Is the Christian Homeschool World Really Changing?

Things are changing in the Christian homeschooling world. Vision Forum has fallen and ATI is shaken. People are talking, really talking, and the narratives are shifting.

Some are still resisting this conversation. They claim that Doug Phillips’ fall had nothing to do with his patriarchal ideology. With both Phillips and Gothard, they argue, the problem was with the leader, not the belief system. These claims are dispiriting, because in some sense these leaders are interchangeable. Old ones will fall, new ones will rise, and if the ideology remains the same nothing will change.

But other leaders are being more honest. They, Michael Farris and Chris Jeub among them, are connecting the dots and calling out a problem deeper than an individual leader. In this facebook comment, Farris responds to a homeschool graduate’s reiteration of her story (I’ve marked the relevant bit):

When I read these things, I am reminded of evangelical attempts to soften toxic ideas so that they become more palatable, and that concerns me. For example, I heard evangelical leaders at the megachurch I grew up attending walk the idea of male headship back to spiritual leadership and breaking the tie when husband and wife cannot come to an agreement. While I appreciate that there are evangelicals who have moved away from an emphasis on total wifely obedience and submission, the idea of male headship itself is a problem, and softening it doesn’t change that. Is the walked-back view better? Yes, but it’s still a problem.

I wonder how far Christian homeschooling will change over all of this, and whether that change will be deep or surface-level. All Doug Phillips did was take ideas already out there—the idea of the Joshua Generation, the emphasis on male headship and wifely submission, the idea that girls should be encouraged to be homemakers and discouraged from having careers—and deepen each, using direct language, until his words and dictates became an embarrassment.

If Christian homeschool leaders see Phillips’ direct language and strident emphasis as the problem and fail to realize that it is at the core the underlying ideas that they themselves have long held that is the problem, change will be shallow indeed. The word “patriarchy” is not the problem. The ideas that underly that word are the problem.

If the Christian homeschool leaders who are speaking out today reject the word “patriarchy” but hold onto the idea that a wife must submit to her husband, what have we actually gained? What is actually different?

Israel Wayne of Family Renewal wrote that:

In September of 2013, Michael Farris, founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) spoke to state convention coordinators and other national homeschooling leaders, at the annual leadership conference they sponsor. He warned against the dangers of the excesses of extreme child discipline and a low view of women that has taken hold in some corners of the homeschooling community. He warned that unless homeschooling leaders actively speak against abusive and unGodly approaches to child discipline and unBiblical views of Patriarchal authority (that demean and devalue women), we risk losing our very legal freedom to homeschool.

From Wayne’s description, it sounds like Farris told other homeschool leaders that they needed to speak against child abuse and the devaluing of women or else homeschool freedoms would be at risk. The emphasis here appears sorely misplaced. Shouldn’t the primary concern be for the children who are abused and the women who are devalued rather than for the possibility that people will react to these abuses by turning against the legal freedom to homeschool?

I should note that I very much question what Farris means by “our very legal freedom to homeschool.” I suspect what he actually means is our freedom to homeschool without oversight or accountability. And here is a very real issue—Farris is now speaking out against “patriarchy,” and it appears that he may begin speaking against child abuse (though that remains to be seen), but he is still against legal accountability for homeschooling, accountability that would support children’s right to an education and their right to an upbringing free from abuse or neglect.

HSLDA’s current president, Mike Smith, will be presenting this keynote address at an upcoming homeschool conference:

Remembering the Reason, Renewing the Vision A general overview of the challenges, burdens and benefits of homeschooling from a veteran homeschool father and leader. Addressing the potential homeschooler, the new homeschooler, the veteran homeschooler and all homeschoolers in between, Mike outlines the success of homeschooling in academics and socialization, describes legal and legislative advances, and concludes that homeschoolers have earned the right to be left alone. 

This last bit is a serious problem. Whether or not Farris indeed intends to speak out loudly and publicly against patriarchy and child abuse, his organization will continue to work against legal reforms that help fight these problems, reforms that would bring homeschooled children into contact with mandatory reporters or ensure that homeschooled girls are not passed over educationally because of their gender. A change in culture is needed, yes, but the unregulated nature of homeschooling in many states both contributes to and is a result of that culture.

We need more. Homeschooled children deserve more.

But this is only the start of the things that concern me as I watch this current moment. Israel Wayne followed up on his discussion of Farris comments with these unfortunate paragraphs:

Mr. Farris has sounded a much-needed warning. My concern, however, is that when we over-react and swing to the other ditch, we end up teaching only love, grace and mercy (with no boundaries for children). By rejecting “Patriarchy” (abusive or domineering tendencies of men towards their wives and families), we may revert to the Feminism of the 1960′s, and all the problems that came with it, that led many women to react 180 degrees in the other direction by staying home and homeschooling their children. By rejecting rigid step-by-step rules about issues like strict clothing mandates and courtship procedures, we may revert back to the kind of sexual permissiveness that led to the legalism in the first place.

Do we really want to go back to families where mom is trying to pull that whole family uphill all by herself, while dad is off playing golf, letting mom run the family all by herself? Do want three-year-olds who rule the parents with an iron fist and parents who jump at their every demand? Do we really want teens who are groping their girlfriends in the back seat of a car because we don’t want to impose a legalistic standard on them? Do we really want to encourage the kind of American narcissism that says children are a nuisance and O.8 children is the goal, because we want to avoid the imbalance of policing bedrooms and imposing doctrines not clearly spelled out in Scripture?

This is not change, this is more of the same. What we need is change, real change. I think we’re at a moment of contingency where we might see such change, but to be honest. I don’t feel all that hopeful at the moment. I worry that the change will be more in gloss than in substance.

I can promise you one thing—I’ll keep pushing.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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