bible. Tacked behind her on the wall, were flash cards with Latin words on them, a poster of the cursive alphabet and a large wooden spoon, inscribed with Proverbs 13:24, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” The bowl of the spoon was cracked.
Our kitchen table was a large giant oak slab, built to accommodate all eight of us children, as we huddled together to learn multiplication, Latin roots, Roman history and copy out poems and Bible verses in our scrawling script. If I finished my math early, I was allowed to hide away behind the holly bushes and read.
When the birth of my brother Noah, who was born both Down syndrome and autism, forced my mother to send me and my older sister to school, I was able to skip ahead into AP Biology and take composition and English classes with upperclassmen.
Yet, despite the memories of warm biscuits and days spent lost in the worlds of novels, I will not be homeschooling my daughter.
According to the National Home Education Research Institute, in 2009, there were 2.5 million home schooled children in the United States. And while parents may home school for a variety of different reasons, 72 percent of those who responded cited religious and moral reasons.
This was my family. Our parents homeschooled us with the desire to remove us from the influences of “the world,” which meant anyone who was not Evangelical. I sat through lessons and read books where Charles Darwin, persona non grata in our family, was blamed as the source of all godlessness—Nazis and Democrats, chief among them. We went to seminars where feminism was blamed for the lack of care and nurture provided to children in families where mother’s worked. My mother played us tapes of a series of lectures given by a conservative, homeschooled family of 20 children on topics like, “virginity” and allowing your parents to choose your spouse (only for women, of course). In high school, when my parents had decided I had been corrupted by “the world.” I was sent to a camp, where a leader told me that all good women needed to “bridle their power, like a horse restrained.”
This type of homeschooling may seem like a small minority of the population, a Duggar-ish aberration from the norm. But they are a vocal and powerful group. And despite only 25-30 percent of the country identifying as this brand of Evangelical, they have a large sway over the national conversation. Just ask any non-religious unschooler how hard it is to avoid this brand of homeschooler in homeschooling groups.
Behind the statistics and studies and curriculum that are used to justify homeschooling, there are legions of tight-lipped women, grasping Bibles adorned with cloth covers, cross-stitched, denim and bejeweled in verses, holding court over their children’s minds, telling them what appropriate and inappropriate, Godly and ungodly thought looks like. Far more important than learning your multiplication, is the desire to conform to the rigors of religious instruction.
For my parents, these little home cells of religious autocracy was designed to remove us from the world around us so we wouldn’t be “tainted” by ideas like existentialism or evolution.
I don’t want this for my daughter. And I am in the minority. According to a 2003 study by the Home School Legal Defense, 95 percent of home schooled children reported that they were glad that they had been homeschooled and 85 percent said they would homeschool their children. And while, the Home School Legal Defense is hardly an unbiased source, and I have doubts about the veracity of the study, here is why I am in the minority.
Far from being a mode of education, homeschooling is a lifestyle, one that often teaches women that they are solely responsible for home and hearth. It took me years to untangle myself from what I had been taught from what I wanted. And to be quite honest, I’m still working away at some of these mental knots. And I don’t want this for my daughter. I don’t want her hidden in a cell of religious autocracy disguised as moral instruction.
It’s not just religion, either. I fully realize that you can homeschool without Jesus. But to the logic that declares “any parent is a child’s best teacher”, I cry “Foul.” I deeply love my mother. She is an intelligent woman, but my siblings and I had holes in our education when it came to math, science and grammar. Holes I desperately struggled to fill in high school, often spending four hours every night with my textbook, reading chapters on material I had missed. And while I like to think of myself as a smart lady, there is no way I could appropriately teach algebra. And yes, there are tutors, there are home school groups, but at that point, why eschew our community schools? My husband agrees. While he is more than willing to get down and dirty with homework, he will be the first to tell you that he isn’t a gifted teacher.
Part of loving our daughter is wanting the best for her, even if that means sending her to school. And while the schools in our small Iowa town may not be world-class, we also know that learning is what you make it. We think between a well-stocked home library, the hard-working teachers in our town, and perhaps a little Kahn Academy, we can give her a world-class education without alienating her from the world.