This post continues my review of Robert Kunzman, Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling(Boston: Beacon, 2009).
In part one I summarized the book’s contents and offered a few tepid critiques. Here I’d like to draw out a few generalizations from Kunzman’s rich data about Christian homeschoolers.
Reading through Kunzman’s six case studies, several recurring themes struck me about these Christian families:
1. Parents tend to teach to their strengths. In some of the families Kunzman visited the parents were not themselves college or even high school graduates. Sometimes their children received inferior education in subjects the parents did not understand or have much interest in themselves. But when a parent felt confident in his or her own knowledge base and had enthusiasm for the subject, Kunzman noticed a much better educational transaction.
2. Class matters. Kunzman’s better educated, more middle class subjects generally provided a much richer educational and social experience for their children. Kunzman’s vivid depictions of the different family dynamics among his subjects, especially regarding discipline, brought to my mind Annette Lareau’s remarkable book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, which describes the profound differences in childrearing patterns between rich and poor. Her distinctions correlate very well with Kunzman’s data.
3. Libertarianism trumps Theocracy. Kunzman asked his homeschooling parents if they would be for government regulation of other parents who taught godlessness, militant Islam, or some other ideology they found repugnant. In every case the parents said no. They would rather their ideological enemies be free to poison the minds of their own children than government be used to enforce a uniform moral vision. The mothers Kunzman interviewed were often more tolerant here than the fathers, some of whom did seem to want Christianity to take over the country. But the most tolerant were the children. Over and over Kunzman finds that the children of these parents, many of whose fathers rage against all things liberal and cannot fathom how anyone could be stupid enough to disagree with them, are far more tolerant of difference and open to the existence of “gray” areas than their dads. The kids generally land on a “live and let live” perspective, especially as they get old enough to leave the home. The exception to this is Kunzman’s excellent chapter on Generation Joshua, which does seem to be doing a good job of creating civically active, politically informed zealots. Its former leader, Ned Ryun, seemed to agree with Kunzman about the danger of political indoctrination when they spoke, and Ryun later resigned as director of GenJ, saying, “I hate to disappoint some who think that freedom of thought and conscience are allowed at HSLDA.” (p.116)
4. There is a disconnect between homeschool leaders and typical homeschoolers. Kunzman’s chapters about homeschool leaders reveal considerably more tension between his own views and those of the people he’s interviewing. Kunzman clearly doesn’t much like the bombastic self-assurance and political aggressiveness of men like Michael Farris. But when he asks political questions to his homeschooling families, he often gets more ambiguity or even lack of interest in things political. Christian homeschooling leaders may be trying to use the political process to bring America back to God, but most homeschoolers are too busy dealing with their own kids to worry about everyone else’s.
5. The older children get the more difficult homeschooling becomes. Several factors are at work here. For all of the parents interviewed, instilling a Christian character and worldview was the most important motivation for homeschooling. But at some point, these parents recognize, children must be allowed to be their own people. There’s no real consensus in these interviews when and how children should be let go, but reading them through one gets a sense of the real struggle these families have over the issue, especially the dads. Repeatedly, despite the fathers’ strong opinions and protectiveness, the teens are able to convince the parents to let them attend high school, community college, go to a different church, get a job, dye their hair, wear make-up, and so on. A second factor is the simple fact that schoolwork gets harder at this stage and several of the mothers have trouble keeping up with curricular demands. A third is that the typical conservative Christian homeschooling curriculum style–textbooks and worksheets stressing recall–doesn’t work nearly as well at the secondary level and as such older children are often bored. Many of the young adults Kunzman interviews felt underprepared for the analytical essays and class discussion stressed in college (though they were great at being self-directing). A fourth is the need for peer socialization–several of the older children Kunzman interviewed are lonely and wish they had more opportunities to talk to kids their own age.
Except for the point about Christian homeschoolers being motivated primarily by a desire for inculcating Christian character, Kunzman himself does not draw these lessons out of his data. Though he’d probably agree with me that these points do emerge, he no doubt would be very hesitant to claim any sort of generalizability from his sample of six families. Nevertheless, I think the five points I made above probably are true of most conservative Christian homeschooling families (possibly excepting the one about libertarianism trumping theocracy). I’d be interested to read any comments readers of this post might have about any of them.