Homeschooling for the Twenty-First Century — or the Nineteenth?

Homeschooling for the Twenty-First Century — or the Nineteenth? January 29, 2019

Last week, in response to the hashtag #ExposeChristianSchools, evangelical pastor Denny Burk tweeted that he sends his children to a classical school, and that they learn Latin, read great books, and memorize traditional poems like Horatio at the Bridge. Yesterday, I wrote a post outlining why I wish I’d studied Spanish instead of Latin, and learned African American history instead of memorizing poems like Horatio at the Bridge. 

I was homeschooled, and there’s something about all of this that is bothering me. My parents talked about public schools educating kids for a factory-based economy that no longer exists, and argued that by homeschooling us they were giving us an education that prepared us for the twenty-first century. But for all of that, there was something odd going on—an idolization of the education system of the nineteenth century.

Homeschooling can look like a lot of things. In some cases African American parents homeschool so that they can teach their children about African and African diaspora history in a way that doesn’t center whiteness and colonization. My experience is not some sort of universal homeschool experience. My experience comes from a certain subset of the homeschooling world. I was homeschooled in a conservative evangelical community highly supportive of Christian Right politics. This is what I call the Christian homeschool movement.

The claim, that, by homeschooling, parents are preparing their children for the twenty-first century—for an economy that doesn’t involve repetitive tasks or desks, an economy that values innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship—is fairly common in Christian homeschool movement. Yes, there is a lot of religion and retaking the culture for Christ thrown in there as well, but even that is intertwined with the idea that their type of homeschooling is designed to create movers and shakers. That is how the culture will be retaken, after all.

All of this makes me wonder why we learned Latin, and why we memorized the sort of old poems that were the hallmark of a white elite educational regime that was manifestly not designed for the twenty-first century.

I’ve been puzzling it over, and I think I know what happened. The belief that homeschooling allowed for creating an innovative and dynamic educational program that would prepare children for success in the twenty-first century coexisted with an adulation of a nineteenth century education system that prepared generations of white elite to dominate the globe through colonization and academic and cultural hegemony.

Christian homeschool leaders wanted to raise a generation of young people that would not only succeed but also dominate culturally, and to do so they reached for a past model that had allowed people to do just that. It helped that that past model privileged Christianity and whiteness. It was from a time before things started falling apart, before women entered the workforce, before welfare and social security, a time when people were patriotic and people of color had not yet sewn division (and yes, that’s racist). All I’m saying is, it’s not really surprising that this is the educational model Christian homeschool leaders would reach for.

And so we learned Latin, read G. A. Henty, and memorized The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. But somehow, this coexisted with rhetoric about innovation and hands-on learning, and and a denigration of public schools as being both too focused on worksheets and rote learning and not focused enough on memorization and facts. The result was an education that was somewhat of a hodgepodge.

Math was mostly worksheets, despite the verbal emphasis on being innovative and hands-on. This was before Common Core, but homeschooling parents in my parents’ circles today are anti-Common Core. This is odd, because Common Core is designed to teach kids to think about and understand the concepts behind math, rather than simply memorizing formulae. You would think that parents who play up the innovative nature of homeschooling would be all over that—but instead they’re holding onto what’s old, because old means good.

Science is young earth creationist textbooks, which is unsurprising but also out of step with the elevation of figures like G. A. Henty, who I’m pretty sure would have been on board with evolutionary discoveries of his time. History is the story of Great White Men, almost entirely bereft of the stories of anyone else.

There’s an irony here. Public schools today are increasingly turning to project-based learning, working to respond to the sort of criticisms lobbed by Christian homeschool leaders. In contrast, the eighteenth century educational program so many Christian homeschoolers try to replicate was focused not on project-based learning but on rote memorization. That isn’t innovative, and it isn’t new.

Parents homeschooling in this Christian homeschool milieu need to decide what they’re doing. Are they going back to old methods of rote memorization, complete with learning Latin, reading books written exclusively by elite white men, and memorizing poems that center the history of great white men or classical antiquity? Or are they creating something new, providing an innovative education designed to prepare children for a changing workplace and a changing society? These are two completely different things.

Christian homeschool leaders criticize public schools for using worksheets … and idolize a past education system focused on rote learning. They tout innovation and creative thinking … and criticize public schools for developing math curricula that focus on student understanding rather than on memorizing formulae.

I’m left with an education I don’t fully understand. My parents talked up innovation, but had me study Latin and classics. They praised creativity and critical thinking, but my math curriculum was about memorizing formulae and my science curriculum was about memorizing facts. There’s an underlying confusion.

To be clear, this isn’t a wholesale criticism. I took AP tests, scored well on the SAT, and got into college. I received a solid education. But in the midst of individual subjects and areas of study, I can’t seem to locate a cohesive underlying pedagogy or understanding of what we were about. That’s not on my parents—it’s on the homeschool leaders they followed, who sent completely mixed messages in their marketing.

Within Christian homeschooling circles, the claim that homeschooling is innovative and that public schools are preparing kids for an economy that no longer exists has coexisted with an elevation of a rote-memory based education system whose time has past. That’s thoroughly inconsistent.

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