This 2007 release by Thomson Gale is a convenient anthology of articles all previously published elsewhere covering a range of topics and points of view on homeschooling. The aim of the collection is to provide a sort of point/counterpoint on the topics covered. In my next few posts I will provide brief summaries of and commentary on the articles included. Today I will talk about the first two.
1. Veteran education journalist Mary Ann Zehr begins the collection with a piece written for the leading national education newspaper Education Week about the export of the homeschooling movement to other countries. Her article focuses on the work of Chris Klicka of the Home School Legal Defense Association, which has in recent years partnered with homeschooling families in many other countries to create an organizational infrastructure parallel to what HSLDA has in the United States. Since her article relies on Klicka and his network, the European and Asian voices she cites all speak the language of conservative Protestantism, but she does note the recent work of British researcher Paula Rothermel, who found that only 4% of her sample of British homeschoolers did so for religious reasons. Zehr does not examine this seeming tension in her account nor does she question HSLDA’s international agenda. It could be that HSLDA has gone international of late because there is so little for it to do nowadays in the United States, yet its staff need something to write about so as to motivate their 81,000 members to keep paying their dues. At the same time, there is clearly a missionary motive at play as well, for lawyers like Klicka, influenced by a Reconstructionist vision of social change, recognize that personal evangelism is insufficient for winning a nation over to Christianity. Social structures like the legal and educational systems must be remade as well if Christianity is to win the day.
2. Well-known historian of evangelicalism Randall Balmer has the second chapter, an excerpt from his widely discussed hatchet job against the religious right released in 2006 under the title Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament. Many readers who had great respect for Balmer’s thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of American Evangelicalism in previous books (especially his bestselling Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America) were put off by his shrill tone and monochromatic account in this book. It seemed to many a betrayal of Balmer’s heritage, and not a very good one at that.
In this anthology we have Balmer’s critique of the homeschooling movement and other educational privatization efforts. In other parts of Balmer’s book he calls Christians leave behind their quest for political power and to live countercultural lives, but on the topic of education, Balmer is not at all countercultural. He believes that public education is necessary because it teaches tolerance of all for all. To get there he gives a brief history of the common schools of the 19th century, noting correctly that they were run largely by Protestants. But he skips abruptly from the 19th century Protestant public schools to today’s schools which “provide an opportunity to explore differences and form friendships.” If our commitment to public education is abandoned, warns Balmer, cultural Balkanization will be the result, “thereby tearing the fabric of American culture, and identity.”
Two points need to be made in response to Balmer’s argument. First, public schools have a long history of doing exactly the oppposite of what Balmer claims they do. Racial segregation, whether legally enforced in the years before the Brown decision or the result of settlement patterns as is the case now, has always been profound. Class-based segregation is similarly pronounced. The 19th century Protestant public schools Balmer harkens back to were anything but tolerant of alternative points of view, which is why Catholics had to create their own schools system. One could go on, but the general point is that Public Schools are not and have never been the genial meeting ground where Americans of all stripes learn from each other and become friends.
Secondly, Balmer’s analysis of privatization efforts is incomplete. He neglects to mention that some of the strongest backers of school choice initiatives are the urban minorities in whose name he is defending public schools. It is also not nearly so obvious as he makes out that private education, homeschooling, and school choice options balkanize the country. As Christian Smith and David Sikkink have argued, private education tends in fact to produce citizens who are more engaged civically than their public school counterparts. Balmer might wish that public schools produced model citizens who were tolerant of others and civic-minded, and he might fear that children who miss out on public education tend to retreat into religious or ethnic ghettos to the peril of the social fabric, but neither his wishes nor his fears are grounded in empirical reality. And that’s the real problem with his book. Balmer has the skills and professional position to write a much better book than he wrote. A solid research base would have given his argument credibility and rescued it from the shrill polemical tone that it unfortunately has.