The Binary Is Collapsing

I’ve blogged for years against patriarchal Christian homeschooling. I’ve blogged against courtship and modesty teachings, against the belie that adult daughters remain under their fathers’ authority, and against the idea that women’s only place is in the home. This is the world I grew up in, but it is not the world I live in today. And as I’ve blogged, my opponents have loomed large, each different in their own way but all united, all standing strongly on the side of patriarchy and strongly against me and other bloggers standing in my shoes. Farris, Gothard, Pearl, Phillips, Swanson—all on the same team. Today that is changing. Michael Farris included this passage in his recent white paper:

Frankly, we should have spoken up sooner. How much sooner is hard to say. There is a subtle difference between teaching that we simply disagree with and teaching that is truly dangerous. While we did not directly promote their teachings using our own resources, we did allow Vision Forum to buy ad space to promote their products and ideas. We were wrong to do so. And we regret it.

What has changed our minds are the stories we are now hearing of families, children, women, and even fathers who have been harmed by these philosophies. While these stories represent a small minority of homeschoolers, we can see a discernible pattern of harm, and it must be addressed.

Mike Smith and the HSLDA board of directors join me in apologizing for failing to speak up sooner. We intend to change that, starting now.

I have many concerns about Farris’s stated position today, believe me. But one thing I find fascinating is that time and again he has talked about how the stories he has heard have at last compelled him to speak out. It would be easy to say that he is only speaking out now to differentiate himself from Phillips and Gothard, and to some extent that is true. But there’s at least a little bit more to it than that.

As a homeschool leader for 30 years and chancellor of Patrick Henry College, I’ve come in contact with many young people who were raised in patriarchal or legalistic homes.

Farris uses this point to note that “patriarchal or legalistic homes” frequently result in young people leaving the faith entirely. But I know young people who attended Patrick Henry College, young people who know Farris well, and have for years. I also know that, from what I have heard, HSLDA is being influenced by young staffers who were themselves homeschooled and are now pushing back from the inside against the insensitivity and lack of care for victims.

For all of his many faults, there is some part of Farris that is actually listening. And what’s fascinating is watching as more fundamentalist homeschoolers come out of the woodwork and attack him for it. Here’s another example:

Some very interesting people appear to have bent Michael Farris’ ear.  I can’t know with certainty how much influence they’ve had on him, but there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ve had some.  These are a relatively small group of people who’ve been lobbying to have legislators enact legislation which will ensure more government oversight of homeschooling.  The groups involved are primarily made up of disgruntled home schooled alumni.  Some, I’m sure, have legitimate grievances.  Some are just rabble rousers who’ve rejected the gospel, discarded their parent’s teaching, and made it their mission in life to right all of their perceived wrongs with home schooling, taking everyone they disagree with down.  I might have some grudging respect for them if they argued from a place of principle, but from what I’ve read of much of their writings, they’re little more than a bunch of angry, crude, and rude apostates.  . . .

. . .

These home schooled young men and women [are] wasting their lives bemoaning their injustices, real and perceived, rather than choosing to count the blessings in their lives, and in their misery they want others to be miserable with them.  It’s sad, really.  But it’s also maddening, because they’re doing everything within their power to do harm to good and decent families in order to make their point, and I’m afraid that at least in part, HSLDA is catering to them.

Farris’s sin, according to this homeschooling parent? Listening to us. Actually paying attention to what the alumni are saying and working to improve the homeschooling movement by calling out the more extreme elements. Doing these things has suddenly positioned Farris in the middle, as more conservative individuals like this parent distance themselves from him, staking out land to his right.

Once again, we alumni are painted as the enemy—but not by Farris. Thomas Umstattd portrayed us as the enemy, and this homeschool parent does as well, but I don’t believe Farris has. Farris uses those of us who have become “apostates” as an object lesson against the effectiveness of “patriarchal” homeschooling, yes, and he has said that if the abuse and neglect issue isn’t dealt with the legal security of homeschooling may be threatened, but he has yet to portray us and our activism as enemy.

I’ve read the comments on HSLDA’s facebook post regarding Farris’s white paper, and I’ve seen Farris and HSLDA accused of being feminists and liberals for their statement. Whether Farris was honest about rejecting patriarchy or not, these homeschool parents are taking him at his word and a gulf is opening between Farris and HSLDA on the one hand and Kevin Swanson and parents like the above blogger on the other. On the one hand, if HSLDA can pull some people in a slightly less patriarchal direction, that’s good. On the other hand, I worry that Farris will gain a greater microphone for his still-problematic views by positioning himself as the voice of reason.

In case you’re in the mood for more trivializing of abuse and neglect, I give you another excerpt from the above blog post:

The word “abuse” is somewhat subjective.  Very obviously, touching a child sexually in any manner is abuse, but even the phrase “physical abuse” is somewhat subjective, as not all physical discipline is abusive, though there are those who disagree.  Nevertheless, it’s likely very true that some parents within the home schooling community have physically abused their children under the guise of discipline.  That breaks my heart.  Emotional and spiritual abuse is very highly subjective, often based as much upon personal feelings as upon the actions and words of another.  The truth is, the word abuse is overused, and doing so actually diminishes the claims of those who’ve truly been abused, causing some legitimate claims to be suspect.  Those of us of an earlier generation experienced as many or more hard realities as some of those who are lamenting their lot today, but would never have labelled it as such, and still don’t.  Rather, most of us simply dealt with whatever we felt was unfair and harmful and moved on.

. . .

As for educational neglect, as a product of the public system… ’nuff said, I’m not going to take the time to reveal the myriad holes in my own “formal” education, something I’ve spent my entire adulthood filling, but the reality is, if we as parents don’t quite manage to teach our children everything necessary for their future happiness and success, we’re in good (or bad) company with the public school system.  It’s never too late to fill those gaps, our grown children can make the effort if they so choose.  Getting “an education” is not a static, well defined, or finite thing, it’s a lifelong process, and if we or our children have been left lacking somehow, it’s not irreparable.

This homeschooling parent has clearly taken a page from Kevin Swanson. But in all seriousness, this is what we are up against. Some portion of Christian homeschooling parents and leaders don’t see educational neglect in homeschooling settings as a problem at all, and view homeschool alumni who were victims of abuse and are speaking up about it as whiners who need to just move on, because shit happens. These are the people who are creating a problem here—but these are also the people Farris is now speaking out against—and by withdrawing HSLDA’s participation from the Gen2 Leadership Conference, Farris is starting to walk the walk rather than simply talking the talk. Suddenly, these people and Farris are no longer de facto on the same team—and until recently, they were. This is new. This is different.

Of course, this homeschooling parent also brings up the elephant in the room: Farris’s dishonesty about his own past (and present?) beliefs. Farris may claim his fault was simply letting Vision Forum advertise through HSLDA, but the problem was much, much deeper than that.

What I find most perplexing is that Michael Farris, too, has been an advocate of father led homes, of the biblically distinct roles of husbands and wives, of the blessing of children, of family discipleship.  As I’ve said, we’ve been around the block a few times, we’re not newbies to home schooling, we came on the scene shortly after Mr. Farris did.  We well remember what he and those he co-laboured with taught in earlier days, what he and they stood for, what most speakers on the home schooling circuit back then shared with their audience, and it didn’t sound much different than what Doug Phillips and many others have said more recently.

This is the same thing Beall Phillips pointed out this week—Phillips isn’t being fully forthcoming about his own involvement in and past endorsement of the movement he is now condemning. He needs to start being more honest about this, or he’s going to have a good deal of confusion on his hands. Frankly, if Farris could just come out and say “I used to believe this, but I was wrong,” things would be much simpler for him. Until then, we’re left shaking our heads about exactly what he still believes, and what, if any, of his past beliefs he has actually changed.

But let me get back to the point I started with for a moment: The simple binary I used to blog about is starting to crumble. Farris and his associates are distancing themselves as they inch toward the center, and Swanson and associates are distancing themselves as they move to his right, and Christian homeschooling parents are being forced to take sides. Sure, they could be seen as competing factions with the same basic beliefs, and in some ways they are. But on some points, like the role of daughters, they honestly disagree.

It’s sort of like the evangelical/fundamentalist split in a way—the two share some basic beliefs, but evangelicals are more willing to engage with the culture and be a part of it while fundamentalists are more interested in remaining separate and living by a set of rules.

I will continue to hold Farris to his word, and to ask questions where his word seems contradictory. I will continue to point out cases where he was for something before he was against it, and to draw attention to his emphasis on parental rights to the exclusion of children’s right. I refuse to let him gain a greater microphone as the voice of reason unless he actually becomes a voice of reason—and so far he has made only baby steps. But the binary that used to underlie my blogging has collapsed. The world I have blogged against has become divided, conflicted. I’m watching as the more fundamentalist homeschoolers attack Farris and call him a traitor, and it is a surreal thing indeed.

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