Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Kingdom of the Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement
by Mitchell L. Stevens
Princeton University Press, 238 pages, $24.95

A recent government report documents a remarkable growth in the number of school-aged children now being educated at home and provides reassuring information about their educational progress. Of the many phenomena in American life that are puzzling to European and Asian observers, this is by no means the least. Home schooling seems like a reversal of two centuries of progress in creating systems of universal schooling.

Are home-schooling parents selfish? A graduate student from Taiwan threw out that challenge recently to my seminar on educational freedom. Shouldn’t they keep their children in the public schools and try to make those schools better? Aren’t they just running away from the common project of society, to educate the rising generation?

We have heard that challenge before; it is frequently directed at parents who put their children in private or parochial schools, in public charter schools, even in desegregated magnet schools. Of course, those who make the charge of desertion frequently do not have their own children in urban public schools, but they are eager that others do their bit for social justice by sending their children to the front lines.

Even those of us who believe that educational freedom is a fundamental right, and are sympathetic toward faith-based schools, may wonder what inspires hundreds of thousands of parents to educate their children at home when there are so many other alternatives. Why has the number of children not attending any school grown from perhaps fifty thousand in 1985 to a million or more today? Every state now permits children to be educated at home, something which is very unusual if not completely forbidden in other Western democracies.

Mitchell Stevens has some of the answers. He has been talking with home-schooling parents for years, attending their meetings, and observing how they and their children think about and practice education. Kingdom of Children shows that, for the most part, they are thoroughly normal people, not social recluses, who come to their commitment to teach their children at home for a variety of reasons.

Understanding home schooling requires disentangling its two primary strands. One is the “de-schooling” movement associated with the late John Holt, Ivan Illich, and other radical critics who, since the 1960s, have insisted that “children have enormous potential for distinctive accomplishments and that standardized ways of educating children temper or even squelch this potential.” “My concern,” Holt proclaimed, “is not to improve ‘education,’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and anti-human business of people-shaping and let people shape themselves.” Like Rousseau’s Émile, “unschooled” children will find their own way through unstructured exploration.

Home-schooling parents in the John Holt camp also follow Rousseau in adopting a radically optimistic view of human nature uncorrupted by society. Allow a child to follow his own interests, perhaps to focus for weeks or months on a single line of exploration, and au­ thentic learning will occur, unconstrained by adult assumptions about how knowledge and skills should be organized and taught. Adults should avoid imposing their own view of what matters.

Such assumptions about the unconstrained flourishing of human nature are not shared by the other, and now much larger, strand of home schoolers, religiously conservative families. For these families, primarily Protestant but also Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim, encouraging independent work and the personal interests of the child are an important aspect of what home schooling is all about, but they usually insist that this occur within a framework of learning objectives that are often considerably more prescriptive and ambitious than those that public school systems adopt. There are now hundreds of books and websites that offer guidance for the home-schooling parent, and it is possible to sign on with a variety of services and “virtual schools” that will provide curriculum, assessment, and diplomas for children educated at home. Many of these services are packed with ideas for research activities and projects that direct young people toward mastery of a tradition that almost all public and private schools have abandoned.

Both the “unschoolers” and the religiously conservative families seek to shelter their children from many aspects of popular culture that permeate the media and the shopping mall. They are suspicious of the peer culture that is so profoundly influential in public and even private schools. John Locke, himself an advocate of home schooling, ex­ pressed the same concern three centuries ago, writing in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) that “’tis not the waggeries or cheats practiced amongst schoolboys . . . that make an able man, but the principles of justice, generosity, and sobriety, joined with observation and industry, qualities which I judge schoolboys do not learn much of one another. . . . It is impossible to keep a lad from the spreading contagion if you will venture him abroad in the herd and trust to chance or his own inclination for the choice of his company at school.”

We would misunderstand home schoolers, though, if we thought that they were seeking to raise their children to be anti-social hermits. In fact, most home-schooled children are engaged in all sorts of activities with other children outside their homes. Last Christmas season, one of my daughters noticed that most of the other young dancers in The Nutcracker were home schooled; their flexible schedules made it easy for them to attend the rehearsals, I was told by the young woman in charge, who added proudly that she herself had never been to school a day in her life and was now a college student.

In many cases home-schooling families cooperate with each other to provide instruction in foreign languages and science, and some public school systems now allow children to participate in such subjects, or in extracurricular activities, while otherwise learning outside of school. This generosity on the part of some public school systems may be influenced by their desire to claim these children for purposes of state funding, or by the expectation that at least some of the children will be lured back into the public schools, and some conservative home schoolers regard such initiatives as a dangerous seduction.

In his book, Stevens detects a rather different emphasis between the two primary camps of home-schooling families. He writes:

As with unschooled kids, the believers’ children are loved in all their uniqueness, and their little selves are given constant protection and cultivation. But they are also taught early on that their lives will develop in relationship with many others, that individuals will sacrifice some measure of comfort to the group as a matter of course, and that all selves, big and small, must develop within clearly prescribed moral boun­ daries . . . . Conservative Protestant parents are very willing to talk about imposing limits on their children, and to do so in a language of moral obligation. For a middle-class America in­ creasingly given to accommodating not only the needs but also the desires of its children, the believers offer an instructive dissenting voice.

It would be a mistake to place an exclusive stress on negative motivations. Although many parents who home school are convinced that public schools provide, as Robert Destro has put it, “environments hostile to the beliefs and practices of religiously observant students,” it seems likely that most are also attracted to the prospect of being deeply involved with the education of their children. Home schooling is an attractive idea to parents who are reluctant to surrender to strangers the intimate task of nurturing the mind and heart of a beloved child.

Stevens makes the interesting suggestion that this project is especially attractive to women of religiously conservative conviction, who believe that they should make family and home their priority, and yet are sufficiently influenced by the feminist ideas that have filtered through American culture to want to see themselves as having a career. Home schooling offers such a career, though unpaid, and one that is highly valued in religiously conservative circles.

The Taiwanese student in my seminar was answered by an African-American doctoral student who explained how she and her husband, both public school administrators in Boston, had reached the difficult decision to take their two young children out of public school and, after considering home schooling, to enroll them in a Montessori school. The most responsible thing that any parent can do, she insisted, is to raise children who will make the greatest possible contribution to society.

It is clear that hundreds of thousands of home-schooling parents have decided that they should not delegate this responsibility. Despite the adamant opposition of the public education establishment, home schooling appears to be providing children with an effective education, and most selective colleges have no hesitation about admitting them. What seemed, only twenty years ago, to be a radical alternative to traditional schools has become an accepted part of the ever-widening panoply of educational choices.

Charles Glenn teaches education policy and history at Boston University.