This post reviews Claudia Hanson Thiem, “The Spatial Politics of Educational Privatization: Re-reading the U.S. Homeschooling Movement” in Gulson and Symes, eds., Spatial Theories of Education: Policy and Geography Matters (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 17-36.
Thiem, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, here presents a complex argument for increased attention to geography when assessing political movements. To illustrate her theoretical points she uses homeschooling as a test case.
To properly understand Thiem’s argument we must first summarize her theoretical orientation. She is coming from the perspective of “critical human geography,” or what she calls in one place “spatial constructivist ontologies.” Basically, geography professors with a Marxist orientation have for some time now been thinking of geography not as the study of fixed places, topography, and the like but as the physical domain where different groups of people fight out their differences. Older Marxist geographers focused on the differences between economic haves and have-nots, but more recent geographers have looked at how race, gender, and many other variables have led to conflicts that have reshaped the way people think about physical spaces. While all of this may sound excessively theoretical, in actuality it hits quite “close to home.” Think, for example, of how debates about race have played out in school district zoning or in decisions about where to place public housing. Turf wars are only part of what she is talking about though. Another side of it is how social conflict redefines and reshapes our notions of what places ought to be like. For example, “public” spaces looked different when they were frequented only by men. As women began to be admitted into public arenas buildings began to be altered (women’s restrooms added, cleaner and brighter rooms, increased emphasis on safety), and these alterations in turn helped convince more people that it was okay for women to be in the public sphere.
Thiem wants to contribute to spatial constructivist literature by interpreting the homeschooling movement as an embodiment of its themes. Two aspects of the movement in particular interest her: the legitimization of the use of the home’s physical space to educate, and the mobilization of homeschoolers who are scattered across the land for political and economic purposes.
First, homeschoolers tried to convince state regulators and the American public that the home was a good place for school by going in two directions. They argued that the home was a more natural and nurturing space for children than the impersonal classroom of traditional schools. But at the same time they tried to make their homes look more like those very schools–having separate rooms designated for education, incorporating aspects of schools like desks, chalkboards, flags, field-trips, designated “school days” and so on. Homeschoolers have tapped into longstanding American respect for privacy and family sanctity as well as pervasive anti-government sentiment to make the case that what they are doing is wholesome and normal. Trouble looms on the horizon, however, as hybrids like “virtual charter schools” begin to allow government into the sacred space of the home.
Second, homeschoolers have networked successfully by following two strategies. The first, which she calls “scale jumping,” gave homeschoolers the ability to be part of a local support group but at the same time connected to statewide and even national organizations. Homeschooling support groups are in a way networks of networks, allowing individual homeschoolers to jump easily from local to state to national concerns. Thiem describes in this section the pyramid-like structure of HSLDA and its statewide affiliates, whose organization allows for a flexible state-by-state orientation even as it sets a national agenda. The second strategy that has enabled successful networking among homeschoolers geographically separated is the wide array of products, magazines, and movement celebrities that have emerged, along with the conventions and websites created to market them. Thiem summarizes, “Homeschoolers, then, network beyond the home not just as political combatants, but as consumers and would-be teaching ‘professionals.'”
Thiem offers little here that is new. All of her description of the homeschooling movement derives from other authorities–Mitchell Stevens, Vernon Bates, Colleen McDannell, Jason Bivins, and many others. What is fresh is the way she takes this material and connects it to her geographic interpretive lens. The novelty is in the question she asks. She asks not why the movement succeeded but how the movement impacted and was impacted by physical space. Her answers will not surprise anyone who has followed the movement, but they do illustrate nicely her larger point that students of educational policy would do well to attend to the geographic location of educational practice and reform.