This post reviews Emma Stroobant, “Dancing to the Music of Your Heart: Home Schooling the School-Resistant Child” (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Auckland, 2006). (Available fulltext here)
Stroobant, a doctoral candidate at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, here offers as her Ph.D. thesis a challenge to the dominant medical model that pathologizes the phenomenon of “school resistance”–the overwhelming fear of school and refusal to attend by some children. Rather than medicating such children and forcing them to attend school, Stroobant looks at homeschooling as an alternative therapy.
Stroobant begins by defining the school-resistant child as one with such a strong aversion to attending school that psychological and even physical problems emerge on school days (nausea, vomiting, headaches, fatigue). Most of the psychological literature on “school phobia” interprets it as an objective disorder that can be treated with proper interventions. Stroobant herself thinks this approach blames the victim, mistakenly placing something in the domain of psychology and biology that resides more properly in the sphere of culture. “School phobia” and “school refusal” are not psychic disorders stemming from chemical imbalances or other somatic sources but are in fact completely understandable responses by children to some of the more negative aspects of school culture. Her first two chapters historicize the medical discourse on school phobia, giving it a Foucauldian treatment that deconstructs expert claims to reveal the coercive power-relations hidden behind professionalistic rhetoric.
Traditional medical approaches to school resistance ignore the voices of the resisting children, discounting their concerns about school as exaggerations and distortions. They also discount the parental voice, interpreting worried mothers to be “neurotic” or “colluding” in their child’s problem. Challenging all of this, Stroobant in this study listens carefully to the discourse of six mothers, five children, eight educational professionals, and one psychologist, examining how the language used by each of these groups to explain school resistance reveals the phenomenon to be socially constructed and hence not grounded in empirical science.
All of the families she interviews were chosen because the children had exhibited pronounced anxiety about school for some time and had either resisted or actually stopped attending altogether until beginning to homeschool. The educational professionals, some from public schools and some from private religious schools, were interviewed to get a sense of their very different interpretations of school resistance.
Stroobant found that while educational professionals had very different understandings of the nature of school and the value of homeschooling given their religious beliefs or lack thereof, all agreed that school resistant children had problems–that is, they all, even the fundamentalist Protestants, accepted the psychotherapeutic paradigm and felt that homeschooling would not be in such children’s best interests.
Stroobant’s interviews with mothers found that school resistance displayed by their children challenged their self-image as “good mothers.” To cope with this challenge, mothers tended to shift “from being reactive to active agents in their children’s education.” Homeschooling thus became a means of proving both to themselves and to the society at large that they were good mothers who put aside their own convenience for the sake of their offspring. The move to homeschooling also enabled these women to shift blame for their children’s problems at school away from the child or the mother and onto the school. Stroobant pays very careful attention to the narrative homeschooling mothers consistently tend to tell–of school failure followed by redemption by homeschooling, a story Stroobant calls a “salvation narrative.”
But when Stroobant interviewed the children themselves, she found that often children had a markedly different interpretation of the school-to-homeschool transition than that of their mothers. This part of the dissertation is particularly fascinating to read as we see from transcriptions of conversations with mothers and their children such different views of the same situation.
Finally, Stroobant suggests that the real change that happens to school-resistant children who homeschool is a shift in their self-understanding. They are not simply healed or saved from their bad attitudes about school. They are reinvented as new people, no longer just outcasts or maladroits but homeschoolers, a new category. Mothers who turn to homeschooling as a response to their child’s school resistance may be very different from mothers who homeschool for other reasons, but their children can quickly become much like the children of “normal homeschoolers.”
As a good dissertation typically does, this study dwells long and richly on theoretical literature. There are excellent discussions of qualitative research methodology, of postmoderism, deconstruction, and critical theory, and of the secondary literature both on school phobia and homeschooling. Not knowing much of anything about homeschooling in New Zealand, I was intrested to discover that researchers there have typically found a dichotomy similar to what is often described in the United States, where one group of homeschoolers is motivated more by libertarian academic ideals and another by conservative Christian values.
Perhaps Stroobant’s most interesting insight in terms of homeschooling, however, is her application of her power-discourse interpretive paradigm to it as well as to schools. Homeschoolers have for a long time been very adept at uncovering the ways in which formal schools suppress, mold, indoctrinate, and so on. But Stroobant thinks that homeschoolers often fail to understand how homeschooling does the same thing, perhaps even more effectively because its gentle methods make its coercive actions harder to detect. In a fascinating chapter providing several contrasting interpretations of one of her subjects, Stroobant notes,
in Jonathan’s case homeschooling may have served a variety of functions (to do with rehabilitation, normalisation and governance) beyond simply providing Jonathan with an educational alternative to school that he found acceptable, enjoyable, and helpful. I would suggest that these functions of the home schooling process remained hidden from Jonathan and his mother, who assumed, like most home schoolers, that home schooling is necessarily an emancipating and power-free process because it takes place outside formal institutions and is not dependent upon the knowledge and skills of ‘experts.’
In this chapter Stroobant is particularly forceful in her critique of “unschooling” for its blindness to this coercive tendency. Her point is not that we need some sort of even freer alternative to homeschooling, but that there is simply no escaping the dynamics of power and coercion. Christian parents, more forthright in their admission of authority over their children, are more likely to acknowledge this situation.
Stroobant’s power analysis does not stop her from concluding, however, that, based upon her admittedly small sample, homeschooling can be a very effective way of dealing with the problem of school resistance among children. In closing let me encourage anyone who has read this far and is still interested to take a look at her study. Though heavily theorized, the prose is easy to read and full of fascinating ideas and self-disclosures.