History at Home: Historians and Homeschooling

History at Home: Historians and Homeschooling October 12, 2022

File:Eugenio Zampighi - The Writing Lesson.jpg
Eugenio Zampighi, The Writing Lesson

“Most mornings during the school year, after the breakfast dishes have been put away, the books come out on the kitchen table, and another day at the Williams homeschool begins,” I wrote four years ago for the now defunct but very much missed online journal Eidolon. In explaining my reasons, I added: “People often ask why I homeschool, and why I choose to do so in the midst of the very busy schedules that my husband and I keep. My stock response is: many people feel that their upbringing or life experiences have traumatized them so much that they need therapy. I homeschool because I do not want to outsource the screwing up of my children. Instead (as I say in jest) I would like to be the main reason they will need therapy.”

Since I have written this, much has changed. We now have one more student in the homeschool, bringing the total to three: a high-school senior, a third-grader, and a self-proclaimed fairy in pre-K. Globally, this intervening period has seen a pandemic that put everyone through a bout of forced homeschooling of sorts for at least one semester. Last but not least, this period has also seen acrimonious debates arise over the history content taught in America’s public schools.

But one thing that has not changed in the intervening period is the sense of conviction that I share with my husband and fellow-historian, that what we do in our homeschool matters a great deal. We want to do it well, because we feel responsibility for stewarding our children. First and foremost, we are stewarding them for God. But at a practical level, we are preparing these image-bearers for a life of service in the here-and-now, which means that we are also stewarding them to flourish in this country, this society, their future community and their own future families. And so, what we teach and how we do it holds eternal implications.

As it happens, a number of thoughtful Christian historians have been thinking and wrestling with these themes as well. This post assembles perspectives on homeschooling and the teaching of history from four Christian historians who were either homeschooled themselves and/or are currently homeschooling: Lisa Diller is Professor of History at Southern Adventist University. Amanda McCrina is a successful writer of historical YA fiction. Jonathan Den Hartog is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Samford University. Last but not least, Dan Williams is Professor of History at the University of West Georgia. He is also my husband and full partner on this homeschooling journey.

I am grateful to all four of them for taking the time to share their wisdom and ideas. Their thoughts in response to the six questions below provide important insights on the diverse experience of homeschooling, present some helpful resources for teaching history in one’s home or outside of it, and offer some reassurance about the teaching of history in the public schools. You should also read the excellent recent post on homeschooling from Verónica Gutiérrez, who for reasons of time was unable to contribute to this particular post.

  1. What are your impressions of the present moment and the current debates over teaching history in public schools and in homeschooling curricula? Is your sense that the teaching of history in America is getting more contentious, or is it just yet more of the same? 

Dan Williams: Debates about the teaching of history in the United States have certainly been contentious in the past. In the 1990s, debates over the portrayal of the past were so contentious that one book title dubbed them the “History Wars.”  Lynne Cheney wrote a nationally publicized op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 1994 complaining about the National History Standards’ prioritization of historical events that were “politically correct,” while downplaying George Washington’s significance and maligning business leaders such as John D. Rockefeller.

Today’s debates about critical race theory and the teaching of American history are very similar in some ways to the culture wars of the 1990s, because like the arguments of thirty years ago, today’s “history wars” center on the question of whether teachers should present a patriotic version of American history that seeks to inspire students by celebrating the early republic and its leaders or whether they should instead portray the United States as a deeply flawed nation because of the inequality that racial minorities and other marginalized groups have long experienced.

What is different today, however, is that in many states, conservatives have succeeded in using the power of the law to restrict or influence what is taught.  For decades, conservatives have complained about the allegedly “liberal” version of history that was taught in public school classrooms, but they have not been able to do very much about it – other than withdrawing their kids from the public schools and giving them an education at home or in private schools.  But a couple years ago, conservatives across the country began using critical race theory as a wedge issue to expand their control over the teaching of American history in public schools to a much greater degree than they had before.  Other academic disciplines have received similar legal scrutiny in the past.  (The regulation of science teaching in the public schools because of public concerns about evolution is a case in point).  But this is new territory for history teachers.

Lisa Diller: ​I think that there’s a lack of respect for the teaching profession and a desire to control what students are taught–and it especially seems that this is coming from people whose children aren’t actually in public schools or whose children are grown. I think there’s little respect for what historians do. I think it’s about the same as at other flashpoints of teaching history in the last sixty years. It comes and it goes.

Amanda McCrina: My own sense is that the teaching of history has gotten more contentious since 2016 and the public emergence of the Trumpist right and corresponding backlash against “critical race theory” and “wokeness”—which in my own community (in which I work as a bookseller) tend to mean simply any view of American history that doesn’t reinforce a narrative of American greatness and exceptionalism. Just to give you an example: In the last year, we’ve seen our local Williamson County, TN schools requiring any books teachers keep in their classrooms to be “approved,” and of the “approved” historical fiction titles given as examples, only a few were recently published; overwhelmingly, they were “safe” classics. Meanwhile, I’ve had to deal with bookstore customers irate that we carried, among other things, Barack Obama’s memoir and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist.

  1. If you were homeschooled, how/why did your parents arrive at the decision? If you are a homeschooling parent, how/why did you and your spouse arrive at the decision to homeschool?

Lisa Diller: My parents didn’t want to send us to school too early, so each of us was homeschooled in first grade–which meant that since I was the oldest, I also got homeschooled when my siblings were in first grade. My parents believed in Christian education and were very happy with our local Christian school, so I don’t think faith was particularly motivating them to homeschool–though it was shaping their educational practices in general.

Dan Williams: I was homeschooled from 2nd to 12th grade.  At the time that my parents decided to homeschool (in 1984), the homeschooling movement was very small and was associated largely (though not exclusively) with conservative Christians who were deeply suspicious of the public educational establishment.  My parents were conservative Christians who were motivated by their faith in every aspect of life (including decisions about their children’s education), but they did not take me out of public school primarily because of their objections to particular parts of the public-school curriculum, such as evolution.  While they did disagree with some of the curricula, their primary stated reason for homeschooling was because they wanted to raise their own children themselves and believed they could do a better job than the public schools.

I think that they were probably right about that.  To be sure, homeschooling involves tradeoffs, and I know that if I had remained in the public schools, I likely would have gained a better education in at least a few subjects, such as foreign language and science, than I did at home.  But what I acquired at home was perhaps considerably more valuable.  I read a lot of excellent books that I probably would not have had time to read if I had not been homeschooled.  I developed a close relationship with my brothers that perhaps would not have been the same if we had not spent so much time together.  I gained a foundation for my Christian faith that I might not have acquired in a public-school environment.  And I gained independent research skills and a love of learning that I still have.

My success as a historical researcher and writer in college, graduate school, and beyond is largely due to skills I acquired while completing independent historical research projects for National History Day competitions.  My local public schools were not involved in this program, and I know that I would not have had the time or the opportunity to pursue historical research in the same way if I had gone to public schools.  I would not have received the college scholarship that I received as a result of placing first in the National History Day competition.  So, my life would have been very different and certainly less unique than it was as a result of my homeschooling experience.

Because of the positive experience I had with homeschooling, I wanted to homeschool my children, as did my wife (Nadya).  Our faith played a role in that decision, because both of us believe that education in a home environment (supplemented, to be sure, with plenty of extracurricular opportunities outside the home) has the potential to give our children training in Christian principles that will not occur in a public-school setting.  But there are also many other reasons to homeschool. I suppose that in some sense, I’m homeschooling my children today for the same reasons that my mother frequently told others she was homeschooling – that is, because she believed that parents were the ones most qualified to provide training for their own children.

That certainly doesn’t mean that Nadya and I provide this training alone – we don’t.  Our kids get a lot of their education in classes or extracurricular activities outside the home.  But it does mean that we get to make the decisions about how best to provide for our kids’ learning needs, and that’s an opportunity that we really appreciate

  1. In a recent interview about the success of the liberal arts majors, especially English, at Grove City College, Jeff Bilbro mentioned that he attributed at least some of that success to the high number of homeschoolers that his institution attracts. What is your sense of how homeschooling has impacted your own or your students’ interests and values? 

Amanda McCrina: I think there’s a danger in making generalizations about the quality of homeschooled versus public- (or private-) schooled students. The ability to work mostly at my own pace and pursue rabbit trails into niche topics that may not have been covered during a standard school year with a standard curriculum definitely shaped some of my own academic interests—my interest in Soviet- and post-Soviet Eastern Europe in particular. But I was left with some gaps and holes in other areas. So much depends on the individual student, the home environment, the emphases of the parent/instructor/facilitator; and I know it took me a long time to unlearn the mistaken, harmful idea that homeschooling itself made me somehow smarter, more disciplined, and generally academically “better” than my public-schooled peers.

Lisa Diller: We have a LOT of homeschooled students at Southern. A LOT. My observation is that quite frequently they don’t see the purpose of anything they and their parents didn’t find important. It is sometimes challenging for them to invest in subjects or skills that they didn’t find useful in school or aren’t their strength. I think the idea of many homeschooling families of leaning into the strengths of their children and investing in what they find interesting can make it challenging for them to accept as authoritative or as authorities, other teachers/topics that their family didn’t enjoy. My students who have had to go to school and take classes where they weren’t at the top of the class can sometimes better appreciate that not everyone has the same skills and that it is okay to do things you’re not good at and that there are worthwhile things that we are glad people do even if it isn’t our own skill set.

Just my observation of my students who were homeschooled all the way through 12th grade–even though they are super talented and usually good students. It’s more an attitude….

Dan Williams: I think that as a result of my home education, I developed an intellectual curiosity and love of learning that have never been stifled.  When children are young, they usually ask a lot of questions because they take great delight in learning about the world, but many kids lose their interest in questions sometime in elementary or middle school, as they become more conscious of potential disapproval from their peers.  But I’ve never stopped asking questions – perhaps because I was homeschooled.

I also know how to learn independently.  The independent research that I did in graduate school was not difficult for me, because my years of experience doing my own library research as a homeschooled student had given me the tools I needed to find information on my own and present it to others.

And as a result of being homeschooled, I developed a healthy skepticism of current cultural trends and accepted conventions.  I’m not afraid to think differently much of the time. My values are not based on the latest fad but on something much more enduring, I hope.

I believe that people can become excellent independent learners while going to public schools, but I also think that homeschooled students may have more opportunities to acquire these skills at an earlier age, especially if their parents encourage independent intellectual exploration in the same way that my parents did.

That said, I do think that the freedom that homeschooling gives to parents to design their children’s curricula may result in a tendency among homeschooling parents to focus heavily on the academic areas that interest their children and give less attention to academic subjects that may be less comfortable for the family academically.  But that can easily be remedied, I think.  In my own case, my high school training in foreign languages, which consisted only of two years of Spanish, was less than ideal.  But in college, I took four years of classical Greek, three years of Latin, and several courses in French and German, so by the time I graduated from college, I no longer felt like I didn’t know enough about the principles of language.

If I were growing up today, at a time when homeschooling co-ops are readily available, I’m sure that my parents could send me to a homeschooling co-op to take foreign language courses.  So, for a homeschooling parent today who is looking at the full array of educational resources available, there are almost always options for giving kids a quality education in even the most challenging subjects.

  1. How have you or your parents approached the teaching of history in your homeschool? Do you have any favorite resources? 

Jonathan Den Hartog had a number of favorite resources to share:

  1. For early elementary children, a good introduction to world history is Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World, and she deserves credit for working to integrate the entire world into her narrative. Of the four books, the first two are the best, while the latter two sometimes lose the thread and devolve into disconnected anecdotes. Bauer’s entire Well Trained Mind web presence (including online courses) can be a valuable resource. That arises from Bauer’s being a university educator first.
  2. There are many American history texts that are simplistic and not very good. But—even a bad textbook can serve an educational purpose if parents and teachers provide critique and show the biases present in the presentation.
  3. For American history, I would want to commend the Notgrass History Series for its beautiful books and its emphasis on primary sources. It can be idiosyncratic, but it has enough material that can be deployed effectively.
  4. There still remains a great opportunity for the production of better homeschooling history texts, along the lines of the excellently-produced Purposeful Design Science curriculum.

Lisa Diller: My parents loved history and reading but they gave me NO HELP at all about books to read or curriculum. I was just allowed to read anything in the house and when that was done I started reading everyone else’s books. My dad gave me his church history books from seminary when I was ten or so and I went through those and the local library’s very small selection. They didn’t really have a sense of what a good curriculum might be.

But I’m a Gen Xer and our homeschooling and childrearing experiences are very different from today’s people.

Amanda McCrina: One of my favorite history curricula that I remember from my senior year in high school didn’t assign a textbook, but rather used novel studies and selected other readings of both primary and secondary sources to cover 20th-century history. I continue to believe that historical fiction is one of the best tools for making history accessible and personal—to drive home why it matters.

As the author of historical fiction set in Ukraine, I’ve had several booksellers and librarians reach out to tell me how grateful they are to be able to put my novels in readers’ hands this year, as so many of us scramble to educate ourselves about the reasons for Russia’s invasion. Not everybody is going to pick up an academic book to learn more about Ukraine, but they just might pick up a novel.

Dan Williams: In my own case, my love of history began even before I was homeschooled, because once I discovered the children’s biographies of the American presidents on a shelf of my elementary school library when I was still in first grade, I began reading everything that I could find on the subject.  For the next five years, I voluntarily did research on historical subjects by looking for books on the topic at our local public library and then wrote small “books” about what I discovered.  For several years, I subscribed to Cobblestone magazine, which is an excellent historical resource for elementary school children.  My parents gave me history textbooks as well, but my main source of historical knowledge was the reading that I did independently.

In middle school, my mother discovered the National History Day program, which is kind of like a science fair for historical research projects. For the NHD competition, students spend several months researching a topic and then put together a presentation, paper, dramatic performance, or project summarizing the results of their research. I participated in that competition for five years, and it was a life-changing experience for me. Instead of merely learning historical facts, I learned how to be a historian by examining primary sources and synthesizing them into a historical narrative that I could present to the public.

Those historical research experiences gave me the joy of seeing how a study of the past could enlarge my understanding of the present.  In my junior year of high school, I produced a National History Day media presentation on the influence of geography on Russian warfare and argued that Russian geography has not only made it impossible for any invader to win a war on Russian soil but has also made it impossible for Russians to mobilize troops and win any war fought outside of Russia.  I produced that media presentation nearly thirty years ago, but I still think about the insights I gained from that research whenever I read news reports about Russian military activity or even Russian politics in general.  By doing my own research on this topic, I gained something far more valuable and memorable than I ever could have acquired simply by reading a few world history textbooks.

Not every homeschooling family will want to invest as much in history education as my parents did.  They did so only because I was strongly interested in history; they didn’t make this level of investment (which required, among other things, annual trips to Washington, DC, to compete in the national NHD competitions) in any other academic subject.  But for kids who have a strong interest in history, National History Day can be a wonderful opportunity.

  1. For any readers considering homeschooling in the future, do you have any advice from your own experience, especially with regard to teaching history and the humanities?

Dan Williams: I think that it’s important for homeschooling families to realize that the success of their homeschooling experience will probably depend on their ability to leave textbooks behind and encourage independent learning.  I have known many homeschooling families that have used textbooks (and for some subjects, my parents did as well), but I have rarely encountered homeschooling families that have considered their experiences with textbooks successful or enjoyable.  Textbooks are really not designed for the home environment.  Instead, homeschooling works best when kids are given the opportunity to discover new information on their own and enjoy the process of finding out about the world through books, science experiments, and other matters.

Many homeschooling families love to read biographies and historical novels, and for those families, education in history and the humanities takes place naturally through kids reading on their own. For homeschooling families who are already reading a lot of history at home, a good historical curriculum may mean merely suggesting a few additional books to their kids to make sure that they’re getting a well-rounded education. And, for kids who might want to go beyond simply reading about history and learn how to produce some of their own historical writing by doing original research in primary source material, National History Day can be an excellent resource.

Most homeschooling families that I’ve known have found it easier to teach history and the humanities to their kids than to teach math and science, but I have occasionally met homeschooling parents who felt much more comfortable with math than with literature and who really didn’t like reading about history.  I would encourage those families to look for some engaging audio lectures on history to see if their kids find those engaging.  But more than that, I would encourage them to take their kids to see historical sites and living history museums while the kids are still young enough to appreciate those things. Give kids a chance to experience a historical reenactment for themselves. Show them a few historical movies. Then have them make a timeline to get a chronological perspective on the events they’re studying. Perhaps not all kids like timelines, but many do – especially if they are visual learners, fascinated by numbers, or artistically inclined.

As kids get older, parents can think a bit more about the specific parts of world or American history their kids need to learn about in order to fill in some of the gaps in their knowledge and understand the United States in relation to the rest of the world, but when kids are young, it’s probably best to expose them to a wide variety of history-related experiences instead of boring them with a textbook.

History, after all, is not about memorizing a specific narrative, with all of the names and dates, but rather about learning to understand other people’s stories and experiences.  It’s about seeing the world in the fourth dimension (time) and understanding our own experiences in light of the past.

So, if you have to choose between having your kids memorize when the Mexican War ended and talking about how the experiences of Mexican immigrants today are still affected by the consequences of that war, it’s far better to choose the latter, I think.  If you have to choose between memorizing the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor and touring a World War II battleship, you’re far better off choosing the experience over the factual knowledge.  If you help your kids gain the experiences and engage in the conversations that facilitate a lifelong love of learning about history, you’ll give them a far better gift than if you hand them a set of textbooks filled with facts to memorize for a test.

  1. What advice would you give to parents of children in public schools in your state, if they are worried about the teaching of history in their children’s schools? 

Lisa Diller: I would let them know that state standards require that they read actual primary sources from the past and that this is so much better than what we had at that age. They will be allowed to draw their own conclusions from the actual sources. And I will suggest that they get to know the history teacher–a bigger concern than them being indoctrinated is that a large percentage of history teachers have no training in history and their first job is PE teacher. (My nephew went to the local public school. I asked him for his teacher’s name and he said “we just call him Coach”).

Dan Williams: In my opinion, the worst part of public-school history curricula is not what’s included or what’s left out, but rather how it’s taught.  Because teachers must cover a massive quantity of material to prepare students for a test, students often come away from middle school or high school history classes convinced that history is merely a boring set of names and dates and a long list of facts that must be memorized.  There are many public-school history teachers who somehow manage to make history come alive and engage their students in meaningful conversations about the past in spite of the constraints they’re facing, but the pressure to prepare students for their exams tends to undermine these creative efforts.  The advantage of homeschooling is that it frees parents and their kids from these constraints and allows them to be much more creative and inquiry-driven in their approach to learning.

But not everyone can (or even should) homeschool – and even those who do homeschool should also care deeply about what is taught in public schools.  Parents of children who are in public school can still give their kids some of the historical experiences that I suggested for homeschoolers.  They can still take their kids to the library and encourage them to read widely.  They can look into opportunities such as National History Day or the equivalent for their children.

In addition, they can talk with their children’s teachers about what their children are learning in the classroom.  Quite likely, they’ll find that the teachers are facing institutional constraints that limit the amount of change they can make to their curricula.  But a conversation might nevertheless be helpful.

If parents are worried about the ideological framing of their children’s history curriculum, they can talk with their kids about points of view.  Why do people present historical narratives in different ways?  What might have been left out of a particular narrative to produce a particular interpretation?

These conversations will likely do more good than any changes in textbooks or state history standards will, because kids who talk about these things will not merely be memorizing historical information but will instead be thinking for themselves about how to use historical evidence to understand people in the past accurately and fairly.  And if they learn that skill, they’ll be better positioned to understand other people and relate to the world around them as ethically minded, engaged listeners who are curious about other people’s stories and about the events that have happened before their own time.

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