Homeschoolers, the Social Contract, and Identity

Homeschoolers, the Social Contract, and Identity November 29, 2012

It started with a blog post last September provocatively called Death to Homeschooling. Patheos Christian blogger Tony Jones of Theoblogy argued against homeschooling as follows:

Like many people who have their first child approaching kindergarten age, I have been thinking about all of our options for next year: neighborhood public school, public French immersion, charter school, private school, homeschool.

But it seems to me that if I am truly committed to living a missional life, then I must enroll my kids in the public school. That is, I am committed to living a life fully invested in what I might call the “Jesus Ethic” or the “Kingdom of God Ethic,” and also fully invested in the society — in fact, you might say that I live according to the Kingdom of God for the sake of society.

So it seems to me that to withdraw my children from public education is to not play my (God-given) role as a missional member of society — like I can’t just choose to withhold my taxes. We give our children all those vaccinations when they’re young not necessarily to protect them from polio (since the chances of any one of my children getting it is exceedingly small) but because we live in a society, and part of the contract within the society is that we will never again let polio gain a foothold.

So I can’t think, “I’ll just pull my kids out of the public schools — what difference will one less follower of Jesus make in a school full of hundreds of kids?” I don’t, as a Christian, have the option to “opt out” of the societal contract. Instead, I live under a mandate to be the most involved, missional societal participant that I can be.

And one more thing. Dewey argues strongly that it is in the social environment that a child learns to learn. Here are the brilliant words of one of Dewey’s successors, George Albert Coe,

What education does is, in a word, to bring the child and society together. It increases one’s participation in the common life. It puts the child into possession of the tools of social intercourse, such as language and numbers; opens his eyes to treasures of literature, art, and science that society has gradually accumulated through generations; causes him to appreciate such social organizations as the state, and develops habits appropriate thereto; prepares him to be a producer in some socially valuable field of labor, and evokes an inner control whereby he may judge and guide himself in the interest of social well being.”

I am not a Christian, but, ironically perhaps, my reasons for preferring public school are very similar to those laid out here. While I have known many people who were failed by homeschooling academically, being homeschooled form K through 12 actually did give me a pretty good education. Yes, there were some holes, but I got into college with scholarships, and once there I excelled. What I missed out on, though, was the social contract aspect that both Jones and Coe describe here (for more of my thoughts on socialization, see this post). And that, quite simply, is the number one reason I plan to put Sally and Bobby in public school.

As you might imagine, not everyone was happy about Jones’ post. So he wrote a followup post called “Why Homeschoolers Don’t Understand Missional.”

As expected, homeschool advocates have turned out in force to defend and justify their decision to homeschool in response to my (provocatively titled) post, “Death to Homeschooling!

What Wendy and other commenters don’t seem to understand is that, when I use the term “missional,” I don’t mean “sharing Jesus.” At least, I don’t mean it like she means it. I’m not talking about evangelism.

Missional does not mean evangelism. Missional means showing Christlike compassion to other human beings and to all of creation.

Missional means being the salt seasoning in the world, and you cannot be that seasoning (no matter your age) if you withdraw from society.

P.S., read this comment from a Christian college prof if you want some more evidence that homeschooling doesn’t do what its advocates say it’s doing.

One thing that has struck me as I’ve thought about my experiences being homeschooled is just how much homeschooling isolated us from anything bigger than our family, church, and circle of like-minded friends. I didn’t know anyone who was different from me, whether in religion, class, or ethnic or racial background. I wasn’t involved in a greater civic process beyond the independent campaigning we did for conservative candidates. Homeschooling is sort of like seceding from the educational system, and I have definitely noticed a very “I’ve got mine, screw the rest of you” sort of mentality among some homeschoolers.

I also think one thing Jones is hitting up against is the tension within modern evangelicalism between being in the world but not of the world. In other words, evangelicals have a history of trying to change the world through involvement in it, but they also have a twin history of trying to preserve doctrinal and moral purity by withdrawing from the world. Today’s evangelicals have to balance the two. Jones definitely wants to lean more toward being in the world in an effort to change it – being the “salt” and the “light” – while other evangelicals, terrified that their children will reject the faith or pick up bad morals from their “worldly” peers, lean toward withdrawing from the world. In my experience, many homeschoolers try to balance the two by arguing that they are sheltering their children and keeping them separate from the world now in order that they will grow up to be more effective in interacting with and influencing the world. But as more and more people are pointing out, it doesn’t exactly work like that.

Anyway, encountering still more push back, Jones finished with “One More Post about Homeschooling“:

It’s no surprise to me that I stroked the cat’s fur the wrong way with my two posts about homeschooling over the last couple weeks. It’s not popular to decry a trend that is burgeoning among both right-wing and left-wing Christians. But I, dear reader, stand here in the center and attempt to humbly guard our space. :-)

But seriously, I know that my posts were provocative. But they weren’t personal. The fact that so many people took them personally makes me think that homeschooling has, for some, become a little too important. That being said, I have listened carefully to the arguments against my posts, and I am aware that my argument has some weak spots. I am also aware that my children have the good fortune of being in a very good school system.

Lots of vitriol has come my way in the comment sections of those posts, as well as on Twitter (Facebook, on the other hand has been relatively silent). There have also been some smart blog responses….

Please, allow me to respond:

No, I don’t think you should raise your kids among drug addicts because you might help the drug addicts. We have not decided as a society to publicly fund the healing and reparation of all drug addicts. We have, however, decided to publicly and collectively educate our children. When Christians opt out of this collective societal agreement, society is hobbled.

There are many families at my worshipping community who opt out of the system of immunizations that our society requires. They are making a serious misjudgment that weakens our society and is, if I may be so bold, self-centered. I realize that many of you will argue that your first commitment is to your own children, not to society. Fair enough, but that’s not how I make my determinations — and I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive. If you repeatedly make decisions that put your family ahead of the other families that surround you, well, I just don’t see how that is following Christ’s example.

Secondly, no, your own personal experience with homeschooling, no matter how positive that may be, does not negate my argument. I realize that many people have many different experiences with homeschooling, but this isn’t about your personal experience.

Think of it this way: tonight on the news, you might see someone interviewed, man-on-the-street style. He’ll say, “Yeah, the economy sucks, because I lost my job last year and haven’t been able to find a new one. Vote Romney!” But you and I both know that one person’s opinion is not a gauge of the health of our society. The economy is judged by meta-trends, not by micro-anecdotes. The same goes for public education.

I’m looking ahead, and I think there will be a huge price to pay if my fellow Christians continue to withdraw their children from public schools. If we abandon that public institution, the toll will be this: in two or three decades, our culture will be less educated and less civil. I can’t imagine any Christian wanting this.

Finally, to Joy’s criticism, let me say this: my children are not my proxies. Their education in public school has necessitated my own involvement in that institution — on the PTA, as a volunteer, and as a generally engaged parent. Sometimes I wonder if homeschooling is a choice that parents make to allow their own adult avoidance of rolling up their sleeves and making public schools better.

After reading all three of Tony Jones’ posts, I have to say, I rather like the guy. And more than that, I think the two of us are in almost perfect agreement on the subject of homeschooling, with the exception that he approaches the issue as a Christian while I approach it as a Humanist.

Note that Jones is discussing and referring to what I generally call “the Christian homeschool movement.” There are families who pull a child out, generally for a few years at most, because she’s being bullied, or because he’s having behavioral issues, or because they’re bright and are being held back educationally, but these are not the homeschoolers Jones is talking about, and they’re not the ones I am generally talking about when I talk about homeschooling either. Jones is talking about the Christians, generally evangelicals, fundamentalists, or conservative Catholics, who pull their children out in an effort to teach them “God’s truth” away from “the influences of the world.” Jones argues that homeschooling is a bad long-term strategy for these Christians, and I tend to agree.

I knew one family that stopped homeschooling somewhere along the line, the parents stating that they would rather their children encounter the world while still under the family’s roof. My parents and other Christian homeschoolers scoffed, arguing that children needed to be nurtured and raised away from the dangers of the world. Looking back, I actually think that other family had the right idea. The world is out there, and like it or not, the children of Christian parents will eventually encounter it. Is sheltering them from outside influences, individuals, and ideas until they are grown really the best strategy? Like Jones, I think not.

I’m really glad Jones wrote this series of posts. In many Christian circles, homeschooling has become such a part of both identity and religious beliefs that Christians have become unable to step back and critically examine it. For some Christians, the necessity of homeschooling has become as ingrained as things like young earth creationism or the inerrancy of the Bible. And I think that’s a very serious problem.

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