This post reviews Robert Kunzman, Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009).
Kunzman [see his wonderful homeschooling research website here], Associate Professor of Education at Indiana University, Bloomington and author of many works on religion, ethics, and education, here gives us one of the most important books on homeschooling ever written.
I’m going to devote two posts to this book. In this first one I’ll summarize the basic thrust of the book and give my overall impressions. Next week I’ll highlight some of the specific conclusions and take-home messages it offers.
Write these Laws is a fascinating hybrid of a book. At its core are six in-depth case studies of Christian homeschooling families representing a wide range of family sizes, economic circumstances, geographic locations, and pedagogical approaches. Kunzman’s families come from California (2), Vermont, Tennessee, Oregon, and Indiana. In each case Kunzman visited the families in their homes for several days over a two year period, watching the homeschool in action, interviewing mother, father, and children separately, going with them to church and other family activities, sharing meals and downtime. Kunzman takes this immersion and spins narrative gold, telling each family’s story with great power and detail. Reading each family profile is almost like reading a short story, so compelling are the characters and interesting the dramatic tensions and resolutions he chronicles. In the book’s introduction Kunzman promises that he’ll explore such questions as
What do homeschoolers do all day, and why do they do it? What makes these parents decide to homeschool in the first place? What do their children have to say about it? Do these kids learn to think for themselves or are they herded into mirroring the beliefs and commitments of their parents? What do they learn about democratic citizenship and engaging with people who believe differently about important social and political issues? (p. 2)
And Kunzman’s case studies deliver the answers. For the first time ever we get a faithful, scholarly depiction of what daily life is really like for homeschoolers, not idealized by advocacy or demonized by critics but related with clarity by a scholar who not only knows his stuff but can tell a good story. As I said in the blurb I wrote for the book, it’s both fun and enlightening to read.
Interspersed as breaks between the case studies, Kunzman switches gears and offers broader analysis of various themes and trends within the world of Christian homeschooling. He takes us to two of the country’s largest homeschool conventions. He talks with the directors of a prominent California Independent Study Program. He muses about the significance of race in homeschooling. He summarizes the scholarly discussion of academic achievement and socialization (rightly pointing out, as I have done many times on this blog, the limitations of the oft cited studies of Rudner and Ray). Most importantly and provocatively, he explores and analyzes HSLDA, especially its Generation Joshua initiative, divulging some juicy internal squabbles along the way.
Kunzman concludes with a summary of his findings. He notes that some homeschools he visited “rivaled or even surpassed the best of institutional schooling” while in others “children floundered in environments marked by poor teaching, questionable curricula, or frustrating interpersonal dynamics.” (p. 214) He found that while homeschooling leaders talk big about restoring Christian values in America, most homeschoolers “seem less focused on political engagement or transforming the broader culture” than on their own families. (p. 215) What really drives Christian homeschoolers is their sense of the divine commission that parenting entails. It’s their core conviction that education is part of the larger parenting function, and that this function cannot be delegated elsewhere, that accounts for Christian homeschooler’s antipathy toward any and all government regulation of education.
As is clear from my summary, I absolutely love this book. I do have a few minor quibbles, however.
The first and most obvious one from the vantage point of research is that this book has no methodology section or notation apparatus. Beacon is not an academic press so this is not surprising, but it is a real problem. In his introduction Kunzman describes how he found the six families he interviewed, and it seems a rather haphazard affair. He “relied on mutual acquaintances for initial introductions” and then, after explaining what his project entailed, was turned down by some but accepted by six. (p. 7) This is what is sometimes called a “convenience sample”–you take what you can get, and it is unfortunately the most common form of sampling in homeschooling research. Kunzman’s work here is qualitative rather than quantitative. He’s not trying to generalize to an entire population from his sample, so this method is less a problem for him than it is for some previous studies. Fortunately for Kunzman’s and our sake, his convenience sample just happened to have a lot of variability, so the results, while not easily generalizable, are fascinating and complex.
The lack of notes really detracts from the book’s value as a research guide. Peppered throughout it, both in the case study sections and in the excurses into broader themes, are many important comments on trends, statistics, research findings, and so forth. Anyone familiar with the homeschooling literature will immediately recognize that Kunzman is on solid ground in his observations and that he could easily cite his sources, but they’re not in the book. I asked Kunzman about this when I read an advance copy and he acknowledged the problem but said that he and the publisher agreed to forego source notation in the interest of making the book more accessible to lay readers. I understand this idea, but frankly I don’t think it’s true. People who might be scared away by footnotes are probably not going to pick a book like this up anyway. Conversely, anyone interested enough in homeschooling to read a careful study of it will not be intimidated by endnotes. Homeschooling readers of my own book have made it clear to me that homeschoolers are often the sort of people who WANT the notes and may just check up on you to see if you got it right.
Finally, I found a few of Kunzman’s forays into the larger national trends a bit shallow. The short chapter reviewing research on academic achievement and socialization, while accurate, could be much more thorough. It is by no means a complete literature review. Even more cursory is his brief chapter on homeschooling and race, an important topic to which too little research has been dedicated. Given the richness of Kunzman’s bibliographies at his website, I am certain that he could have produced more rigorous reviews of these themes, but for whatever reason he did not.
But what the book may lack in scholarly embellishment it more than makes up for in its fascinatingly thick description of a wide range of real Christian homeschoolers. To quote my own blurb again, if you want to really understand why so many conservative Christians are turning to homeschooling and what they’re actually doing all day, this is the book to read.