This post reviews Helen Marie Anderson, “Learning (and Leaving) the Comforts of Home: A Radical Pedagogy of Homeplace,” in Philosophy of Education Yearbook (2007): 103-111.
Anderson here offers a two-pronged argument. First, she makes the interesting claim that “where we learn becomes part of what we learn.” Second, given Anderson’s conviction that traditional families and homes tend to reproduce all sorts of social pathologies and oppression, the only way to overcome deeply ingrained social inequalities is to deconstruct the home.
For Anderson, the notion of home as clearly demarcated place where biological relatives reside leads to exclusivity and oppression: “In order to maintain ‘home’ as a place apart, a place of safety, comfort, and privilege, ‘home’ needs to be denied to anyone failing to fall into the category of ‘family/familiar’ as defined by dominant discourses.” To perpetuate the sanctity of the home, anyone who strays from the dominant ideal must be denied entrance. Examples of those excluded by this notion of home include “those who are not white, financially stable, heterosexual, Christian, able bodied, and able minded…”
Home teaches children to exclude people who are not like them and hence feel no sense of responsibility for them. People who focus on the family are not interested in helping those outside its bounds. A solution to this problem suggested by some feminist thinkers is “nomadism,” the notion that we should change place frequently. Doing so exposes us to otherness and helps build a more cosmopolitan sensibility of empathy with others as we give and receive “hospitality” with them.
Anderson herself is not convinced that nomadic hospitality is the solution to the problem of bigoted families. She worries that the reciprocity expected in hospitable situations might unduly burden the poor and suggests that excluded groups have a right NOT to be hospitable when their oppressors knock on the door. After offering a few more critiques of the notion of nomadic hospitality, Anderson provides her own solutions, borrowed from theorist Maria Lugones.
Anderson speculates that “world travelling” and “street walking” are perhaps better metaphors for what should replace the bounded home. World travellers and street walkers are pedestrians, tourists reaching out in love to other people and places with an open-ended commitment to understand them. Putting all of these ideas together brings us closer to “creating shifting, indefinite, multiple understandings of homeplace, family, and self” that help us “transform the social landscape into a space that belongs to everyone.”
I have tried to summarize Anderson’s argument clearly. It is written in deconstructionist jargon popular in some disciplines whose opacity often masks thoughts that are derivative and incoherent under a veneer of intimidating sophistication. Such is the case with this article. Let me comment briefly on Anderson’s characterization of “home” and then on her proposed solution.
It is one thing to claim the home as the site of oppression to all of the groups she names. It is quite another to demonstrate that such claims have any basis in reality. A besetting sin of the sort of cultural analysis typical of so much of current literary theory is its absence of any evidentiary basis. Do homes actually exclude those who are not white, wealthy, Christian, able-bodied, and so on? I don’t see how this claim could be validated. Poor people live in homes too–even if they are financed by public funds. Ethnic minorities do as well, as do people who are not Christian. And it strikes me as particularly absurd to blame wealthy, white, Christian families for the exclusion of children with physical and mental disabilities–many Christian families are engaged in intensive and sacrificial long-term care for such people.
As for the recommendation that nomadism, street-walking, and world-travelling replace the notion of the bounded home, again one wishes for some sort of empirical reality check. If Anderson is really interested in helping the poor emerge from their condition, historically the most effective means of dong so has been home ownership. Establishing equity, acquiring habits of thrift, growing assets–all of these are necessary for making the jump into the middle class. Nomadism and street-walking perpetuate poverty, and most poor people who rent or are dependent on public housing would take a nice home over nomadic wandering any day. As for world-travelling–it sounds nice if you can afford it. One wonders in all of this where Anderson lives. Is she a street walker or does she own a home?
Having said all of this, if one can get beyond this piece’s rhetorical overkill and groundless claims, its core argument can be salvaged. What Anderson wants to say I think is that families often teach children to be prejudiced against people who are different from them, and the way to beat this is to have children get out in the world a bit and get to know other kinds of people. I couldn’t agree more. As in so many other domains, here homeschooling can be both liberating and constricting. For some homeschoolers it is frustration with the narrowness and provinciality of our public school system’s racial, class, and age segregation that drives them to homeschooling. Such families can use their freedom to do some of the very things Anderson suggests–sailing around the world, taking “field trips” to foreign lands, volunteering with urban missions, and thousands of other creative ways to interact with “the other.” Homeschooling can also be a way to seal children off from such encounters.
What one cannot say is that “the family” or “the home” are somehow universally and uniquely responsible for perpetuating the inequalities of modern life. A better account would look to all of the social systems and institutions that collectively constitute our social ecology in all its complexity, contradiction, and diversity.
Finally, I do wish she had spent more time on her first claim. Where we learn is part of what we learn–the phrase has nice resonance and reminds me of Marshall McLuhan’s famous line, “the medium is the message.” I’d like to read some thoughtful unpacking of this insight. What do we learn when the home is the medium? Doubtless more than how to oppress the least of these.